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Local Heroes

A special tribute to 20 Capital Region institutions that make a difference—and have been doing so for 30 years or more

Every year at this time, Metro land honors a handful of area residents who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to make the Capital Region better, healthier, more interesting, more just, or more beautiful: artists, activists, community volunteers and role models, champions of the underdog, people who have shown extraordinary grace under pressure, occasionally even elected officials. In this year’s edition, we are taking a break from our usual Local Heroes format to salute 20 institutions that have helped to make the Capital Region special for 30 years or longer. This year we celebrated our own 30th year, beginning with an anniversary edition in early February; this tribute, we hope, will make a fitting bookend to a special year.

Albany Institute

Photo: Joe Putrock

Albany Institute of History & Art

Older than the Smithsonian Institution, the Louvre and the Met, the Albany Institute of History & Art traces its roots back to 1791—when George Washington was president of our fledgling nation. One hundred years ago, Albany Mayor Charles Henry Gaus declared the museum “the capstone of educational development in our city,” and the institute sustains that legacy to this day. The museum’s extensive collections include more than 20,000 objects—from the fine landscapes of the Hudson River school to a six-pack of Hendrick’s “political” beer—all dynamically interpreted to promote the history, art and culture of the Upper Hudson Valley. The Institute’s ongoing research, publications, educational programming and exhibitions continually enrich the public knowledge of our region, and remind us that “Smallbany” boasts a big history, and a rich culture to be proud of.

Albany Symphony Orchestra

Founded in the early days of the Great Depression as the “People’s Orchestra of Albany,” the Albany Symphony Orchestra has remained committed to the idea that music can be a life-affirming force, equally important in hard times as the good. For nearly 80 years, the venerable institution has performed, commissioned and recorded the work of emerging American composers alongside classical music’s great works. A true people’s orchestra, the group balances its performance schedule with educational programs such as Tiny Tots, Community Classics, and Meet the Maestro, where conductor David Alan Miller visits schools to teach the symphony’s upcoming program.

Albany Symphony Orchestra

Animal Protective Foundation

Tough times like the ones we’re living through, with economic disasters forcing people to give up their pets, only reinforce the importance of an organization like the Animal Protective Foundation. Dedicated to the care and protection of domestic animals, the APF offers shelter to cats, dogs and small animals (including rabbits and ferrets); facilitates home placements for these homeless pets; and provides spaying and neutering services to help control out-of-control populations (more than 14,000 spayed or neutered since 1993). Founded in Schenectady in 1931, the now- Scotia-based organization has a reputation for excellent care and thoroughness in pet placement.

Arts Center of the Capital Region

For nearly 50 years, the Arts Center of the Capital Region has been an invaluable member of our local arts community. The center has consistently provided space for exciting exhibits, as well as a full schedule of classes and programs to engage the public in the creation of the arts. The center brings around 12,000 people a year to its downtown Troy location, which features spacious galleries and well-equipped studios for a wide variety of classes specializing in the culinary arts, dance, drawing and painting, fashion design, electronic media, woodworking, yoga, and many other disciplines. The center also offers a number of children’s camps throughout the year.

Caffe Lena

When founder Lena Spencer died in 1989, the history of her coffeehouse—a folk institution she and her husband Bill opened in 1960—faced its own premature end. But the Saratoga Springs community rallied around the cultural center that hosted some of Bob Dylan’s earliest performances, the first live rendition of Don McLean’s “American Pie,” and countless shows by the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Utah Phillips and Emmylou Harris, turning the small room at the top of the stairs into a volunteer- supported nonprofit. Committed to “simplicity, kindness to strangers, and art above profit,” the venue is recognized as the oldest continually running coffeehouse in the United States, and was named Best Small Venue in North America by the International Folk Alliance.

