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Looking for Hope: Corey Ellis talks to a constituent about afterschool programs.

When a City Closes Its Eyes

Fighting against the machine to save Albany’s troubled neighborhoods

 

This sweltering August afternoon, Corey Ellis points to a tall brownstone with a boarded-up storefront at its base. This is the house where Ellis grew up, 20 Lexington Ave., on a street that he says was once a strong community, where everyone would sweep the sidewalks together on weekends. He says there used to be an electronics-repair shop in one of the many abandoned storefronts that scar the streetscape. “But all there is now,” he laments, “is a tag: ‘RIP Double Deezle.’ ”

Ellis, the Common Councilman for Albany’s Ward 3, knows his neighborhood. Walking down an Arbor Hill street that is littered with Mountain Dew bottles, beer cans, and condom wrappers, Ellis points out abandoned buildings teetering next to houses where young children wrapped in bulging white diapers splash through open fire hydrants and stagnant puddles.

Farther down the street, a little girl with a pink shirt, braided hair and a wide smile calls out, “Hey, Corey!” He greets the girl by name and remarks, “Hey, you lost another tooth!” Corey Ellis knows his constituents. He knows their names. And most important, he knows their plight.

“We have a problem with speeding. People drive through here like it is abandoned,” Ellis complains. “A young woman was struck by a car and killed, and I’ve been trying to get a police car down here to monitor things. Ask anyone on the block,” he demands despondently, “and they will tell you it’s a problem.”

But no question needs to be posed, as a woman who sits on her porch with her children tells Ellis, “You gotta do something ’bout these speeding cars! We’ve got kids out here.” He assures the woman that he has contacted the police and is here this afternoon to see if the patrol car has arrived. It hasn’t, and it doesn’t show up during the couple of hours he spends strolling through his neighborhood. But speeding is only a drop in the bucket of problems Ellis’ constituents face. And a number of these problems are becoming more and more prevalent.

Ellis insists that the Albany political machine is simply not working for his constituents. He says that he has had to explain to some constituents who are used to “the old system of patronage” that he can’t get them a job with the city because, “How would you like it if you got fired one day ’cause of the way I voted on an issue, or because I open my mouth and piss someone off?”

Code enforcement is a problem. So are crime, drugs, jobs, finding a safe place for kids to play, and apathy. But these are not problems that have always afflicted the community. These are problems that, Ellis says, have been given time to develop, and will only continue to snowball until the elected officials stop “slapping the community in the face” by not including them in solutions.

‘There is no one that knows what ails this community better than those that live here,” declares Albany County District Attorney David Soares, his mouth curled. “Their intelligence, their information, their solutions are all here. And when I say that . . . the idea of a leader seeking expertise from outside of this community and empanelling an organization of people who have never walked on Clinton Avenue, who don’t know First Street, don’t know the Hollow, never set foot on Third and Tunis, to me it’s just . . . a little shortsighted. If you want to cure what ails these communities, you have to be in this community. You have to be part of this community. More importantly, you have to listen to this community. And that can’t happen from being downtown.”

Like a number of other area politicians, Soares has come to the end of his rope. Exasperated by a combative city administration, newly elected officials such as Soares and Ellis are watching in dismay as the neighborhood they are desperately trying to save is torn apart by a combination of apathy, disregard and a reluctance to expose and focus on the problems that are plaguing Arbor Hill, West Hill and the South End.

Soares leans back in his chair, his shoulders hunched. His eyes close for a moment, then open, focused and clear. “Ask away,” he says, motioning with both hands towards himself like a man looking for a fight. “Ask the hard questions.”

Soares faces a reporter across a table in the newly reopened Arbor Hill branch of the DA’s office only blocks away from the Henry Johnson Police Station, the station that Police Chief James Tuffey has proposed to close.

“This office, when I came out here years ago, reinvigorated me as a prosecutor,” he says, “because prior to this I was in a courtroom processing people and paperwork and shuffling bodies in and out of the system without necessarily having the feeling that I was making any progress.”

It was in this office that Soares drew the ire of established Albany officials for his proactive work in the areas of community-based policing and prosecuting, and alternative sentencing. It was his experience in this office that inspired him to challenge his boss, former District Attorney Paul Klein, for his job. And now, here, having come full-circle, Soares is once again invigorated, no longer willing to pull any punches in his fight for the community he knows so well. Soares stops himself and, as if he has pressed the chapter-forward button on his internal DVD player, he gets right to the point.

