The Fantasy Lark Street

By Leigh Cummings

soap box badgeIt's a gorgeous, sunny day and you're out for a stroll in your neighborhood. Half-eaten apple in hand, you pop into the post office to mail a letter and then head to the butcher for a pound of sausage and a ball of fresh mozzarella. On your way home, you stop at the food cart to chat with the owner and grab a bag of soft pretzels.

Now imagine all of this happening on Lark Street. Impossible, you say? Maybe today. But how great would that be?

For all its compact diversity, Lark is sadly lacking some amenities that would be considered basic elsewhere. A U.S. Post Office is the first thing that comes to mind. If you aren't aware of the tiny branch just inside the Capitol building's Washington Avenue entrance, convenient offices are hard to find. A quick Google mapping shows that there are no other branches for a mile in all directions. It's a walkable distance, for sure, but who wants to make that trek for one stamp?

And though there's no shortage of excellent prepared eats on Lark, there is a noticeable absence of raw ingredients. As an alternative to the sometimes unreliable produce options at the supermarket it would be nice to have a real green grocer selling local, in-season fruits and vegetables during the months they're available. You know what I mean: a little market owned by a mustachioed older chap in an apron who remembers that Brussels sprouts are your favorite, and always lets you squeeze the peaches. I love that guy. Well, I love the idea of that guy.

Right next door to my imaginary green grocer is a bagel shop. This is very serious business, here. It's almost a crime that there aren't better bagels on Lark. Yes, there's Dunkin Donuts, and the Daily Grind comes even closer to authenticity with their offerings, but both sell what are basically just rolls with holes in the center, not real bagels. A real bagel is crispy on the outside, warm and soft on the inside, and hardly needs toasting. And now my mouth is watering.

While we're fantasizing, how about a handful of actual offices? Retail shops employ people, but if there were more folks working in the same neighborhood where they live there would be additional demand for things like food carts, those peripatetic gourmets that never seem to venture west of Swan Street. Combining quick service with low prices and the charm of eating your meal off of a stick, I think food carts would go over like gangbusters during the summer months.

Over the past few years, it has seemed that Lark Street is going in the right direction with an infusion of new, unique businesses like Pastime Legends, Lil Buddha, Seasons and Crisan. They've all succeeded at the delicate balancing act of appealing to both townies and visitors in an area where the locals are fiercely dedicated to guarding its character. They've brought a different vibe to the street, and are a welcome disruption to the status quo. Let's face it, the last thing we need is another bar or head shop. Those markets are saturated, as far as I'm concerned.

This is a street that should never have a shuttered store front and yet so many remain vacant, like the buildings that formerly housed the Corner Food Court and Planned Parenthood. I would be so happy to see those spaces brought back to life. I'd also advocate for the entire neighborhood going carless, but that is another fantasy for another day.

What's on your fantasy Lark Street?

Leigh Cummings blogs about her misadventures on public transportation (among other things). You can also find her on The Twitters: @leighcummings.

Comments

I love this post, and I love all of the ideas in it ... ESPECIALLY the butcher/deli and a greengrocer. I love Cardona's, and I love the Co-Op, but like you pointed out when referring to a post office, I can't really walk to either. I mean, I could, but let's be realistic.

The only one I don't see as a possible reality (though I'd like that, too) is offices. You should see the looks of panic and fear on the faces of my coworkers at the thought of working somewhere that doesn't have adjacent parking at no cost. They think I'm CRAZY for living here because, "Where do you PARK???" "On the street." "Oh my GOD I WOULD HATE THAT." And I would hate living in your stuffy suburban cul-de-sac with no walkable neighborhoods and no street lamps, but I'm not that rude to point that out, thanks.

I, too, would like to see better public transportation options. It would be nice if my husband and I could drop to a one-car household (we like to travel and we have a dog, so we do like to have it for weekend trips and assorted errands), and while CDTA is an option, it's not quite THERE for most people. To be THERE more people would need to buy into the idea that they don't necessarily NEED to drive all the time AND they would need to get more buses/routes, which would cost a lot of money (causing fares to go up), etc. I like that CDTA is an option for me if I am in a bind, but it's not one I'm comfortable relying on on a regular basis.

I live right off Lark on State. As much as i, too, would love all of these things (mostly because I'm lazy and don't have a car), I have to think that the Lark Street Neighborhood (or, at any rate, the portion of that street between Madison and Washington commonly referred to when "Lark Street" is mentioned) should be the least of any Albany city planner's worries. Considering the treck anybody in, say, Orchard Hill, needs to make to get an apple of any kind, I consider myself fairly lucky. The vacant buildings do worry me, but the troubles in other Albany neighborhoods worry me more.

A Trolley? Maybe one that maybe goes down Washington to Broadway then back up Madison to loop back across Lark to start all over again?

