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Public art, Albany, NY

Free Form Friday: Something to Do in Albany

Free Form Friday is my weekly non-Bowie post. For more David Bowie, come back tomorrow for an exclusive interview with author Sean Eagan, editor of Bowie on Bowie.

Also note, click on the bolded words below to link to pages with more information on the subject mentioned…
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A few days ago there was this sportscaster in town who said, ”good luck finding something to do in Albany.” OK, ok, I’m being vague by way of diminishing her — the sportscaster was Rebecca Lobo, a former college basketball star now working as an analyst for ESPN in town to cover a game being played here (I live in Albany, thus: here) as part of the “March Madness” annual college basketball tournament. I don’t really follow basketball and had never heard of Lobo before her comment got coverage and I was going to ignore it, but the remark has generated a bout of hand-wringing and introspection so here I’m going to jump right in.

Albany is a small city. There’s a lot of stuff to do in Albany, but out of the gates I’ll concede that there’s more of the same type of stuff in bigger cities. Also, although there’s more encounters with the natural world available in Albany than many cities, it is still a city. So if the kind of thing you’re looking to do is hunt grizzlies or climb a mountain, you’ll have to cross the city line (though— and I’m not making this up)— hunting is permissible in part of the city itself), and there are several climbable mountains in the nearby Catskills, Adirondacks, Heldebergs, Taconics, Green Mountains and Berkshires). Anyway, I’ll concede to Lobo that Albany is what it is and just as you can’t find the type of thing it has to offer if you’re in, say, Yosemite National park, the reverse is certainly also true.

But there’s a lot to do in Albany. Including, apparently, going to a basketball game that garnered national attention.

I was thinking about doing a top ten list, but the format isn’t quite right for the better answer. Take, for instance, what I’d say is my very favorite thing to do in Albany— go into the Pine Bush. That would probably be my #1, but I could just as easily write a top 10 list of things to do in the Pine Bush (including hunting, if you’re into that kind of thing, which I’m not). What is the Albany Pine Bush? It’s one of the largest inland pine barrens on the planet, complete with miles of hiking trails. It’s home to all kinds of interesting animals, plants and birds. It’s endlessly fascinating and like nothing I’ve seen in any other city.

Also unique to Albany is the State Capitol complex, the Empire Plaza. Once again, it’s its own top 10. The Capitol itself is pretty much unlike any other capitol, or really any other building. The architecture is an attraction in itself, but historical displays within the building make it a museum, and a really interesting museum at that. Albany has other museums— you can walk through the underground concourse to the State Museum that yes, needs an update, but that’s not necessarily apparent to someone who hasn’t been there before. And speaking of the concourse, those of us who work there take for granted that it is home to a world-class collection of modern art, donated by former Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Getting a guide and tracking down all the pieces on public display is a half-day exercise.

You can also take the concourse to get the the Empire Center for the Performing Arts, known as the Egg because the building is shaped like… and egg. No, really. If you have’s seen it, look it up. It’s one of the most unusual buildings on Earth. And there are shows and concerts there multiple times per week. The shows are criminally under-promoted. I’ve walked by the ticket counter and seen that performers like Pat Benatar and Peter Frampton advertised for that night, got tickets and saw them in a fairly intimate setting. I’ve seen Aimee Mann, Yes, Adrian Belew, Melissa Etheridge and plenty of others— that’s just there. Also connected to the Concourse is the MVP Arena, where that basketball game was played. There I’ve seen Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac and Elton John. And a few blocks away at the Palace, I’ve seen the Albany Symphony, B.B. King, Ringo Starr, Sherryl Crow, Diana Ross, Brian Wilson, Jeff Beck, the Celebrating David Bowie show, Cheap Trick and many others. There is somewhere to see live music in Albany every night, 365 days out of the year. Maybe not Paul McCartney every night, but on the other hand many of the bars, clubs, pavilions, college stages and other venues are either free or very low cost.

There’s also theater. The Capital Rep has a new home, but in fairness, to see a Broadway show you have to cheat and go over to Schenectady to Proctor’s. Schenectady is not Albany and I’ve been trying to avoid answering the question as to what to do in Albany by mentioning what to do there, Troy, Saratoga or, hey, for that matter Colonie or Guilderland. But give me this one— Schenectady is within biking distance, and if you follow the route of the historic King’s Highway, which is liberally identified with Histroic markers, you can add that to the list of things to do that at least start (or end) in Albany. As for biking, I have to say that some of the roads are in bad shape, but there’s the Mohawk Hudson Trail and Albany County Rail Trail are two good ones. I sometimes take a long ride from Albany to Saratoga, much of which is via bike trails that I didn’t know existed until I looked.

And I haven’t even gotten to the food yet. Albany is less than three hours from New York City, Montreal and Boston, so people in Albany often complain that we don’t have as many great restaurants as those places. And it’s true, but “not as many” as cities many times larger than Albany is not the same as not many. Albany has too many great and unique restaurants, bars and, heck— ice cream places to list (although I’ll mention that Cheesecake Machismo is the only all-cheesecake place I know if anywhere). But here’s the point: most places in the United States only, or mostly have chain restaurants. There are a few chains here, but one of the great assets of upstate New York cities in general, Albany very much included, is that most of our restaurants are unique and independent. I’m sure there’s an independent restaurant in Orlando somewhere, but I’ve never found it. If you’re looking for something to eat in Albany, and you’re not from here, you’ll have plenty of options to try something new.

As I think of it, I’m trying to come up with something you can’t find to do in Albany, and I’m coming up short. We don’t have major league sports teams, so if the nationally televised basketball tournament isn’t enough, you’ll have to settle for the minor leagues or travel to one of those nearby bigger cities. We’re not on the ocean and you can’t surf on the Hudson or Mohawk rivers. But that also brings me back to the old Albany joke that the best thing about Albany is that it’s close to a lot of interesting places. Which is also true. Nobody says, “good luck finding something to do in Chicago,” but one of those things isn’t taking a day trip to the Ocean.

I’ve lived in Albany either full-time or part time for more than three decades. Like other cities, Albany has some real problems for sure. But I like living here. And I’m never at a loss for something to do.

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