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A moment of St. Patrick's Day grace

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When it comes to St. Patrick's Day, I'm a bit of a humbug. Partly, that's because I don't drink and view most of the festivities as focused on amateur drunkenness and hooliganism. Partly it's because my daughter was born on that day, and without any Irish heritage, she views the holiday as a major intrusion on her ability to go out for dinner on her birthday, ever. (This is, of course, her fault. She could have been born on the 15th, but nooooo.) There's also an element of resenting the feeling that it's not a safe day to be out on a bicycle because of all the drunk drivers, when for me it's always a date by which I like to be out doing spring rides.

Saturday (when our cities observed the festivities, paradewise), I found myself with the challenge of having to pick up a daughter from her dance class, one block from ground zero of Albany Irishness, where the vomitorium had already been erected out front, right at the time things would really be getting underway. The only sensible option was to park nearby when I dropped her off and get on my bike for a ride; then when it was time to go, I could drive around the craziness, rather than having to drive through it to get to her.

So I got on my bike and enjoyed a pleasant, sunny ride along the river to Troy. When I got there, there was a duo called "Emerald Dawn" playing Irish music at one corner of Monument Square, entertaining a very small crowd. I wheeled around the block to get a cup of coffee, then came back to swell the ranks and enjoy the sun and music for a few minutes before heading back.

As the musicians played, a woman who likely lives in the public housing at the end of the square wandered up. She was carrying a framed jigsaw puzzle in the shape of a shamrock, with an Irish pastoral scene depicted, thatched hut and all. She danced a bit to the music and then offered to show everyone a real Irish picture. Everyone looked at it admiringly for her as the music played on. When the musicians announced they were almost done, she asked if they could play "Danny Boy," saying that it had been her mother's favorite. The duo obliged with a slow, sweet version, and she stood there with her eyes closed, mouthing the words, transfixed. And there, with just a song, they gifted her with a moment of grace on that chilly winter morning. It was such a beautiful thing that I even thought it might get me over my distaste for St. Patrick's Day.

And so I rode back to Albany in the sun, and even the proliferation of drunken hooligans that were already making travel less than pleasant wasn't enough to spoil the day.

What I learned on my summer vacation

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Lake Champlain.jpg
They say travel broadens the mind until you can't get your head out of doors. ("They" in this case being Elvis Costello, but you get my point.) I'm not a world traveler but even a brief sojourn to a place not so far away can prove to be a much-needed tonic, and can set my mind to thinking about what it would take for the place I live to be as enjoyable as the place I was visiting. In this case, we spent a week in Burlington, Vermont, at the city's campground and beach on the shores of Lake Champlain. It's a short stroll to the beach, an easy (and popular) bike ride into town, and there's barely any need to get into a car for the week.

Burlington always seems like a bit of a paradise. It's a very small city (less than half the population of Albany) with a strong local economy, a bustling downtown, a good arts scene, a strong connection with its college population. It's a city that invests in its infrastructure and understands that the waterfront, extensive bike paths, and boating access draw visitors and keep things going. There also seems to be a culture of politeness and order, where cars actually stop for pedestrians in crosswalks and wave bikes through, and where old ladies are unafraid to ride their bikes on major roads.

Here are the things I found most enjoyable in Burlington and can't understand why we can't have in Albany:
  • Cars and bikes, getting along. There are LOTS of bikes in Burlington. Lots. What makes it so bikeable? Yes, there are some good paths and lots of places to lock up, but ultimately what makes a city bikeable is that it is safe to bike. There aren't a lot of dedicated bike lanes there. It just seemed that drivers, many of whom must also bike, were not just tolerant of bikes, but actually pleasant toward them. In addition, cyclists seemed to do their part -- I saw a lot of predictable riding, obeying signals, staying on the proper side of the road.
  • Glass on the roadside. I saw none. Well, there was one unsmashed airplane vodka bottle, which I kicked into the gutter as I rode by. Otherwise, I didn't see a single instance of broken glass. Riding almost anywhere in the Capital District, you're guaranteed to find the roadside strewn with glass. I also found Cleveland to be glass-free, and parts of Delaware, and parts of Pennsylvania . . . in fact, I'm starting to believe that it's only around here that riding over glass is a constant hazard. Either people in other places aren't tossing bottles out their windows (in my experience, at cyclists) as often, or someone is cleaning it up, or both. In either case, it's both nice to know that a glass-free life is possible, and depressing to find that we're pigs around here.
  • When people step into crosswalks, drivers stop. In fact, drivers often stop even before you're in the crosswalk, or before you're even ready to cross the street. It got a little annoying, though not nearly as annoying as standing in the middle of North Pearl Street, pointing at the "Stop for Pedestrians" sign in the middle of the street, and having drivers completely ignore you and/or try to hit you. Seriously: just because you're in a car doesn't mean you're more important, in more of a hurry, or anything else. Why does no one consider that sometimes they're pedestrians who would like to cross the street, too? I think it has to do with suburbanization and the cultural loss of the need to parallel park or walk more than 15 feet to anything.
  • There was a huge athletic community. I saw more runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders and everything else in twenty minutes on the bike path there than I would see sitting all day at the Corning Preserve. No exaggeration. I know that our area is vastly more spread out (which is of course part of the problem), but it is not possible to visit Burlington without thinking that it's a place where athletes are welcome and encouraged. And by athlete, I mean anyone who was out there doing it; it wasn't all or even mostly skinny people with Gu bottles hanging from their belts -- there were plenty of people who wouldn't fit the stereotype who were out there getting it done. And ultimately, that's what happens when you encourage athletics -- people who don't think of themselves as athletes give it a try, and keep at it, and ultimately they're healthier, and that's better for society. I feel like in Albany there are a couple of events where big groups come together, and then they all go back to wherever it is they run or bike or whatever the rest of the year. 

