Here we are now, entertain us.
I don't mean this as an insult, but there's almost always been something slightly off about Albany.
Often caught up in the throes of one of its many indiscretions ... a semi-secret nightlife (on both sides of town) that swirled around clubs rivaling similar venues in much bigger cities, a blind eye turned on illegal legalized gambling, an infamous redlight district whose influence — and ladies of the evening — intimately touched the upper echelon of local high society, a shameful Jim Crow mentality that sparked the shockingly unsuccessful Albany Movement, and, most recently, the mad scramble to stockpile as much money as possible before an ill-fated attempt to resuscitate a once-proud but devastated downtown district fizzled. Albany is the Suzy Favor Hamilton of Georgia cities, all bright-lights shiny on the outside but with its own seedy secrets just beneath the surface.
Many say this place once called the Good Life City — with not a trace of irony — lost its way when former mayor and larger-than-life political figure James H. Gray Sr. tried to remake the city in his own egotistical image. They say Gray's plan to level most of downtown's Central Square and turn it into a government center robbed the inner city of the magic that once drew Big Apple-like crowds that packed city sidewalks like so many cans of happy sardines.
Some say the scabs and scars left by an ugly racial divide that stubbornly remains decades after most of the country moved on are picked anew by every slight — real and imagined — re-opening old wounds that never quite heal. Perceived control, lost and gained, is battled over with a lingering bitterness that is staggering in its intensity, the primary victim progress.
What other modern metropolitan region demands ever more services, then complains when the bills come due? What other seemingly enlightened region cries out for entertainment, then refuses to come watch the players play? What other forward-thinking community builds an entertainment complex and allows the place, through its indifference, to sit empty most days, draining tax dollars like a plus-sized sieve?
And, of course, there are the citizens of this paranoid/schizophrenic wonderland, a people with hearts at once so big they'd lend a helping hand to a fellow in need one day, then use that same hand to stab him in the back the next. It's a population bruised so many times by false political promises, it refuses to accept even good news with anything but a skeptic's jaundiced eye.
My sister asked me once, after she'd read accounts of all the calamity swirling around our little corner of the world, "Why in the world do you stay there?" That's a question I've heard asked often since she first posed it, frequently by people who were born and raised here.
Maybe it's because there IS something slightly off about this place, something outside the ordinary that makes it more than just the shell of its former self that many locals see it as. Maybe it's because life sometimes lifts self-imposed blinders and allows us to observe things not as they're perceived by the masses but as they truly can be.
Maybe it's because there are so many things of beauty in this maligned home we've collectively chosen, the natural kind and the spiritual kind known only to true daughters and sons of this unique parcel of the Southland. We may get our righteous indignation riled at times, but it's nothing a canoe trip down the Flint River or a rousing performance by our symphony orchestra or a quail hunt on one of our world-famous plantations or some of the Earth's best home-cooking — one-of-a-kind recipes handed down from mother to daughter, father to son, generation after generation — or listening to the inspirational Freedom Singers or beating back the summer heat with a dip in a breathtakingly cold blue hole on the creek can't fix.
So, sure, like the black sheep that every family has, Albany's progress is hindered by its dirty little secrets, those both titillating and shameful. But you love even the black sheep when it's family, the rotten parts when its home. Heck, sometimes they're the most fun anyway.
Email Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.