ALBANY, N.Y. — The capital city of New York used to be a nice place to be from, and a useful crossroads to interesting places in any direction: New York City 140 miles south, Boston 180 miles east, Montreal 200 miles north, Saratoga just 30 minutes away.
On its own merits, however, Albany was until recently a decaying Revolutionary War relic with little to recommend it to visitors.
That has changed rapidly as the city--oldest capital city in the nation and the second-oldest permanent settlement after St. Augustine, Fla.--celebrates its tricentennial this year with events nearly every day through New Year's.
There's a festival atmosphere at lunches on the mall between the historic capitol, which features the "million-dollar staircase" (a million-dollar price tag was impressive when it was built a century ago), and the state office building, which used to be the city's only skyscraper.
Street vendors now hawk hot dogs and sandwiches and diners eat lunch in the park in the shadow of the Empire State Plaza complex, a series of monumental office buildings, a museum and the Egg--an ovoid spaceship-shaped auditorium that gives the South Mall a futuristic look.
Twenty years ago this complex--for years a gigantic hole in the ground plagued by labor problems and surrounded by some of the nation's oldest slums--was known as Rockefeller's Folly. But then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller got what he wanted, even paneling the buildings in marble (some say out of his own pocket). In retrospect, Rockefeller may have revived the city.
Beyond giving Albany a modern skyline and a centralized focus for the state bureaucracy, the completion of the complex gave new life to the Northeast's oldest downtown. Businesses are moving back in and rebuilding, young families are rediscovering and refurbishing the old neighborhoods. The city has a spirit that wasn't evident 10 or 15 years ago.
Robinson Square was reclaimed within the last decade and is a popular area for visitors. Entrepreneurs and young families turned the aging, faded section between Washington Park and the state office building into an engaging neighborhood of handsome brownstones, colorful boutiques and some of the city's most interesting restaurants and saloons.
No More Red Lights
Now Green Street, once a notorious red light district, is being cleaned up and the old buildings are being converted into town houses selling for six figures. Revolutionary War hero Philip Schuyler's 1762 home is nearby and open to the public.
There has been a settlement at this spot on the Hudson River since 1609, when Dutch explorer Henry Hudson tied his ship there. A trading post was established in 1615 as Ft. Orange, later Beverwyck. It officially became Albany when the British wrested the land from the Dutch in 1664 and British Gov. Robert Dongan chartered the city in 1688.
Once a meeting place for Revolutionary War figures such as Washington and Jefferson, the city is more recently remembered as the place bootlegger Legs Diamond lived and died--violently in both cases--and the Democratic machine of Dan O'Connell and 40-year Mayor Erastus Corning outlasted even that of Chicago's Mayor Daley.
The yearlong 300th birthday party is one way of updating Albany's image.
Tall Ships to Parade
Tuesday is the official Charter Day and the focus of the celebration. Tricentennial Week, through July 26, will include a tall ships parade up the Hudson, a riverfest, tour of historic homes, museum exhibits and outdoor festivals.
On Tuesday there will be a hot-air balloon festival, ringing of the refurbished carillon bells in 105-year-old city hall (across the street from the capitol), dedication of the Tricentennial clock and an outdoor festival with fireworks on the Empire State Plaza.
Activities the rest of the year will include ethnic festivals throughout August--black arts, Irish, Italian, Jewish and German; a Sept. 6 triathlon; a neighborhood Olympics Sept. 13; the premiere of a play, "The Murder at Cherry Hill," in mid-October; premiere of an opera, "The Possession of Mother Ann," in December, and a Schuyler Mansion Christmas Open House on Dec. 14.
As a tie-in there will be concerts and entertainment at the spruced-up lake house in Washington Park, including Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" throughout August.
Albany is also a good starting point for summer travelers. Saratoga is a half-hour drive up the Northway (which continues on to Montreal and Quebec). The Saratoga Performing Arts Center is in full swing through August. It serves as the summer home for the New York City Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as big-name rock and pop concerts (Bob Dylan, the Moody Blues, the Monkees and INXS in July, Julio Iglesias, Billy Crystal, James Taylor and Willie Nelson among the acts in August).
Racing at Saratoga
The Saratoga thoroughbred racing season runs through August, including a Tricentennial Day Aug. 4. The season highlight is the Travers Stakes in August.