Could we have these things in Albany? I just can't see why not.

Well, there's your problem

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Mapmyride Dunn bridge weird states.png
As could be expected, news that there would be more construction on I-787 and the Patroon Island brought out vehement comments in opposition to doing anything at all to maintain these structures when there just must be a better way. Why can't we wait and spend this money later when we have a magic solution to this overbuilt monstrosity?

Now I know why we can't wait. As this capture from Google maps (as fed to Mapmyride.com) proves, the failure to finish the South Mall Arterial finally led to a rip in the space-time continuum. One side of the Dunn bridge is actually U.S. Route 20 in Illinois, and the other side is U.S. Route 20 in Nebraska. Obviously, failure to fix this immediately could mean the end of life as we know it, or at least some very unexpected detours through the midwest. So now do you think that $20 million is well-spent?
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Mysteries

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Albany Street View.pngSometimes you find amazing and inexplicable things on Google Street View. This scene is from Albany, just above Washington Park.

There's a story here somewhere.

He who lives by the bridge . . . .

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Location: Patroon Island Bridge over the Hudso...

Location: Patroon Island Bridge over the Hudson River in Albany, New York Description: Looking North, up the Hudson River to the Patroon Island Bridge from just north of the boat launch in Rensselaer, New York. April 11, 2006 Category:Images of New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want my bridges not to collapse. Really, I do. Living in Rensselaer County and needing to find a way across the Hudson every day, I appreciate every dollar of maintenance that goes into the second Dunn Memorial (though sometimes I wish it were still a low-rise lift bridge) and the Patroon Island Bridge. I want them to stay up, and I'm aware that's been a challenge. But working on both of them in the same year? Urgggh. All that traffic has to go somewhere -- can't go south, we're out of bridges until Hudson (and out of free bridges until forever). North really doesn't work, have to go all the way up to the Troy-Menands bridge for another opportunity to cross. (And the next bridge up, the Congress Street bridge, will also be under renovations this year.) I can still bike across the Dunn (despite massive tearing up of Broadway in Rensselaer), but if anyone wants to come with me, we may need to figure out how to run a kayak ferry across to the ballet school.

Add to this that the main road by our house, the only road that easily lets us go in the other direction away from the bridge, the only road that would connect us to Troy and stay on this side of the river, is about to close for construction, and I'm feeling a little bit hemmed in. Better start reading those tide charts carefully.


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Centrally located

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Albany Troy map

Albany Troy map (Photo credit: carljohnson)

This started out as a long, dreary post about why I live where I live, but I thought I'd cut the dreary. The "Non-Urban" part of My Non-Urban Life is that I'm in an early suburb, set just across the river and up a hill from the filth and noise of the city, advertised as a place for healthful living just minutes away by trolley. We're on little village lots, close to our neighbors (in good and bad ways), on streets that should have had sidewalks but don't. I live a block from a lovely little lake that has been the center of neighborhood activity since a neighborhood was installed on historic old farmland more than 85 years ago. The schools are good, the politics petty, and diversity almost non-existent. So sometimes I wish I lived in a place where I could tuck down the street for a morning coffee or an evening decaf or grab some groceries without getting in a car (although honestly, there are limited places in the city where that's true). Since the number one thing I hate about my current location, perhaps the only thing, is one of my current neighbors, going back into a city setting and getting even closer (physically) to my neighbors seems unappealing.

