When we returned to our home in Troy, New York, after being evacuated during Tropical Storm Irene, everything on the first and second floors looked pristine, untouched. But just below us sat four feet of water. Everything we hadn’t moved out of the basement was submerged: tools, Christmas ornaments, water heater, furnace, washer, and dryer. A hard-shell guitar case floated near the stairs, bumping into the red Igloo cooler we take to drive-in movies. My canning jars were covered in silt; cardboard boxes had collapsed into sludgy islands. The whole place smelled like a nursery for black mold: damp, earthy, fetid, with a hint of ozone from the storm that left a metallic taste on the tongue. I could hear the water lapping up against the walls.
Troy floods. It has since before the Dutch arrived. I didn’t know this when I bought my house. I bought it because the chiming, rippling Poesten Kill canal runs through the backyard; because it has rusty old tin ceilings; and because I wanted to be a member of a vibrant, diverse urban neighborhood that comes together in summer evenings. The 19th-century brick building was a bit worse for wear. It had two stories, an extra lot next door for gardening, two off-street parking spots, some rot in the joists, and serious masonry damage. It cost $75,000.
When I realized that the property was in a floodplain, I hesitated and asked around. Friends, real-estate agents, and neighbors assuaged my fears: It’s a 100-year floodplain, they said—and look at the height of those canal embankments! You’ll be fine. We were buying the house without a bank mortgage; family members fronted us the cash and would collect a monthly mortgage payment to supplement their retirement. We weren’t legally required to have flood insurance, and we couldn’t find enough money in the budget for it anyway. So we decided that we would take our chances. We were thinking how lucky we were to find a neighborhood we liked and could afford. We weren’t thinking about climate change.
My neighborhood, South Troy, has always housed the city’s working-class families. In the 19th century, neighborhood men were skilled ironworkers, laboring at the Clinton Stove Works and the Burden Iron Works. The women of South Troy worked downtown, sewing detachable shirt collars or cleaning and starching them in the bleacheries along the river. Lively neighborhoods—mostly Irish, Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian immigrants, but also communities of free blacks and fugitive slaves—spread out from the factories. Abolitionism and trade unionism boomed as muddy streets and brick row houses expanded along the river.
Today, the neighborhood is home to a mountain of road salt, a metal-recycling business, the town dump, and the county jail. Like many older industrial cities, Troy was battered by the collapse of local manufacturing, urban-renewal boondoggles, and white flight to the suburbs in the 1960s and ’70s. South Troy was particularly hard-hit: 32 percent of families here fall below the poverty line. According to the 2010 census, the neighborhood is 65 percent white, 25 percent African American, and 10 percent Hispanic. “South Troy,” says Ken Zalewski, the area’s City Council representative from 2008 to ’15, is “a microcosm of the US.”