I agree! Just wanted to point out (I've been in the neighborhood for 26 years) that we've had some of these businesses on Lark Street at one time or another ... I can't remember a butcher shop at the moment, but we had a lovely greengrocer, a bagel place, even a fishmonger ... part of the problem is that people who live here need to vigorously support these small businesses. The other part of the problem is getting folks who work at the Plaza to venture out at lunch or after work to support them. My guess is that there are hundreds or thousands of state workers at the ESP who have never been to Crisan or the Daily Grind or even Hamilton Deli (even closer) ...

Some great ideas and I would love more cart vendors as well as a good news stand. One of the best book stores in the area is a block down, but...I would love to be able to pick up the New Yorker or Utne or something without having to go "all the way down" to Coulson's.

I'm just barely old enough to remember when there was a grocer on State and Lark, although since I was about 4 I don't remember much about the quality of the place, just the way the floor sloped up when you walked into the produce department.

I also remember when what used to be the food court on the corner was The Corner Store (with a diner-like restaurant at the back, and things like art supplies and jewelry at the front). It was lovely, and I was always vaguely angry at the food court because it seemed like such an atrocity compared to what used to be there.

I'd argue that Lark St. could use more retail-type stores, little boutiques and things. But maybe I just like shopping a lot.

sorry. apparently, there's some new neighborhood called Orchard Hill. which shows just how lazy and provincial i am. Arbor Hill.

When I was a kid, there was an awesome bagel joint called B.A. Gels right on Spring and Lark, in what's now Romeo's Pizza, I believe.

My great-great-grandmother worked at a little flower shop above a small grocery store that once occupied the building that Elda's is in. I think it was called Lemmy's - I used to go there with my dad as a kid all the time.

The space once occupied by Totem was a cute place called Cafe Dolce. There was even briefly a Brueggers at 4 Central and of course, who doesn't miss Shades of Green? There was also once a Music Shack nearby and Lark Street Guitar. As a child, I thought the neighborhood was just the coolest thing around....

There were two small grocers on Lark St. The Capital Food Market was at Hudson Ave, it's been a Chinese restaurant for years. The other was near State St- now part of a restaurant- it was best remembered for an eccentric cashier who wore goth makeup and theatrical costumes. Both markets were very convenient and well patronized- but also rather dirty.

There was an excellent bagel shop- B. A. Gels. It was warm and friendly and was not at all stingy with cream cheese. Unfortunately it closed without warning- some of us patrons suspected a falling out between the two women running it.

The closest butcher I can recall was Kagan's, a kosher butcher on Madison right next to the gas station.

A giant independently owned bookstore built on the former site of planned parenthood could act as a community hub, with readings, events, a cafe... etc. Think something like this could really turn the place around.

The site is on the market, would AOA do a poll or a post on what could go there?

Allow me to play devil's advocate: If you want to live in a place like that, perhaps you should consider Manhattan.

It's nice to imagine how things could be, but Albany doesn't seem to want self-contained neighborhoods.

Lets face it, who really wants to set up shop in an area where you WILL be robbed,harrassed, and any other multitude of bad experiances will play out? What so you can waste your time not making any money? Yes, its true! I am not fond of the lark street area, any more. Even 10 years ago when I worked on Lark street I wouldnt let my come there by herself after dark, having seen raving lunitics and the like roaming around!!! Get real, first things first we need to make these areas SAFE SAFE SAFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I miss the drug store on the corner of Lark and Washington. Drug store would be a good addition.

Real:
-The irrational fear that you "WILL" be robbed (etc.) in an urban neighborhood, which drives white people to the suburbs and further enables our car culture.
-The safety of neighbors actually knowing one another and interacting in public spaces (e.g. grocery stores, book stores, post offices), thereby holding each other accountable and laying the social foundation for a safe neighborhood.

I agree a deli, butcher, grocery, or drugstore would be great. Or if we can't go independent, how about a Subway!

I disagree about a post office. Order your stamps online, ship your packages using carrier pickup. Going to a post office is a thing of the past.

You "WILL" be robbed if you have no common sense, look like a target and have zero street smarts. City people will be fine here but if your wandering alone at night in a Polo and khakis asking people for directions, yea maybe someone, one time will think youre an easy target.

I worked on Lark St. or in Center Square for about 5 years.

Sure, there were a few times I felt unsafe. When the police were doing high speed chases through the neighborhood. During every festival when the drunks came out to throw down. But in general, business hours are safe and very friendly.

And because no one else mentioned in, today is Free Cone Day at Ben and Jerry's. Lark Street, see ya there!

I have always considered Lark street the "artsy shopping" area of Albany, and a place to go to find a great restuarant. It's also a great bar-hopping area, and has great events year-round. I assumed that the people who choose to live there have made that choice to be near where the action is, and realize the drawbacks of the neighborhood before they move in. I'm glad this post has the word "Fantasy" in it because it is unrealistic that any neighborhood with be perfect - you have to weigh the pros and cons of living in Central Sqaure. Everyone has complaints about their neighbohood, and I think it is elitist to think Lark street should be any different.

"Everyone has complaints about their neighbohood, and I think it is elitist to think Lark street should be any different."

