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A little off the top: Deryl McCray at work.

Photo: Joe Putrock

The Standard

Brick’s is more than just a barbershop—it’s a haven in a troubled neighborhood

By David King

Deryl McCray was about 12 years old when he realized he didn’t like the way his uncle cut his hair. So he did something about it. “I figured if he let me use clippers I’d probably do a better job than he did,” he says. His uncle let him give it a try, and McCray promptly put his uncle out of the family hair-cutting business.

“I did a good job,” he says. “My brothers saw it and they wanted my uncle to stop cutting their hair, and eventually my uncles saw it and they let me cut their hair, and then it became a venture from that day, where I became like the little community barber.” After finishing high school in Washington state, McCray enlisted in the Army, became a paratrooper and served in the Gulf War. After he’d served four years, it was a woman who lured him to Albany. His wife had ties to the area, so McCray made the move. But the job opportunities he looked into didn’t pan out.

“That’s when I remembered one of the things my mother always told me as a kid: ‘Whatever you choose to do in life, make sure you love it, because if you love it you will stick to it and do your best at it.’” So, in 1999, McCray opened Brick’s barbershop on Central Avenue.

The business currently has three partners: McCray, Jason Ellis and Daiwan Perry, as well as seven barbers.

“I wanted a name that is symbolic of structure, and Brick’s just came to mind,” says the stocky McCray, who sports a wide smile as he sits with his business partner Jason Ellis in the backroom of his barbershop. The walls of the room are covered with autographs from celebrities, musicians and athletes who frequent the shop. Senate Democratic Conference leader John Sampson is said to be a regular, as is Jason’s cousin, Corey Ellis. Brick’s has relocated twice since 1999 and has expanded its ranks of barbers.

Out front, NFL games play on flat-screen TVs that hang over the barber chairs. “Every barber represents a brick,” says McCray. “Every customer represents a brick; we put them together and we build.” What exactly McCray has built with his two other partners and seven barbers is a safe haven—a reliable community cornerstone in a neighborhood notorious for its lack of stability.

Outside on this early December Sunday, the crisp winter air pushes bundled-up pedestrians on Albany’s lower Central Avenue toward their destinations faster than usual. This isn’t the safest neighborhood—and they know that—but frostbite is the main concern for most, except for a man in a baggy jogging suit who stands out in the open urinating on the side of the fried-chicken joint across the street. Two apparently homeless men stand outside a corner store barking at each other over some debt while beer sloshes from the paper-bag-wrapped bottles they hold.

Inside Brick’s, there is a different atmosphere than the one that typically pervades this stretch of Albany’s biggest commercial street. First of all, it is warm inside—not only the temperature, but the social atmosphere. People inside greet you personally with a firm handshake. No one is asked to stop loitering; people sit in the big black couches and relax while taking in the games. The only major requirement seems to be the one stated on the sign on the outside of the building, which says, “Please No Cursing.”

At Brick’s, people of every age walk in the door smiling. They pull back their hoods, unwrap their scarves, and hang up their coats to settle in for a while.

“We’re a family shop,” says McCray. “We see kids born and see them off to college and then come back to the community. We’re hood psychologists, we’re counselors, we’re educators.”

The shop has run health fairs, reached out to the Albany Police Department and partnered with agencies to mentor troubled teens. Even so, these men’s jobs require more community interaction than most would think. McCray and Ellis say they have intervened to stop gun violence. “We’ve got kids come in that wanna know what to do, man,” says McCray. “We’ve stopped gun violence. You’ve got a kid with a lot of pressure living in the inner city coming in here and he’s got in a squabble out on the streets, and by street standards the next thing for him to do is retaliate in violence. Man, we’ve gotten in the middle, squashed beefs, stopped things. Kids know that Brick’s is safe—not only kids but men, grown men! They know, ‘I can come in here, get a haircut, and I can close my eyes.’”

Jason Ellis knows how powerful the barbershop can be, as he himself was pulled from a dark place in his life by the influence of his barber.

