An ugly melee of drunken stupidity broke out on Albany’s Ontario Street on the early morning hours of March 12 in the heart of what has been long known as Albany’s “student ghetto.” Television sets, furniture and appliances were tossed from student apartments. A car was dragged into the street and vandalized. When police showed up, students actually attacked them. Twenty-year-old Samantha Cohen allegedly jumped on the back of a police officer and hit him in the head. Other suspects threw rocks at the officers. More than 40 people have been arrested or cited in relation to the ruckus. Some students have been arrested for first-degree riot, which is a felony; others face lesser charges such as unnecessary noise. The Albany Police Department is still looking for suspects caught on video cameras who were involved in the mayhem.
Brian Kovelman, who has owned Mild Wally’s delivery restaurant at 189A Quail Street for 16 years, won’t soon forget the morning of the riot. “The kegs-and-eggs riot was out of hand. I pulled up to my store that morning at 9:30 and there was a stabbing victim walking down the street bleeding out of his side, and a bunch of college students jumping around there all dressed in green. The kid who was stabbed was wearing a green shirt and just leaking blood out of his side. I was the one who called the ambulance.”
(“Kegs and eggs” is the name frequently attached to breakfast-and-beer parties on St. Patrick’s Day morning, or, in this case, the morning of Albany’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.)
Kovelman says he has seen the neighborhood around his business deteriorate. He has upped security to protect himself and his staff, and has tried in vain to get the city to fix up the area. “The kind of crime where people throw a brick through your window because they’re drunk and they’re angry because they didn’t have a dollar for a slice and we wouldn’t give it to them, so they’re getting stupid and they’re getting loose,” Kovelman says, is the “cost of doing business” in the area. Other day-to-day happenings in the neighborhood include students defecating in yards and inciting drunken fistfights. Vandalism, petty larceny and frequent underage drinking have become the norm.
Other cities with large student neighborhoods often benefit from them: Businesses thrive, investment is attracted and everyone wins. But in Albany, a lack of organization and ownership has left the city with less an asset than an embarrassment.
But after the events of March 12, Albany finally has to pay attention to another of its neighborhoods, lost to apathy and lack of code enforcement, community organization and general attention by city officials. The so-called “student ghetto” is loosely defined as the residential area between Washington and Madison avenues from Washington Park west to Partridge Street. Not only is there much absentee-landlord housing in the neighborhood rented by college students; the neighborhood is ringed by bars that many of them frequent.
Ask the residents of the area and they will be quick to tell you that the melee by drunken students was only an extreme instance of what has become business as usual for the area: drunken, disorderly students who feel no ownership or responsibility to the community, housed by absentee landlords with no stake in the neighborhood and a overseen by a university and city that would rather blame one another for the problems than actually work to restore a sense of community and ownership.
The area, which has the potential to be one of Albany’s greatest assets, also has become a magnet for criminals from other surrounding cities, because the neighborhood is in disrepair and inebriated students make for very easy targets.
The reaction to the March 12 event has been mixed. The University at Albany canceled Fountain Day, the annual on campus student celebration, and is moving Spring Break next year to coincide with St. Patrick’s day in hopes that students will leave town. Albany District Attorney David Soares told Metroland that the move “doesn’t address the problem.”
“I think the students have a false sense of security—that what happens in a college town stays in the college town. They don’t realize there is a standard that belongs to those that live here,” says Soares.
Soares and the APD are moving to prosecute anyone who had any culpability in the riot. Soares says he has seen similar behavior in other Albany neighborhoods that have been effectively abandoned. “When I talk to kids in schools around Albany,” he says, “they are surprised to hear that if it wasn’t for the academic system, the behavior they undertook in the classroom could have landed them in front of a judge. I don’t think the university students understand that either. The people involved in this will face different punishment based on their culpability, and the consequences for them could be devastating.”
Soares says he would like to see the University at Albany make the incident and the following arrests and prosecutions a part of its orientation so that students will understand that their behavior will have consequences in the real world.
But there are more important questions than who will serve how much jail time. Like: How did an entire neighborhood slip out of the city’s grasp? What made conditions ripe for such an ugly riot, and what can be done now? They are all pertinent questions, but not all of them have easy answers, and not everyone will want to hear them.
Albany is known to be a bar town. Though the University at Albany hasn’t been ranked as a top party school recently, it has won the award a number of times in the past. Mayor Jerry Jennings has done much to expand the downtown drinking area. Albany is also notorious for its free Alive at Five concerts where, up until recently, thousands poured into the city, drank out in the summer air and then drove home.