But there are some other parts of the urban fabric I miss. Sidewalks, for instance. Stoops. Looking at the details on the brownstones. Somehow taking a walk through our neighborhood and looking at one sloppy vinyl siding job after another isn't the same as tripping down Second Street in Troy and looking at the ornate doors and window casings. I miss wondering what goes on in the secluded back patios, what little gems of gardens are hidden there. And I miss being able to walk to work, as I could and did for several years in Syracuse and Albany. While it's hard to figure out where jobs are going to take you, I've worked a substantial number of my years in downtown Albany, and my wife now works in downtown Troy, and it would be nice for one or the other to be able to roll out the door and down the street for a brisk 20-minute walk, rather than having to contend with traffic and bus schedules and the problems of crossing the bridge by bike.

So as we've just refinanced and are looking at finally making this into the house we wanted it to be, it's also tempting to just re-assess and see if there isn't a better location. I find downtown Troy absolutely charming and have enjoyed the residents I've met, but wonder if it could fit my lifestyle. Right now it doesn't seem that way -- I don't see city houses with off-street parking, room for bikes and boats, and a decent separation from neighbors at a price I can pay. Or where I do, they're essentially in neighborhoods just like mine, not adding a lot of walkability or diversity; they're just suburban houses in a city.

So I think we're staying put in our little slice of non-urbia.
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The Hudson by train

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The Hudson River along the Amtrak corridor from Carl Johnson on Vimeo.

Over the past 20 years or so, I've ridden Amtrak down the east bank of the Hudson River a couple of hundred times, looking out at the same views, and almost never having a camera. It's one of the most scenic rides in America, and I hadn't a single good shot of it. Once I tried to get some shots on my compact digital but the tint of the windows destroyed the color balance, and they were worthless. So one sunny day last fall I remembered to bring my D70 and snapped out the window on the way down. Of course, the sunny didn't last and by the time I got to Poughkeepsie the light was so gray and flat that I gave up. But here for amusement and posterity are some of the scenes along the Amtrak rail corridor between Rensselaer and Poughkeepsie. (The musical accompaniment, it should go without saying, is not mine, and subject to original copyright.)

Capitol Reflection

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DSC_5176

The water just never stops flowing.

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At Cohoes Falls.

And at Troy.

And at the Corning Preserve.

No, they mustn't.

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bicyclists must walkLike most people, I obey the law, except when I don't. I follow all the traffic rules when I'm cycling. I do not ignore stop signs, and I don't roll through red lights (and if that's made me annoying to erstwhile riding companions, so be it - the whole problem with drivers today is their absolute sense of entitlement, of a right to the road superior to everyone else's rights, and I'm tired of it). I signal my stops and turns when it's safe for me to do so (but with the rough pavement we have, releasing the handlebars isn't always a good idea). I don't cut through parking lots or ride on sidewalks. I even stop for school buses, not because my bike is going to run over some kindergartener, but because it's the law. It's just what you do.

But I'll be damned if I'll obey the signs on the ramps up to the Dunn Memorial Bridge that say "Bicyclists must walk on ramp." There is no reason on earth for this rule. First, it doesn't recognize that on that narrow ramp, a cyclist walking his bike is twice as wide, making it harder for people going in opposite directions to pass each other. Second, it doesn't recognize that it's nearly impossible to walk that steep ramp in bike shoes. Third, it would add at least 40 minutes to my commute every day if I were to actually walk my bike on the ramps. But most importantly, there is NO REASON for it. Why would I have to get off my bike and walk it? If I can't control my bike on a hill, then I couldn't be riding on that bridge anyway, because the choice on either side of the bridge is a hill.

Do we periodically require that drivers get out and push their cars on a stretch of highway? No. Why not? Because it would be insane. Same with this. You want to tell me to yield to pedestrians, fine. You want to set a speed limit, fine. You want to warn me to slow down on the complete afterthought of an elbow in the ramp where the homeless drop their crackpipes to the pavement, fine. But you want me to get off and walk my bike just to make getting across the river on a nasty, unmaintained, glass-strewn sidewalk just a little less pleasant? Not fine.

What brings this to mind? Coming home from a hot ride on Sunday, getting ready for a long slog up the hills to home. There are hundreds of cyclists along the river because the Bike the Canal ride was finishing up in Albany that morning. And I get behind a couple of them with their big cruiser bikes and their packed saddle bags who have decided to go across the river. And like any good tourists, they are obeying the sign and walking their bikes up the ramp. They're so wide I can't get around them even on my bike, and if I get off and try to walk up the ramp in my skittery bike shoes I will be even wider and completely unable to get past them ,and now I'm stuck spending 10 extra minutes in the hot sun just slogging across this unfresh hell of a bridge cursing the bureaucrat (possibly someone I know, I realize) who decreed that bicycles must be walked on this ramp. When I finally got to a point in the glass-strewn gardenway where I could squeeze myself between their depanniers and the chainlink fence and get by, I got to the down ramp and found another pair of cyclists, dutifully walking their pack mules down the ramp. Why do I not obey this sign? Because it is insane.


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