The Arts

New ‘Upstate’ novel offers glimpse of Troy circa 2007

New ‘Upstate’ novel offers glimpse of Troy circa 2007

In The New Yorker book critic James Wood’s new novel, Upstate, British real-estate developer Alan Querry and his younger daughter, Helen, visit his older daughter, Vanessa, in Saratoga Springs, where the latter is a professor at Skidmore College. The story takes place in early 2007, judging from a mid-book reference to Sen. Barack Obama having “just announced his candidacy” for president.

The novel features several extended descriptions of Saratoga Springs—Uncommon Grounds (“a coffee shop of course”) even makes a cameo—but Collar City’s appearances really caught our attention. (The book is a work of fiction, we should note, but its depictions of the two cities don’t seem totally untethered from reality.)

Troy’s first mention comes as Alan and Helen are traveling in a cab to their Spa City hotel (apparently a lightly fictionalized version of the Adelphi). Alan remarks that Saratoga Springs seems bleak. His daughter disagrees:

“Saratoga is one of the nicest towns in America. If you want bleak, I can show you. Drive half an hour or so from here to Troy. Now that’s bleak. Or at least it looks pretty bad from the highway. Troy seems almost Soviet—rotting old warehouses, dirty factories, there’s a grim river, and horrible new blocks of buildings that look like hotels for the fat party apparatchiks . . . ”

“All right, it’s not bleak. But it’s so bloody cold . . . Maybe, with the other place, its name laid a curse on it? What were they thinking? Troy, indeed . . .”

Later in the book, Alan travels alone “half an hour down the interstate” to check out Troy for himself.

He understood what Helen meant when she called it “Soviet.” The snowy distances, the tall buildings and freezing, martial spaces; the big river, embalmed in ice, and lashed by a sternly unattractive bridge. Maybe Kiev or Ryazan was like this. The city had an overwhelming atmosphere of broken utility: empty warehouses, ruined factories by the river, many unused offices. People—Trojans, would that be?—moved through the streets as quickly as they could. Life was bitten down to the quick here, the cold punishing all civic life. But there were fine church steeples, beautiful old flat-roofed buildings, wide sidewalks. Gracious unmolested streets, apparently unchanged from the 1880s. Down by the windy river, it was an utter wasteland: weeds, rubble, grit in the eyes. But what an opportunity for redevelopment—there must be half a mile at least of empty waterside space, just waiting for the right hotels, restaurants, and flats. Build, and the people will come.

Alan then finds a “quiet bar” on a side street, where the bartender gives him a brief history lesson on the city before offering a somewhat dismissive take on its future: “I’m tellin’ you, you can’t rebuild a whole city by getting a few artists to move up here from Brooklyn.”

Since 2007, many nonfictional real-estate developers have taken an interest in Troy. At the One Monument Square charrette earlier this summer, a consultant noted that nearly 100 “recent and ongoing” residential, commercial, and public sector projects have “leveraged over $715 million in investment” in the downtown area, though there are still swaths of the waterfront that remain underdeveloped, especially south of the Congress Street Bridge.

One looming factor that might further accelerate this development: the state’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative prize. Troy, Albany, and Cohoes are finalists in the Capital Region, and the governor “is expected to announce the winner in late summer/early fall,” the Albany Business Review reported last month.

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