Capital District Community Gardens

It’s a simple idea, but its effect on the way our community cares for itself is huge. Since 1975, the Capital District Community Gardens has been giving residents the land, tools and know-how to grow their own food, a service that directly enhances public health, cuts the cost of living, and transforms vacant lots into green spaces. Beyond the 46 cooperative neighborhood gardens the organization manages throughout the region, the nonprofit offers gardening classes, the Produce Project youth outreach program, urban tree planting, and the Veggie Mobile, a roving vegetable stand targeting the area’s underserved inner-city neighborhoods.

The Eighth Step

The indefatigable natures of both the Eighth Step and director Margie Rosenkranz are as strong as the folk, country and blues music the organization has celebrated and presented since 1967. After being located in a cozy Albany church space for a couple of decades, the then-Eighth Step Coffee House was forced to find a new space. After a sojourn in Cohoes, the Eighth Step found that new home at the GE Theatre at Proctors. There, the best singers, songwriters and musicians help keep the folk tradition alive and well. Just check our calendar listings if you don’t believe us.

 

Historic Albany Foundation

Equinox Community Services Agency

For many people in the Capital Region, Equinox has been a lifeline and a safe harbor. Equinox offers free medical exams, a youth shelter and an independent-living placement program for children, a community services center, counseling for substance abuse, and multiple programs to assist the victims of domestic violence. And this is just a sampling of the numerous services and resources Equinox offers the community of the Capital Region. A highly respected organization, Equinox brings thousands of volunteers together every Thanksgiving to prepare and deliver food to the most underserved members of our community.

Family Life Center

The Family Life Center, founded in 1967, is an integral part of what makes Albany’s Mansion Neighborhood a community. Their mission is to provide support and education for families during the childbearing years, through a holistic approach, which includes classes in prenatal yoga, active birth and breastfeeding. There are support groups for new parents, and separate groups for new mothers and fathers. The end result is a vibrant, supportive community of people dedicated to easing the burdens that can arise during the childbearing experience, and helping to make the experience of new parents joyful—and many of those people live right in the neighborhood.

Hubbard Hall

Food Pantries for the Capital District

Since 1979, Food Pantries for the Capital District has been “a voice for those who are hungry”—not to mention a generous source of food. What began as a coalition of 10 member churches has grown with demand to include 50 area food pantries, serving more than 2 million meals per year and a 3-to-5 day supply of groceries for every person who comes through its doors. With the Food Shuttle, volunteers rescue day-old food from local retailers, along with donated goods, to distribute among the pantries and through programs such as the Infant Needs Project and Holiday Meals Program.

Hamilton Hill Arts Center

For four decades, the Hamilton Hill Arts Center has served as a safe haven and creative venue for inner-city children. Focusing on African and African-American culture, the center hosts art exhibits in its gallery, as well as an annual Kwaanza celebration and the CultureFest Summer Concert Series. The center’s Arts in Education program brings African art and history to schools throughout the Capital Region. Every year, more than 300 “at-risk youth” find guidance and confidence through this nonprofit arts center, and are nurtured in the center’s peaceful, unique environment.

Maude Baum

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Historic Albany Foundation

From towering cathedrals to modest row houses, the architectural environment of a city is defining of both its history and character. For 35 years, Historic Albany Foundation has proven a fierce champion for the preservation of the city’s architectural treasures. The foundation’s threefold mission provides preservation advocacy for endangered buildings, as well as public education and technical assistance to property owners. The organization has spearheaded the preservation of many beloved buildings, and their tireless staff and volunteers have salvaged countless irreplaceable “architectural parts.” You can find everything from clawfoot tubs and keyholes to finials and front doors at their parts warehouse—the oldest of its ilk in the country. They’ll even help you obtain grants for restorative work, unearth the history of your historic home, or learn how to repair your old sash windows.

Hubbard Hall

Nestled unimposingly on the quaint Main Street of Cambridge, Hubbard Hall opera house stands as both a rare historic treasure and a vital community center. Three decades ago, the hundred-year-old hall was reinvented as a community arts center in rural Washington County, and the small town has thrived around the vibrant hub of culture and community. Today, Hubbard Hall serves as home to an art gallery, co-op and village store, as well as a critically acclaimed theater company and dance program, and one of the most diverse and active workshop calendars in the area. Their recent partnership with the Cambridge Freight Yard Revitalization Project has allowed Hubbard Hall to significantly expand their programming, while stimulating the Battenkill economy and preserving one the region’s important historic assets.

