On Victoria Day weekend, myself, accompanied with a few friends headed off on a road trip to Boston, passing through several Upstate New York cities on the way there, and through New Hampshire and Vermont on the way back. In this first installment, I highlight some of the interesting characteristics of three Upstate New York cities – Syracuse, Albany, and Troy.
Syracuse has a population of only 150,000, and a regional population of about 450,000, or approximately the same size of Kitchener-Waterloo or London, Ontario, yet many mid-sized American cities have architecture that appears much more impressive than what would be found in a similarly sized Canadian city.
The Niagara-Mohawk building
The Erie Canal once passed straight through Downtown Syracuse – a later diversion bypassed the central city. Clinton Square now features an interesting reflecting pool that echoes the canal’s original path and with patios and public art and monuments, is a nice civic focal point.
Syracuse’s strangest attraction is an upside down traffic light, with red at the bottom, in the Tipperary Hill neighbourhood. A nearby monument explains the story. The local Irish community (drawn here after constructing the Erie Canal) refused in the late 1920s to accept a traffic light in their community where “British Red” was on top of “Irish Green.” After several attempts to destroy the new light, the city gave in. It’s quite the hazard for colour-blind drivers, and no signs warned of this unusual traffic light configuration.
I had heard of Albany’s giant New York State government complex, Empire State Plaza, but was both impressed and shocked by its gigantic scale. A plaza is surrounded by seven office buildings, with a state museum (with an Orwellian name of State Center for Cultural Education) on one end and the historic State House on the other side. In addition, there’s a performance hall in the “Egg”, so named because of its shape. The complex makes one think of what would happen if Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright joined forces and built a corporate city.
The tallest building at Empire State Plaza, the Corning Tower, has a public observation deck, but to get in there, one must follow a strange bureaucratic maze. The guard at the elevator at the lobby instructed us to go downstairs, and into the underground city that I did not know existed. At the information desk, we had to show ID and get a bad black-and-white photo taken on a temporary pass. We then went back upstairs, showed our cheap Avery labels to the guard, and went up.
Once up there, the smallness of Albany was apparent. The old inner city quickly gives way to sprawl, and then green forests. But the amount of land given to freeway interchanges and parking garages was enormous — and I wondered how much of the old city was cleared for this massive government complex.
Interstate 787 and a freeway spur into Empire State Plaza’s many parking garages are the focal point of Albany’s riverfront.
Interesting, a block or two from the State House and Empire Plaza, the otherwise attractive downtown has considerable blight. Perhaps the underground mall at Empire Plaza drains the downtown of needed life.
The last stop before crossing the Massachusetts state line was the City of Troy, only a few minutes north of Albany. I’ve heard of Troy mostly thanks to James Howard Kunstler’s website. (In May, Kunstler, who lives just north in Saratoga Springs, declared Troy City Hall that month’s eyesore.) Troy’s downtown is remarkably intact, and relatively vibrant for a small city centre. One of my friends remarked that this city was in a way, a microcosm of New York City, particularly the outer boroughs. He was indeed right, as we saw brownstones and grand banking halls, Victorian commercial blocks, and even, on the way out of town, brick housing towers that wouldn’t look out of place beside the Brooklyn or Williamsburg Bridge. The necessity of crossing the Hudson River to get into town was also a nice touch.
Kunstler’s eyesore city hall. I don’t hate it — it’s rather tame brutalism in a city that has little modern architecture. It is not much larger than any of its surrounding buildings and fits at least the scale, if not the context (I’ll leave my criticisms of brutalist city halls for when I get to Boston).
(Photo by L. Machler)
I also wonder how many people, even on road trips, take the chance to get off the highway and see some of the towns along the way. I once drove between Detroit and Chicago, and avoided Interstate 94 almost the whole way to see many of the interesting cities and towns along the way. Unfortunately, off and on rain limited the number of pictures I could take.
Next: Downtown Boston and the Big Dig