ex-Metroland employees who left for greener pastures
remember what they still love about life in the Capital Region
idea for this feature arose from asking ourselves an obvious
question: What are we taking for granted about this magical
place we call home? What do we love about the Capital Region
that we don’t properly appreciate?
we realized that we may be too close to the issue. This, on
reflection, seemed like a better question for people who lived
here and left. So we contacted a number of ex-Metrolanders
and asked what they missed most and/or loved most about the
Capital Region. Setting aside the amusing response from the
fellow who, since his favorite tavern had closed, didn’t miss
anything, we offer essays humorous and serious on the subject.
Is the Place
is my home. Except here.
I have no hometown. I was born in Tennessee, grew up in L.A.,
moved to the East, and have generally shuffled around a lot.
I lived in Saratoga Springs for five years along the way,
and nowhere ever felt so much like home.
The longer I lived in the Capital Region, the more I felt
like I was part of a community. I’d go to work at Last Vestige
and chat with the regulars. I’d get a coffee at Uncommon Grounds
or see a show at Valentine’s and know half of the faces in
the room. It was at once comforting and oppressive, like a
blanket that could keep you warm or smother you. Or both.
The more people, places or stories I knew the more they all
became connected in the intricate webs that make up life in
a small city. At times it felt as though there was no escaping
it, but it was also special to know that I belonged in that
tangled mess. Anonymity can be nice, but I miss the familiarity.
It felt so satisfyingly intimate and knowable. Both times
I left I felt restless, opportunities were to be had elsewhere.
I cried when I moved away. It was my choice, and I still cried.
Yes, the feeling of intimacy was about the people I knew but
also about the place itself. The day I first laid eyes on
the Spa City it was late January 1997. I saw through the 6-foot-tall
snowdrifts and my gut told me that this was the place I’d
been looking for. I realized I loved living in the Capital
Region one day in bleak midwinter looking up at the sign for
Dugan’s (now demolished). It was 4 PM twilight and gray, I
smiled and said aloud, “I love it here.” Then I laughed at
my realization. I’d never lived in a place so real. The streets
whispered my name, the Spirit of Life statue in Congress Park
was my beacon. I embraced it.
I have lived in several cities since Saratoga Springs, yet
it still feels like home. It is the standard to which others
are compared: All jukeboxes are judged against the one at
Desperate Annie’s. All real-estate prices are compared to
what we paid for our last apartment in town. All local bands
are rated against the Figgs. All summers are spent longing
for a trip to Jumpin’ Jacks, and in winter wishing to go ice
skating among the tall pines in Saratoga Spa State Park. All
main streets are compared to Broadway. I even have a dream
house in Saratoga that I look up every now and again to see
if it’s for sale. And if I ever move back, I know who’s invited
to the housewarming party.
Some say that the Captial Region is where dreams go to die,
but it’s where my dream of a real hometown still lives.
Hahn lives in New York City.
moving to New York about 12 years ago from Albany, I’ve often
drawn this comparison between the two areas: While Albany
may have one of something good—like a certain kind of quality
restaurant or cultural institution—New York has multiple versions
of that thing, if not dozens.
But no rule is absolute. So I’m here to report that the Capital
Region has lots of something that New York has virtually none
of. And it’s something I miss very much.
Soft ice cream.
I was visiting the Capital Region recently and got a chance
to revisit one of my favorite soft ice creams there, at Lickety
Split in East Greenbush. I was reminded of just how good it
is, and just how many good places there are to get soft ice
cream up there. Heck, there used to be a Lickety Split and
a Lickety Splits in the Capital Region (until the name of
the latter one, in Latham, changed). How great is an area’s
soft-ice-cream riches when you can choose not only vanilla
or chocolate but singular or plural?
I don’t get to sample it often or keep up with the soft ice
cream scene as much as I used to, of course, but I’ve had
great SIC from Columbia County to Lake George. I used to leave
a trail of drippings all over the area during the course of
a summer, from Kurver Kreme to Curry Freeze. It was mostly
at least good, and often great.
Then I came down here. I don’t know how to say this delicately.
The soft ice cream in New York sucks. The main source of it
is the ice cream truck. Here, unlike most areas, the trucks
just park in a spot and stay there all day. They dot the city
during summer, plying their subpar trade, delivering chemically,
watery soft ice cream to New Yorkers who don’t know any better.
How often do you suppose they clean the machines that pump
out this ice cream imposter? Oh, never. That’s how often.
Other than the trucks, there aren’t many places that sell
soft ice cream. Certainly not as a featured product. Oh, there
are abominations like Pinkberry and other places that specialize
in soft ice cream’s crappy cousin, frozen yogurt. But I can’t
say that I’ve ever had a decent cone in New York City. Not
one in 12 years.
