Thursday, March 9, 2023

Welcome to Albany, California


I live in Albany, California. If you’re not from around here, you probably haven’t heard of it. When I talk to people in other states who ask where I live, I usually just say “Berkeley area.” Well, perhaps it’s about time you learned about your blogger’s town.

This post is inspired by a great travel book I picked up recently: Roz Chast’s Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York. Of course there’s been more than enough written about that famous city, but Chast is a very funny writer and cartoonist. Not so much has been written about Albany and I’ll do my best to give you a chuckle or two.

(I’ve laid out this post according to Chast’s chapters, but that’s about where the similarities will end. I cannot do cartoons, but I did get some nice sketches from a budding local landscape architect on condition of anonymity.)

Let’s start here

Over a century ago, Albany was an unincorporated area where Berkeley people came to dump their garbage. One day in 1908 an angry band of shotgun-toting local women turned them away. This triumph inspired the residents to incorporate as the City of Ocean View, which (thanks to people’s good taste) was changed to Albany (after the city’s first mayor, who came from Albany, NY). The story of the armed women is acted out every year by students at our local elementary school. I suppose it wouldn’t be so charming if it had been men wielding the guns. Nobody knows where the men were on that day, as this was before video gaming and televised sports.

When I was in college I was aware of Albany, but only vaguely. I thought maybe Albany was the name of a district of Berkeley, like Westbrae or Elmwood. After living in San Francisco for about five years, my wife and I decided to head back to the East Bay where we could more realistically afford a house. “How about Albany?” my wife asked. “I hear they have good schools.” I shrugged and was like, “Yeah, sure, okay.” After a mere nine months of open houses every weekend and having more than forty offers rejected, we finally got a place and became Albanians. I’m not sure that’s what we’re called, actually … makes it sound like we’re from Albania. So … Albanites? Albanyites? Albanyans? Albanyone?

Basic layout

You don’t need to know that much about getting around Albany because it’s not very big—less than two square miles. You could cover it on foot in a day, but why would you, when it’s a great place to bike? Here’s a bike path map.

That green north-south route is the Ohlone Greenway, a bike path well off the street with a separate walking path. That east-west thoroughfare shown in white, Solano Ave, is where the cute shops are. There’s a busier, wider thoroughfare called San Pablo Ave that runs north-south and is more industrial, where you’ll find some solid restaurants, garages, and the Hotsy-Totsy Club (more on this later). Another bike path goes all the way out to the ocean.

Walking around

Albany, like its surrounding community, is a great for walking because it was built up before the Second World War, so it wasn’t designed around cars. This means it has wide sidewalks separated from the street by a median, so you can really enjoy a stroll without feeling like you’re always about to get run over. A lot of these sidewalks still have the imprint from the construction company that built them, showing the date:

Good sidewalks may not strike you as such a big deal, but not all communities have them. In this regard Albany is the polar opposite of Irvine, California, which caters to cars so completely it’s essentially illegal to walk there. (I think the city planners down in Irvine have given up and are just waiting for the kind of natural disaster that would require the whole city to be evacuated, so they can blast off, nuke the entire site from orbit, and just start over.) In Albany, by contrast, city planners are forever thinking of new ways to be cool, like installing bike lanes, allowing restaurants to build patios out into the street, and putting button-activated flashing lights up at our zebra crossings to help distracted motorists understand that “Hey, I’m walkin’ heah!” Nobody seems to mind that our houses have tiny garages built for Model-T Fords.

The subway

Okay, we don’t have a subway exactly, not like NYC. But we do have the Bay Area Rapid Transit line running through town. The stations and tracks are underground in Berkeley, because those guys wisely insisted on that, but in Albany it’s elevated. When you take the Ohlone Greenway you’re pretty much right under the tracks, so occasionally a train goes by overhead and your fillings rattle. 

The North Berkeley station is just a twelve-minute walk from the southern border of Albany. BART can take you to useful destinations like San Francisco and San Jose, and to the Oakland and San Francisco airports (and I mean all the way—no stupid shuttle bus required).

