I’m not the only one who has been thinking about how our community of Albany, NY, jokingly referred to locally as “Smallbany”, is pretty fantastic. A popular local food-blooger, Leah the Nosher, just wrote a piece for All Over Albany extolling the virtues of the wide net of friends and family that came to her family’s rescue during a recent time of crisis. Our family has also been on the receiving end of an outpouring of kindness during trials and triumphs during our 8 ½ year tenure here, and my mind lately has been gravitating towards how great our community is.
Albany is a former Dutch settlement of almost 100,000 outright friends and not-quite-strangers who don’t need six degrees of separation (or Kevin Bacon) to figure out how they might be connected to someone in or around town, somehow. Nick grew up in a nearby suburb (Clifton Park) and everywhere we go he seems to run into someone he knew from school or his punk days on Lark St. Despite a few problems that plague our early-blooming-tulip-filled city, there are a lot of people around here who care…about food, about each other, during times of celebration and need. That, to me, is the tremendous value of Albany and its inhabitants. I wasn’t sure quite how I’d fit in as a “Southerner” who spent 5 years in Southern California, but I’ve come to really love and appreciate the place we call home. Here are a few “tip of the iceberg” personal experiences that exemplify to me the Awsomeness of Albany.
We arrived here on a very late, harvest moonlit, mid-August evening in 2003. As we drove past Binghamton listening to Tom Waits, the biggest, brightest, full moon I’ve ever seen (before or since) revealed itself slowly from its hiding place behind a mountain. The fully-bloomed moon was an omen of good things to come in my life. The next day Nick drove me around Delaware Avenue where, as we passed by the 8-screen movie theater, restaurants (also see here and here), pizza joint, Italian sandwich shop, gourmet food market, fish supply, bakery, dog groomers, the sadly now-defunct post office, mosaic’s artisan/gallery, nursery, florist (replaced by a locally-owned franchise ice cream shop) and other small businesses, I thought “this is a real Main Street!” Our new home was just a mile away and the warm fuzzies I felt that night about our neighborhood haven’t dissipated.
The Delaware Avenue Neighborhood Association and Merchants Group members have brought federal stimulus money to the Avenue to improve walkability and livability; work with the city gardener, merchants and beat cops to ensure the area looks beautiful, stays safe and brings people to the area; and they help strengthen personal/professional relationships with everyone who lives nearby. There’s a reason it was voted “Best Up and Coming Neighborhood” this year by Metroland readers. If there’s a dog that’s gotten loose everyone helps round him up and find the owners, bike paths are fought for, injured cats and kittens are saved, business owners beautify and serve as community connecters, residents enthusiastically support them (and each other), we even have a moniker! “DelSo”, which stands for Delaware South, coined by local blogger and librarian Silvia L. There are many other neighborhood associations in Albany that help elevate their areas. Our neighborhoods are special because the people who live here are involved in how they take shape.
Just before our daughter was born, Nick began working at the Honest Weight Food Coop and we joined the Natural Family Parenting Group that met in the community room once a week for 3 hours. Babies and toddlers were welcomed and I credit the wonderful families I met there, most of whom we still know and see regularly, with helping me to deepen my relationship with clean food and to better understand its intertwined relationship with community by providing new-baby families with wholesome dinners, cooking more at home and for friends and getting more involved in community/food endeavors.
The availability of local produce from “The Coop” and the encouragement from scores of people willing to share their knowledge really turned my head and taste buds from always consuming food with thoughtless gluttony. Eating Clean Food has never been more important in our lives, and Albany is a community that is blooming with people who care where their food comes from, in large part because of the Honest Weight, which I think has strengthened and broadened scores of relationships in meaningful ways. Our Coop and the Coop community, who support countless small, family farmers and other local food producing families, rock!
The Capital Region has farmers markets galore. Small or large, they can all be credited with providing a huge variety of sustainably produced foods and an encouraging, fun environment in which to buy them. When we started participating in farmers markets in 2004, we never dreamed of all the people we would meet connected to producing the crazy amount of bounty provided by upstate farmers and producers.
