June 18, 2014

The biggest little city in New York

Albany is not a large city, although it does respectable job of trying to fool you into thinking it is. It has an appreciable number of tall buildings downtown, it’s poorly-designed highway network ensures that there’s more traffic than you’d expect for a city of its size, and the fact that Troy and Schenectady are so close means that it’s got a lot of suburban sprawl as well. In terms of population it’s only about as big as Peoria, Illinois (sticking with Illinois cities, as that’s my frame of reference, Schenectady is the size of Decatur and Troy is the size of Oak Park.) but because the three cities have sort of grown together the total metro population is nearly a million people, which gives it a bigger metro than more substantial cities like El Paso, Wichita, and Des Moines. It’s still not that big, but those factors plus all the media attention that comes from being the capital of an important state can lull you into sometimes thinking you’re in a major city.

Coming from Chicago there’s no way to escape the fact that Albany is not a large city but as a self-professed urbanite I don’t mind trying to pretend that it is. When a major retail or restaurant chain passes us by we act with a sort of offended indignation - how could they possibly not want to open a location in Albany? But when one does come the facade comes down and we act with an almost disturbing level of excitement. Our first Whole Foods is opening today and people started lining up more than two hours before it opened. When Trader Joe’s opened their first Albany store last year the reaction was so enthusiastic that local authorities declared a traffic advisory, warning people to avoid the road on which Trader Joe’s was located unless absolutely necessary. The same thing happened when Joe’s Crab Shack arrived - people started showing up the night before and the line stretched all the way around the building.*

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the bulk of my life around Detroit and Chicago but I just don’t remember this sort of thing happening. Stores and restaurants were certainly busy when they first opened but camping out overnight before opening day or standing in line hundreds deep at the door just seems absurd. The only comparable instance I can think of is when IKEA opened their first Michigan store and people acted as if it were the second coming of Christ. But it didn’t seem, to me at least, like every store opening attracted the same sort of attention that they do here.

Maybe it’s because I’m really not big on shopping but I don’t see the point - is it some sort of bragging right to say, “I was the FIRST PERSON inside the Albany Whole Foods!” The store will still be there tonight and it will still be there six months from now when all the hype has died down. There isn’t anything I can think of that any store sells that would convince me to wait outside for hours to buy. But then again I’m probably not the right person to offer opinions on this because I won’t shop at any of these stores anyway. The Whole Foods CEO’s reprehensible political opinions aside, their Albany store is attached to Colonie Center Mall, and the traffic on Wolf Road and Central Avenue is already so bad that the list of unanesthetized dental procedures I will endure to avoid that intersection is long and extensive. Trader Joe’s is in the same part of town and while I was a devoted shopper at their Glen Ellyn location when I lived in Illinois it just isn’t worth the time and traffic to drive there from Schenectady on a regular basis. If you’re the type of person who loves new shopping and dining experiences, that’s perfectly fine, I get that. But standing around in a parking lot for hours and hours for...a Joe’s Crab Shack? Come on, it’s only a small step above Red Lobster, it's the TGI Friday’s of seafood. It’s not bad but let’s all act like we’ve seen/visited a seafood restaurant once before in our lives and act accordingly. I’m happy in my delusion that Albany is a big, diverse, important city and you people going ape shit over a Whole Foods like a bunch of bumblefuck hayseeds ruins that.

*As I was finishing this post, Daniel over at Fussy Little Blog made some valid points via Twitter: for a long time Price Chopper and Hannaford were the only games in town as far as groceries went, so people here are right to be excited about more options (as he put it, “it’s like the wall coming down.”) and Joe’s Crab Shack offered free crab every month for the first hundred people at the door, which would explain the rabid reaction on opening day. Perhaps people here aren’t as easily excited as I assumed, but I still think that waiting for hours outside a grocery store is silly.

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