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A Brighter Future for Bleecker?

By Shawn Stone
Photos by John Whipple

 

After the completion of major repairs, Albany’s Bleecker Stadium will reopen to many of the same problems—and opportunities—it faced before the renovation

 

If you walk by Albany’s Bleecker Stadium on a weekday, you’re likely to see, or at least hear, men at work. The city facility, which is located on Clinton Avenue on the western edge of the troubled West Hill neighborhood, is nearing the end of a series of significant renovations; principally, the old concrete bleachers have been replaced, but there have also been many other repairs, including work on the impressive brick-and-concrete entranceways.

“Impressive” is a word that’s hard to avoid when considering Bleecker Stadium. As noted on the Albany city Web site, Bleecker is a “multipurpose sports complex” spread out over 10 acres, and includes “a professional size baseball diamond, a football-soccer field, a softball field and a large field house which is also used as [a] summer youth employment office in the spring and summer months.” From the inside, Bleecker is monumental in size, but from the outside, it’s a seamless, unassuming part of the urban streetscape. Built in the 1930s by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Works Progress Administration, Bleecker reflects the art deco-influenced design elegance of so many Depression-era public-works projects.

Bleecker Stadium has a rich history. Thousands turned out to celebrate its official opening in May 1936; almost two years earlier, E.D. Greenman wrote with a kind of awe about the partially built complex in the December 1934 edition of The American City:

“From an abandoned water storage reservoir, the city of Albany, N.Y., has developed a municipal stadium which ranks in size among the largest municipal stadia in this country.”

The old Bleecker Reservoir was built in 1852 and went out of use in 1932. It was certainly crafty of the planners to find a use for the site—and original earthen walls—so quickly and easily.

“An 18-foot embankment surrounding the old reservoir,” Greenman noted, “provided a natural amphitheater for the building of the stadium.”

He wrote approvingly of the particulars of the art deco portals: “There are three entrances for spectators cut through the embankment, each from a separate and adjoining street. . . . The gateways have been dedicated, one to veterans of the Civil War, one to Spanish war veterans, and one to veterans of the World War.”

Generations of Albanians have played thousands of games there. The baseball field is named for Negro League player Edsall Walker. According to a number of sources, Bleecker even played a part in the police identification of serial killer Lemuel Smith in 1977.

In recent years, however, the grand old stadium has fallen on hard times, suffering from both the ravages of time and the kind of neglect that often occurs in financially strapped small cities with limited resources—resources that are often doled out last to the most economically devastated neighborhoods.

It was almost a year ago when, on Aug. 11, 2005, Menands resident Greg Lanni had the unhappy experience of having a section of the old concrete bleachers collapse beneath him while he was enjoying an Albany Twilight League baseball game. As Brian Nearing described it two days later in the Times Union, Lanni “badly cut his leg on concrete and a metal reinforcing bar when he fell through a section of the stands near the third base line.”

Deteriorating concrete wasn’t anything new at Bleecker Stadium; it has been a problem at least since the late 1950s. A March 1966 report for the city of Albany by consulting engineer Benjamin L. Smith cited a series of such repairs that had been made beginning in 1957—and listed another series of repairs that would be then undertaken in the late 1960s.

Old sections can be patched or replaced, but concrete will continue to slowly crumble away. By last summer, the problem had become acute. Richard Barrett, Albany’s former commissioner of parks and recreation, made a detailed inventory of the facility’s problems in a letter to the Times Union published shortly before Lanni was injured. Thereafter followed a round of the blame game, in which the prophetic Barrett laid the blame directly on Mayor Jerry Jennings, and Jennings directed it right back toward Barrett. (It’s worth noting, however, that—as TU sports columnist Brian Ettkin noted in a particularly pointed essay published following Lanni’s injury—Barrett “never had the authority to repair or renovate Bleecker.”)

So the common council acted, explains 12th Ward Councilman Michael O’Brien, and “put $750,000 in this year’s budget because the bleachers had totally fallen apart.”

Structural decay wasn’t the only trouble Bleecker faced—there was also the matter of crime. In that same letter to the TU, Barrett complained about the “car break-ins and property thefts” that plagued the area around Bleecker Stadium last summer. There was one particularly unpleasant incident related to the owner of a car stolen during an event at the stadium:

“The distraught owner immediately put in a call on his cell phone to the Albany Police Department to report the theft and ask for assistance,” Barrett wrote. “Half an hour later, the unhappy and stranded owner was still standing with his son in the now darkened Bleecker parking lot, the remaining working field lights having been turned off with all the games completed, awaiting the arrival of an APD squad car.”

