Central Avenue may not be lovely, but it’s Albany’s boulevard.
Central Avenue is not a beautiful road. It doesn’t dazzle you. It isn’t the first place you’d take a visitor from outcentral of-town.
But Avenue is Albany’s bouleit vard. may not be lovely, and it can certainly be gritty, but no road in the region is more alive. I don’t know of a strip between New York City and Montreal with such vitality.
Most major roads these days offer stale conformity, an endless loop of Olive Gardens and Chipotles from Long Island to
Los Angeles, but Central Avenue has a character all its own. It is defiant and dynamic. It is mom-and-pop.
It is uniquely Albany. It is underappreciated.
Whenever time has allowed in recent weeks, I’ve been stealing away to “The Avenue” to walk its sidewalks and meet its people.
Typically, my walks start around Lark Street or Henry Johnson Boulevard. I usually stay on one side of the avenue before turning around at Quail or Ontario streets, where the buildings
along Central begin to spread a bit, where the character begins to fade.
The walk, then, is about a mile up and a mile back. Not far, really.
But there’s plenty to see in just that stretch. There are restaurants and groceries, churches and schools, clothing stores and taverns. Most importantly, there’s the flowing and diverse stream of humanity, a United Nations parading the sidewalks.
Central Avenue is easy to view with nostalgic eyes, to walk it and remember what used to be. Those with longer memories of the road than mine might remember shopping at Hauf’s or going to the Pearl Theater. They might remember a road that seemed better, more successful.
But somebody, decades hence, will think about today’s Central Avenue nostalgically, too. Cities are not museum pieces. They change. There is a constant churn of new business on Central. It is an avenue of reinvention and mobility.
Still, some things stay the same. William Kennedy in 1983 wrote that Central is “scraggly, raffish, unloved, unsung, but staying busy even so, trying to tidy up and get it together.” The description still applies.
The Avenue is an immigrant boulevard and a working person’s shopping district, which is how it has long been. It offers a path up the economic ladder. In its small storefronts, the American Dream lives on.
You meet people like Dorothia Ross, who came to Albany from Delaware and has opened Honey’s, a new soul-food restaurant near Quail in a space that, until recently, was a Middle Eastern restaurant.
Oh sure, there are other soul food restaurants in the city; Ross has tried them. “But my food is so much better,” she said with the confidence of Muhammad Ali.
Central, so designated in 1867, has had other names. It was once The Bowery, Kennedy tells us in “O Albany,” and it has been part of the Iroquois Trail and the Mohawk Trail and the Mohawk Turnpike and the Schenectady Turnpike.
Today, it could be called “The Avenue of Hair.”
On my walks, I’m forever trying to tally the barbershops and salons along Central, but I always lose the count. Safe to say, there are at least 20 on the one-mile stretch between Lark and Quail, and that doesn’t include the beauty supply shops.
It is also an avenue of food. If there’s a dish or treat offered up somewhere in the world, you can probably find it along Central. It is not a place that will help a person to drop a few pounds.
“That’s what men always get,” said Thomas Simon, when I requested the Rum Raisin at Flavors, his cheerful Caribbean ice cream shop with chairs and tables on the sidewalk out front.
Simon is 64. He is from Flatbush, in Brooklyn. His ice cream shop is a second career for him.
What drew Simon to Central? “The diversity,” he said.
The Avenue makes the news every so often for the wrong reasons. It knows tragedy. My walk takes me through the intersection where a 4-year-old child was killed by a turning garbage truck while holding his mother’s hand. I think of it every time I go by.
Central can also be a mean place, at times, but I have seen more kindness there than anything else. I have watched grocers dote on disabled customers. I saw a barber, standing on the sidewalk, hand a Styrofoam container of hot food to a beggar who appeared homeless.
“You can have this, brother,” he said. If Central Avenue were a European boulevard, it would have been turned into a fine promenade for strolling and seeing and living, with space for outdoor cafes and street musicians. It would be appreciated, even celebrated.
Central Avenue doesn’t get that kind of love. It is utilitarian, designed more for cars than the people who walk its sidewalks. With too few trees or places to sit, it doesn’t roll out its welcome.
But we come to Central Avenue anyway, as Albany has for generations. Maybe I’ll see you there.
Buildings and storefronts along Central Avenue in Albany.
rosen’s department Store on Central Avenue in Albany in november, 1948. for more photos of Central Avenue then and now, go to www.timesunion.com.