So the Capital Region can lament its lower standing when it
comes to things like professional sports or Thai food or businesses
that stay open past 6 PM. But remember soft ice cream. You’ll
always have it all over New York when it comes to that.
Goudreau lives in New York City.
since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to live in a water-oriented
city—preferably somewhere built around an old harbor and close
enough to the coast that I could make day trips to the ocean.
I loved the Hudson River and the cold mountain lakes of the
Adirondacks, but for some reason, I had a real yearning for
So when I got a job offer in Baltimore in 2002, I heartily
accepted—I was going to go live on the Chesapeake Bay, home
of briny rivers, blue crabs, watermen, oysters shucked in
shacks on the Eastern Shore. I was going to leave the Hudson
behind for rivers with such exotic names as the Patapsco,
the Patuxent, the Middle, the Back, the Gwynns Falls. And
they’d all be just out my back door.
I moved here in July. I know it’s cliché to talk about the
heat, particularly if you decide to move south of the Mason
Dixon line (and yes, Baltimore is south of it—and some
people around town do still fly Confederate flags), but seriously:
I was not really prepared for the slapped-in-the-face-with-a-wet-washcloth
sensation I would encounter every time I walked out the front
door. If it was hard for me to acclimate to, I can only imagine
how much harder it must have been for poor, old Reba, my old-lady
Labrador mutt who moved down here with me. I had somehow envisioned
a life for her in which we would make regular trips to briny
inlets and cool waters close to the city where surely a dog
could eat mud and wade in shallow pools.
So our first free weekend that summer, I started doing a bit
of research. I asked around, looked for information online,
got a local dog-friendly guidebook. And I discovered, quickly,
that despite the fact that there is indeed water everywhere,
anything within half an hour of Baltimore was either not dog
friendly, or was so badly polluted that it was really not
suitable for swimming for man or beast. That doesn’t stop
some people from getting in, of course, but I learned that
seriously decrepit and neglected city infrastructure, combined
with the very dense population of a city as big as Baltimore,
resulted in serious raw-sewage leaks that have poisoned much
of the easily accessible waterways here in the city. The Hudson
has PCBs; the Patapsco and its tributaries have immense nutrient
pollution that makes the water unsuitable for pretty much
any recreation that would require you to get in it. So you
have to settle for gazing—but even that’s not really all it’s
cracked up to be. The rivers in and around this town are teeming
with illegally dumped trash: plastic bottles, bags, cans,
tires, old toys, vehicles, construction debris cast off by
contractors in the dead of night. You name it, you will probably
stumble across it if you wander the banks of some of our streams
So all this is to say, the thing I miss most about the Capital
Region is the absolute wealth of reasonably safe and clean
bodies of water that are accessible to residents. Yes, I know,
Albany and its environs suffer from plenty of pollution and
the Hudson is contaminated with PCBs and acid rain is killing
the fish in the beautiful Adirondack lakes. But your waters
are downright pristine compared to the waterways we have down
I love the ocean, and I do enjoy the Chesapeake Bay vistas.
But I seriously miss getting through with work in the summertime,
putting the dog in the car, and going to Grafton till the
sun goes down. Or driving to the little beaches at Thompson’s
Lake, Lyons Lake, Saratoga Lake, or Crystal Lake on a Saturday
afternoon to cool off in clean, fresh water. Heading down
to the Corning Preserve, where of course I would never swim—but
at least I could sit on the grass near the water’s edge without
seeing floating islands made up of Vitamin Water bottles and
Reba did get a lot of time in the water here, despite the
immense pollution. We found a really nice hydrotherapy center
for dogs halfway between Baltimore and Annapolis, and she
spent a good amount of time diving in after her ball and swimming
laps in water made safe and clean thanks to chemicals. But
we did manage to get her to some real water, too—the year
before she died, we took her with us to Ocean City, Md., on
New Year’s Day, where she chased waves and fetched sticks
from the Atlantic, and walked the boardwalk with us and, for
a day, we lived the life I always imagined when I moved to
a water-oriented city.
Sullivan lives in Baltimore.
years ago, I packed up my Jeep and left my apartment on Central
Avenue for a job in New York City. I traded the old Jeep for
a new set of wheels a while back, but didn’t go completely
carless until just this month.
When people ask, “What took you so long?” I just tell them
the truth: I missed going for a drive.
know, I know . . . technically, I could’ve taken my car for
a drive around the boroughs any time I liked, but that’s not
going for a drive. Not the way I mean it, at least, and not
what it meant when I was living around the Capital Region.
Growing up and working around the Albany-Schenectady area,
a short drive in any direction generally offered escape from
the malls and office buildings to rolling farmlands and forests.
A few minutes behind the wheel promised a drastic change in
surroundings from city streets to fields as far as the eye
can see—and more often than not, a change in state of mind,
Here in New York City, though, driving is an exercise in getting
from point A to point B via a maze of traffic lights, impatient
drivers punctuating thoughts with their horns, and streets
where slowing down for any reason whatsoever is regarded as
a crime against humanity. And more often than not, Point B
isn’t all that different from Point A.