JessicaR, I agree with the first part of that sentence. When I lived further uptown (in the "education district") I had many fantasies about how to improve that neighborhood, too. I'm not saying that Lark is better/worse than any other neighborhood, it's just where my attention is focused because it's where I live now.

You say elitist, I say optimistic. :)

Yes, a post office! The lack of one on Lark is one of my pet peeves, and its gratifying to know at least one person shares this gripe. Post office errands are my favorite and they are great for kicking off a random hour or two of urban wandering; thats why I miss it most! And yes, a small green grocer.

There is also post office at the Madison Ave entrance of the concourse. BTW.

Oops. I mean TOMORROW is free cone day. ;)

Very important ice cream news - according to the email I got last week:

Ben & Jerry’s, Albany, Celebrates Free Cone Day on Tuesday, April 12!

I live off Lark as well, and I agree with just about everything in the original post! (Well, I don't mind the absence of a post office, since there are so many close to where I work, and on my way to/from work.) But, food carts! YES, please bring the food carts up the hill to Lark Street! Also, no matter the location, any sort of food carts outside business hours would be nice... not everyone who lives in Albany also works downtown :(

More quick, take-out type restaurants would also be amazing! Most importantly, no more bars, pleeease.

And above all, BAGELS. If someone could open the Albany branch of Absolute Bagels (found at 108th + Broadway in NYC) my life would be complete ;) Well, maybe not complete, but I'd have a reason to get up earlier, just to get a fresh, hot-inside, crisp-outside amazing bagel.

While we're indulging in fantasy, I decided to take a look at the satellite images of center Square on Googlemaps.

That overgrown lot on the corner of Lancaster & Dove was my first choice for
*insert Trader Joes/Whole foods/Wegmans here*

But seems a bit small, unless, is there such a thing as 2-story grocery stores?

There's also that largely unused park at the end of the block of Jay & Hudson that's considerably bigger and might be able to have a small parking lot. I'm not typically a fan of paving over greenery, though.

While there is Dunkin Donuts on the corner of Lark, I was disappointed to discover that a McDonald's and/or Burger King are nowhere to be found nearby. It's a bit deceiving to lead in with a Dunkin Donuts and then have no other fast food outlets around. The nearest Burger King is over a mile away, and that's too great a distance to even consider walking. Very inconvenient.

...or we can encourage existing businesses to more closely cater to their patrons.

For example, it drives me INSANE that the Delaware Price Chopper's produce section looks like the other stores' castoffs. I've written letters, asked managers to increase the seasonal selections, but so far it's been more of the same.

It's true what others have said about patronizing existing businesses. Most independent retailers would be happy to stock something if they know they could sell it. If you request something, be sure to actually buy it there instead of running out to the suburbs to save a few pennies. Your time, gas, and neighborhood are worth more.

I really miss Mezzo on Hamilton. It was a great place to pop in and grab some veggies, eggs, some nice crusty bread, and maybe even a prepared salad, sandwich or bowl of soup. They had great imported foods, sorbets, butter, spices, etc. They were perfect for Center Square, but the area wouldn't sustain them. It's very sad.

Summer, I totally agree with you on missing Mezzo. However, I believe, and I could be remembering incorrectly, that its closing was the rare instance of not being a case of lack of popularity.
If I'm not mistaken, the owner had to close for personal reasons- Cheesecake Machismo bought the space, but I haven't heard anything more about their plans.

Is anyone else concerned about how no one wants to walk over a mile to get anywhere in Albany? (Safety of that path notwithstanding.) That's pathetic. "There's a great corner shop a mile away but I don't want to go there because- let's be real- a mile? No way!" How can you expect a neighborhood to blossom if it has to be restricted to a few blocks radius? Grow up and get real.

GROCERY STORE - my dream would be a Trader Joe's!
That is all I ask- especially at the corner of Lark and Washington.

@everyone talking about a produce shop: From what I understand, that's a tough business with small margins. So, it's probably going to be hard for a small, independent operation to fill that niche. But I wonder if an already-established org could open a satellite location (Honest Weight, for example). It wouldn't have to be open all the time -- say noon to 8 pm, or 3 pm to 8 pm. And it could have a limited selection, but with a library-like setup so that you could request the "main branch" to send items to the store (requested in person or online).

All that still might be too complicated or expensive for the available customer base. And isn't that really the "problem" with Center Square -- it's just not big enough (or dense enough) to support the full range of amenities?

@KatherineSass: About walking... it seems like half a mile is pretty much the limit for how far people will walk to something in the neighborhood on a regular basis. The WalkScore service assigns a full score to a service that's within .25 miles of a point. And the score decays from there -- a service 1 mile from a point is given a score only 12 percent of what it would register within a quarter mile radius.

@lana, never fear, there are indeed two-story grocery stores. Harris Teeter is good at building these.

I love my new 'hood, but I do miss having a butcher shop in walking distance. However, there are a lot of "deserts" all over town, so I'll just count myself lucky that I can comfortably walk to work and to get the basics.

Wonder if this fantasy could be carried out today by simply hopping on a bicycle.

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