Home for Thanksgiving, I decided to do some explorations of the area in which I grew up, the kind of exploration that doesn’t occur to one to do until one has been away from home long enough that it makes sense to stand back and regard it with curiosity.
Yesterday, I went with some neighbors to a farmer’s market in, Troy, New York, just a few miles upriver from Albany, and then drove around the city as a whole. Troy is a really quaint, fascinating city with a rich history. On its riverfront it has gorgeous early-2oth century facades; on its hills, it has spectacular Victorian mansions overlooking the Hudson river valley. But in between those two poles, the city is clearly very run down. Why is this?
The most basic reasons are: history and faceless economic forces. In the mid-to late 19th and early 20th century, Troy was a hub for textile manufacturing and distribution, which won it the nickname “the Collar City.” This made it the fourth richest city in the U.S. on a per-capita basis in 1840. But as the U.S. grew wealthier, other areas began their own process of industrialization, and international trade developed and became cheaper and more ubiquitous, the U.S. obviously lost its comparative advantage in textile manufacturing. The city hit its population peak in 1910, and has been on a relatively steady decline since. It’s a very familiar story, common to many second-tier rustbelt cities. The weather isn’t helping these cities either.
Can Troy improve? As I explored the city, it occurred to me that the city has a lot of the ingredients that, we are told, are needed for success. The city has RPI, one of the top techie universities in the country. This university brings in skilled programmers, etc., to the city, as well as hip, cool arts institutions. (It also has, lower down on the scale, but equally necessary for broad economic development, the Hudson Valley Community College, which provides more vocational education.) It has an excellent, though all-girls, boarding school in Emma Willard.
Thanks to the city’s wealth in the late 19th and early 2oth century, it has a number of legacy institutions. The quaint, well-preserved waterfront area transports you to that period of time so thoroughly that is frequently used as the location for movies set in that period. Up on “Mount Ida” (not really a mountain), nearing Emma Willard, there are stunningly gorgeous victorian mansions. It’s an easy, relatively cheap, 2 hour train ride into New York City from the nearby Albany/Rensselaer train station.
More broadly, Troy is really part of the ecosystem of the Capital District as a whole. And that should bring it even more advantages. The Albany area as a whole is extremely well-educated, thanks largely to the many universities in the area, including just across the Massachusetts border, and also thanks to the state government, and the professionals that draws in. Many of the suburbs have truly excellent public schools. The area is culturally blue, part of the northeast, and so has the institutional acccoutrements of the “creative class” that Richard Florida tells us leads economic development.
So why isn’t Troy taking off during this period widespread revival of downtowns? And, more broadly, why isn’t the Capital District as a whole? I think there are three things to think about here:
(1) Beyond the institutional ingredients, the really, really important thing for a city is human-capital agglomerations. This is really just a jargony way of saying, “What makes a city take off is when a large number of talented, ambitious, upwardly-mobile people move there, and attract other talented, ambitious, upwardly-mobile people.” And this a virtuous cycle, a recursive process, and there’s an element of unpredictable randomness to what sets it off in the first place. Sometimes, as with Seattle, it has nothing to do with good policy or weather even, but the simple fact that one really significant founder happened to have been born there, and wanted to move back (this is Bill Gates I’m talking about). More, there are only so many really talented, ambitious, and upwardly-mobile people in the world, and so the more they agglomerate in other major cities, the harder it becomes to attract any of them to your own city and start your own virtuous cycle. Troy isn’t attracting and retaining the necessary core of talented, ambitious, upwardly-mobile people, because it doesn’t have a big enough core of talented, ambitious, upwardly-mobile people. See the problem?
(2) There are some other mundane factors. Probably a big one is the weather. If you have to choose between starting your company Chattanooga vs. Troy, you might go with Chattanooga because four months of the year are arguably much more pleasant there. I think taxes are probably too high, as well. One thing about New York State policy is that the government can get away with some bad policy behavior , simply because the finance industry is so tightly, inertly concentrated in Manhattan, and probably won’t move no matter how high state taxes go. In other words, New York’s good luck with the finance industry enables the state government to adopt policies that cost the other industries in the state, and drive middle and upper-middle class people down South.
and (3) It’s important to keep in mind that, in the end, the city of Albany isn’t super-glamorous, but the Albany area as a whole is actually doing really well in the way that really matters, in providing a very high quality of life for ordinary, middle-class people. Many of the neighboring suburbs have really excellent schools. If all of the well-educated professionals want to live in the neighboring affluent suburbs, and not come in to revive Albany downtown, well, that’s their choice. The purpose of cities is to facilitate our efforts to flourish however we choose, not just to display lively downtowns for lively downtowns’ sake. And the area is just a great place to live–a beautiful place with easy access to the gorgeous Adirondacks in one direction, and New York City in the other.
What can be done? Not much. Unless Albany nanotech really, really takes off, I don’t think there’s any way that Albany-Troy could become the next Raleigh-Durham. But the two cities can still do well. Maybe Troy could become more like Chattanooga — the Tennessee city that attracts retirees and tourists with its quaint and pleasant downtown, and has become just a nice place to live, without becoming a major tech hub. One pipe dream is that, if Emma Willard were to go co-ed, and if crime in the city were to be tightly controlled, more affluent parents and even retirees would be willing to move into some of the beautiful old Victorian houses. Albany’s universities, easy access to NYC, and core of educated professionals drawn by the state government, all mean that its downtown could be revived, if the self-sustaining process just got started. But it hasn’t show many signs of getting started lately.