“What you have to understand when you’re talking about working with the Jennings administration,” says Soares, “is it’s never working with the administration. You are either working for the administration or you’re not working with them at all. And the most difficult aspect of the relationship is separating the politics from public service.”

The tension between the administration and its critics began building to a head earlier this year with Mayor Jerry Jennings’ announcement of the Recapitalize Albany Committee, which, when first unveiled, featured very few minorities and only a few Albany residents. That was when Ellis and Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4) began asking, “Where are the people who know the communities that need the most help? Why aren’t we being included? Why ask someone else when we can tell you what is wrong in our neighborhood and point you to people and businesses who are already working to fix it?”

Then the mayor announced that the new committee would investigate what needed fixing by taking a trolley tour. As Corey Ellis put it when asked if the Recapitalize Albany trolley tour would be visiting his ward, “I don’t know. He wants us to talk to him, but he doesn’t talk to us.”

But it didn’t stop there. The sense that the community is being eroded has only grown. The Arbor Hill-West Hill library issue (where two neighborhoods—one that hasn’t had a library in decades and one that has never had one—have had to fight over a single library branch) was one source of discouragement. Then came the issue of the proposed police-station closings, which would see both the Henry Johnson Station and the Pine Bush station closed. This plan, one that the chief will present at many community meetings over the next few weeks, would seem to decrease the number of permanent officers on beats and create a “cadre of officers” who would react to problem areas by patrolling an area for a number of weeks before moving to other trouble spots.

Particularly, it would mean the closing of a station that makes many Arbor Hill residents feel safe, no matter its actual function, and would remove one of the few remaining signs of Arbor Hill’s standing as an integral part of the city.

Most council members still don’t seem to be sure what the proposed closing of the Arbor Hill police station would mean to them.

Willard Timmons (Ward 5) says he is hoping for the best and supports the closure because it might mean more officers on the street in his neighborhood, although he adds that if his constituents don’t want the station closed, he will fight to make sure that it is not.

“The way it was put to me, the reorganization is going to have more patrolmen that can walk beats. So when they add 14 patrolmen to walk beats, they are gonna spread it out. They’re not always gonna be in West Hill, Arbor Hill or the South End, but just more people walking the streets.”

Ellis, however, says that the last thing Arbor Hill needs is “another abandoned building.” He says he is hearing from constituents and officers alike who say they don’t want the station to close.

Chief Tuffey says it is too early to criticize his plan because he hasn’t presented it yet. He notes that he has not handed out a plan written in stone because the plan is open for change and, he says, he is eager to receive public input.

“I’m doing this the right way,” he says. “I gave the council notice, and I am going to give the public a chance to give their opinions. I didn’t present it in a neat written report and say, ‘Here it is,’ because then people would have said, ‘You already made up your minds, and there is no room for input.’ ”

Reflecting on the two conflicting approaches—top-down versus bottom-up—to the problems facing Arbor Hill and West Hill, Soares casts his mind further back in time. He says that when he first came to this country from the Cape Verde Islands, his sister bought him some comic books. “I learned to read by reading Spiderman.” he remembers.

“I’ve always related to Spiderman,” he continues. “He is just a guy on the street catching crooks and purse snatchers in the alley. Some people prefer Superman just swooping in, trying to be everywhere at once.”

Soares says it is the beat cops, community policing, that is essential to not just Arbor Hill, but crime fighting in general. He insists that officers should know the neighborhoods they patrol.

“If you are talking about post-9/11 law enforcement, there is no greater asset than the guy whose feet are on the concrete every day, communicating with people,” Soares states emphatically.

Soares refers to Arbor Hill beat Officer John Crossman. “No one knows the territory better than he does. The intelligence and info he has and gathers on a daily basis is the info used for preventing major incidents from taking place from Albany to Washington, D.C. That’s how far it goes! The greatest investment that any agency can make is in the street-level cop, whether it’s beat cops or patrolmen, providing them with every single resource that they need to effectively do their job.”

Soares points to Amanda Paeglow, who runs the Arbor Hill branch of the DA’s office, as an example. “Amanda comes into this office every morning, hopefully at 8:30 in the morning. If she didn’t, I’m sure I can find 12 people in this corridor that would tell me about Amanda. Everyone in this neighborhood knows everything about everything. Do something wrong, park a loud-colored car on First Street, and someone on the second floor can tell me this guy was here about 11 o’clock. Everybody knows what is going down on the streets. It’s up to us to create an environment, build trust with these folks, to get that info to allow us to do our jobs. You can’t build trust from downtown.”

