As my city crumbles around me, I feel I’ve been here before

Sometimes when I read the newspaper I feel like I’ve stepped inside a time machine.

Sometimes when I read the newspaper I feel like I’ve stepped inside a time machine.

Such was the case earlier this month, when I learned that a vacant historic church in Albany had suddenly begun to collapse, threatening the buildings around it and forcing a nearby community outreach center to temporarily close. Within days, the city had demolished the building, known as Trinity Church, but did manage to salvage its stained-glass windows, thought to be the work of famed glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany.

As I read about the church, I was overtaken by a distinct feeling of deja vu.

“Hasn’t this already happened?” I wondered.

Then I realized that I was thinking of St. Joseph’s Church, which was condemned as structurally unsafe about 10 years ago. Unlike Trinity Church, St. Joseph’s — a Gothic-style brick and limestone church that cuts an imposing figure on the Albany skyline — is actually something of a success story: The city turned the building over to the preservation organization Historic Albany, and the group has worked to restore the building and open it up for art shows and concerts.

Deja vu all over again

Not long after Trinity Church collapsed, state officials were forced to close the South Mall Expressway between the Empire State Plaza and Dunn Memorial Bridge after an inspection revealed 10-foot-long cracks in two support beams.

Once again, a distinct feeling of deja vu overtook me.

“Hasn’t this happened already?” I wondered.

I gave it some thought, and realized I was remembering the time back in 2005 when an access ramp on the Dunn Memorial Bridge partially collapsed, forcing officials to shut down the road and make emergency repairs.

Living in Albany, I’ve grown accustomed to occasional reports of buildings and roads just collapsing. But the collapse of the church was more than I could take. Maybe because I like churches, maybe because it occurred in my neighborhood, maybe because it seemed like something that could have, and should have, been prevented. And if it was the first building collapse in Albany that I’d ever heard about, maybe I would feel a little more forgiving. Instead, the story of Trinity Church simply struck me as further evidence that we live in a world where nobody has a learning curve.

Whenever a building collapses in Albany, I tend to think about other buildings that have collapsed.

The highest profile incident was probably the 2005 crisis involving the long vacant Wellington Hotel, when a passer-by noticed that the hotel’s decorative tin molding had become detached from the facade, and the city was forced to cordon off upper State Street. But there have been other, smaller catastrophes, such as the collapse of a rowhouse in Arbor Hill in June, or the vacant house that flooded and ruined the house next door.

I want to live in a community where things don’t just fall apart all the time.

Are my standards so impossibly high?

Of course, maybe this problem of things just falling apart goes beyond Albany. Maybe all cities struggle with it. I asked a friend who works in real estate development whether this was a case.

“It’s hard for cities to keep track of vacant buildings,” she said.

Nothing special

A quick Google search reveals that, yes, building collapses happen all over the world — in India, Nigeria, New York City, Freeport, Ill., and central Arkansas, to name a few locations.

Even so, I wasn’t satisfied with my friend’s answer, presumably because what I wanted her to do was yell, “Stuff shouldn’t just fall apart! That’s unacceptable!” and wave her arms around wildly. But maybe she had a point.

Recent reports indicate that America’s infrastructure is crumbling to pieces; in 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure a D and called for major investments in transit, roads, bridges, parks and other public systems.

Since nobody is in the mood to spend any money on anything in this country, I guess we should start preparing ourselves for more stories about things falling apart.

I often am accused of being cynical, and maybe I am.

But I’m also something of an idealist, and so I persist in believing that things can always be better and that improvement is always possible. This idealism often gets me into trouble, because it leads to expectations that seem reasonable to me but unreasonable to other people.

Most of all, I want things to work properly. When buildings and roads just fall down, something isn’t working.

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