Stuff to do

Look, I’m not going to try to go toe-to-toe with Roz Chast’s list of goings-on in NYC. Obviously that’s your place if you just dig museums and live theater and such. That said, there’s a lot of culture in this region, such as the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents in Berkeley, the Museum of Paleontology on the UC Berkeley campus, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Lawrence Hall of Science in the Berkeley hills. Needless to say San Francisco has all kinds of world class museums and stuff. (Don’t expect to see King Tut, though, even if they claim to have built an exhibit around him.)

Among most residents, the most popular pastime in Albany is ghost whips. This is where you head out to a large, empty parking lot, get your car going in a straight line, and then jump out and walk next to it. Okay, I confess, we don’t actually do this—our parking lots aren’t that big. I have it on good authority that for ghost whips, you need to head to Turlock, about 100 miles east.

Albany does have a couple of unique attractions, such as Golden Gate Fields, the only racetrack (horses, not dogs) in the Bay Area, and the Albany Sauna, one of the oldest Finnish-style saunas in the country (dating from 1934). According to Wikipedia, its “original furnace and rooms have been maintained to produce one of the most authentic sauna experiences outside of Finland.” I guess I should mention I’ve never actually been; saunas are not really my thing. But here’s a tip: if you want to sound impressive, pronounce it “SOW-na” (first syllable rhymes with “now”).

I’m a cheap bastard so I have a lot to recommend here that’s free. First off, our regional parks are phenomenal. Just head toward the hills and your options are endless (Wildcat Canyon, Tilden, Sibley, Huckleberry, Chabot, Briones), or head toward the water to the Albany Bulb, Berkeley Marina, or Point Isabel. 

Hiking, road cycling, mountain biking, they’re all great in these parts. We even have the fully paved Nimitz Trail running along the ridge of the Berkeley hills with spectacular views of the bay, so even a dweeb on a Segway could have a good time. Here is some eye candy.

Walking around in town is fun too, because we have great weather. Winter is not depressing here, like in places where the cold is biting and/or everything is brown and grey. Winter is our green season and all kinds of trees are blossoming right now. And plants grow so well in this area, most homeowners become part-time gardeners.

If you favor walking with a  purpose, this is a great community for a pub crawl. Start at the Westbrae Biergarten (in Berkeley, just five minutes on foot from Albany), where you can enjoy some choice local draft beer and greasy snacks.

Then proceed down the road ten minutes to Gilman Brewing (delicious Belgian style brews), then stroll another four minutes to Fieldwork Brewing Company, which in my opinion makes the best IPAs on the planet. After all this you’ll need some exercise, so fortunately it’s over a mile to an old standby, the Hotsy Totsy Club (slogan: “Keeping Albany tipsy since 1939”). The best thing about the Hotsy Totsy is that it has an awesome taco truck next door.

On the way home, swing by Schmidt’s Pub, an Albany fixture since 1978 that kind of feels like a house (because it is) and always has great beers on draft, plus some nice original art.

Nerdy stuff

If you decide to live here, let me dangle this nice bonus in front of you: Albany residents get to use both the Alameda County library system and the City of Berkeley library system. That’s fifteen locations! Not that you’d visit all of them, of course, but it means a ton of inventory, and you can have books or movies sent to your local branch for free. The main Berkeley library is a beautiful old building with five floors of goodness. And the gorgeous North Branch, which is the closest to Albany, is a designated historical landmark, having been built by the famous architect James Plachek and funded by the Federal Works Progress Administration.

Now, if you’re sneering at that last paragraph thinking I’m some kind of total nerd, well of course I am! But this area might rub off on you in a good (i.e., intellectual) way. After all, lots of UC Berkeley faculty live in Albany (particularly if they want to raise children in a good school district), and Albany is also home to the University Village, which houses Cal grad students and their families. According to US Census data , Albany has a highly educated population: about 87% of our adult residents have at least some college education; 5% have an Associate degree; 32% have up to a Bachelor’s degree; and 40% also have a Graduate degree.

What does this mean? Well, if you want expert guidance in literature or film, look at what videos were recently returned to the library and not yet re-shelved, or what’s on the hold shelf. You can also get advice from bookstore employees, such as at Pegasus Books (which is technically in Berkeley but a stone’s throw away), who are as stoked on great books as you are. And if you’re looking for free books, we have scores of those little libraries along the sidewalks—I mean, they’re everywhere, and the books in them are top-notch (not just the crap you see in airport newsstands).

