For many people, a city means the excitement and the cultural allure–as well as the crowding, pollution and other problems–of an enormous metroplex. Yet that notion of a city is being challenged as more and more people come to appreciate small-city living. The former steel town of Troy, New York offers a case in point. Despite being small, it lays just as much claim to offering true "city" life as does any major world center, from New York City to London to Mumbai. It's simply a different brand of city life.
Troy is where Duncan Crary lives. The author and online radio personality moved there 12 years ago, drawn by the area's history, small community feel and prospects for thriving in the years ahead. He has recently launched a new podcast series titled A Small American City, with which he hopes to bring "the voices, stories, history and urban fabric of Troy, New York to a global audience." It is an attempt to reacquaint people with the idea of a small city and the untold benefits that come of being part of one. So far the effort seems to be succeeding: Crary reports hearing from fans as far away as Sweden, New Zealand, Tokyo and the United Arab Emirates.
The show is a journal of daily life in Troy told through interviews with public figures, music from local artists, entertaining storytelling monologues and spoken-word essays. Crary invites us to eavesdrop and absorb the energy and aura of this special place, asking only that we pocket our cell phones first. He cautions that, like any newcomer to a community, we may find that it takes us a while to get oriented. But he assures us that if we keep coming back, we'll eventually come to know the people, the ways and the unique appeal of Troy.
Six episodes have aired so far. For the first two, Crary interviews two fellow writers in upstate New York, James Howard Kunstler and Jack Casey. Though Kunstler lives in Saratoga Springs and not Troy, his appearance in the pilot is nonetheless fitting. He and Crary did a weekly talk show podcast called The KunstlerCast from early 2008 to late last year, focusing on much the same subject matter as the new series. The KunstlerCast led to a book of the same title released by New Society Publishers in 2011, and also propelled Crary to fame among those who follow sustainability issues. In the book's concluding chapter, Crary makes his case for Troy being "a small American city of exactly the type urban polemicist James Howard Kunstler sees prospering in the new energy future." This chapter became the direct inspiration for A Small American City.
Crary and Kunstler believe that as energy supplies become ever scarcer and more expensive, Troy will be well poised to thrive while other cities struggle. They contend that with its walkable scale, passenger rail system, proximity to good farmland and a major inland waterway to facilitate transport, the city will be able to embrace the demands of a contracting-energy economy. In the process, it will see a revival of its traditional economic, social and cultural fabric.
What is an ideal population size for a city? Crary and Kunstler address this question during the pilot of A Small American City, referencing the work of renowned urban planner Jaime Correa, who has researched the matter a great deal. Correa has concluded that, aside from Rome and Athens in their heydays, no traditional city has sustained more than 50,000 people. Crary and Kunstler make much of Correa's finding, interpreting it as a sign that Troy's population, at 49,000, is within the ideal range.
Radio has a rather special character as a performance medium: it is intimate, immediate, wonderfully expressive and quaintly old-fashioned. As such, it's a perfect fit for a show extolling the bygone virtues of small-city life. Crary wholly understands these potentialities of radio and uses them well. In one of my favorite segments, he transports us to the mythical realm of ancient Greece to tell the story of Achilles and his fateful decision to accompany Odysseus into battle during the Trojan War. Against the rousing bass and percussion chords of a traditional Greek song by Stamatis Makris, Crary intones, "Achilles–one man, hard as any Roman phalanx ever to stand after him. Achilles, demigod, prized child of goddess. Half mortal, half immortal." Crary wrote this poignant tribute to the bravest of the Greek warriors at Troy as a "hero's toast" from his own modern-day Troy.
It seems that there's a local joke about Troy standing for Tell Right On You, a fact we learn from Crary during a bit of devilish ribbing he gives Jack Casey. In an episode titled "The Night Jack Quit Drinkin'," he asks Casey about his last, heroic bender some 26 years ago. The story is a well-known piece of town lore, but Crary wants to hear it from the source, and Casey obliges. Casey recounts how, as a young bohemian novelist in the late `80s, he stood up to a hoodlum who started menacing him and his two female companions one night. "You've got two girls and I don't have any," said the hood; to which Casey replied, "Well, who's the asshole?" His wit was rewarded with a fierce blow to the face that shattered his glasses and bloodied his nose, but his gallantry went down in history.
Another prominent, colorful figure in Troy comes in the form of Peter Albrecht, an accomplished builder who has worked on some of the city's most noted places. Gregarious by nature, he's one of the first people you'll meet while passing through the city. He also has a contemplative side and loves to read and discuss the work of ancient Greek philosophers, earning him the moniker "barroom Socrates." Crary devotes an episode to talking philosophy with Albrecht, and they cover freedom, determinism, spirituality, science, religion, dream interpretation and many other topics. Albrecht even provides a philosophical basis for much of the conventional wisdom that guides peak oil thinkers–most notably the premise that change will come not from big government initiatives, but from the gradually changing perceptions of individual people around the world.
This show's music is eclectic, varied and almost entirely original. Drawing on genres as wide-ranging as folk, electronica and alternative rock, about the only thing the songs all have in common is their celebration of Troy and its small-community milieu. My favorites are a trio of traditional Irish-American songs by the multi-talented Casey, which he wrote for a stage adaptation of his novel The Trial of Bat Shea. These tunes took me straight from my writing desk to a turn-of-the-20th-century Irish pub.
The two most recent episodes of A Small American City have focused on a well-known local family named the Kennedys. In another writerly romp, Crary talks with William "Bill" Kennedy, an author who won the Pulitzer Prize for his Depression-era novel Ironweed (Viking Press, 1983), which was later adapted into a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Ironweed, along with much of Kennedy's other fiction, is set in Albany, New York, "another small American city," says Crary, who happens to be from there. "Not that small," counters Kennedy jokingly, at which point the two embark on an animated debate about their mutual stomping ground.
And that brings me to my parting note, an amusing quip that Crary made a while back on behalf of his chosen hometown. During a public contest between Albany and Troy this past June, he called himself a "Troy supremacist," as a bit of mock rabble-rousing.* Well, I have to say that after getting to know the place a bit through A Small American City, I'm totally down with Crary's Troy supremacy.
* Andrew Beam, "Albany Aqua Ducks offers fun, fact-filled tour of two cities," The Record (Troy), June 21, 2012, http://www.troyrecord.com/articles/2012/06/21/news/doc4fe2b28aa335f450767927.txt?viewmode=fullstory (accessed February 9, 2013).