Sunday, April 1, 2012

City of Troy: Memoirs Central

Troy’s a real city here in Upstate New York. (By ‘real’, I mean it can compare with my hometown, NYC.) As far as I know, unless you head West in a wagon train, the only other one is Albany, where I’m living now these past four years, having spent sixty-plus years in New York City. Burdened by ordinary old age, I fled my birthplace and its ever-increasing multitudes as developers threw up glass-and-faux-brick ‘Town Houses’ on every empty lot bigger than a Bocce Ball Court (60 feet by 12 ft.), in Jackson Heights, Queens. I had taken refuge there in a Pre-War Co-op a decade ago. Remember the old SciFi movie, ‘Soylent Green’ (Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson)? In the year 2022, people are living on the staircases in apartment buildings! Yes, I yearn for the City I remember, not this crass successor.

Troy speaks to me. In the early 1900’s, it was among the wealthiest of American cities. It was the Collar City when the Arrow Shirt Company detachable-collars-and-cuffs factories and the Iron Works were going full-blast on the banks of the Hudson. But no more. The crumbling red brick commercial buildings stand empty, although the stately Victorian townhouses that predominate in Downtown are fully occupied. The City has ‘good bones’ architecturally throughout its principal neighborhoods — Downtown, the South End, Lansingburg and North Central — and its population is staying put. The new Troy is a home to small business, in its Antiques Quarter, Little Italy, and ethnic restaurants. The State government agencies and the schools — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and the Sage Colleges — provide a stable economic base, as in Albany.

But ask me, and I say: rename the Collar City, Memoir City. It’s the hottest game in Troy.

The other night I read a piece of my memoir to an audience in the theatre at the Troy Arts Center on River Street. Ten of us read for ‘Bookmarks, the Memoir Project Reading Series’, moderated by its creators, authors Donna Miller and Marion Roach Smith. We read 1,000-word pieces about “Circling the Dark; Choosing Light: Moments of Transformation,” the theme of the evening. Experienced and first-time authors, we read about the death of a child; the loss of a spouse; the revival of long-dead emotions; the comforts of cooking, the peace of gardening, a friend’s betrayal. “Life stories that mine the personal to express the universal,” as the moderators put it.

The Arts Center is a unique, vibrant non-profit home to practicing arts in the crafts, cooking, dance, writing, et al., in a big space off Monument Square in Downtown Troy. Marion Roach Smith is the founder and heart of its Memoir Project. In fifteen years of facilitating life-writing in its various forms — “Writing What You Know” – she’s guided 1,000-plus students to find their truth. I know because she got me started, too. She’s a former NY Times staffer, author of four published works — the most intriguing to me, “The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair” (she has), and her latest, “The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text on Writing and Life.” To me, she’ll always be the Queen of Memoir.

Afterward, don’t fail to eat at the Illium Café in Monument Square: home cooking with a big dollup of NYC class.

Robert Knightly


  1. Imagine my delight to find myself mentioned here in this lovely post. Thank you, Bob. And how marvelous to call Troy, "Memoir City." What a fine idea. Let's make it stick, shall we?
    Many thanks.
    Write on.

  2. I enjoyed this piece. For seversl years T travelled around a lot of these older towns in NY State and felt the vibes of other eras that were entrancing. Look forward to more of your writing along this vein. tjs

  3. R, i wish I could have been there. My Troy memoir: years go I had a client there--a local bank. They had a beautiful little theater on their premises. Is it still there?

    1. A former Troy bank--on the little side--houses the local symphony and has the best acoustics you could wish for, I'm told. It's just a block off Monument Sq.