Crime has increased in West Hill as the neighborhood has become poorer and more distressed. In that 1966 report, engineer Smith noted that “during the past five years and more recently, the vandal element has become the major problem.”

“The vandalism factor,” Smith continued, “has no easy solution, but we do recommend some type of surveillance, either by police or park personnel.”

This, coincidentally, is the same recommendation Richard Barrett would make almost 40 years later.

“As we speak,” Councilman O’Brien explains in a recent phone interview, “the concrete bleachers have been totally removed and are being replaced with stainless steel [bleachers]. The ones on the football field will be free-standing, forward of where the old ones, closer to the field, so that if they ever reconfigured the field, they could be easily removed.” The bleachers behind the baseball field, O’Brien says, will be built into the hill.

That Bleecker had not undergone a more extensive “reconfiguration” was simply a matter of money and circumstance. Before the Albany City School District ran into its recent financial setbacks, there had been discussions about a greater rebuilding project at the site. According to O’Brien, current commissioner of parks and recreation John D’Antonio has more extensive ideas: “He’d [D’Antonio] like to reconfigure the whole park and have the football field run in an opposite direction, instead of east to west have it run north to south,” which would make room for a lot more parking. (D’Antonio did not return calls for comment.)

“It sounds,” O’Brien adds, “good to me.”

There are legitimate concerns, however, about any drastic changes to Bleecker Stadium. As one of more substantial WPA projects in the Capital Region, it has genuine historic significance.

Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany Foundation, says, quite simply, of the stadium: “It’s beautiful.”

“The original earthen walls are a good thing,” she adds, “and the stadium should stay as it is.”

This is not just a matter of historic aesthetics; the stadium is a direct physical thread to the 19th century.

“I think the fact that they adaptively reused something back then speaks to its significance,” Holland says. “Somebody was really creative. I think it’s important to keep what we have.”

Asked about complaints that Bleecker Stadium lacks adequate parking, a note of frustration creeps into Holland’s tone.

“If you go to the mall, or all those big box stores, you don’t get to park right up close,” she points out. “You have to walk—even inside, at a place like BJ’s or Sam’s Club.”

Holland uses St. Joseph’s Church on Ten Broeck Street in Arbor Hill as an example. “You get talking about adaptive reuse [of the church],” she says, “and everyone says ‘what about parking?’ What about the parking; I don’t even see it.”

“Where do you park for the Palace [Theatre] in that neighborhood?” As for the stadium, Holland says, “Bleecker Stadium—there is so much parking in that area.”

Sighs Holland: “I guess it’s parking in distressed areas that people are distressed about.”

As noted before, there are genuine problems with crime in around Bleecker. The question is, what is more worth doing: altering a landmark that goes back 150 years, or do something about improving the neighborhood? Is a new Bleecker Stadium, rebuilt on a suburban drive-in/drive-out model and divorced from the area it’s in, really desirable?

What do the users of Bleecker Stadium think about Bleecker?

One is Frank Rogers, owner of the Metro Mallers of the Empire Football League. He is eager to get his team back onto the field at the stadium.

“We’re looking forward to going back to Bleecker,” Rogers explains. The team has played its home games at Union College this season; they have a game there on Aug. 5.

While he has owned the team for three years, the Metro Mallers, Rogers notes, have played their home games at Bleecker Stadium since the early 1970s. Rogers is proud of his team; the nonprofit club is undefeated in league play this year, even though their schedule is necessarily heavy with away games. Last year, they won the EFL championship with a 15-0 record.

“Nobody gets paid,” Rogers says. “The guys practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights, even in heat like we have right now. They work their jobs during the day, then work out at practice from 6:30 to 9:30.”

“We are a nonprofit,” he explains. “Generally—I shouldn’t say generally—we always lose money at the end of the year. Our goal is to try to break even, though I have to dip into my pocket here and there.”

He’s excited: “I drove by just yesterday, and the bleachers are being installed.”

“We get a lot more fans at Bleecker than we do at Union,” Rogers explains.

After the renovations are done, and the Twilight League, Metro Mallers, College of St. Rose and various local high school athletic teams begin using Bleecker Stadium again, it will be interesting to see if the nonstructural problems with Bleecker Stadium will be addressed.


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