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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.

Faded art

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Troy Williams Street Alley faded signage DSC_0538.jpgOnce, every sign was a handpainted sign. For a while in the '80s, I worked in an office next to one of the last of the old signpainters, a gentleman artist who could make a "Please turn off the lights" sign look lovely. Technology had already taken over by then, and with the advent of desktop publishing more and more signage became computer-based. I'm afraid that the grand old signs that used to grace the sides of city buildings, making life a little more colorful and interesting, are things of the past, slowly disappearing.

At least some of them are being documented, such as in my Flickr group Faded Signage. Take a look through if you love these old relics.

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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Troy Victorian Stroll 2011 DSC_4920

Victorian-era young ladies in the '40s-era updated lobby of the 19th-century Troy Savings Bank building, enjoying bottled spring water and talking on a contraption that Jules Verne didn't imagine.Victoria would be pleased, these girls are not naked.

Dissected Maps

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Merriam and Moore dissected map  assembled Rumsey collection.jpg
Homer Merriam was a brother of the Merriam brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts. Before joining his brothers in their little venture publishing a dictionary that you may have heard of, he was one of the earliest and most successful commercial printers in Troy. In the then-nearly new Cannon Building, his company put out a series of globes that are still collectible (if a tad out of date), and a wonderful series of boxed map puzzles. I wrote about this 1854 marvel over at All Over Albany, but I wanted to share this additional view of the Dissected Map of the United States and Canada.  (This image is from the David Rumsey Collection at Luna Commons.)

Three channels and nothing's on

Screen shot 2010-11-14 at 4.20.09 PM.pngOur elders had the hardships of the Great Depression and the Second World War, and they weren't shy about telling us how soft we had it. My generation had civil unrest (race riots, Vietnam protests, the Generation Gap), the Cold War, and only three television channels. And while it's hard to scare kids going through today's Depression with stories of Kent State and the Watts riots, I'm not shy about telling how hard life was with only three television channels. (Yes, you could say there were four, if you counted what was still called "educational televsion," and if you could stand in just the right spot, holding onto the UHF antenna in just the perfect way to would bring in what looked like a signal, if you squinted just right.) Why, in my day . . .

This schedule from October 12, 1966, shows the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area channels. Channel 6 was WRGB in Schenectady, the NBC affiliate since television and networks were invented. Channel 10 was WTEN in Albany, the CBS affiliate. Channel 13 was WAST (Albany Schenectady Troy) in Menands, the ABC affiliate and the channel with the worst signal when I was growing up. Except for Channel 17, WMHT, on the UHF band, which required special pliers to adjust the tuning knob and a contortionist to get the antenna into the right arrangement. (Channel 2 here is a Utica station; Channel 3 must have been in Bennington. Neither one could be picked up in our area but the Schenectady Gazette, source of this listing, was widely distributed.)

Getting to the Collar City

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Circumstances -- a combination of wife's employment and elder daughter's education -- are leading us to spend a significant amount of time running north to Troy. Surprisingly, this is just not practical by bus. Even though we live 15 minutes south of the Collar City, all buses require us to cross the river to Albany, change buses at least once, and then travel up and across the river again, a trip that cannot take less than an hour by bus and sometimes takes longer. Our other options? Cross the river (twice), using I-787, or go the slow way up Route 4 on our side of the river. It's only about a 25-minute bike ride, by the way, but not really safe or practical for a teenager; too many high-speed interactions and then the maze of city streets in South Troy.

In 1850, the bicycle, bus and automobile hadn't been invented, yet there were still three options for getting from Albany to Troy:  stage, steamboat, and railroad. (Not to mention getting on your own horse). Hell yes, I'd pay 12-1/2 cents for a steamboat ride up the Hudson.

Travel between Albany and Troy, 1850 (Munsell).png

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City Bill Poster Troy 1895.png

I suppose that in some of the big cities there might still be the staple-gun crews that run around tacking band flyers to telephone poles, but they are merely diluted descendants of the mighty bill poster of the 19th century. The phrase "Post No Bills" seemed only a curious  relic to me as a youth, something I saw in cartoons and old movie backgrounds but could make little sense of, the old usage of "bill" or "handbill" as a sheet of advertising having all but vanished. Once there was a thriving business in advertising through posting of bllls, advertising sheets that were glued to buildings, fences, and just about anything that would stand still. This ad is from 1895, when Mrs. M.E. Dundon of Troy proclaimed the power of pasted-on advertising: "The Brush A Power In The Land." And, more to the point, "Cash Buys Paste." Indeed it does.

When boats were made of paper

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One of the joys of living near the Hudson River is seeing the rowing clubs plying their sleek craft across the water at dusk and dawn. The Hudson has long been a favorite of rowers, and for a few decades after the Civil War, it was home to a race-winning curiosity: the paper boat.

In the golden age of the inventor, restless creativity abounded. Elisha Waters had a cardboard box factory in northern Troy near the old State Dam. He was always on the lookout for new markets for his products, from match boxes to bra cups.

