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Living with kids in a Center Square row house

Open House Center Square composite

By Nicole Lemperle Correia / Photos by Dave Hopper

As a child growing up in suburbia, I daydreamed about living in the city: walking to museums, living in a bustling neighborhood, sitting on a stoop a la the characters on Sesame Street. It all seemed so exciting and very different from my quiet street.

Gail* and her family have found that raising kids in an urban setting really is fun. The family, including two young children, makes the most of everything their neighborhood has to offer -- and in Albany's Center Square, there's plenty to see and do. They have found a vibrant community and eagerly shared their experience with downtown living.

I spoke with Gail about her reasons for choosing urban living, how it works for her family, and what it's like to raise kids in a 116-year-old row house.

Gail's home is located in a section called "Brides' Row." The homes were built by John Myers in 1899 and intended for young couples. Brides' Row homes are known for their yellow brick exterior, trimmed in sandstone and second-story bay windows. Her home is 2800 square feet, 19-feet wide, and four stories. The fourth story isn't visible from the street -- something that was done by home owners at the time of construction to evade additional taxes.

Photos

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Interview

What part of your city/town do you live in?

My family of four lives in Albany's Center Square neighborhood, off of Lark Street. When we first moved here, my husband and I rented an apartment downtown, fully thinking that we'd have fun while we were young and childless but buy a home in the suburbs, eventually. Eleven years and two kids later and we've purchased not one, but two homes (we moved on to the second, larger one, to accommodate a family and a husband who [works from home]) in our vibrant, diverse, and amazing neighborhood.

What brought you to the Capital District?

We moved to Albany from southwest Florida for my job and to be closer to family. Since my husband works remotely, he can be anywhere in the world. But Albany is exactly halfway between my family in New Jersey and his in Vermont.

How is your neighborhood different from (or the same as) the perception "outsiders" may have of it?

Outsiders love to visit our neighborhood of row houses and brownstones for its unique architecture, excellent restaurants, historic Washington Park, charm and proximity to theaters/museums/culture. That's why we live here, too! As a mom of two young girls, I feel so fortunate that we are within walking distances to several museums and three parks.

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It's great fun for us to grab a slice of pizza on Lark Street, follow it up with an ice cream cone at Ben & Jerry's, and round out our evening with a walk through the 'hood and quick visits with our friends and neighbors who are out on their stoops. (In the warm months, Friday night is "stoop night" -- everyone is outside visiting while the kids scoot up and down the sidewalks on their bikes.) During the summer, it's possible to attend free outdoor concerts almost every night of the week. Empire State Plaza provides dramatic views any time of the day, during all the seasons. All of this is practically in our backyard.

Co-workers and friends often ask me, "Aren't you scared to live in a city?" And my response is an emphatic "No." Statistically there is, of course, more crime in a city than there is in a suburb or country [setting]. But we have such an amazing "community" in downtown Albany that even if a neighbor or passerby doesn't know us personally, they sure as heck know who should or should not be walking up or under our stoop. And if something seems suspicious or out of place they will say something or contact authorities. I actually feel safer knowing that there are always people around and we're not isolated or living in a home set back from the road with a long driveway, out of view.

What's the most interesting thing that's happened in or around your home while you've lived here?

Lark Street... enough said. My girls are exposed to a lot (a bunch of "Santas" running in speedos in December, drunk people who've "enjoyed" Lark Street too much, homeless people asking for money) and all of these things are life lessons. I think their experiences here will help them grow up to be well-rounded, strong, open-minded and empathetic adults. And really, what more can a parent ask for?

My girls are exposed to a lot (a bunch of "Santas" running in speedos in December, drunk people who've "enjoyed" Lark Street too much, homeless people asking for money) and all of these things are life lessons. I think their experiences here will help them grow up to be well-rounded, strong, open-minded and empathetic adults. And really, what more can a parent ask for?

What would you change about your neighborhood if you could?

