For the first few weeks of the season I had to take a small detour on the delivery route to pick up my son from his summer job. Thus I got to drive along Broadway from Menands into downtown Albany on several occasions, which gave me a chance to take note of what I was passing. I cannot say it is the loveliest streetscape I have ever encountered (really, I cannot; not even for money). But I rather enjoyed the drive. It is like going on a short urban archeology expedition.
Like most American cities, Albany has moved away from its industrial past. Mostly, of course, because industry has moved away from it. But also in part by choice. Cities usually think the sorts of people they ought to attract are going to be drawn to a post-industrial rather than an actual industrial setting. It is much cooler to turn a former factory into an art gallery than into another factory. Not that Albany has really championed post-industrial chic. It has generally taken the more common route of simply obliterating the past. I believe this was called urban renewal in the 1970s. The Empire Plaza, like some shard of an of extraterrestrial metropolis that unfortunately crash landed in the middle of Albany, stands as a fine symbol of this.
But you cannot get rid of all the gritty parts of a city. For a start, it just takes too much money to destroy every sign of the past. Plus, even modern cities need some place where people still do some of the old actual work. In Albany, Broadway is one of those places.
Well, some of it is where people do work. There are a number of places where people did work–large, abandoned factories that remind the passerby we were once (not so long ago) the industrial powerhouse of the world. Intriguingly, these profoundly utilitarian buildings, giant brick production sheds, have a certain amount of ornamentation, including one otherwise fairly grim one with two almost elegant towers. The only surviving large scale industrial site is Albany International, a name that appropriately by modern corporate standards gives you no idea of what the company does. Even more appropriately, despite the name it moved its corporate headquarters from the Broadway site, where it had been since 1902, to New Hampshire last year.
Though large-scale industry is largely a thing of the past in Albany, there are a surprising number of small manufacturers and businesses still operating along this stretch of Broadway. On your way into Albany you could pick up some cut stone, industrial foam, carpet, a meat slicer, fasteners, a lube oil mist eliminator, can-making equipment, dust-collecting filter bags, a fire truck, an outboard engine, tires, sodium hypoclorite, made to order sheet metal heating vents, a golf cart and roofing supplies, as well as whatever it is they make in the Albany International complex–all that before you get to the federal and state offices, investment companies and law practices downtown.
Interspersed with these businesses (and the former businesses) are blocks of simple row houses no doubt built for the people who worked in the factories, with the occasional grand brick church or small park or shop. They are the sorts of working class neighborhoods nobody would dream of building any more, the houses too close together, too close to the industrial area, too urban, and without garages–remnants of a pre-automobile life when work and play and worship were in walking distance.
You would have to undertake real archeological exploration to find traces of whatever existed along this stretch of ground before the factories and houses and roads and rail lines of the industrial era erased it more thoroughly than any urban renewal. Any sign of the Dutch and English farmers who must have used this land once, or of the Mohicans before them, is buried beneath the tarmac and brick and steel. It is a landscape built on the belief that the new takes complete precedence over the old, and certainly the people who built it would be puzzled to find that it stands now as an artifact of a disappearing age. They would probably want to knock it all down and build something new.
I think I find Broadway interesting not just because it offers a view of our rapidly receding industrial past, but also because in Easton so little has really changed since the first European settlers turned up two and a half centuries ago. The industrial age simply never came here. There have been changes. There are fewer people, fewer sheep, far fewer farms, a few new houses and giant freestall barns and trench silos and some paved roads. But none of this has fundamentally altered the way of life established here by those early Quakers.
Not that we are locked in the past like some sort of historic reenactment. People are more than happy to have their cars and satellite television and self propelled forage harvesters. But there’s a deep reverence here for the past. You occasionally hear talk that we need a Walmart or housing developments, and there’s a vague defensive understanding that much of the rest of the region has moved on. But most of the people who longed for a modern life moved away to work in those factories (hence the 50% population decrease in the last century). The folks who stuck it out here are more inclined to, well, stick it out–to stick with the way we do things because that is the way we do things.
Broadway offers a stark view of history. It is a testament to a once thriving way of life that has largely been left behind to moulder. The world has moved on and has no use for the edifices of the industrial revolution, which seems fair since the industrial revolution had little use for what preceded it. As the old factories fall in on Broadway the nanotechnology center expands across town. We have just as many relics of the past here as there are along Broadway, but we live in them.