Soares launched drunk-driving stings that eventually lead to a reduction in drinking at those events and also launched a series of stings to catch bars that served the burgeoning underage student population. A number of bars lost their liquor licenses as a result, and, according to some students, it has become a little bit harder to get a drink if you are underage in Albany.
Without a guaranteed good time out on the town, students have relied more on keggers in the student ghetto. Landlords have failed to crack down on the events, and the neighborhood has grown increasingly seedy.
“When I bought Wally’s, we were the center of town,” says Kovelman. “Now, Wally’s is on the outskirts of town. Students will travel from the College of Saint Rose neighborhood a block or two to WT’s or Professor M. Barley’s, but that’s about as far as they’ll go. . . . Streetlights are out, it looks dark down the street from the corner, lights are spaced farther apart. It’s just dark. You just don’t go down there.”
Kovelman says people are becoming less willing to pick up their food from the restaurant and that he has a hard time keeping employees, because when parents come to town and see the neighborhood their kids work in, they aren’t pleased.
“I’ve lost staff members that I’d hired on Sept. 1—at least three staff members in the last five years—on the day after homecoming. SUNY students, females that get the job, homecoming happens, and parents weekend, parents come in, they see where their child works, their child comes in the next day and says they’ve got to quit,” says Kovelman.
Other business owners in the area say they have been told flatly by Jennings and his admistration that the neighborhood is simply not their problem.
“We’ve asked the city over the years to fix a sidewalk tile that has been broken in front of my store for around 12 years now,” Kovelman says, “and, aside from paving in the street, which is something they did in a lot of areas out of necessity, nothing has ever come of it.”
Kovelman has actually tried to move his business because of the deteriorating neighborhood, but it seems other neighborhoods don’t want to deal with the clientele his business attracts. He says one planning-board meeting was particularly memorable. “They felt that I was going to bring the SUNY students to their area of town and the place would be ransacked like a war zone,” he recalls. “There was fear in those people’s eyes about having SUNY students there, about the possibility of me attracting Albany High Students in the afternoons to be a hang out in their neighborhood.”
Anton Pasquil, owner of the Hudson River Coffee House at 227-229 Quail Street and a University at Albany alumni, has seen an exodus of “good students” out of the area, students who want to get away from the kind of mayhem that has come to typify the neighborhood.
He would like to rezone the area and establish a Business Improvement District. Pasquil helped organize a cleanup of Quail Street following the parade-day riot, enlisting the help of 163 people to pick up the trash along the street. Pasquil would like to create an organization that would work as a mediator between government, schools, tenants, and college-age residents in order to improve the neighborhood. He, like many, thinks that successful neighborhood revitalization is based on the “broken-windows theory”: that addressing minor quality-of-life issues helps to resuscitate a faltering neighborhood by setting higher standards.
Councilwoman Leah Golby (Ward 10) says she thinks it is on the community to uphold these standards, that new legislation simply isn’t the way to go. She wants to see some of the landlords in the area become more involved. “I would like to see a community building effort rather than putting on more restriction,” she says, adding, “There is a disconnect between the students and the people that live here year-round.”
Golby hopes that Pasquil’s coffeehouse will become a meeting ground for community action. Golby and Councilman Anton Konev (Ward 11) are working on creating a community accountability board that would be composed of business owners, landlords, residents and students.
Soares has offered the Pine Hills community help in in the past to organize and create new standards. Following the kegs incident, the community seems more open to the idea.
“What I try to do is give the community the tools to engage in self help,” says Soares, who notes that he can’t simply come in and dole out change. Soares’ office has offered to provide tools for a walk-and-watch program and help set up a community organization to connect landlords, students, local businesses and community members. “They can set policy for what the standards are going to be for what is sold in stores, what the standards are for businesses and landlords and, in turn, the walk-and-watch can make sure those standards are followed.”
But, in the end, Soares says there needs to be an understanding that no matter what failures may have occurred because of landlords, code enforcement, the city, or anyone else involved, that the events of March 12 come down to personal responsibility.
Soares says he thinks the editorial by the New York Daily News blaming parents for the students’ behavior was misguided. He feels the same about the derision Daily News’ Bob Sapio faced when it was revealed that his son was part of the melee.
“I don’t think it was appropriate to single out that parent,” says Soares. “I don’t think any parent raised their child to behave in the way that leads them to my doorstep. I lay the blame at the feet of the individual who behaved in that way. I think the children owe the parents an apology for dragging their name through the mud.”
Additional reporting by Jason Chura and Elyse Beaudoin