Tuffey insists that police stations, in a lot of ways, are becoming old hat. “You gotta look at the fact that in the post-9/11 world most people don’t walk into police stations anymore—it’s a fallacy. Everyone has a cell phone now and dials 911.” But at the same time, Tuffey says that eventually the public-safety building on Henry Johnson will be open 24 hours a day, “not with a police officer sitting at the desk, but with the building open for police services.”

Tuffey claims that his plan will provide residents with two things they have been demanding for some time: more officers on the street, and a higher level of accountability with more sergeants and lieutenants on the streets.

Just as the city seems to be withdrawing from the neighborhood, there have come the recent, ominous blasts of gunfire ringing out across the city, spreading from the South End and Arbor Hill into the Center Square and Hudson Park neighborhoods. Police Chief Tuffey has referred to it as “group violence,” while refusing to characterize it as a gang problem. Meanwhile, violence experts and citizens alike agree that the gun violence is being perpetrated by warring gangs.

Some officials say they know what to expect if they speak out about a problem facing the city: swift revenge by the Jennings administration.

Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) says that recently he was subjected to a very public berating by the mayor because he pointed out that his constituents are afraid of getting shot when they walk out their front doors. On a recent Paul Vandenberg radio show, Calsolaro said he hoped the Jennings administration would move on the issue of gun violence. The next day, the mayor told Vandenburg that he didn’t care what Calsolaro thinks and said Calsolaro needed to get out and walk his ward.

But the idea that he would need to walk his ward to hear about the 20 incidents of gun violence that have taken place around the city since July seems ludicrous to Calsolaro. There aren’t many people in the city who haven’t heard about it. But, of course, he adds, he walks his ward more than once a week. Calsolaro in turn wonders what happened to a promise he says Jennings made during his last term to walk Arbor Hill once a week.

While having his interest in his ward questioned drove Calsolaro to deliver a scalding, emotional retort at a Common Council meeting on Sept. 7, he says that what is most upsetting is the sheer amount of violence that is going unchecked on the streets. “We are just lucky these guys don’t have better aim,” he remarks. “If they did, we might have had 15 murders on our hands.”

And Calsolaro points out that he has seen this problem come and go, and has been fighting for solutions that the mayor has ignored. In January 2004, the Common Council unanimously passed a resolution recommending the mayor form a community task-force on gun violence, which would have involved the community with council members and representatives from the headquarters of law-enforcement organizations in the area.

Calsolaro said the mayor told him, “We don’t need any more task forces.”

“But we need these guys to be riding around the city in a trolley?” demands Calsolaro in disgust. Calsolaro is currently trying to decide whether to push a new resolution that would have the Common Council itself empanel a task force on gun violence.

Tuffey insists that the department is already working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the state police on how guns are getting into the city and that another task force is unnecessary. “Everyone can throw out all the ideas they want. But we are already working with state police. I talked to the state police as late as two weeks ago about getting this gun task-force in here. We talk to the ATF!” Tuffey insists the problem is national and that it requires stronger legislation and cooperation from gun manufacturers.

“Do we need a task force to deal with the issue of gun violence?” Soares asks. “We absolutely need a task force to deal with the issue of gun violence. I can talk to you right now about cases in our office that involve gun violence where I don’t even know if we’ll be able to successfully prosecute because we have a hard time getting victims of gun violence and witnesses of gun violence to come forward and testify because of fear of the system out on the street.” He continues, “There are two different justice systems: the one I work in and the one down the block. We like cooperation in the one I work in, but cooperation in the one out there means you’re receiving a cap to the back of your head.”

The Rule Not the Exception: Abandoned buildings in Arbor Hill.

Soares says he warned the mayor and the police chief back in March, around the time of his controversial statements about the war on drugs, about the gun problem the city faces. “When I went to Vancouver in March and made my statement, we had people that couldn’t call the media fast enough to denounce me. My response to my critics at the time was that we had to prioritize our efforts in this city because of the proliferation of handguns and violence involving teenagers and gangs. Well, it is September now, so in less than six months what we are seeing is exactly what I was talking about back in March. But what I said was nothing that members of this community haven’t been saying for years.”

