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
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.
“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
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
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
(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
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
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.
One 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
“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.”
he ain’t the mayor.
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