I'm not going to lie, the snow emergencies stink. That being said, they are also a reminder about the amazing community that surrounds us. Sometimes finding a parking spot or digging out your car in the winter is a hassle, for sure, but there is nothing more uplifting than getting out to your car in the morning and seeing that a complete stranger has already dug you out, anonymously, or getting pushed out when you're stuck on ice or snow by someone you don't know. Everyone is in the same boat and always willing to help when they can during snow emergencies. Along these same lines, we rent an off-street parking spot, but permit parking has been life changing and so excellent for our quality of life. I park in front of my house more often than not now.

One of the reasons we live where we do is because so much is happening here. However, I do think our neighborhood now has more than its fair share of races/festivals/events. Getting to and from our home, due to street closures, is pretty difficult on those days and takes planning. I think it would be great if the city could "spread the love" and have a couple 5ks down on the waterfront, and not always in Washington Park. There are also other areas/neighborhoods in Albany that could host festivals. The Albany Police Department has really listened and done an outstanding job cracking down on public drinking during special events in recent years, but we would feel less inundated if there weren't as many here.

What is the most challenging thing about your home?

I get most of my exercise inside my house because it's FOUR floors. My girls' rooms are on the fourth floor and my laundry is in the basement so I go up and down A LOT of stairs all day long. It works for us but I understand that the layout may not be ideal for many.

What is the best thing about the space (yard/street/neighborhood/you pick) around your home?

We have a very open floor plan with a large (for our neighborhood) kitchen, which I love. A lot of the houses in Center Square have small, galley kitchens so I feel fortunate that minor renovations allowed us such an open and airy main living area.

People are always surprised to learn that we actually have a backyard. It's small but we have enough space for a jungle gym, grill, and patio. Plus, it takes about six minutes to cut our grass. We live downtown because we don't want to spend hours on the weekend doing yard work.

What is your favorite memory (or more than one) of living here?

One night, a couple years ago, I was sitting in my darkened and quiet kitchen after putting the girls to bed. It was early spring and probably one of the first times our windows had been open in a while. I could hear the clink of dishes as one neighbor washed up after dinner, another neighbor's child practicing his musical instrument, I could smell someone else nearby grilling dinner, and I could see the lights of the Corning Tower looming in the distance.

I thought to myself, "This is city living. We are close enough that I can see, hear and smell what everyone else is doing. But we are in our separate houses, going about our different lives." It was comforting and an image that has stuck with me.

What would you say to someone thinking of moving to your area?

Downtown living is not for everyone. You have to really want to live here, and appreciate its magic, to make it work. But I don't think I'd want to raise a family anywhere else: we have diversity, culture/arts, the best and worst of humanity, beautiful architecture, history, the bizarre, and lots of fun.

* That's a pseudonym. And this interview has been lightly edited.
____

Nicole Correia writes at her website and is on Twitter as @nicorreia. | More of Dave Hopper's photography at David Charles Photography.

Comments

"I actually feel safer knowing that there are always people around"

Exactly how I feel.

As someone who was raised in Center Square and still lives here, I really enjoyed seeing a positive story about living in this city and neighborhood.

Thank you!

She doesn't say where her kids go to school.

Restaurants, shopping, culture, parks, recreation, there really are a lot of great things about living there.

I guess the only draw back is there aren't a lot of elementary schools near by.

I live out in the 'burbs, but this was a great read. We've debated many times about staying in the burbs or moving to the city, but for a variety of reasons have stayed put.

Still, it's great to see/hear about people doing so successfully!

@Ron - her children attend an Albany public school.

Gorgeous home. I am jealous (though not of the digging out.)

We, too, moved to Albany, though a different neighborhood, thinking we would eventually move to the suburbs. Loved it so much, we never left. My kids are going through the city schools and the oldest just started her senior year today. I won't say there haven't been challenges, but it's been a much better experience than I had been led to believe. I encourage parents to go see for themselves, not just rely on gossip, before moving out due to the schools.

