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There’s nothing particularly glamorous about Troy, New York. Troy is a city that, in an alternative universe, might have been a major metropolitan region. It stumbled early though, one of the first places to suffer the oxidation of the iron belt. What it lacks in size or elegance it makes up for in internal contradictions and a special brand of awkward coquettish charm.  It is the home of Uncle Sam and the setting for Kurt Vonnegut‘s novels. Its buildings have been painted by Norman Rockwell and torn down by public officials in search of progress. The local university has one of the highest-paid presidents, but also hosts the Yes Men. My campus office is on the fifth floor of a 19th century chemistry laboratory. The former lab sits atop a steep hill, providing a view that, on clear days, can go for miles.  The view from my office (above) is an eclectic blend of multiple decades of technological achievements and blunders. Highways, public housing, suburban enclaves, and the husks of Victorian factories stand in conversation with one-another like old friends. It is obvious that they need each other.  Some get along better than others, but they would be lost without the others’ continued existence.  New technology may be introduced to us as singular entities; improvements and replacements that make the old obsolete and irrelevant. More often than not however, these technologies find themselves sitting next to veterans of past technological revolutions. I have lived in Troy for almost three years now, and each day is a lesson in the history of technology. 

In the background, just below the hazy skyline, runs a thin ribbon of concrete and asphalt called State Road 7. An extension of the local (and crowded) Hoosick Road, SR-7 is a 60-mile-per-hour corridor of international capital. The product of a federal block grant, it connects centuries-old downtown Troy with a suburban mass to the west called Latham. To the east, it crosses over the Tomhannock Reservoir and delivers travelers to the sleepy tourist town of Bennington, Vermont. SR-7, like all highways of the time, is built on a lie. A fundamental lie about urban economics and the behavior of rational actors. These sorts of roads are always built with the promise of connecting a nearby municipality to the global exchange of goods and services. If you aren’t accessible by highway, the reasoning goes, then you aren’t accessible to capital. Instead of money flowing in, it hemorrhages out into the suburbs and larger cities. Frear’s Cash Bazaar loses to Sears, and later, they will both lose to Wal-Mart. Its an old story but one that is particularly tragic when you see some of the grand old buildings sitting vacant, their roofs sagging from the vacuum of human activity.

C/o wikicommons, Troy from the Hudson River circa 1909

Off in the right corner of the picture is the Kennedy Towers. The pluralized name for the singular public housing structure is representative of our country’s dedication to its poor: promises left half fulfilled. The tall cylindrical complex is one of the tallest buildings in downtown Troy. A fine exemplar of Le Corbusier’s modern tower in a park, the building sits far away from the road, amongst thick foliage and sparsely populated parking lots. When projects like Kennedy Towers were first conceived, they were heralded as the technosocial fix that would end homelessness.  These buildings were meant to imbue in its residents the same values that were built into the structure itself: modernity, efficiency, and cleanliness. These monuments to state paternalism still provide much-needed shelter, but have also begun to multitask. The building is also a cell phone tower and a gunshot tracking system. As the former bathes residents with high doses of EM waves, the latter listens closely for the distinctive sound of gunshot. After coordinating with fellow microphones it alerts the police to the approximate location of the sound.

The Imagined Hedley District

Every night, as if were an aspiring Empire State Building, the Hedley Building is festooned with seasonally appropriate lighting. The fifth floor of this beige office building is the new home of Troy’s City Hall. As a sign of the times, the government doesn’t own, it rents as if it isn’t sure whether to stay around long enough to pay off a mortgage. All 36,000 square feet is rented at a little less than a dollar per square foot, per month.  Nothing about the Hedley building is particularly appealing or awe-inspiring. It is the kind of building that could exist anywhere. Hedley could just as easily be in a corporate park in Phoenix or in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. It is the perfect soulless anchor for a new “revitalized” live/work project called “The Hedley District.” This imagined future began in the optimistic days of 2007 when it seemed as though any project could work as long as you could securitize and redistribute the debt as far away as possible. Today, these images seem further away then when they were first drawn.  The promises of New Urbanism, which is actually very old urbanism, would have to wait. In the mean time, Troy would have to consider rehabilitating one of the biggest contiguous strips of 19th century architecture in North America.

On the other side of the river, conspicuously absent form the idyllic imagined future of the Hedley District, is a strip of townhouse suburbs. Their grey vinyl siding and shallow pitched roofs look out of place and foreign amongst the brick and steel of Troy proper. I have never met anyone that admits to living in those buildings and I think I know why: no one in there has any interest in Troy. They came to live in the suburbs, Troy is a noisy culture factory whose products they consume on a semi-annual basis. Their everyday lives are out on the suburban arterials: strip malls and megaplexes that could exist just about anywhere. I feel as though, if the Hedly building were to be bulldozed tomorrow, those little two-story townhomes would just crumple with it out of sheer empathy.

I am cautiously optimistic about the rust belt. Midsize towns from Indiana to New Hampshire have the potential to re-emerge as the centers of industry and culture. The area made the mistake of being too useful- too sensible in its land use and far too conservative in its embrace of six-lane highways and Chuck-E-Cheeses. The unique confluences of global trade and 200-year-old manufacturing equipment are settling into a new array of  hyper local economics. There’s chatter of establishing a local currency, we just started a tool library, and we brew our own beer. You should join us sometime.

[UPDATE 11/17/12]- I have noticed some readers have read my pessimism (cautious optimism?) as an aloof detachment from Troy’s future. While I understand how that could be read from the text, nothing could be further from the truth. I have offered a brief clarification on my personal web site.