Living around the Capital Region has always offered an entirely
different driving experience. Sure, absence has probably made
my heart grow fonder, but short trips around the outlying
areas of the region have been my little piece of Zen since
I first received my license.
One of my favorite things to do when I visit friends and family
around Albany is to set aside a few hours to take a long,
slow drive through Berne or West Sand Lake, winding my way
through the local roads that alternate between forests, fields
and developments. If I’m feeling ambitious, I might even pull
off the road along a particularly pastoral stretch, recline
the seat and lie there for a little while, taking in the scents
Sure, there are some nice parks and nature preserves around
the New York metro area, but whenever something like that
is bordered by skyscrapers and subway stops, it always seems,
well . . . manufactured.
In the end, that ability to leave your office behind for fields
and farmland is one of the things I miss the most—and most
often—now that I don’t live in the Capital Region. It’s what
kept me from getting rid of my car all this time, even though
I hate to drive in NYC.
In the back of my mind there’s that memory of escaping the
city in short bursts, and by keeping the car around, I was
keeping my options open—just in case I needed to go for a
Marshall lives in New York City.
you can’t answer the following question in the affirmative,
I encourage you to proceed to the nearest watering hole: Have
you ever had a Utica Club?
Consider this a necessary life experience for anyone with
access to the classic brew, as well as one that’ll properly
prepare you to fraternize with the locals if you ever find
yourself passing through “flyover country.”
Speaking from my own experience as a native of Wisconsin,
people here love to debate worst beers. They’ll certainly
name the usual suspects: Natural Ice, Milwaukee’s Best, Blatz,
or Red Dog. This is when you lay the trump card onto the bar;
“Folks, I’ve had Utica Club.” It’s an experience I’ve recounted
during a handful of late evenings. And inevitably the memory
of that fateful night at Bombers Burrito Bar, when I consumed
my first—and admittedly last—swig of Utica Club leads to more
It’s not one thing, but the entire experience of living, working,
and “playing” in Albany’s Center Square neighborhood that
I enjoyed most. I’m still searching for a match to Center
Square’s combination of history, diversity of small businesses,
and community culture. The blocks of historic row houses and
many cobblestoned streets are refreshing, especially in comparison
to the oversaturated condo market in Milwaukee.
Equally refreshing is not finding an Applebee’s, Chipotle,
or Starbucks on every other block. Not only is Center Square
rich with independent businesses, but many of their owners
are neighborhood fixtures in their own right. I’d regularly
find them at work or out enjoying the neighborhood alongside
I also miss the self-sustaining nature of the neighborhood.
I could eat, drink, shop, and take my car in for repairs without
going more than a few blocks. Add to that the variety of entertainment
and recreation opportunities offered in and around Washington
Park and the Plaza, particularly in the summer months.
You may choose to take this next statement with a grain of
salt since I’m certainly biased, but it seemed to me that
the community was equally inviting and welcoming to non-neighbors.
Friends from around the Capital Region loved to meet for book
club at Antica Enotica—though I hear it has changed owners
and names—El Mariachi II for a pitcher of margaritas, or a
run in Washington Park.
Although my time in the Capital Region was short, lasting
only slightly longer than one year, I think I experienced
some of the best Albany has to offer.
Plus, if that’s long enough for Eliot Spitzer, it’s long enough
Klaas lives in Milwaukee.
I Became Me
left Albany 10 years ago last month. I was moving to New York
City to go to graduate school, and I remember loading the
moving truck in front of my apartment on Jay Street, standing
on the cobblestones in tears. I’d arrived eight years earlier
as a SUNY Albany student. For two years I lived in the dorms
and didn’t feel particularly connected to the Capital Region.
But when I moved downtown, to a communal apartment above New
Scotland Antiques on Washington Avenue, Albany became my town.
It’s where I had my first really good cup of coffee (the Daily
Grind), my first bite of Indian food (Shalimar), it’s where
I first got into foreign and indie films (the Spectrum Theatres),
and where I came to love greasy spoon breakfasts at 2 AM.
(The Plaza 23 truck stop near the river). And despite having
lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and now Miami, certain things
simply remain unparalleled: the vegetarian fare at the dearly-departed
Shades of Green, the acoustics at the Troy Savings Bank Music
Hall, the Honest Weight Food Co-op. I had what I remember
as a pretty ideal life in Albany.
The biggest reason why was my friends, and the way I met them.
Several of my closest friends today are people I met on the
street in Albany. This has never happened before or since.