Maude Baum & Company

Maude Baum’s dance company is one of the original forces that helped make Lark Street, well, Lark Street. The historic eba Theatre and dance studio, located in a classic 19th-century former lodge building at Hudson Avenue and Lark Street, is in the heart of the neighborhood. The dance and exercise classes offered there have enhanced the neighborhood experience for residents and office workers alike. And we haven’t even mentioned Baum’s renown as a choreographer and dancer, the high level of talent she has attracted to her dance company over the years, or the extensive arts-in- education programs she and her company have presented in area schools.

Proctors

Proctors

At the time of its inception in 1926, and now in its 21st-century reincarnation, Proctors has anchored Schenectady’s downtown culture. The ornate vaudville house has served as everything from a “talkie”-era movie theater, to the site of television’s first public demonstration, to the set of a Mariah Carey music video. The theater’s rich history has even earned it a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. After a volunteer-led community revival in the late ’70s, and a 2003 expansion, Proctors Mainstage has become a tour destination for lavish “direct from Broadway” shows, while the addition of the GE Theatre and 440 Upstairs has helped turn Schenectady into what they like to call “the Capital Region’s arts district.”

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

If you were to pick up a Metroland Best Of issue—any Best Of issue—you’d find the Clark Art Institute is that year’s winner for Best Museum. There’s an obvious reason for that; it boasts incredible collections and hosts amazing traveling shows. But the Clark is more than the sum of its collections. There are lectures and curator talks, parties and gala events, classical and popular music concerts, and one of the best-thought-out film series in the region. There is also the Clark’s partnerships with other area institutions—like MASS MoCA—which makes it a key player in the regional cultural scene. And admission is free in the winter.

Clark Art Institute

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall

The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall had fallen into hard times in the latter half of the 20th Century as the slow decline of Troy’s downtown threatened to shutter the music hall, which had played host to some of the world’s top musicians for nearly 100 years. In 1979, a group of local arts patrons made the concerted effort to not only save the hall, but also give it a new life. Their successful effort led the way to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Corporation, a nonprofit, that has since continued to bring world-class musicians to one of the region’s world-class venues.

United Tenants of Albany

For three decades, United Tenants of Albany has sought to make housing in the low- and moderate-income neighborhoods in the Capital Region affordable and safe. This community-based nonprofit fights to protect the rights of tenants who often find themselves living in substandard housing, or abused by their landlords. UTA has worked for adherence to local building codes, rent regulations, and the development of affordable housing. UTA partners with a number of other local nonprofits and neighborhood associations in its aim to extend “housing equity” to many of the region’s tenants.

Unity House

Since 1971, Unity House has tried, as one of its founders Mary Jane Smith said, “to be everything to every man, woman and child who walked through the door.” In trying to achieve this high standard of charity, Unity House has grown to provide numerous resources to the people of Rensselaer County and surrounding communities, including crisis intervention, advocacy, encouragement and support. Unity House strives to serve those who are struggling with poverty, with mental illness, domestic violence, and many other challenges.

Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood

Since its original inception as the Albany Mother’s Health Center in 1934, Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood has served the Capital Region as an unflagging advocate for healthy sexuality and reproductive choice. Today, UHPP operates three health centers in Albany, Hudson and Troy, offering comprehensive reproductive health care and family-planning services to more than 12,000 patients annually. The organization’s commitment to community education has brought about an array of programming, including the award-winning S.T.A.R.S. program (Seriously Talking About Responsible Sex), which provides factual information about responsible sexual health through peer education. For generations, UHPP has been a cornerstone in the network of human services and a tenacious voice in the fight for reproductive rights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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