Our far-flung region is diverse, but lacks true cohesiveness
While it may not be immediately apparent, we happen to live in the 46th largest metropolitan area in the United States and the fourth largest in New York state, according to the federal Office of Management and Budget.
At last count, some 1,170,483 of us are socioeconomically tied to an Albany-Schenectady-Troy urban core, but dispersed over an area that ranges from the foothills of the Berkshires to the Mohawk Valley and from Glens Falls to Hudson.
What that represents is a lot of people with commonalities, spread over an atypically wide geographical space. Either way, where we live is certainly bigger than it seems — and bigger than it acts.
Big city, small town
There’s good news and bad news in that fact.
It is often said — and truthfully — that this region offers big-city amenities within a small-town atmosphere.
For one thing, there are a wide diversity of community types, lifestyles and living arrangements in relatively close proximity to one another. In well under an hour of travel, urban, suburban and rural settings can be consecutively observed and experienced. It is more than possible to live “in the country” and still have a short commute to work in the city, or to live in a city and walk to work.
There also are a wide variety of individual sport and recreational possibilities, culinary options, geographical and topographical landscapes, historical and cultural venues and settings.
The four full seasons inherent in the area’s climate only serve to create even further opportunities and variations on all that is here.
The principal challenge in availing oneself of this widely dispersed cornucopia is getting to it. Mass transit can be a less than efficient option, making personal transportation almost a must. On the other hand, traffic problems here are far less of an issue than in comparatively numbered but more compact and densely populated areas.
Furthermore — as a whole and on average — the area’s school districts, the return on the real estate dollar, post-secondary educational options, degree of personal safety, availability and completeness of the public infrastructure and the overall cost of living more than favorably compare to their counterparts most everywhere else.
Most of us know this. That’s why we’re here. But why — when elsewhere — do we so often find that our region seems to be so anonymous? There may be a clue in the struggle that one goes through when asked, “Where are your from?” It’s almost never a simple answer.
If one says, “Clifton Park” or “Saratoga County,” the reply all too often is, “Where’s that?” If one says, “New York,” the initial impression imparted is the place with all the skyscrapers; adding “upstate” only gets a confused nod. If one is far enough away, responding with “Albany” might prompt the rejoinder, “Georgia?” And so it goes with almost any other regional place name one tries.
Even within the area, there is only the roughest — if at all — consensus over how the “Capital Region,” the “Capital District,” “Metroland,” the “Tri-Cities,” the “Capital-Saratoga Region,” “Tech Valley” (Get the picture?) gets defined.
While it’s admirable to be proud of one’s own locality, that “pride of place” here often gets condensed into a very small area, an attitude that turns out to be far too provincial. It doesn’t seem to extend much to the region at large.
Consequently, our metropolis lacks a singular identity — that internalized sense of regional pride and confidence that’s essential to propel an advantageous image of itself to both its own residents and, just as importantly, to the nation and the world. In today’s globalized economy, that’s a very real deficiency. It counterproductively hampers any broader effort at promotion by Balkanizing the region into its many parts instead of emphasizing how — as a whole — it is so much more than simply the sum of those parts.
Maybe it’s because we have too many local governments?
Eleven counties, thirteen cities, 143 towns and 62 villages would seem to present a challenge in this regard. Perhaps it’s due to ambivalence on the part of some about being associated with the governmental center of the state? Or could it just have something to do with that yawning geography?
Whatever it is, we need to get over it. It is possible for a region to have a shared singular identity while retaining its local flavors. Heck, even New York City at its core is a collection of interconnected neighborhoods each with its own distinguishing features.
It is possible to retain unique community characters while pursuing a wider, regional common cause.
That provinciality, that small-town attitude, that in so many ways is a strength of this region, ironically also happens to be a principal weakness. There is as much, if not more, on offer here as there is in any other region of this nation. For our own good and future prosperity, we very much need to figure out how to tell that truth to the rest of the country — indeed, to the rest of the world.
John Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.