Twice in my adult life, I’ve moved to Albany. The first time was in August 2004, right after I graduated from college; the second was this past March, after my wife graduated from law school and got a job working for the state. Nearly a decade separates these moves, and in many ways, they could not be more different. In 2004, I came here because it was, paradoxically, the scary choice, full of unknowns–all my best friends were busy moving to Brooklyn, so that felt too safe. This year, my wife’s job was the motivator, but we are happy to keep choosing Albany because of its solidity. We know so many people here, and are so much closer to our families: there is promise of a knowable and comfortable joy.
And yet, there is one overwhelming similarity between my two moves. Both times, when I’m elsewhere, someone inevitably politely but pointedly asks, “And how’s . . . Albany?” I think they ask it this way because they think they already know the answer. Albany is supposed to be dull, small, and uncool. They’re not all wrong. There are certainly bigger, cooler, more exciting places. Sort of.
There are bigger cities, but in the time it would have taken me to get to my friend’s Greenpoint apartment, I can drive to the Adirondacks and be half an hour into a hike. Few things feel bigger than the Adirondack wilderness.
There are cooler cities, but in New York, we generally couldn’t afford the time or money to go do the cool things. We’d sit inside our giant-for-NYC-but-small-for-Albany apartment playing Settlers of Catan or streaming the West Wing–fun, but not exactly the epitome of cool. In Albany, we can walk fifteen minutes and be at the Speakeasy, or drive the same and be at the Confectionery.
There are more exciting cities, but in New York it was nearly impossible to round up people to share those exciting experiences with. When every social commitment involves at least a forty-five minute train ride, the exhaustion of travel starts seeping away the wonder at living in a city where you can ride the Staten Island Ferry through New York harbor, go to the top of the Empire State Building at midnight, or take the train (for two plus hours) to Coney Island. In Albany, the stakes may be lower, but in twenty minutes our friends can mobilize a game of late-night Washington Park glow-in-the-dark bocce ball. There’s a joie de vivre that accompanies that level of immediacy. Put another way: I’m 31, but I get to live in a city where I still sometimes feel like I’m in college–all my friends are right here. When we lived in New York, going to see our neighbors involved a half-mile walk and thirty block subway ride. In Albany, we walk down one flight of stairs and to the end of the hall.
This is not to say that everyone should live in small cities, or that I don’t miss parts of living in the City. But I think there is part of living in New York (and, I imagine, other big cities) that “the media” and the world at large can forget. When my parents moved to the Upper West Side in the 70s, 100th Street and Riverside was about as far north as bougie white people would comfortably go, and they were rewarded for their spirit of adventure with a rent-controlled apartment that could easily swallow my current Albany apartment. I know the City was different then, and came with its own set of problems, but it was also effectively much smaller. All my parents’ friends from that time lived in the same twenty block radius. They did not have to transfer trains three times to visit their friends, or spend forty-five minutes each way commuting to their jobs. For the rich and/or well-entrenched, the City is still like this, and it must be unimaginably lovely. Cool. Exciting. Big, but not too big.
But for me, and nearly everyone I know, modern life in the City involves moving ever further out–to Northern Manhattan, or parts of Brooklyn and Queens my friends wouldn’t have even thought of considering ten years ago–and settling for less of everything except time on the subway to listen to podcasts.
I try to explain all this when I’m asked about life in Albany. I try, but I don’t think most people are able to wrap their heads around the idea that it might really be worth it. Ah well. It is.