Thanks for the interesting story and nice photos of the home. I will likely leave my Center Square home for a place in Delmar soon. Gail highlights the positives and a few of the negatives of living here, but I think the neighborhood is at a crossroads and I'm afraid it is headed down the wrong path. The City of Albany faces deep structural difficulties and the only way to deal with this is to raise taxes on the homeowners. Property owners in Albany already pay a staggering amount of taxes. Have you ever spoken to friends or family in other parts of the country? Jaws routinely drop when they hear the rates. Lark Street also seems to be on a slow decline. The energy is in downtown Troy these days. Lark Street just isn't fun any more.

There's something to be said for living in one of the inner suburbs (East Greenbush, Delmar, Glenmont, Loudonville, etc.) - lower taxes, quiet neighborhoods, 10-15 minute drive to Lark Street.

It's a great neighborhood but the issues with the city writ large threaten its livability.

I'm much more optimistic about Lark Street. Albany is a functioning city and mostly always has been. This means it operates in cycles, with lots of ups and downs. The neighborhood is just as nice as it always was, with only a couple businesses gone. In a few years, it will be better, just like a few years ago it was great and a few years before that it was more like this. The reason the energy is in Troy is that for so long there was nothing there at all. It's a great city, but nowhere near as livable as Albany, especially Center Square.

As for the inner suburbs, you still have to live in the suburbs, and Delmar is really the only somewhat bearable option.

I'm very grateful for the optimistic young families that are living here. Not only is their very presence beneficial, but the kids in the neighborhood are adorable!

What a great interview and insight to the neighborhoods surrounding Lark Street.

Four years ago I made a decision to leave my Pine Hills neighborhood home and move to a street off of Lark.

In the beginning I struggled and now I could not imagine living any place else in the City of Albany.

The Lark Street community is inviting but more than that it is loving and accepting.

I feel blessed to be a member of the Lark Street community and thank all of my neighbors - both businesses, residents and friends- for supporting a very historic and memorable part of the City of Albany.

I don't think taxes will raise substantially in Albany. Sheehan, unlike a lot of politicians, knows that she and council cannot keep putting the burden on residential homeowners. Plus, there's the 2 percent annual tax cap at the state level and so if taxes were to go up by more than that, we would get rebates from the state. Furthermore, my school taxes actually went *down* this year by about $150 because the Albany City Schools decreased the mill levy. They'll go down next year as well if the new high school plans aren't approved by voters. The district will be able to retire debt and thus lowering the mill levy again. In terms of the neighborhood itself, I don't see the decline. There's always turnover, even in the suburbs and even in the strongest malls in the region (there's empty spaces in Crossgates and Colonie Center). The TU just had a piece yesterday about a local developer wanting to build an 80 unit market rate apartment complex on Myrtle Avenue in the Hudson Park neighborhood which is obviously just south of Center Square. They know people want to live in the neighborhood. If that's built that's another 100 plus people shopping in the neighborhood, and more tax base if the project isn't given a huge PILOT. They'll get tax breaks but even with those, the apartments will be paying far more in taxes than what the city currently gets from the property. That's just one example, and there's development happening all over the city.

I have lived within a block of Lark Street for over twenty years. My wife and I have rehabbed two houses, the second we converted from four apartments to a single family which we have lived in for the past 14 years. Our children are 11 and 13 and have many friends and are very independent. We chose private schools, but children in Center Square go to a variety of different schools; public, parochial and private. Over the past 20+ years, we have seen a dramatic drop in crime and a rebirth or Lark Street. Lark Street is more balanced now and offers more day-time shops and places to eat as well as bars and restaurants. It makes living in Center Square more enjoyable and offers greater variety. Its wonderful living next to Washington Park. My son has friends over from school to play ball in the park and we attend many events in the park as well. The quality of life continues to improve and more and more people are choosing to stay and embrace the diversity and more complex life style then to venture off to the suburbs. Permit parking has removed the bulk of the parking issues and we have a mayor who spends time in our neighborhood and is working to make life better in the City and keep expenses under control. I have never lived in a more tight-knit community than I do right now. Its great.

