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February 26, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

February 26, 2006

Revitalization Out Of Spilled Blood

The City changes South End policy for the better

Dorothy Royal was brutally, horribly murdered and raped practically right outside my door, on an uphill pathway in Lincoln Park across from the Martin Luther King statue. It happened about 8 AM on a weekday in the summer of 2004, about the same time of morning my wife is often finishing up her morning run and climbing up that very path. That particular morning she was feeling lazy and didn’t feel like excercising. She stayed in bed instead.

Murders are very rare in Lincoln Park, and brutal killings like this almost never happen. The last murder in the park that I can recall happened in the late 1980’s, when two biker gangs decided to have an early morning gladiatorial contest between two feuding members. Unfortunately, the contest involved knives. Naturally, the bikers came from the suburbs, they chose Lincoln Park because it was an unlikely location for a biker fight.

The person who murdered Dorothy Royal (I’ll spare description of the act, you can read about it here, and here) was a violent out of control ex-boxer who was, not surprisingly, crazed by a long night of smoking crack. He was six foot three, weighed a lean 220 pounds. He could knock out another boxer his size with one punch. As for Ms. Royal, who lived down the hill from me, I was surprised to hear that she was only 59 years old. She looked much older. It was not an equal contest.

The vile act happened practically within sight of the cops who often hide in the early morning by the Lincoln Park pool house. The murderer was so cracked up he didn’t notice the officers until they were practically on top of him. He got life without parole. “It screams out to the most severe response and I impose the heaviest sentence I can,” said Thomas Breslin, a regular hanging judge when it comes to violent crime.

To listen to the suburban-based local corporate media, this was just another typical brutal murder on another typically brutal day in the typically brutal South End of Albany. Actually the overall murder rate, adjusted per capita, is higher in the outer suburbs (the “exurbs”) than in the inner cities, according to health studies. The murder rate between the cities and the inner suburbs is about the same. What is different is that you are much, much more likely to die by automobile in the suburbs than in the city.

So, suburban corporate propaganda aside, the murder of Dorothy Royal was an anomaly. You are just as safe living in the South End of Albany, than in, say, Bethlehem, where a mysterious home invader bludgeons sleeping people with an ax, and the local cops blame a family member with no discernible motive for the crime. But why did this anomaly happen? Why was Dorothy Royal murdered?

On the lower part of Morton Avenue, across from Albany Housing Authority’s Lincoln Square towers, is a series of run down and abandoned buildings. In these buildings, if you are cool, you can get anything you want. Crack, heroin, meth, special K, or just plain old everyday skank weed. If you've got the cash, the gangsters are there to give you what you need.

As long as drugs are illegal, violent gangs will flourish. Their places of business will attract such creatures as the murderer of Dorothy Royal, and the gang dealers will make such violent creatures go crazy with their product. It was in one of these ruined buildings on lower Morton where Dorothy Royal’s murderer spent the night smoking crack. This is where he went crazy enough to murder and rape a frail woman practically in front of the police.

What I wish to say here is that the government of the City of Albany created the conditions that caused the murder of Dorothy Royal. As such, they bear prime responsibility for her death. It is the responsibility of the City government to do all that it can to change these conditions.

And, strange to report, the City is making that effort.

Self Hatred As A Policy

Such crack malls are not allowed in the suburbs. Why are they here in Albany on lower Morton? Or, for that matter, in Park South? Or in parts of Arbor Hill?

Why is this allowed. Why is this crack strip mall tolerated, protected, and encouraged to flourish. Why.

The City of Albany, from about 1980 until recently, pursued an active policy of creating and maintaining decayed criminal zones in downtown Albany, such as lower Morton. And rather than try to explain why in a narrative, let me make a list of four elements that made lower Morton possible.

1) From at least 1985 to the early 2000’s, The Albany Police Department practiced almost total denial of service across most of downtown. Why? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that more than 95% of Albany police officers live in the suburbs, and have little or no connection to our Albany community except as a job. Or perhaps the police were only following a directive from City Hall. Either way, denial of service was a grim reality that nurtured and created a criminal culture that has yet to be eradicated from downtown.

