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Closed for the Winter

 

I circled the monument at the corner of South Swan Street and Madison Avenue again. Up top burned an eternal flame, and the base had a pretty inscription about lighting someone’s way home. But nowhere did it actually say who the monument was for. Well, nowhere within easy reach. I had clomped up a snowy embankment to take a closer look at the edifice, since the stairs were blocked by those hideous metal gates that sprout like acne all over the Empire State Plaza come wintertime. I was developing a creeping suspicion that those gates and a bunch of unshoveled snow were what stood between me and the dedication of this monument.

Indeed, when I climbed back down and took the long way around on the sidewalk, I found the dedication at the bottom of the blocked-off stairs: the Missing Persons Remembrance. Is it just me, or is having an eternal flame of remembrance barricaded off from this particular identifier a little bit ironic? So much for lighting the way home.

I was out for a long ramble just before New Year’s, appreciating Albany’s architecture and views and noticing which little businesses and have come and gone, something I haven’t done nearly enough of since becoming a parent and starting to work from home. The Plaza was not necessarily my destination, which of course was a good thing, because for months and months its every stairway and entrance is blocked off by those chained-together gates bearing signs saying “Plaza closed for the winter.”

Metroland actually looked into this bizarre phenomenon back in 2004, and was told that despite the explicit statements of the signs, the Plaza isn’t closed, just all the stairs leading to it. Leaving aside the issue of putting up signs that lie, there is a long litany of reasons why this particular policy galls me, and should gall anyone who cares about Albany.

For starters, it’s arrogant. I’m sure someone somewhere instituted it out of fear of liability, that killer of all things joyful and functional. But as a homeowner, I don’t have the option of choosing to not shovel my sidewalk and put up a sign saying it’s closed for the winter because I fear the liability I bear if I miss an icy patch and someone falls. So why should the state government have that option? Suck it up, buy some bags of sand, hire some kids with snow shovels, and put up a few “Warning: Stairs may be icy and it’s not our fault if you fall on your ass” signs if you must.

Even worse, it’s rude in the extreme to the capital city. It privileges those who drive to work at the Plaza (trust me, that parking garage will never “close for the winter”) and enter those towers from underneath, while being a slap in the face to those who live and walk in the surrounding neighborhoods, or between those neighborhoods and downtown. Not to mention those who might walk to the Plaza itself. There’s an ice-skating rink on the Plaza for goodness sake! Who wants to bundle up for ice-skating only to get all sweaty by walking the length of the Plaza inside the concourse?

Relatedly, months of temporarily blocked stairs is got-no-alibi ugly. The aesthetic value of the Plaza may be a hotly debated subject (despite its history, I kind of like it), but I challenge anyone to argue that arrays of metal crowd-control gates and chains don’t make it significantly worse. The sight of them makes me feel as though, just by being a pedestrian out and about in the winter, I’m an unstable element who needs to be blockaded out of the important places.

This is not an academic point. When asked in polls to rate cities, people actually mention beauty as one of top factors—right up there with low crime, education, and tolerance. To bring it home, even more debated than the beauty of the Plaza is the chance of national conventions coming to Albany—and while there are a lot of factors going into that, I’ll tell you, no event planner I’ve run into is going to be on fire to come to a city that clumsily shuts down one of its largest and most dramatic public spaces during its longest season.

Have we no pride? New York state has seasons. It has winter. It has snow and ice. Foliage and skiing and maple syrup and beautiful snow-covered landscapes are not just part of what makes New York New York, they are part of our economy. To have a state government that is so in denial about its climate that it can’t even shovel a couple stairways says to me that it’s not just Albany that has self-esteem issues, but the whole state. Can we not even honor our veterans and missing persons except in fair weather?

It’s time to make our state government actually act like its proud of its state, rather than wishing it got to move to Austin instead of Sematech moving here. It could take a page from a friend of mine who long detested winter, but recently commented that the purchase of some snowshoes and a bunch of really warm, made-for-hiking-in-the-snow clothes was “all it took to convert me to winter.”

Opening those stairs is a small thing to ask. But it would send a big warm signal that the state is on board with helping its capital put its best foot forward—all year long.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

www.albanyplanningblog.org

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