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November 29, 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.

November 29, 2006

Neighborhood Works, Part Two

Wherein the blogger describes the useful and interesting part of the conference. Read Part One here. And read the introductory remarks by CANA Chair Howard Stoller, who proves that attending CANA meetings can make you healthy, happy and lengthen your life.


The last panel of four was the most interesting, and also the most informative. Definitely worth waiting for.

First we heard from Fourth Ward Common Council member Barbara Smith. “Lack of resources,” she told us, “limit life choices for the economically depressed. This is a legacy of the old Patroon system and of the old political machine.” It is this planned deprivation along racial and economic lines that has degraded our neighborhoods and made our streets unsafe.

The Honorable Barbara Smith“Everyone is a stakeholder in racial justice,” she said. “If 12 per cent of the people in a neighborhood are unemployed, then no one is safe.” She decried the lack of community organizations with “a broad based social justice agenda” in our City. These, she felt, are necessary to change the power relationships in the community.

Next we heard from Eileen Murray of the CANA Codes Committee, which I belong to. She told the still substantial crowd about our efforts to prod the City into opening up the City Buildings and Codes department to the public, and to get them to employ code enforcement fairly throughout the City neighborhoods. We have strongly advocated putting all information about City properties online so everybody can see and easily report violations. The City, needless to say, is reluctant.

Why is this admittedly boring subject so important? Let me give an example. On the edge of my neighborhood on Catherine Street, just above Elizabeth Street, is an abandoned, boarded up building. Less than twenty years ago this old wooden two story structure was newly renovated, with an apartment above and a corner store on the first floor. Today the building is abandoned and looks like a candidate for demolition.

What happened? I don’t know the exact circumstances, but I did watch the building disintegrate in stages. Apparently the owner had no incentive to keep the building habitable.

What good is the expensive renovation of run down buildings if they are then allowed to die again? We on the Codes Committee feel that the City has a responsibility to enforce code requirements fairly and thoroughly to prevent neighborhoods from sliding back into decay. The key to this is to bring in the general public as partners in the enforcement of building codes.

It was the juxtaposition of Ms. Smith and Eileen sitting and speaking next to each other that caused me to have one of those “Aha! I should of thought of that a long time ago” moments.

The City’s refusal to open up the codes process to the citizenry at large is not merely laziness or the jealous guarding of privilege. This secrecy and bureaucratic inefficiency of code enforcement is conscious and deliberate. The idea is to suppress the economic advancement of racial minorities and the economically disadvantaged. And this systemic oppression in turn destroys our neighborhoods.

Well, I can already hear the howls of protest from City officials. “How dare you say that!” I can almost hear them sputter. Well then, they can prove that they are not up to no good very simply. They can open up the codes process to the public at large.

Next, Tom McPheeters told us about the Community Benefits Agreement being promoted by ARISE (A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment.) Basically, this is an attempt to require major city projects, such as the unwanted and unnecessary Convention Center, to train and hire local residents, particularly from nearby depressed neighborhoods.

But Tom had something else to say:

To be sure, we need some outside money and some big developers, but in my view it’s the little guys who will be here a decade from now, weaving things together. So I view Recapitalize Albany as a positive thing for two reasons. One, obviously we need the capital, human and otherwise. And two, I think the fact that people from outside the city are willing to invest their energies and talents on behalf of Albany should be applauded.

I say to Tom, no, no, no. Yes, you are right, we need capital. But no, we do not want to ATTRACT it. We need to make the holders of capital come to us the same way they followed the white middle class into the suburban wastelands.

If we beg for outsider capital then we will have to receive it on THEIR terms. And generally, their terms include things like turning Holland Avenue into a highway commercial strip, or tearing down our venerable housing stock to accommodate corporate drug store chains. Such ruinous desecrations are unacceptable.

What we need is to build our housing stock and neighborhood businesses from the bottom up, not to look for a savior to rain down cash from above. Such “saviors” are only interested in exploiting our community. We have had more than enough of such creatures, their damage can be seen all throughout the City. We’re better off without them.

This is precisely why the Mayor’s Re-Capitalize Committee is little more than a blight and a sham. These outsiders are more than welcome to make a buck by investing in our City... but they have to do it exclusively on OUR terms. We are not here to serve THEM.

(You can read all of what Tom McPheeters had to say here.)

Finally, we heard from Nolene Smith, who is the president of the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association, and an education activist. “It is not by accident that most of our students fail,” she informed us.

She told us that the school system is set up to keep a certain segment of the population from graduating. Beginning as early as fourth grade, kids are tracked into high and low classes. She told how her own daughter, who scored fairly high on elementary school tests, was tracked into the lowest levels of achievement. Why? Apparently, it was because she was low income... and apparently because she was black.


I know that what Nolene Smith said about tracking has been true for a long time. I come from a poor/working class family (not from Albany, in upstate New York.) We had very few persons of color in my schools, so working class substituted in the authorities calculations. I was fairly sharp early on, particularly showing aptitude in reading comprehension. I clearly did not fit in the slow learner classes.

Yet, throughout my early academic career, I kept being dropped into these classes with other working class kids. All I had to do was mess up a little and there I was back in a zero learning environment. Meanwhile, I watched with wonder as the teachers coached and encouraged the dumber upper middle class kids to keep up with the fast track.

Too bad we didn’t have any black kids in our school for the teachers to degrade. Maybe today I’d have a PhD and have a lot of respect for authority. Well, maybe not.

Nolene Smith advanced a sensible solution to this problem, which she called education equity. “We have to ask, who benefits from public education?” It comes down to informed parents, she said. It was her intervention that kept her daughter from being condemned to the slow track and ultimate failure.

But which parents get involved with their child’s education, “and which ones are kept out?” Many parents are dropouts themselves, and struggling with their children’s education. She called for parent support services to break the cycle of failure. “We need to be honest and open with the community and parents, she added.

And finally, the floor was opened to general comments. Every single comment from the public was intelligent and well informed, nothing silly. There was much praising of our housing stock, and I was delighted to hear echoes of my earlier call for mass transportation. I hope Joe Rabito, who stayed even for this, was listening carefully. Judging by the look on his face, I believe that he was.

The Honorable Dominick CalsolaroOne woman suggested that perhaps the City could float bonds to rebuild abandoned housing in the City, currently estimated at about 950 structures, and rising. At that point I was standing in the back. I leaned over to First Ward Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro and asked, “What do you think of that idea?”

He made a face. “I generally don’t like bonding,” he said.

“I know. That’s why I asked.”

Dom made another face. “If they can bond millions of dollars for that stupid convention center,” he said, “then I’d rather see them spend it on housing.”

Damn shame he ain’t the mayor.

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