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Local Heroes 2013

by The Staff on December 18, 2013 · 3 comments


Photo by Erin Pihlaja

Vic Christopher, Heather LaVine

It’s a little hard to believe that the Charles F. Lucas Confectionery and Wine Bar in downtown Troy has been open for barely a year. Since renovating the historic 2nd Street candy shop into a modern-rustic watering hole and meeting place, owners Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine rapidly grew the scope of the project into an enclosed courtyard and adjacent four-story building on Broadway—once considered downtown’s most threatened historic building—where they opened The Grocery this fall. To say that these ventures have been a success would be an understatement. But normally this sort of savvy development wouldn’t exactly qualify as heroic either. Christopher and LaVine will be the first to say so.

“It’s humbling,” Christopher says of Metroland’s decision to honor them as such. “Embarrassing actually.”

Without overt intent, Christopher and LaVine’s projects have become forums for and icons of a spirit of urban renewal spreading through downtown Troy, a place that now counts its troubled economic past and accordingly stigmatized cultural reputation as an opportunity for a new generation of Trojans driven to unlock the city’s historic potential and increase its livability. With their two businesses abutting a prominent corner of Monument Square, the Confectionery and Grocery have become a kind of metaphorical cornerstone for this urban evolution. Herein lies the heroism.

“I’ve spent my entire life up until this point trying to make an impact on a community,” LaVine says, listing her experience in education and minor-league baseball along with Christopher, “and yet, with [the Confectionery], we weren’t necessarily going out to make change happen.” Instead, the couple’s simple projects have been received by a local community eager to share similar ideas and hatch new projects. Christopher and LaVine have simply proven what can happen when these ideas are given legs.

“It’s not like we’re trying to change the city,” Christopher says. “Troy is a real place with real people. It’s got an edge. . . . Everything you hear about Troy today you heard about Brooklyn in my youth. And I saw the place turn around.” He says it’s always been the little guy who does the creative work in a community, and that the nation was built on small business, so the potential in Troy is rare and fertile. However, “Planning is overrated,” he says. “We need doers.”

The corner of 2nd and Broadway is, not coincidentally, where those doers have begun to congregate. “We didn’t do this ourselves,” LaVine says. “We created [the Confectionery], but it developed with everyone in the space. It evolved because of the people of Troy.”


Photo by Ann Morrow

Albany Society for the Advancement of Philanthropy

 Running around scantily clad in public, during winter no less, probably isn’t business as usual for most philanthropists, but for the lads of the Albany Society for the Advancement of Philanthropy, it’s their most popular fundraising activity. This event is the Santa Speedo Sprint, held along Lark Street every December, where racing attire runs the gamut from the classic skimpy Speedo with Santa hat to Nutcracker tutus and strategically placed snowballs or gift bows. Just finishing its eighth year, the sprint averages around 175 registered runners (and ever-growing crowds of spectators) and has raised as much as $25,000 for its annual beneficiary, the Albany Damien Center.

ASAP has approximately 40 members, and this crazy-fun run—initiated by member Jim Larson—is a good example of their modus operandi, which is to do good while having a good time. The official motto for these altruistic bon vivants is “Relax and Encourage.” For the Santa sprint, for example, some runners will pay the $25 fee, and some runners will pay $250 or higher unprompted.

The society formed in 2004, and its first act of charity was to establish an annual scholarship for a local high-school student applying to a local college. Criteria for the award are not based on grades, but on “the awesomest essay,” says the society’s founder, Jasen Von Guinness. “It has to make us smile.”

ASAP has built long-term relationships with its contributors, but mostly, their no-pressure process is “so fun and nonchalant,” says administer Stephen Kervin, “that we don’t have to ‘work it.’ People enjoy giving.” Adds Von Guinness, “If people are having a good time, they are more likely to donate. That’s how we succeed.”

Events are sponsored so that the pass-through nonprofit can spend as little as possible: 99 percent of what they take in goes directly to charity. Even more than social media, they say, their most effective publicity tactic is “word of bar mouth.” Though the organization has an old-time boys’ club vibe, it also has a ladies’ auxiliary, the ASAP Daisies, who operate independently by choice.

ASAP activities tend to “bring out people who have a different idea of fun,” says webmaster Jesse Bertram. Events include a booze cruise aboard the Dutch Apple, a Mardi Gras pub crawl, a Festival of Meats, and a gray-tie Fall Ball.

And what, exactly, makes the gray-tie gala different from a black-tie? Deadpans Von Guinness, “We take our pants off.”


Photo by Erin Pihlaja

Linda O’Malley

In 2010, the Oakwood Presbyterian Church, like many churches these days, had to close its doors. But one woman, a member of the congregation, refused to see it as a final chapter. Formerly involved with several outreach programs that helped raise money for the church, Linda O’Malley, who joined the church in the early ‘90s, was told by the Albany Presbytery that if she would take responsibility for running the place, the groups still using the space could stay. So she did—as a volunteer.

