ILIUM WAS. TROY IS RISING.
Troy is a town of about 49,000 people situated in the umbrella of the Capital Region in upstate New York.
By Sandy Soohoo
It sits at the bottom of a hill on the banks of the Hudson and was built with the money that came in from the steel mills and other industries that made Troy one of the area’s wealthiest towns at the turn of the century. Its downtown is full of brownstone-lined streets and Art Deco accents, with an impressive array of Tiffany stained-glass windows throughout. It’s like an elegantly designed movie set that’s been left behind to collect dust in a corner of a long-forgotten lot. And yet.
Situated within this rough-edged gem of a town smack in the middle of upstate New York is a diverse cast of characters behind a burgeoning scene. The women of Troy, in particular, are not just female entrepreneurs running restaurants, clothing shops, and coffee spots trying to turn a profit in a formerly thriving industrial city. They are not just running the bookstores and printing the books and making the bagels. They are bringing a small city back to life and giving back to the community in ways that up until now were unimaginable — not because they were impossible, but because they had simply never been done.
As a graduate of the local all-women prep school Emma Willard, Heidi Knoblauch, 33, has been familiar with the charms and pitfalls of Troy for a long time. After getting her Ph.D. in the history of science and medicine from Yale, working for the Ford Foundation, and eventually teaching a class at Bard, Knoblauch made the transition from the upper echelons of academia to the restaurant world through what she calls “sheer force of will.” With the help of her wife, her mom, the town itself, and her own ingenuity and contagious positivity, she opened up the wildly successful Plumb Oyster Bar on 2nd Street and hasn’t really looked back since. Though, in some ways she has. In addition to serving dinner every night, offering classic dishes like steak frites and burgers as well as more elevated fare like delicate scallops with grapefruit and avocado butter, Knoblauch also uses the space as a teaching opportunity, inviting AP Economics students from Emma Willard stop by to hear about what it takes to run a business, and also to imagine a life for themselves that isn’t necessarily as a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or accountant (though those are all fine professions, of course, too).
Turning a kitchen into an educational opportunity is also a theme over at Sunhee’s Farm + Kitchen on Ferry Street. This traditional Korean establishment, housed in a renovated old Irish pub, serves up bibimbap and bulgogi and also empowers the immigrant population of the Capital Region through English classes and job counseling. Its founder, Jinah Kim, knows especially well how running a business is also a family affair: Her parents run the farm where her Korean produce comes from; her mom runs the kitchen that makes the food, and will tear up when she thinks about how happy she is to serve her traditional eats to a community at large that is grateful to receive it.
According to Kim, it’s the practical infrastructure of Troy — its walkability, public transportation system, schools, and affordability — that makes it a great place for starting a business. Troy offers the amenities of a large city, but with a small-town feel — an ideal climate to bring a big idea and have a local community pitch in to support it. “We’re all here in the spirit of collaboration,” Kim says. “We just want to share our stories, and I believe that good food and drink are the best way to people’s hearts.”
While Ms. Kim connects by way of food and drink, Susan Novotony brings people together over books. The owner of Market Block Books, Novotony has been selling stories in paperback and hardcover since the beginning of her professional life in the late 1970s. Though she’s more willing to sing the praises of her loyal employees than discuss herself, Novotony says she started by selling books out of the back of her car all up and down the Northeastern seaboard. After nearly ten years of this, as she puts it, she “went from one side of the counter to the other” and began handling inventory at Albany’s Book House, finally buying the business out in 1991. The stability was a welcome relief from a professional life spent traveling, and in 2004 she opened Market Block Books in Troy as a second location. Despite corporate conglomerates like Amazon taking little bits of business from them year by year, Novotony and her crew have managed to keep their doors open to book lovers and the community at large, with dozens of author events and an annual book festival to keep everyone engaged.
All three of these businesses have one glaring thing in common: Plumb Oyster Bar sits in a former optometrist’s office, after which it is named; Sunhee’s former Irish pub venue, in which Kim managed to salvage the impressive bar, is in a neighborhood that was once deemed a little bit shady; and Market Block Books is in a once condemned building. This is all to say that, in every town, one thing is inevitable: change. And when it comes to Troy, that change is leading upward.
When you visit Troy, you can stay at the lovely Gardner Farm Inn, a bed-and-breakfast housed in the impressive former residence of a wealthy businessman — a historic property that its current owner, John Gardner, purchased after years of driving by the place on weekend trips from the city. Gardner updated everything and designed the space to make it feel as comforting as a real home furnished with antiques, a large kitchen, and a cozy living room.
Though they include a delicious breakfast over at the Gardner Farm Inn, I also recommend stopping by Psychedelicatessen for one of their specialty bagels made from scratch with ingredients sourced almost entirely locally. Its founder, Laura Kerrone, was a mechanical operator in the Navy and a chemist in a previous life and opened Psychedelicatessen’s doors in 2014, after a series of jobs led her back to the northeast from Idaho. “My approach is a little bit different,” she tells me. “It was never my intention to be different, I just am.”
Indeed, Troy offers a harbor for entrepreneurs of all kinds who operate a little bit differently. They come here for the architecture, the affordability, and the urban conveniences; they stay for the farmer’s market, the food, and the community they built by telling and sharing their stories.