After college, Ellis’ father passed away, and he was unsure what to do with himself. “You go through a mental breakdown a little bit, a fear of life—what do I do? What do I do to survive? I’ve got training here and there but I don’t want to do those things. So I came to the shop and started getting haircuts from Deryl and John at True Images, and I talked to them about it, and they were joking, laughing, saying ‘Man, you can’t cut no hair,’ and I was like, ‘Hook me up!’”

So they gave him a chance. “They were like, ‘Want a spot man? Come here with a client or one of your boys and show me a demo cut.’ I showed them a demo cut; it was terrible!” Ellis laughs. “But by the grace of god these guys gave me an opportunity.”

Ellis says he took full advantage of McCray’s tutoring, and soon his vision of the business went from one of pure monetary concern to something bigger.

“After a while you gain relationships with people; you realize business is bigger than that,” says Ellis. “You can influence someone and be a solid pillar in their life, ’cause they don’t have that, and they see this person is constantly there, constantly a friend, constantly has good energy—and I loved that.”

For McCray, Ellis’ story epitomizes what Brick’s is about, what it does for the community. “He was affected by the barbershop. He knew, ‘I can come here, get strength and support.’ When I met Jason he was a young man and full of fire, but he hit a wall in his life when he lost his father. He needed something, and he reached out to us and we embraced him.”

But it isn’t just the lost who come to Brick’s looking for advice. Politicians and businessmen come to Brick’s looking to relax and bounce their ideas off the barbers. Former City Councilman and mayoral candidate Corey Ellis says he goes to Brick’s to continue the tradition he started in his youth by getting his hair cut at Herman Cockfield’s Three Star Barber Shop on South Pearl Street.

“Herman’s place was where everyone would go,” says Ellis. “It gave young men in the community great opportunities. If you were gonna run for office you went to Herman’s, if you were a visiting African-American politician you went to Herman’s. It was the anchor on that corner for so many years.”

Ellis says when he goes to Brick’s now, customers take the time to talk to him about “what is really going on” in the news. He says that in some ways the community barbershop is the exclusive news provider for some residents of the inner city. “The barber shop isn’t just a business; it is a place of refuge, it’s a place of opportunity for the African-American community.”

The guys at Brick’s are doing their best to keep that tradition going.

“A guy told me,” says McCray,’” I could cut my son’s hair. I could cut my own hair. But I bring him here for him to see what I see. You’ve got 10 black men working together harmoniously, and that is something.’”

McCray says that “people see standards in Brick’s in a community that lacks standards, and that’s what we want to do—raise the standard in the community, be a standard to where we are saying, ‘Look, you don’t have to sell drugs. You don’t have to commit crimes just because of where you are and what you see. We happen to be a little island right in the middle of Baghdad, for a lack of a better term. We’re a little island where there is a standard.”

Jason Ellis cranes his head to view the action out on the barbershop floor. The sound of the door chimes echoes into the back room, and the room erupts with cheers or shouts about one of the football games. “When you walk in the door you sit down, lay back, relax and take your mind off a couple things; it’s almost like a country club for the community.”

As comfortable as things are at Brick’s, the barbers there still have their work cut out for them when it comes to educating the kids who come through the door, because the realities of the street do not simply disappear after the hair is dusted off their shoulders.

“People at Brick’s tell me they see a lot of kids who don’t trust the police, they don’t trust authority, but we have to lead by example,” says Corey Ellis.

The problem with that is despite the effort they have put into educating kids and telling them they need to work with the police—not be scared to report a crime or call them when they need them—the barbershop itself has had unpleasant interactions with the police.

In January 2008, an incident with the police took place in front of 16 Bars, a shop just a few storefronts down from Brick’s. Officer Mike Geraci was involved in an altercation with a man who double-parked his car in the street to unload product into his business. The situation escalated, and barbers and patrons of Brick’s went outside to watch what was happening. When an officer shoved the man’s wife, people began voicing their displeasure and started filming the incident. This reporter was present as the entire situation played out.

