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By HELEN R. DESFOSSES, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, February 4, 2001
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 generation.

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 pre-professional degree.

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 city.

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.