The story is told that his young son George needed a mask for a masquerade ball, but balked at paying high store prices. He borrowed a mask for a model from which he would mold his own mask, using paper pulp from his father's box factory. How he made the leap from masks to boats is recorded in the style unique to the age: "'Cannot,' he queried, 'a paper shell be made upon the wooden model of a boat? And will not a shell thus produced, after being treated to a coat of varnish, float as well, and be lighter than a wooden boat?'" Whether his flash of inspiration was actually so articulate, in 1867, George struck on the idea of preparing paper so it could be laid over molds and shaped into rowing shells. The Waterses formed a new company with respected Col. George T. Balch, late of the U.S. Ordnance Department, and set out to prove their paper boats had the fastest lines on the water.

According to an 1871 history of rowing, "The paper sheets are moulded over wooden forms, in a moist state, and when dried, are taken off in a single piece, without joint or seam on either outer or inner surface, and thus causing the least possible friction, for easy and rapid passage through the water . . . The paper skin is finished with hard varnishes, and presents a solid, horny and perfectly smooth surface to the action of the water, unbroken by joint, lap, or seam from stem to stern. This surface can be polished as smooth as a mirror, if desired; it cannot be cracked or split like wood . . . ."

Odd though it may sound, paper then was substantially different from paper today. Rather than being made primarily from wood fibers, paper in the 19th century was made primarily from linen or cotton fiber. Worn out clothes were given or sold to the local rag man, who would collect enough quality fiber to sell to the local paper mill. (Of local note, Kirk Douglas's father was a rag man in the textile town of Amsterdam.) Long fibers made a strong sheet, and laid up, sealed with resin and varnished, and in that way preparing paper wasn't so different from preparing fiberglass or other modern boat materials. But even so, convincing the public that paper would float must have been a challenge. The new Waters, Balch & Co. embarked on a very modern public relations campaign, getting their boats placed with some of the top crews of the day, winning races, and being sure the word got out. Robert Johnson's "A History of Rowing in America" notes that Waters, Balch paper boats "were pulled by the winners of fourteen matched races, in 1868, twenty-six match races during the season of 1869, (their second year in use,) and fifty in 1870 . . . ." As early as 1871, the company was putting out a 400-page catalog, featuring not only its boats and their accomplishments, but articles on rowing, training, setting up a rowing club and even making a boathouse.

In 1878 well-known sportsman Nathaniel Bishop published "Voyage of the Paper Canoe," his tale of rowing the Waters 14-foot creation "Maria Theresa" from Troy (having arrived there in a wooden canoe from Quebec) to the Gulf of Mexico, which further promoted the virtues of Waters' lightweight, durable craft: "I embarked in my little fifty-eight pound craft from the landing of the paper-boat manufactory on the river Hudson, two miles above Troy. Mr. George A. Waters put his own canoe into the water, and proposed to escort me a few miles down the river. If I had any misgivings as to the stability of my paper canoe upon entering her for the first time, they were quickly dispelled as I passed the stately Club-house of the Laureates, which contained nearly forty shells, all of paper."

This was all during a forgotten boom in rowing - according to the New York Times, from 1868 to the end of 1870, boat clubs in the U.S. and Britain increased from 56 to 247, part of one of our nation's periodic physical fitness crazes. Professional racing teams abounded, and the sporting public took tremendous interest in the outcome of regattas. The Times, crediting Col. Balch with the writing of the catalog, said that he "deserves the thanks of every man in this country who really wishes to see moral and mental health and beauty combined with physical."

While George focused on the boat business, Elisha continued to search for other uses for paper, including the first paper can for oil, and he hit on the idea of making observatory domes from paper, installing the company's first one for the Williams Proudfit Astronomical Observatory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1878. The 29-foot diameter dome was a success, except that a large telescope was never placed underneath it, and in 1900 the dome was replaced with a normal roof; the building was modified several times and razed in 1959. Paper domes were also built for West Point, Columbia University, and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.

Every boom turns to bust. The Waters boat factory had a good 30-year run, even as other makers entered the market and gambling scandals in the 1890s killed professional rowing and public interest in the sport. But while preparing a shell for the Syracuse University crew in 1901, George Waters caused a fire with a blowtorch that burned the entire factory. Claiming losses greater than their insurance would cover, the Waters company never rebuilt and George died the following year, followed by his father Elisha in 1904.

(A version of this article was also posted at All Over Albany)

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"Let me just fuel up my headlamp"

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Troy and Albany Automatic Lighting 1895
1895 - a simpler time, when cars did not yet rule the roads, bicycling was all the rage, and all you needed to do to extend your riding pleasure into the evening hours was to bolt a kerosene lantern to your frame, light the wick, and off you went . . . .

Oh, wait. Maybe the lighting and the bicycle have nothing to do with each other. Never mind.

On the other hand, Fixie Pr0n for you flatland elitists. The Helical seems to have been the work of the Premiere Cycle Co. of New York, N.Y., and the tubes were made in a helical twist. The Zimmy was by the A.A. Zimmerman Manufacturing Co. of Freehold, N.J. When this ad appeared in a Troy directory in 1895, Arthur Augustus "Zimmy" Zimmerman had recently (1893) become the first amateur World Champion road cyclist. He was one of the greatest names in American sport a mere 120 years ago.
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