After officially becoming a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization in 2011, the Oakwood Community Center was born. Located off of Troy’s busy Hoosick Street (on 313 10th St.), the center sits directly between two neighborhoods—the one east of Tenth Street is mostly middle class, the one west struggles economically. O’Malley wants to “see if we can’t create the glue to patch things together a little better” between the two closely situated and diverse communities. Three different churches and a music group rent space here, a food pantry program feeds 35 families each week, there is a yoga room, it’s a site for the city’s composting program, and also the home of a monthly community dinner called Oakwood Soul Cafe. O’Malley is insisting that the cost of the dinner is “whatever your conscience dictates” because she wants to make sure that “the person who has only 50 cents can sit along with the person who might be able to give 10 dollars.”

The church first opened its doors in 1868, O’Malley says, and it had a rich history. It was the first interracial church in Troy after it integrated following the assassination of President Kennedy, and also the only one in Troy who would accept people from the Damien Center who were living with HIV and AIDS. Today, O’Malley sees a lot of people who are simply looking for fellowship, but not necessarily worship. She isn’t sure if the Soul Cafe will bring in enough money to keep the place running, and she’s launched an Indiegogo campaign to help subsidize some of the expenses. Either way, though, she says that she is answering to a calling. “I’m doing something beyond the church,” she says, “but the mission is similar: to create community to bring people together.”


Kirsten Gillibrand

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been surprising people ever since she unseated U.S. Rep. John Sweeney in a once-invincibly-Republican district in 2006. She won that district again in 2008, and when Hillary Clinton’s departure for secretary of state left an open Senate seat, she was Gov. David Paterson’s surprise choice to fill the vacancy in early 2009. She still had to win a special election in 2010 to retain the seat and then win again in 2012 to earn a full six-year term; despite the fact that many other candidates of both major parties considered her vulnerable and ran or considered running against her, she prevailed in both elections by wide margins (last year she won her Senate seat by the widest margin of any statewide candidate ever).

Those who know her well and/or have followed her career closely aren’t surprised. The Albany native and Emma Willard graduate (who lives today in Brunswick with her husband and two children when they’re not in Washington), comes from a political family and is known as a relentless fighter for what she believes in, whether it’s her ability to win a race or the merits of a bill to fight sexual assault in the military. She’s a charmer with a sweet, high-pitched voice that belies the political pit bull inside. She’s a doting mother who picks up her kids at 5 PM and still returns to the Senate if there’s a vote scheduled. And she is about as smart as they come.

In seven years, the junior New York senator has left an impressive mark on Washington, beginning with her decision to become the first member of Congress to post her official public schedule, personal financial information and earmark requests online. And she has taken the lead on several key issues, including her support for the sexual-assault bill, her work to end the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, trying to block food-stamp cuts and fighting for health care for 9/11 first responders—almost always putting human faces on the issues. While not as progressive on all issues as some would like (few in Congress are), she is both firm in standing up for what she believes in and flexible in reconsidering her positions on issues like gun control. And she is fearless in disagreeing with colleagues on either side of the aisle, which has earned her some criticism but also much respect.

While Gillibrand’s name has been mentioned as a potential future presidential candidate, she is likely to wait until the timing is right, and her mentor, Clinton, seems poised to run in 2016. But when the time does come, don’t be surprised.


Howard Glassman

Photo by Erin Pihlaja

When asked who was the first musician or band he booked to play at Valentine’s, Howard Glassman is stumped. “Not a clue,” he laughs. “I couldn’t even begin to guess.” This isn’t surprising, given the number of singer-songwriters, spoken-word artists, burlesque shows, dance nights, poetry readings, and bands of every genre—indie rock, hip-hop, metal, punk, funk, industrial, jam, Americana, noise and folk—Glassman and his club have offered the public. Intimate, sweaty—and, once upon a time, smoky—Valentine’s has been a pop-culture landmark.

And, sometime early next year, the venerable club at 17 New Scotland Avenue in Albany will close to make way for Albany Medical Center’s neighborhood-devouring plans. This impending loss has brought into sharp focus the central part Glassman has played in the local arts scene over his 16-year run with Valentine’s. Glassman is proud of all this: “After so many years [in the business], you build up a name and reputation.” He says, dryly, “It’s all I’m really qualified to do at this point in my life.”

Good and bad, he laughs when he reminisces about the variety of bands and situations he’s dealt with over the years. For those who’ve known him, the underlying factor to all of this is his love of music. Glassman has played in a variety of bands over this same span of years, and on ocassion written with acuity and wit about music for various outlets. His club is the real thing because he’s the real thing. Glassman, of course, doesn’t take himself seriously: “It’s a living, I guess—though my wife would beg to differ.”

Looking to the future, Glassman’s been working “four days out of the week” on his new club, which will open in the former Cagney’s on Central Avenue near Quail Street on Jan. 8—or in mid-February. The actual opening, Glassman says, will depend on the breaks. As with any enterprise, there are permits to be secured and paperwork to be processed; these things take time. As if to underline the importance of the club to the musical community, Glassman says, gratefully, that “a lot of people from bands, and customers, have been helping him out.”

That’s a better testament to his achievements than this award.