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Two Cities? Or One?

by Miriam Axel-Lute on June 7, 2012

I think it would be fair to say that I am rooted in my neighborhood. I work at home, I prioritize supporting local establishments I can walk to, and enjoy the sense of community and camaraderie that comes from bumping into friends and neighbors on the street.

But I also see my neighborhood as only one building block in a larger city of which I am also a citizen. I feel deeply satisfied whenever I get to walk from home across the city, moving through various neighborhoods and feeling on a visceral level how they fit together, the various characters and stories and strengths, businesses and houses and faces of each.

But such walks are also sobering. Because Albany, like so many of its counterparts, is a very segregated city. The neighborhoods where people of color are concentrated are isolated, physically, culturally, and resource-wise. When you move across a boundary like Central Avenue, Morton Avenue, or the stairs down the steep hill among the state worker parking lots to Sheridan Hollow, you notice.

You notice, for example, the difference in the concentration of abandoned buildings, which the city and county have refused to take the necessary steps to get a better handle on (reform the tax foreclosure process and create a land bank, to start).

In winter you notice the difference between a place where you get ticketed if your walk is not shoveled and a place where absentee owners let feet of ice and snow build up with impunity.

It’s not just Albany, and it’s not just local government. The National Fair Housing Alliance recently released a report showing that controlling for other factors, banks that own foreclosed houses do a dramatically worse job of maintaining and marketing the ones in communities of color.

There are social divides that accompany the physical ones. At a community speakout organized by Occupy Albany in February, participants were struck by the fact that there were so many other folks they hadn’t met before who were concerned about and working on the same issues, even talking about their experiences in similar ways, but living in different neighborhoods and moving in different circles. This is no surprise in a racially divided country, but we don’t have to accept it as inevitable. Solidarity can be an intentional choice that precedes and engenders personal relationships.

And that solidarity matters, because we need to come together as one Albany to advocate together for what’s best for all our neighborhoods—and the city they together create—whether it’s taking on abandoned buildings, saving funding for SNUG, preserving the disappearing Pine Bush, improving bus routes or bike safety or police-community relations, increasing good local jobs, making sure property taxes are fair, or town-gown relationships.

Those areas that have suffered the most from disinvestment will require more attention, but if we are thinking as “one Albany,” this won’t feel like competition, it will feel like the logical response to the facts on the ground. As Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist from Columbia University and author of Root Shock, points out, it’s been shown that everyone’s health is worse when inequality is greater. Other research has shown that regional economies are weaker when segregation and inequity are high. We will hang together, or hang separately, as they say.

Going from two cities to one will also require specific attention to the borderlands. As Fullilove writes in Shelterforce, “Repair of a city follows from seeing that the problem is not a problem of a neighborhood, but rather of the larger system of the city and the region in which it is embedded. Repair addresses the connective tissue of public space—the sidewalks, street, parks, playgrounds, and plazas that are used by all residents of the city—by creating great places for people to enjoy, and strong flow among the parts. The reconnection of the parts provides the city with the material basis for solidarity and reciprocity. Effective interventions are invariably gentle, coaxing the system of the city into better functioning rather than hammering some neighborhoods into a new shape. Urban restoration celebrates the wholeness and diversity of the city.”

That Occupy speakout led to a Tale of Two Cities march to happen this coming Saturday, June 9 (occupyalbany.org/a-tale-of-2-cities/). It will begin as feeder marches from the branch libraries in Arbor Hill, South End (Howe) and Delaware Avenue (and any other neighborhoods that wish to start one) at noon, proceed to Washington Park for a 12:30 PM speakout, and then head to the Pine Hills Library for a 2 PM rally. I hope to meet more Albanians there whom I can greet on my rambles and work alongside for a stronger, more just city.