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Local Heroes 2008

Our annual tribute to Capital Region residents who make a difference

Heroism takes many forms. At its most dramatic, people may sacrifice or risk their lives for a valiant cause. More hushed, but equally powerful is the tireless everyday work of people who sacrifice their time, energy, comfort, and sometimes peace of mind, to do good for others, to motivate their community, to come face-to-face with hard truths, or to disrupt an established way of doing things, long due for some shaking up.

In recognizing our Local Heroes of 2008, Metroland celebrates the dedication of a handful of Capital Region residents whose daily efforts have helped to shape and strengthen their communities. Whether advocating for accessible public transportation, revitalizing a struggling neighborhood, helping prisoners get a second chance, encouraging investment in the local economy, or growing the area arts community by showcasing local and nontraditional talent, each of these local heroes is, in their own way, a driving force for much-needed change.

 

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Eric Hardiman

Like the music he gives forum to, the Albany Sonic Arts Collective cofounder is busy building a community based on open-mindedness, experimentation and synergy

‘I hate it when people complain about Albany,” says Albany Sonic Arts Collective (ASAC) co-founder Eric Hardiman, “because I’ve done it. I used to be one of those people who said, ‘It sucks here; there’s no scene, no good music.’ ”

A professor of Social Welfare at the University at Albany, Hardiman, in his move to the Capital Region, carried the memory of a weekly music series he attended as a student in Berkeley, Calif. Every Sunday night the group featured a renowned experimental musician and offered a forum for novices to hone their craft. Beyond putting on a great show, the group built a fertile community of musicians and listeners, unencumbered by the commercial music industry. While such a scene did not exist in Albany, like-minded folks did; so, in fall 2007, ASAC was born of mutual interest and good, old-fashioned grassroots initiative.

“The idea was to get people familiar with one another and to create a friendly place,” he says. “You didn’t have to be cool, young, or hip—everyone was welcome.”

The group has hosted an event every month in 2008, most often in conjunction with the Upstate Artists Guild, but more recently with Valentine’s and the Sanctuary for Independent Media, and, as of this Friday (Dec. 19), with Proctors. Relying solely on contributions at the door, the group provides a forum for diverse, nontraditional musical styles and collaboration across mediums. Free jazz, drone, electro-acoustic improvisation, and noise are the standard fare, but the group’s mission, and Hardiman’s ambition, is to keep it open enough for visual, video and spoken-word artists to collaborate.

When the group booked Sonic Youth icon Thurston Moore to perform this summer, it generated a kind of street-level hype rare to the area. After the show, Moore told Hardiman that this was precisely why he’d agreed to play the show: to support communities like the one Hardiman had helped create. In October, Moore granted the scene national attention in his column for Arthur Magazine.

Operating on little more than the generosity of volunteers, the group is gaining rapid regional recognition. Touring experimental artists contact Hardiman daily in hopes of landing a gig. A larger indicator of success, though, is that people are enjoying it.

In 2009, the group plans to apply for nonprofit legal status and to begin courting arts grants, but the vision is already in place. Hardiman hopes to foster ties with local literary groups, reach out to area colleges, run workshops for kids, and continue to provide a forum for progressive music. “I would love in five years for this whole thing to be thriving, and it can happen because people want to volunteer.”

Photo: Joe Putrock

Sharon Bates

Sharon Bates is the director of the Art & Culture Program at the Albany International Airport, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary

In a Dec. 10 column in USA Today rounding up some of the “best exhibits at a terminal near you,” blogger Harriet Baskas singled out airports in San Francisco, Dallas/Fort Worth, Phoenix, Seattle, Philadelphia, Denver—and Albany, where, she noted, you can see the soaring, site-specific installation Dream of Flight by Joy Taylor.

Sharon Bates, the director of the airport’s Art & Culture Program, has had a lot to do with the success of the Albany International Airport Gallery and the national recognition that it has earned.

“I’m very excited, and also surprised, that 10 years have passed, and we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of this program,” Bates says.

The celebration includes the exhibit A Remarkable Past: Objects of Outlandish Purpose and Astonishing Configuration. It’s a collaboration with 25 regional museums which, Bates says, “graciously loaned us items.”

What she doesn’t add is that an exhibit like this—the 25th such exhibit in 10 years—raises the profile of visual arts organizations, galleries and museums in this area—as the previously noted attention from USA Today suggests.

“The thing that probably distinguishes our program,” Bates says, “is that it is supported solely by the Albany International Airport Authority. We have a dedicated gallery space, which is pretty rare.”

But the gallery is just the beginning of the art in the airport.

“We have a minimum of 15 to 20 sites throughout the terminal, where we install site-specific works that we’ve commissioned,” Bates says. “We really try to integrate the artwork throughout the terminal, and [do so] in ways that people might not expect to be confronted by art.”