So incredibly weird that this is even a topic of discussion. It is only the USA who have let their cities rot to the core and become unlivable areas full of poverty and blight..... in the rest of the world it is entirely strange to think that anyone would want to live in some far off, isolated, homogenous, inane, boring place leading a life of quiet desperation in a life known as "suburbia". I was laughing my butt off the other day driving thru Delmar noting a small development of "town homes" in a cluster in the middle of nowhere.... but right across the street from the retirement home! Guess after you've had your barbecues on the porch and mowed your lawn and watched TV every night you just pick up and haul ass across the street to wait it out until the end.

Jeez, BS! For someone unhappy with the misconceptions of city living, you sure don't mind painting the suburbs with an equally misinformed broad brush.

Pot, meet Kettle.

Jay not sure I am understanding at all what you say! I'll meet you over at the beer world at crossgates for Coors lIght and maybe a little food court for dinner....maybe if we are lucky we can get a seat out in front of the parking lot at Cheesecake factory! Oh no I do understand suburbia and I am not painting it with a "misinformed" brush!

If you define urban vs. suburban lifestyle as strictly related to the quality and variety of restaurants and taverns (and stores and culture) in walking distance, that is one set of values. But people have other values. Perhaps having a bit more property for gardening and not being right on top of their neighbors. Equally legitimate values and hardly equates to lives of "quiet desperation." The suburbanites can and do avail themselves of the restaurants, taverns, stores, culture in the city center, some only 15 min. from their homes. The real negative in suburbia is the need for cars because public transportation is so insufficient.

There are, obviously, advantages and disadvantages to living in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Where we choose to live depends on our individual resources, needs and wants at certain times in our lives.

Each setting has its own particular set of challenges and problems. I don't know how we'll end up meeting these challenges or solving these problems. But I do know we won't do it by demeaning the personal choices others make in where they live. Rather, we'll do it by better understanding those choices and by working together. This post on one family's experience of living in Center Square, I think, can help us do that.

"The real negative in suburbia is the need for cars because public transportation is so insufficient." While I couldn't agree more with the overall gist of this comment, the wording seems to place the blame onto public transportation itself. It's important to remember it is no accident that transit does not work in these areas - it was a very deliberate decision to build in such a way. That's the main reason I couldn't live outside the city at this point. If a car is required to get around, I feel completely trapped.

Slightly off-topic, but the last sentence in JayK's comment struck me as really interesting.

No judgment at all, and I'm not sure if it's a generational thing (Gen X vs. Millennial) or just a difference of opinions or where we grew up, but I'm fascinated with the concept of a car making people feel trapped. For me, getting my license and the car that followed was the ultimate in freedom. This was THE great liberating moment for a teenager.

Anyways, just amazed at how things change.

P.S. As an adult, I can understand how car ownership can be a burden or nuisance and lead to a sensation of being trapped.

Jay: "I'm fascinated with the concept of a car making people feel trapped."

I think that's a slight misreading of JayK's comment (at least as I interpret it). It's not that the car itself makes anyone trapped. It's that in many suburbs, poor walkability and public transportation mean that you have to hop in a car to get anywhere and do anything. Without your car (or someone else giving you a ride in their car), you're stuck. It's not the car that traps you, it's an environment built entirely around cars.

"For me, getting my license and the car that followed was the ultimate in freedom. This was THE great liberating moment for a teenager."

Same here until I actually did it for a number of years. Driving, to me, is an enormous chore and the ultimate waste of life, but if a car is *required* to get around (which is what I said, and much different than how you characterized my words) it's just difficult to get around, period. It means you can't even walk anywhere, which is enough to make me feel trapped even if I've driven there. As it is, I haven't owned a car in about six years and have maybe asked for 2 rides in that time, because I live in Center Square.

@Jayk Yes, I misread your comment (Apologies!), and agree with what you're saying. I guess it's freeing generally when one is living in a more suburban setting.

No worries, Jay! I do agree, and I'll add rural areas as well. Being from Vermont, I tend to experience this more during my visits home.

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