We got our start at the only market in Albany-proper at St. James Church (now St. Francis) on Delaware Ave., where we met Elderberry Mary and her Polka-loving husband (makers of fabulous jams). We witnessed small-town farming and made lots friends while avoiding the rain-drenched muck at the New Baltimore farmers market for two years. We suffered a devastating car accident at the end of our last summer there and so many people rallied around to help us with borrowed cars or rides to doctor’s appointments, meals, help around the house, encouragement, childcare, heartfelt cards and calls.
The Saturday Delmar Farmers Market, which we joined in winter 2009, has greatly influenced how and from whom we source our ingredients and even how we package our loaves for our bakery (in biodegradable, compostable parchment instead of plastic). We’ve gotten to know and become friends with many farmers as a result and now have no problem sourcing fresh, sustainable produce, dairy, cheeses, meats, and more for lunches at the shop and at-home dinners. An anonymous supporter of the market even helped us pay our market fees over time as we got started and many of the “Delmartians” we have met through the market have become friends and major supporters of our bakery. Market friends help look out for our daughter as we work. All of the markets in the Capital Region help bring our communities together around Real Food, and they all ROCK!
Sustainstainable farmers and small producers in or near the Capital Region number far too many to name. Some of our personal favorites are: Champlain Valley Milling Co., North Country Farms, Farmer Jon’s Produce, Bulich Creekside Farm, Meadowbrook Dairy, R & G Cheesemakers, Mountain Winds Maple Syrup, Three Smiles Kitchen Seitan Creations, Tinhorn Farm and Tilldale, and The Peanut Principle.
When Nick and I decided to open our bakery for retail business, first on Quail St., recently moved to Delaware Ave., people came out of the woodwork to help. We received a $1000 anonymous donation just before we opened on Quail last year (still haven’t figured out who it was from); Pat at Little Anthony’s Pizza, Chris from Crestwood Deli and Jose our new neighbor from Mingle have offered us very affordable, used equipment; friends helped us paint, get our new space ready and brought flowers; a 24 hour electrician came to fix our oven when it broke our second day open on Delaware Ave. (we couldn’t believe we found an electrician to come at 4am!); very reliable friends have helped us with childcare, the community has embraced us with open arms…this list could go on and on and on.
There’s a whole slate of very cool, notable local businesses that make Albany special: FarmieMarket (our own online farmers market promoting small, local, sustainable farms), Hounds on the Hudson (friendliest dog walkers and in-city-chicken advocates ever), Radix Ecological Sustainability Center (providing Albany’s first compost pick-up service in which we participate), Organica (organic and hydroponica gardening supply who installed our bakery’s hydoponic garden), Capital District Community Gardens (who bring the Veggie Mobile to food deserts) and Youth Organics (who both bring farming & young people together), The Damien Center and PAWS (who help people with AIDS & their pets), Food Not Bombs (who feed the hungry with community dinners each week), The Cheese Traveler (bringing together local, small farm specialty cheeses), we even have our own new distillery and sustainable packaging company! There are too many underground art groups and centers to name, theater is alive here, we have many terrific music venues and there are scores of others supporting businesses and events (largely locally-owned/operated), not to mention all the fantastic places to eat and local breweries (did I mention we like beer?). One of the beat cops used to bring us his homebrew on Quail St. How often do you get given alcohol by a police officer? (to be consumed later, of course)
The food blogging community here is very strong: All Over Albany reports on all things Capital Region (including good food); Daniel at FussylittleBlog, Steve Barnes on Table Hopping, FSC’s own Deanna at Eat Local, Jane at Albany Eats!, Jerry at derryX dines, The Chef’s Consortium , and many others contribute to the vitality of our local foods community (not to mention the significant impact FSC is having locally with community outreach, classes, food swaps, podcasting and the encouragement of home-cooking).
I don’t mind the “Smallbany” nickname. To me, it means this city is large enough to encompass all different kinds of people, views and skill sets, but small enough to have interconnected circles of our population, allowing for personal causes to overlap, which in turn creates a community of people who care about each other. That may sound simplistic, but I think it’s a beautiful thing. We’re raising our daughter amongst a village of friends and fulfilling our creative dreams.
Albany is pretty darned Awesome in my book. I think I’ll stay a while.