When my ex-boyfriend Mike and I (we were a couple during the
Albany years, and he’s still a close friend) were working
at the same New York City radio station and people would ask
us how we met, that’s what we’d always say: “We met on the
street in Albany.” It was the same story with Jane and Marco
and Tom. We were this pack of usual suspects hanging out around
Lark Street. The whole neighborhood was like the old TV show,
Cheers. We were surrounded by friends all the time.
About a year after my husband and I moved to Miami, we got
a call from Marco. He was moving to Miami too. Having an old
friend from Albany here has been a relief in a way. Just the
other day Marco and I were lamenting the loss of that quintessential
Albany attribute in our lives—how just walking down the street
to get a cup of coffee, you’d pretty much always run into
Zuckerman lives in Miami, Fla.
can take the boy out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago
out of the boy—and eventually, I had to go back.
I love Chicago. Love it. I love the “L,” love the eight-to-a-mile
street grid, love the lakefront, all 26 miles of it. I love
not having to own a car, love the city’s great bicycle culture,
love Quimby’s Bookstore and Metropolis Coffee. I love Summerdance
in Grant Park in July, watching my idiot friends do the Polar
Bear Swim in January, and being able to dial 311 to make bike
racks appear and graffiti disappear. I even love that death-proof
Empire Carpet jingle. Never have I felt more at home than
I feel in my North Side neighborhood, Ravenswood.
But even paradise has its snakes, and the price of living
in a city so otherwise deserving of appreciation, if not envy,
is the awareness of living in an autocracy. Richard M. Daley,
son of Richard J. Daley, owns the place. The Cook County Democratic
machine is his personal staff. And we Chicagoans are merely
Why on earth, you may ask, would that make me nostalgic
Because while I lived in Albany, I lived in the 7th Ward,
and my representative on the Common Council was Shawn Morris.
In all my years as an active citizen, I’ve never felt as faithfully
represented in local government as I did living in the Delaware
Avenue neighborhood. I’ve never been treated with such genuine
openness, never felt such sincerity from an elected official.
I was able to walk up to her doorstep to talk with her, and
if she ever minded, I couldn’t tell. She’s the real deal—a
regular next-door neighbor with good intentions and ideas,
who happens to know her way around the political system well
enough to get a thing or two done on behalf of those of us
I’ve never exchanged words with my alderman in Chicago. I
only recognize him around the neighborhood because he wears
such an incongruously expensive suit.
From 800 miles away, I gave a fist-pump when I learned that
Shawn Morris had been elected Common Council President. My
heart leaped when I learned she was running for mayor and
sank when I read that she’d dropped out of the race. I honestly
can’t say that I’ve felt as personally vested in the outcome
of any election campaign in Chicago. It’s a little embarrassing
to admit, but since trying to fight City Hall in Chicago is
so thoroughly futile, I take vicarious satisfaction in every
blow struck for open government and against cronyism in Albany
as if it were happening right here.
Ammann lives in Chicago.
sign of aging is that memory slips, so even though I recalled
relishing lunch with a small group of friends at a diner near
Albany Medical Center, I couldn’t remember the place’s name.
So I called Joe Culver, one of the people I hung with during
my Albany years, who reminded me I was searching for Quintessence.
It seems my timing’s perfect: That snazzy, shiny diner on
New Scotland Avenue, an area pioneer in offering fresh, local
and distinctive food, just reopened.
In 1986, when I was the first news editor of Metroland,
I, Joey, Tom Mottolese, then-Metroland publisher Peter
Iselin and occasional others met at Quintessence for lunch.
We called our gatherings the Little Chill. I never taped our
conversations, but I bet the topics included music (a common
passion), politics, the media, the city. Hanging at Quintessence
made you feel as if you were on the cultural tip.
I also miss Coulson’s News Center at State and Broadway, which
I used to frequent when I was a reporter in the Albany bureau
of the Schenectady Gazette in the early ‘80s. (There’s no
newsstand in Cleveland.) And I miss my old neighborhood near
Albany Med, where Debbi and I owned an old stucco house on
Morris Street. I vividly recall Dec. 8, 1980, when my neighbor,
Larry Schell, ran over to tell me John Lennon had been shot.
Metroland worked overtime to get my Lennon obit into
the paper that week. I also remember the day Michael Jackson’s
Thriller came out, Joey Culver came over and we listened
and pronounced it a monster. Joey used to tape my LPs (remember
vinyl?) onto cassettes (remember them?) for Quintessence.
I also recall—and miss—what the Capital Region felt like in
the early to mid ’80s, before cell phones, the Internet, social
networking. I was a newspaperman then, covering the rise of
Crossgates Mall, the Albany Police Department, the vibrant
rock scene J.B. Scott’s embodied, the environmental stink
of NL Industries. It was an exciting time to be in Albany,
especially to be in the media. There were record stores, too.
Talking about it all was one of the best parts of the package,
the icing on the cake. What better place to talk than Quintessence?
Wolff lives in Cleveland.