Exasperated by what he perceives as a demand from the community and council people to fix all of the city’s problems, Tuffey says, “Here is the issue: Get the community out here! Get the parents to take care of their children! I’m very open, very honest. With all due respect to elected officials, that’s their problem. Push it back to the people who elected you and say stand up and be accountable for your actions! Everybody’s got the answers. We’re not participating in the shootings. We’re not out there stirring it up. It’s the community versus the community out there. We need to teach human beings how to show each other respect. We know who is getting shot. There are few calls we pull up on [where] we’re surprised who is getting shot.”

In no uncertain terms, Soares makes clear he believes that Albany is lucky to have the police force it does. “The department is very fortunate to have the personnel it has,” he says. “In that department there are some of the most battle-tested, incredible men and women that we work with. There is an incredible amount of talent and expertise in the department. The problem is, that talent and expertise has not been allowed to flourish because of the fact that politicians have run the office, and not those experts.”

Soares says it is extremely hard to fight a problem such as gangs when other people are denying their existence, because, he says, the first step in addressing a problem is to acknowledge it. He says that the officers of the APD have had a “political cloud over them” that interferes with their ability to do their jobs. “There is this guy that can predict for you where the next series of shootings is going to take place. He knows the characters, he knows the players and the community, and this guy is great! But he is never going to be allowed to talk about gangs ’cause, you know what? ‘Gangs don’t exist!’ ” (Mayor Jennings did not return calls for comment.)

On the corner of Swan Street, not one person, not one child, who has passed Corey Ellis has not greeted him. Children promise him they will look for a job, adults ask him when he’s coming to their church. Ellis says there is still a strong community here, but it is getting harder and harder to sustain. “Talk to anyone on this corner right now,” says Ellis, “and they will tell you ‘Why should I care? Look at where I live!’ ”

“Abandoned buildings? Abandoned. High-crime rate? Abandoned. Gunfire? Abandoned. Lack of jobs? Abandoned!” Ellis pauses, frustrated, and watches a child lugging a box, much too big for him, full of odds and ends, through the street. “I don’t have to stand here and say we’ve been abandoned! Just drive around. Talk to our people. They will tell you they can’t get a job, can’t get a building taken down. We don’t have a supermarket in Arbor Hill. I don’t believe you build from the outside in,” he adds, referring to the Arbor Hill plan. “I believe you build from the inside out. You gotta bring hope back to the neighborhoods so people begin paying attention to littering, to criminal activity in their neighborhood. They see lack of police presence, of jobs.”

Soares agrees. He says the change has to start from the inside. Good landlords need to be commended, bad ones reprimanded, children given a place to go, neighborhoods assured that police are there to work with them. And Soares insists that before “the ‘brick-and-mortar people’ come in, we have to remove the criminal element from the community, and then follow that with investment.” Right now Soares says some of the only jobs available to youth in Arbor Hill are jobs that would land them in his office.

Soares says he keeps a picture in his branch office, a picture that captures the time when there was a connection between both sides of Lark Street. “This photo captures this corridor when the Lark Street corridor was connected to the city and this was a viable place where parades actually took place, and this city cut every vestige to it. If you walk the number of steps from here to the other side. . . . Call a realtor and ask for the selling price for houses in this area, then call and ask a realtor for houses above Washington Ave. From one house to the other are 2,000 steps, yet they are worlds apart. It’s the same concrete, same mortar, same amenities, accoutrements, but they are still worlds apart.” Soares is right: A three-family home on Lark Street on the Arbor Hill side of Washington might sell for $70,000; a comparable building on “the city side” might cost several times that. And they are only steps apart.

“When I first moved in here several years ago, I walked Swan Street. And when you get to that hilltop and you’re looking farther up the street, you see all those businesses above Second to the left and to the right.” Soares describes a snaphot from his past. “There is a basketball court and St Joseph’s. If you put your ear to the ground, you can actually hear the ghosts of people that traveled through this place. It was a vibrant place, but it looks like a bomb hit this community, and what we have left are just shells of buildings.”

And yet, Soares believes, “The good guys do win in the end. It’s not always clear when that end will be or when things are finished, but the good guys win in the end.” He picks up his key chain, which is attached to his belt, and there is a bright red Spiderman symbol, the symbol of his introduction to this country, of his belief in justice, his belief that the power to save a community starts with the guy in the street. It comes back to Spiderman, Soares explains, because, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

dking@metroland.net


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