Amsterdam’s future: city or suburb?


Welcome to the Mohawk Valley Compass! It’s been a privilege over the past couple of months to work with a talented and dedicated team of people to finally bring this new online publication to life. I’m also glad to be able to step up my service to the Amsterdam community by helping to fill what I believe is a real need for a new angle and perspective on local issues.

It was a very natural choice to move my Pars Nova blog to The Compass. I have been blogging on Amsterdam related issues on and off since April 2010. Now being part of a team, I have a renewed sense of motivation and accountability.

Pars Nova means “New Direction”. My very first article on Pars Nova was titled “The Frustratingly Enormous Yet Elusive Potential of Amsterdam, NY.” It’s been quite a journey since that first post, and I have learned a lot. But after 3 years, the potential of Amsterdam still seems just as elusive, and the need for new direction seems just as great.

Back then I surmised that Amsterdam City residents had the same goals but just couldn’t agree on the game plan to get there. I have now come to realize that the problem runs deeper than that. We have a team with two different goals. Some want a city, some don’t. It’s like we’re at the fourth down, and half the players want to punt, and the other half wants to go for the touchdown. Is it any wonder we often find ourselves in disarray?

Now I’m not sure how much this division is simply due to the “zero sum game” strategy of politics these days where if one party says green, the other says blue. But when I think of Amsterdam’s history, I can see the ideological seeds of this division starting many years ago.

Amsterdam started to lose its population in significant amounts starting in the 50’s and 60’s. Not only were the manufacturing jobs moving out, but America, as a whole was seeing a population shift away from cities to the suburbs. This shift was due to many factors including the increased mobility afforded by automobiles and increased prosperity which allowed people to afford larger homes on larger lots. And let’s face it – racism was also part of it. As city residents saw friends and neighbors leaving for the suburbs in droves, it’s no wonder that leaders came up with the idea of making the city more like a suburb. If people want suburbs, then let’s make the city a suburb, then they’ll come back, right?

I’m sure it seemed like sound logic at the time. Downtown stores were out – shopping malls were in. And the rest, as they say is history. Even though the shopping mall development and all the infrastructure changes failed to stem the tide of population loss, it seems that suburban ideals are still very prevalent in many of our residents’ definition of success for our city.

Ironically for us,  the US Census Bureau reported in 2012 that for the first time since the 1920’s, urban growth actually outpaced suburban growth. The changing economy, new technology and new ideals have brought about another seismic shift in our American culture. Downtown is desirable once again. Younger generations find the idea of suburban living boring and stifling. Many NY cities such as Troy, Schenectady, Hudson, Poughkeepsie and others have invested heavily in revitalizing their downtown and waterfront areas. Amsterdam finds itself once again struggling to adapt to changing times.

The City’s Comprehensive Plan, released way back in 2003 pointed in the right direction…

 page IV-12…

…before the City is considered as a true bedroom community option, it must improve its urbanism. It cannot compete as a bedroom community for those who desire to live in the suburbs or in a rural environment. It must present itself as a vibrant, urban community with all of the benefits that a small city can possess. This will require that the City’s downtown be reestablished as the heart of Amsterdam, with a variety of uses and activities mixed together at a fine grain.

The idea of turning Amsterdam into a suburb failed and failed miserably. I believe we now have to make it as a city or we won’t make it at all. But here’s the thing – no one has to lose here. Developing Main Street doesn’t have to disturb the areas of Amsterdam – (like “Henrietta Heights”) which are essentially suburbs already. Amsterdam is a small city, but it’s still big enough to have distinct neighborhoods with unique attributes. Those who desire a suburb don’t have anything to lose by supporting downtown redevelopment efforts. However, I think we all have something to lose if we don’t start coming together as a team and to truly compete as a city.

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.