This includes the galleries in Concourse A and Concourse B, which are changed every six months. “Since we’ve instituted [these galleries],” says Bates, “we’ve sold $50,000 in just fine-art works.”

And that’s not including the gallery shop, Departure: The Shop of Capital Region Museums. This shop features, as noted on the airport Web site, “hand-crafted gifts, artwork, and historic materials from more than 70 regional museums and cultural institutions.” It’s another way to draw attention to our regional cultural resources.

Bates says that “people are proud, proud of the region and proud of the new airport. I think our program really distinguishes this airport from other travel experiences.”

 

Photo: Kathryn Lange

Harmony House Marketplace

Diane Conry La Civita and Jane La Civita Clemente of Harmony House Marketplace, Cohoes, have looked beyond their business and spearheaded a renaissance for downtown Cohoes

‘You’re looking at our life savings here, we’ve put our whole heart and soul into this, and we saw Cohoes needed a shot in the arm. We want to make it a destination spot. That is really our goal,” says Jane La Civita Clemente, sitting in the cozy bakery of Harmony House Marketplace.

Clemente was called back to the Capital Region from Thailand by a business proposition from her cousin’s wife, Diane Conroy La Civita. La Civita, a former museum director and historic preservation expert, had fallen in love with a row of historic storefronts in downtown Cohoes, and envisioned new possibilities for the mill town’s main drag.

The two women stripped the 12,000-square-foot space down to the studs on their own. They filled 54 dumpsters and chipped away five layers of linoleum before the property’s transformation into Harmony House Marketplace began.

Today, the center storefront is still in progress, flanked by the team’s first enterprise, the New York State Wine Seller, and their most recent addition, the Bake Shop. Their vision centers around promoting local produce and products. The Wine Seller’s entire selection is drawn from New York State wineries. In keeping with their mission, La Civita spearheaded the creation of the Cohoes Farmer’s Market, which the pair has welcomed into the unfinished center building for the winter.

“We realized that we had to market our business, but we also had to market the city of Cohoes,” says La Civita. Since opening Harmony House Marketplace, La Civita and Clemente have hosted monthly art shows in the restored space, created a walking tour of the city’s historic Harmony Mills district, initiated an architectural Aquaducks tour, promoted the marketplace and the city at farmers’ markets throughout the region, and secured a New York State Agriculture and Markets grant, which has enabled them to offer 18 months of educational programming, from field trips to cooking classes.

The next step in Harmony House Marketplace’s evolution is a threefold development of the main building. In the upstairs space, photographer and collagist Robert Gullie is opening a gallery, and a Dutchess county cheese maker is setting up shop. Downstairs, La Civita and Clemente will open a Tapas bar in March of 2009, which will, of course, focus on serving local produce and products, including the fresh cheeses made on-site.

After years of hard work, broken bones, and a more than $500,000 investment, the impact the duo has had on the struggling city can be seen outside their window.

“When we opened, we could do cartwheels in the street,” says La Civita. “It was so desolate.”

Barely six months after the opening, the pair was called to City Hall for a meeting about problems with parking.

“Now they’ve painted the roads with parking spots, and they put a two-hour limit on the municipal lot. That’s a huge accomplishment,” she beams. “It’s all about collaboration, yanking people in, convincing them that Cohoes is a beautiful city and a great place to visit.”

 

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Capital District Local First

Capital District Local First, in Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady counties, promotes the common interests of locally owned, independent businesses, and educates the community on the benefits of supporting a sustainable local economy

At first, says Susan Taylor, chair of Capital District Local First, the group was “an amorphous blob of people” with a shared ideal—promoting the local, independent business community—but no plan to put that ideal into action. After forming CDLF in late 2006, the founders spent most of the first year trying to build membership, and sitting around having conversations about what to do next.

The catalyst had been a November 2006 talk by Michael Shuman, author of Going Local and The Small-Mart Revolution, and cofounder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) at the Sanctuary for Independent Media. Shuman inspired his audience to think about the importance of building and supporting a strong local economy, and prodded them to take action. Among those at the talk was CDLF vice-chair Karisa Centanni (pictured, left, with Taylor), who had recently attended a BALLE conference in Burlington, Vt., to learn about local food systems in her role as education coordinator for the Honest Weight Food Co-op. But like others listening to Shuman that evening, she was beginning to see the “chain of connections” between local farms, schools, businesses, banks, etc.

At a meeting a year later, Centanni realized that all the CDLF members at the table understood the issues in a way that meant, she says, “we had grown deep.” Deep enough to start taking action: The group has now put on two successful Buy Local Bashes with vendor fairs, speakers and entertainment; brought in several national-level speakers; joined with Metroland in the Buy-Local Holiday Pledge; conducted member business tours; held regular monthly meetings; and sent four members to a BALLE conference in Boston.

The core of the CDLF message is that money spent on local businesses recirculates more vigorously in the local economy than money spent at chains. And the downside of relying on a global economy has never been more clear: “The economic collapse on Wall Street is fuel for the local independent movement,” says Centanni. “We can and should start voting with our dollars.”