“Put that fucking camera down!” shouted an officer. “Get off the fucking sidewalk,” Geraci yelled at the guys from Brick’s.

“I know my rights. This is my business. I can be on the sidewalk in front of my business,” McCray told Geraci. “I don’t care what you know!” Geraci shouted back. Then McCray demanded Geraci’s badge number. Geraci gave it to him but said, “You sure you can spell? You don’t look like you can spell.”

Geraci returned after Metroland ran an article about the incident and apologized to McCray. But McCray doesn’t feel that the apology was exactly sincere. He thinks Geraci was motivated to apologize because he found out that Brick’s is an established and respected anchor in the community.

So how does McCray communicate to kids who come to his shop that it is important to work with the police when he himself has had bad experiences with them?

“What we tell them is that, ‘Listen, there’s good people and bad people, there’s good cops and bad cops. You want to connect with good people.’ We put ourselves out to be a conduit to the police department to bring about understanding. The police have a tough job. It’s not easy being a police officer. A lot of people make their jobs difficult, and then you’ve got some bad officers who make it difficult on the community.”

But McCray says he plans to keep working on things and reaching out to the APD. “It’s unfortunate that we are in a community that needs a whole lot of development. We hope someday soon some things can transpire so it becomes a whole lot more peaceful—not just for us as businessmen who see what’s going on and stress over it, but for the people who live here just as I do.”

The conversation winds down as more customers pour into the shop out of the biting cold wind. The football games are coming to their conclusion, but I’m not done here yet. I head to the ATM and return. McCray is waiting. “You ready?” he asks. I nod and sit down in the sturdy black barber’s chair. He asks me what I want. “Just make it less messy, please,” I say. He drapes the smock over me, wraps the paper around my neck, and turns on the clippers. Then he goes to work cleaning up my unkempt trim. He takes out an array of tools, gets the hair at the bottom of my neck. “So, what is your story, Dave?” he asks. “Where you grow up?” I relax and spill my guts: my parents’ divorce, my troubled childhood split between an exclusive private school and school for emotionally troubled youth. “I don’t deserve this luxury,” I think to myself. Only a few days ago I moved out of an apartment in the building adjacent to Brick’s, where I lived for five years, to new digs in Center Square. I feel guilty. But for the first time I feel safe in this neighborhood. I feel completely at home.


Photo: Alicia Solsman

Heavy-Metal Skepticism

As concerned residents await the results of a Harvard health study of Lafarge’s impact in Ravena, new questions arise

By Laurie Lynn Fischer


On one side of Route 9W in Ravena, a cement plant has been spewing toxins into the air since 1962, earning notoriety as one of New York’s top polluters.

On the other side sits Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Middle and High School. Since 1961, thousands of 11- to 18-year-olds have spent seven hours a day there, five days a week, nine months a year, for seven years before graduating.

They breathe the air. They roll on the fields. They startle in their seats when Lafarge blasts in the vast quarry behind the school.

Sometimes ash rains from the sky. Particles collect on vehicles in the parking lot and along the roadside. On the school roof, what appears to be cement dust gunks up the ventilation filters.

Students contract rare cancers. They develop asthma, autism, allergies and learning disabilities. More of them than in the general population? That’s the question the people of Ravena have been asking.

Heavy metals cause just such health problems. A scientific study of soil, plants and animals around the Lafarge cement plant found elevated levels of heavy metals on school grounds and elsewhere in the area last year.

Michael Bank from the Harvard University School of Public Health is wrapping up another study of heavy-metal concentrations in people living near Lafarge. Focusing on the school is the “logical next step,” he says.

“Being realistic, we would have to set up air quality monitors when the kids are in school and tie in public health outcomes there,” he says. RCS “might be a good candidate” for a ground-level air-quality study of 20 schools nationwide that the United States Environmental Protection Agency is undertaking, he adds.