I’ll mention two notorious examples of police denial of service from in and around my neighborhood during the 1990’s, both of which hit the media. One was the notorious Robinson Family crack house on Elizabeth Street, located behind lower Morton, of which the police consistently denied existence. Neighborhood activists had to bring in New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer to do routine police work and shut down the place and round up the dealers. Enough said.

The other example was the time that the Stewart’s on Morton Avenue at Hawk Street was robbed five times in two days by the same guy. The police only bothered to respond once, about a half an hour after the second robbery, and that only reluctantly after the store manager browbeat the police dispatcher over the phone. But when a Hearst-owned Times Union reporter called up the police about the robberies (doing an “Isn’t Albany An Awful Place To Live” story) an officer went out and picked up the robber before the story was published! In other words, the police could have nabbed the robber at any time, but deliberately chose to let this criminal roam free. That is, until they faced public exposure.

Did I mention that the police station is almost directly across the street from the crack strip mall of lower Morton? Notice, in these two examples, the willful blindness to criminal activity on their doorstep practiced by the police during this time.

2) The City government has had a long-standing partnership with “Landlords of Last Resort.” This excellent phrase was invented by Park South homeowner and neighborhood activist Andrew Harvey, who has a talent for naming hard to grasp concepts. These Landlords of Last Resort (especially one in particular) own and control the blighted gang-infested neighborhoods of lower Morton and Park South. Indeed, these landlords, who naturally live out in the suburbs, created the blight for their own enrichment. And the politicians found it convenient to allow it to happen.

It works like this. Across the street from the blight of lower Morton are the Lincoln Square Towers. Steve Longo of Albany Housing Authority does a tremendous job of running this complex and of administering the Section 8 program, working to provide decent housing for the indigent and working poor with ever diminishing resources at his disposal.

Mr. Longo is proud of the high standards maintained by Albany Housing Authority. Anyone with a repeat criminal record, or anyone who allows criminal activity in their apartments, loses their housing subsidy and is tossed out. In this way gangs and drug dealers can not find a home in Lincoln Square.

This is great, and a credit to Mr. Longo, except for one problem. Two kinds of people are kicked out onto the street: hardened criminals, and weak-willed indigent victims. Where do they live?

Criminals and victims, they go across the street and rent apartments from the Landlords of Last Resort. They have nowhere else to go. They pack into these apartments and are treated like diseased animals. For the Landlords of Last Resort, they are a source of income, and the blighted neighborhood is a funnel for public funds into the landlord’s pockets. There is much profit in concentrating and exploiting the people who have been screened out and rejected by the society at large.

This is not a problem for Mr. Longo to solve, it is a problem for The Mayor and the Common Council. They have the power to put things right.

3) Joanne Zubris of Homeless and Traveler’s Aid Society (HATAS) confirmed a suspicion that many of us have had for a long time. It is common practice for the surrounding suburban municipalities and surrounding counties to send their indigent poor and their petty criminals to Albany. Basically they buy these folks a bus ticket to Albany, and tell them to go find the Mission on South Pearl Street.

“Doing that is against the law,” said Joanne. “Each county is required to provide for these people in their own communities. When we catch the agencies sending these people to Albany, we send them right back and make them provide for them.” But, she said, they only catch a small fraction of these human dumpings on Albany.

The burden of providing for the indigent and the criminals is imposed upon Albany, and the Albany taxpayers are forced to assume the burden of not only the cost, but of the social degredation caused by the Landlords of Last Resort who profit by their exploitation.

Apparently, this has been going on for a long time. The social agencies all know about this practice of dumping, how is it possible that the City government and the police don’t know about it? It seems more likely that they have quietly accepted dumping as inevitable. And perhaps, the politicians and police officials themselves find dumping to be profitable.

4) Too many of our civic leaders believe that the City of Albany exists merely to be exploited for personal gain. This attitude began in the bad old days of Erastus Corning, and is characteristic of machine-style government, and of the old boys of the old machine who still cling to power.

It is the attitude that the City of Albany is a rotting carcass, and the purpose of holding positions of power is to eat as much of that carcass before it stinks too much to handle. To think this way is to consider Albany not so much a place to live, but as a place to tear apart and abandon. And if exploitation means destroying the City, tearing down buildings, destroying neighborhoods, bankrupting businesses and ruining amenities, well, that’s the way it goes.

