Chris Churchill

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - chris churchill ■ Con­tact colum­nist Chris Churchill at 518-4545442 or email cchurchill@ time­sunion. com

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.

Chris Churchill / Times Union

Build­ings and store­fronts along Cen­tral Av­enue in Al­bany.

Times union archive

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.

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