Bank envisions a biomonitoring project that would last from five to 10 years. It would likely include urine analysis and look into neurodevelopment, educational responses and cognition, he says.

RCS school board member John Vadney said he would give his children the choice of participating in such a study.

“A half-truth is a whole lie,” he says. “Let’s get down to business here and find out nothing but the truth. Let’s get some tests. If we’re poisoned let’s deal with it. I clearly want to see what the individuals from Harvard are going to do. I think they’re going to come out with some accurate studies and go from there.”

Vadney and his family took part in Bank’s initial study. The Ivy League researcher expects to release the results after the holidays. He gathered hair and blood samples from 185 people who live within 10 miles of the factory to determine concentrations of the elements arsenic, selenium, lead, cadmium, mercury and aluminum.

However, on the eve of the sampling, the New York State Health Department told Bank he couldn’t give out individual results. To continue with his work, he changed his release form so participants could not learn whether they or their children had high levels of heavy metals in their systems. The reason: Harvard’s state-of-the-art laboratory was not certified by New York state.

Those who gave samples were outraged.

“I think it’s an abomination that New York state will not accept the results of a laboratory that probably exceeds—as far as certification—most of the labs in New York state,” Bob Ross of New Baltimore said in October. “I think they have a legal responsibility. By law, any laboratory is required to report any person with a high level of lead to the County Health Department.”

Lee Jamison of Schodack also took part in the blood draw and hair swap. She lives downwind and across the river from Lafarge.

“I was surprised to hear that I couldn’t receive my own health info from Harvard, because the NYS Health Dept was ‘protecting’ me!?!? LOL,” she e-mailed. “I just lost my Mom this February to Leukemia, which she developed after relocating here 6 years ago. Seems like NYS Health Dept is protecting Lafarge, not me.”

Caryn Niedringhaus of Columbia County participated in the study. So did her daughter, who lives in Delmar.

“I think the DEC and health department are totally in bed with the corporations,” Niedringhaus said in October. “Where’s the protection? I don’t see it, because there is none. There are five organic farms right across the Hudson River from the plant. As the wind blows, we’re about 11 miles away.”

Thanks to a significant cash outlay by Harvard, some individual test results will now become available. Only group results of hair samples will be released, because Harvard’s lab handled the hair. However, individuals can learn their blood test results. Instead of analyzing the blood samples in-house, the University shouldered “substantial cost” to send them to a New York State certified lab.

“We went the extra mile,” Bank says. “It says a lot about the institution’s commitment to public health information dissemination. That’s part of our mission.”

Harvard is also going to conduct isotope testing, which pinpoints the specific origin of types of mercury, says Elyse Kunz, cofounder of the grass-roots group Community Advocates for Safe Emissions. CASE was formed by people who worried that the cement plant may be making them and their loved ones sick. Kunz has lived in Coeymans for most of her life.

“I’ve had a lot of respiratory issues,” she says. “I grew up with problems with asthma. All the symptoms went away when I moved out of Ravena. They returned when I came back to Ravena.”

Last year, a pregnant mouse with a cocktail of heavy metals in her blood was found on Kunz’s property during a study that now-retired New York State wildlife pathologist Ward Stone performed on his own time. The fetuses had elevated metal levels too. If these toxins can cross the placental barrier in small mammals, what about larger ones? Humans, for instance?

“It would be wise to move the school to a new place,” says Stone. It’s not only emissions that pose a health risk. There’s also limestone dust, he says. It spills off Lafarge’s conveyor belt, and trucks track it through town. It collects in puddles and eventually makes its way toward the Hudson River.

A naturally occurring element in limestone, mercury is released under high heat.

Especially in its methyl form, it interferes with the nervous system and brain, causing birth defects, developmental disabilities and decreased IQ.

In January 2009, state officials told the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk School Board to rest easy about the cement kilns across the street. Mercury from the smokestack is a pure element that is excreted in urine if we breathe it in, scientists from the health department and the Department of Environmental Conservation told the board. It is methyl mercury, they said, that causes mercury poisoning.

