Albany's future, in soft focus
Cities like Albany are strong, yet vulnerable to challenges such as
population shifts, crime (which is on the rise in smaller cities across
America), inner-city job shortages and maintaining aesthetic appeal.
Many of the challenges stem from factors beyond the city's control,
factors such as globalization, the federal neglect of cities and the
lagging upstate economy. However, Albany has been working hard on the
factors that are within its control, by taking official action, such as
the strong development steps adopted by Jennings administration and the
state, and the quality-of-life legislation enacted by the Common
Council. In addition, Albany also benefits from a growing record of
constructive citizen, business and university activity.
The 2000 census figures may reveal a dip in Albany's population. They
will certainly show a soaring rate of growth in our immigrant population
that will help offset the likely decline in young college-educated
people that the Census Bureau predicts. Fortunately, economic forces are
already at work to help enhance the city's appeal to the next
According to a 1999 study by the independent Milken Institute, it is
the high-tech sector, rooted in research centers and institutions, that
increasingly "determines which metropolitan areas are succeeding or
failing.'' Albany is home to a world-class research institution, the
University at Albany, which in collaboration with IBM, RPI and venture
capitalists, can help bring more start-up companies to the city, with
the employment opportunities that they offer at both the professional
and technical levels.
The city needs jobs, particularly at the technical and
pre-professional level, for its inner-city youth, who too often feel cut
off from the existing economy, much less the economy of the future.
UAlbany, working with Hudson Valley Community College's new degree
program in Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology, has hosted students,
faculty and guidance counselors from Albany High School at its
state-of-the-art research and work-force training facilities at the
Center for Environmental Systems and Technology Management. University
researchers also have participated in mentoring, career and internship
programs at the high school to alert students to the high-paying job
opportunities that can stem from staying in school and completing a
The university also is developing an array of Internet-based
work-force development initiatives that could eventually provide
assistance to displaced adult workers as well. Given that the federal
Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates Albany's poverty
rate at 18 percent, all these work-force training steps build hope in a
chronically underemployed population, hope that can strengthen the inner
city, bringing people the positive effects of the computer era, while
minimizing its negative ones.
Hope and employment, both highly correlated with neighborhood
stability, can also help combat crime. The great urbanist, Jane Jacobs,
coined the term "street eyes,'' that come from people with a sense
of belonging and empowerment looking out for their block and their
neighborhood. In addition to Albany's important efforts to get more
police onto the streets, and to reorganize the police, fire and building
services departments into one unified Department of Public Safety,
citizen involvement is crucial to crime prevention.
Albany has a grand tradition of citizen action through faith-based
and community organizations. Last fall, African-American clergy
mobilized to help ensure the establishment of the new Citizens' Police
Review Board; last month we saw the inauguration of ARISE, a
multiracial, multi-denominational community-organizing project dedicated
to bringing about structural and systemic change throughout the inner
Citizens have volunteered their time through the increased avenues
provided by city government, as well as through community-based
initiatives, such as the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations.
Taking part in action to improve the city can build a sense of optimism
and efficacy among residents, and help to attract new ones.
Maintaining the aesthetic appeal of a 315-year-old city is also a
challenge. Recently, both official and nonprofit Albany have
rediscovered a powerful new connection to the Hudson River. City
government is working to reconnect to the Hudson through a pedestrian
bridge, archaeology of the Erie Canal, transformation of the waterfront
and the possible recreation of Fort Orange.
Meanwhile, new Albany-related exhibits are envisioned as part of the
expansion of the Albany Institute of History and Art and the State
Museum. There is also an intensified concern in many sectors with
finding the right balance between preservation and economic development,
a critical issue for a city as historic as ours.
How well Albany reconnects with its glorious past and space will
define its future. In a high-tech world where many of us can live and
work anywhere, residents and tourists alike want a city that has
retained its soul. As D.H. Lawrence wrote, "Different places on the
face of the earth have different vibration, different polarity with
different stars. But the spirit of place is a great reality.''
Helen R. Desfosses is president of the Albany Common Council. She
also is associate professor of public administration and policy and of
Africana studies at the University at Albany.