This was the attitude of Mayor Corning who didn’t even live inside the City. This was the attitude of the late Mayor Thomas Whalen, who bolted for the suburbs even before his term in office expired. It is the attitude of current Mayor Jerry Jennings who lives in a suburban style house on the edge of the City, in a suburban style “development” with curvilinear streets and no sidewalks. How long will Jennings live in Albany after this term, reportedly his last, expires?

We see this belief that Albany is a rotting carcass in the spot re-zoning of Holland Avenue to “highway commercial,” done to accommodate the Walgreens Corporation and the Picotte Company. This past December, developer Thomas Burke, who lives in the suburb of Bethlehem, happily proclaimed to the lame duck Common Council that Holland Avenue was already wrecked by haphazard development and poor planning. Therefore, he reasoned, it was perfectly acceptable to make a bad situation worse by turning Holland Avenue into a suburban style automobile slum.

Now, Burke can be forgiven for such foolishness because he lives in the suburbs and doesn’t know any better. But The Mayor’s minions on the Common Council, all of whom live in Albany, smiled and nodded at Burke when he said these things. They heartily approved fouling their own nest. They happily followed The Mayor’s orders and gave Burke his suburban highway commercial zoning.

To want to destroy your own community to make a fast buck can only be described as a form of self-hatred. How much compensation makes it worthwhile to live in your own filth? Perhaps Common Council member Jimmy Scalzo, who led the spot re-zoning for The Mayor, could answer that question.

The point here is that a City government that would willingly turn a central street like Holland Avenue into a suburban strip highway would not object to a Landlord of Last Resort turning a neighborhood into a slum. When there’s money to be made, who gives a rat’s rear end about the City?

And Now, The Good News

So, the reader can draw his or her own conclusions from this list, whether or not City policy created the blight on lower Morton that killed Dorothy Royal. But all is not lost. Mayor Jerry Jennings may be the dictatorial unitary executive of Albany, but he is also a human being. Really, no kidding. He is. And as a human being, he wants to be liked. And he wants to be admired.

Jennings has been forced to acknowledge the rise of a new political force in the City, one that is completely outside the control of the old machine that he has inherited and leads. These are people who genuinely love the City, who believe that it should be preserved and improved.

These true citizens of Albany, disparagingly called “dissidents” by the suburbanite corporate media, have learned to work together and wield power. They are completely baffling to the old machine boys. What do “these people” want, they ask? Meaning, why are they getting involved in civic affairs if they aren’t trying to make a fast buck?

Mayor Jennings does not understand this new force in City affairs, but he doesn’t have to. He is, after all, a very successful practical politician. He understands that if a force cannot be suppressed than it must be appeased. And the only way to appease a force that wants to improve living conditions is to try to find a way to improve living conditions.

Thus, we have the South End Revitalization Plan. It is a massive effort to put right what is wrong about the South End, lower Morton Avenue in particular. All available forces have been mobilized, from the Planning Department to the police to the elected officials. Steve Longo and Albany Housing Authority have been given the task of finding the money to renovate abandoned and decrepit housing. Even the Neighborhood Associations have been enlisted as partners, as go-betweens between the government and the citizens.

It’s like a dream that is almost too good to be true. Instead of following a policy of mere exploitation, instead of systematically looting the neighborhoods until they smoldering ruins, the City is trying to improve the living conditions. And one of the most amazing things of all is that the City seems to have divorced itself from the Landlords of Last Resort. The biggest Landlord of them all has seen fit to sell his buildings and begin to leave the City, hopefully to never come back.

Of course, there are still unresolved questions. What will happen to the tenants of the lower Morton blight, the concentrated undesirables who were so carefully screened out from the rest of society? Has the City government given this any thought, or do our civic leaders assume that renovating the neighborhood will improve their behavior? Are they simply looking for a new Landlord of Last Resort, and new neighborhoods to destroy? Is there a new dumping ground for undesirables, or is there a better alternative?

Those of us who live nearby are hopeful, and we support the initiative. We wish for it to succeed. In this sense, Dorothy Royal’s senseless murder can be given meaning. Perhaps the blood she spilled on a walkway in Lincoln Park will become a sacrifice that will lead to the regeneration of the neighborhood in which she lived, and died.

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