While membership has steadily increased—there are now more than 75 local businesses in the network—occasionally there is a perception problem. Apparently, CDLF “is perceived by some as a left-leaning, tree-hugging organization that doesn’t have business at its heart,” says Taylor. “The fact is, we’re all working for businesses that do need to make money.”

And while the emphasis obviously is to encourage people to buy local (in 2009, the group will promote “The 10-Percent Shift,” encouraging consumers to move that much of their shopping budget from chains to independents), they also stress that they do not exist to demonize the chains. And as Taylor points out, “We’re the movement that’s prodding large corporations to be better.”

 

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Charles LaCourt

Ex-felon Charles LaCourt has dedicated himself to helping former prisoners reenter society, assisting AIDs victims and making sure Albany is a better place to live

Charles LaCourt carries two ID Cards. One is his identification card from the Hudson Correctional Facility where he was jailed. That card features a man with a plump face and a goatee; his large glasses cover eyes marked with a distant look, and his mouth forms a dejected expression. That was Charles LaCourt in the mid 1990s—a former addict, drug dealer and felon, convicted on multiple counts. LaCourt’s up-to-date ID features a svelte, clear-faced and focused man. No longer a prisoner, LaCourt carries an ID that designates him as a member of the Albany County District Attorney’s office, where he is now the Community Prosecution Coordinator. “This was me in 1997. That is who I was. And as a result of change, this is what I do today,” he says, holding up his identification.

But working for the district attorney is not all he does today. Since being released from prison in 1997, LaCourt has become a cornerstone in Albany’s volunteer community. He sets an example not only for the former prisoners he works with, but also for any member of his community who wants to make a difference.

After his release, LaCourt teamed with a number of other former inmates to start the Reentry Opportunities and Orientations Towards Success program. Since 1997, LaCourt has been the program manager at the Aids Council of Northeastern New York’s Intensive Case Management Program, and has served as the coordinator for the Center for Law and Justice’s Prevention and Empowerment Program. He has volunteered for the Boys and Girls Club of Albany’s Right to Read program. He co-founded and continues to work as a trainer in the Albany County District Attorney’s Community Accountability Board. He is the treasurer of Prisoner’s Family Services, the vice president of the Albany Latin Festival Association, and a former member of the County Alternatives to Incarceration Board. He currently sits on the New York State Reentry Advisory Group. LaCourt’s list of accomplishments and groups he works with is actually too long to list here.

“I was lucky enough that when I wanted to change, when I decided to change my life, the programs and support were there for me,” says LaCourt.

It’s clear that LaCourt has done everything in his power to be there for others when they are ready to take the step that he did.

 

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Lucile Brewer

For Lucile Brewer, who founded the Citizens for Public Transportation in hopes of improving the lives of her fellow commuters, tenacity is the hallmark

Lucile Brewer started Citizens for Public Transportation in 1997, after whetting her appetite for organized civic action with a successful campaign to bring back a bus stop that she depended upon. She was working for the state Department of Labor on the Harriman campus, and “the bus used to come up to our door. And then one day they moved the stop to another building, and that was way far away,” Brewer said. She circulated a petition, which led to meetings with a CDTA representative, and the stop was finally brought back.

Brewer was in her early 60s at the time. “I had never done such a thing in my life. And they listened. I figured, well, maybe if they listened, maybe it is worth it for us to go further,” she said. “I was innocent then.” She now calls her group’s relationship with CDTA “friendly enemies.”

Every one of Brewer’s victories has been part of the slow process of establishing her group’s credibility and forging necessary connections with CDTA. In the beginning, it was difficult to get the attention of CDTA—now, they send a representative to her meetings, and the head of CDTA, Ray Melleady, can be convinced to speak before her group. Even Assemblyman Jack McEneny will take the time for Brewer. They appeared together on former Schenectady Mayor Frank Duci’s public-access talk show. “I was tongue-tied when I saw [McEneny] at first,” Brewer remembers. “That might not mean as much to some people, but it meant a lot to me.”

Not all of her efforts have led to victories. When Colonie Center ended the longtime practice of CDTA buses coming right up to an entrance of the shopping plaza, Brewer and her cohorts fought a protracted and ultimately disappointing battle. And now, as the state faces a budget catastrophe, Brewer is engaged in another grim battle: to keep CDTA from boosting the fares and cutting back routes. She isn’t overly hopeful. The economy is a mess, she knows, and the state and federal government have cut back on the amount they will contribute. A fare hike might be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean she is giving up. Why place more of a burden on the people who rely on buses?

Brewer is consumed with the fight for public transit. She has relied on Albany’s buses since 1971, and she understands the need for a safe, affordable, and extensive CDTA system. She is willing, and quite happy, to fight the long, drawn-out battles to help secure that service for everyone.


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