What’s more, your book club can occasionally invite, as a guest, the writer of the book you’re reading. We also get pretty good lectures; I’ve attended readings by Tobias Wolff, George Saunders, and David Sedaris. And when chatting over your back fence with your neighbor, you can switch seamlessly among English, French, and Latin. (Okay, now I’m exaggerating.)

Flora and fauna

I know I already talked about the flora but let me add that it’s a true Mediterranean climate, which is one of the rarest climates on earth. According to the Atlas of the Biodiversity of California, the only other places on Earth with this climate are the Mediterranean Sea region (duh!), Australia, South Africa, and Chile. In this climate, everything grows amazingly well. Spit out a sunflower seed and you’ll have a giant yellow flower in what seems like mere seconds. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but really, all kinds of groovy stuff grows in abundance here. The only thing we don’t have a lot of is lawns, because we refuse. They’re so vulgar.

In terms of fauna, the Albany area is great for bird watching because it’s along the Pacific Flyway, so we get all kinds of cool birds: ospreys, great blue herons, terns, and all manner of shorebirds. Up in the hills I see hawks and falcons and even the occasional owl. Check out this great horned owl that perched one day in our neighbor’s tree.

In town here we get lots of songbirds and a surprising number of wild turkeys, which fearlessly stand down cars, sometimes at major intersections.

We don’t get the alligators in our sewers like in NYC, but I have seen plenty of coyotes up in the hills, and a couple of bobcats. I haven’t seen a mountain lion but we do have them, and I’ve seen the remains of their kills. Twice during bike rides, at dusk, I’ve been hit by a bat. (Their echolocation actually isn’t all that good and they dart around crazily, like moths.) We also get cute little newts, and in fact one of my favorite cycling roads, South Park Drive, is closed to cars five months out of the year for the annual newt crossing.

And, of course, we get deer wandering the streets with oddly little fear of anything. The expression “deer in the headlights” doesn’t apply because they never seem to even look up.


Suffice to say there is all kinds of good food either in Albany or a short walk or bike ride away. The dim sum in Albany is very good; the dim sum in Oakland’s Chinatown is great; the dim sum in San Francisco (a BART ride away) is surely on par with anything in NYC. We have an embarrassment of Sushi places, great taquerias (even Calvin Trillin, writing in The New Yorker, admits San Francisco bests NYC in this regard), and top-notch pizza. (I’ve had both Giordano’s and the original Uno, arguably the most famous pizza places in Chicago, and find them identical to Zachary’s and Little Star, respectively, which are competing places on either end of Solano Ave.) Of course restaurants come and go so I can’t go down a huge list other than to say dining out here is legit. And in terms of famous restaurants that aren’t going anywhere, Albany is walking distance from Chez Panisse, where California Cuisine was invented.

We also have a number of top-notch bakeries. Not far away is Grace Baking, a well-loved place, and in Berkeley there’s Cheese Board, which has lots of tasty baked doodads but is particularly known for pizza. They’ll sell you the dough so your pies can come out great at home, too. Albany’s newest place, Pâtisserie Rotha, has such great pastries, people will stand in line for hours for them (or so I’m told). A friend brought us some of Rotha’s stuff and it was darn good. (Had I waited hours for it, I’m sure I’d have liked it even more.) 

There’s also Semifreddi’s, which I always thought was the best in the business for baguettes and such until I tried Acme Bread Company and realized it was vastly superior. Technically Acme is in Berkeley but it’s a short walk from my house.

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado which is at too high an altitude for baking, so I am just blown away at the great baked goods here. When I’ve traveled on business I’ve tried in vain to get good bread, pastries, etc. Of course I’ve had great stuff in France (though no better than here, honestly). I will concede that for bagels, there is absolutely no substitute for NYC. And, having racked my brain, I realize also that the Vogel’s sandwich bread my family had in Glasgow is better than what we get in the grocery store here. But still: Albany is a great place for foodies.

Apartments & housing

Housing is really expensive here. I could go on about this, but it would be boring.

Final stop

You may be wondering why I chose this topic. Well, I figured if you live in a place where winter is harsh, you might like a little escapist travelogue. On the other hand, if you live near Albany—i.e., anywhere in Alameda County—property tax is due in about a month. This is a good time to count the many blessings we have here!

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