Airborne mercury can travel great distances, so it’s difficult to pinpoint where it comes back down again. Once it falls, microorganisms convert it into methyl mercury, fish eat the microorganisms and, in turn, people can be poisoned from eating the fish. Many fish from New York’s waterways are unsafe to eat, including game fish from the Catskills and Adirondacks.

“We feel confident that any adverse effects on anyone associated with Lafarge are extremely minimal,” said Jan Storm, toxicological assessment section chief at the New York State Department of Health Center for Environmental Health.

“People were very concerned,” Tom Gentile, chief of the Air Toxics Section of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, told the school board. “They were wondering if they were being poisoned by the mercury emissions from the plant. The answer to that is ‘No.’ ”

Lafarge’s emissions are within EPA limits, the officials said, citing a $250,000 smokestack emissions study underwritten by Lafarge. The results were akin to those from similar facilities and the testing complied with government regulations, they said.

But concerns persist.

“As statewide agencies protecting the public health, why is the state relying on a study commissioned by Lafarge?” asks Sarah Hafensteiner, school board president and mother of four. Since Lafarge controlled the testing, results could be “adjusted” to a “comfortable level,” she suggested.

CASE and Friends of Hudson asked the health department to delve into its archives for public health records on people living near Lafarge. These watchdog groups asked repeatedly to meet with health department officials about that data.

Instead, this fall, health department officials discussed the information behind closed doors with Lafarge representatives. Then, in late November, the health department issued a report that found no more illness around Lafarge than elsewhere in the state.

“I’m not confident in the applicability of the findings in terms of the real health impacts on the residents,” says Friends of Hudson spokeswoman Susan Falzon.

Vadney says he distrusts the health department’s study because it is based on a smokestack test that used unprotected samples.

Kunz calls the report “completely inconclusive.” She says that only five zip codes were included in the study. Her zip code in Coeymans was not included.

“They don’t even have the whole RCS school district covered,” she says.

This is only the first of a two-part report that brings together existing environmental data and health outcome data, said Prohonic. The second part will be completed using the information from the first.

Just before the Health Department released its report, like a one-two punch, Lafarge submitted to the state the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for its proposed plant upgrade. The document addresses more than two dozen environmental factors, including air emissions, noise, traffic, water consumption and visual impact.

Once approved, this document becomes the permit for building and running the updated plant. It can be viewed at Hard copies can be found at town halls in Coeymans, Stuyvesant, Chatham, Kinderhook, Schodack, Castleton, New Baltimore and Hannacroix, or at Kinderhook, North Chatham, RCS, Chatham and Valatie public libraries.

The revamp will allow Lafarge Ravena to increase the volume of cement that it manufactures and better compete in the global marketplace, says John Reagan, the company’s environmental manager.

“The facility’s capacity will increase from approximately 1.72 million to 2.81 million short tons of clinker per year,” the DEIS says.

Regan says construction could begin next year and operation should begin in 2015.

The Portland Cement technology that Lafarge employs today was considered to be cutting-edge when Atlantic Cement built the Ravena plant 48 years ago. The process was outdated by the time Lafarge bought it from Blue Circle Cement in 2001. Lafarge wants to switch from two long, wet, horizontal kilns to a dry, single-kiln system that recycles heat and uses less water.

Lafarge has a permit from New York state to burn tires and coal in the revamped plant. Electrical use and greenhouse gas emissions will increase, but fuel use will decrease by 40 percent, according to the DEIS. Most harmful emissions should fall or hold steady, it says, while carbon monoxide output is expected to rise. Lafarge plans to continuously monitor emissions with modern air-pollution controls.

Lafarge’s 325-foot cylindrical smokestack has long been a local landmark. Now, the company wants to demolish it and replace it with something higher and wider—a 525-foot tall box-shaped tower with sides that are 75 by 100 feet long.

“It’s the size of an office building,” says Kunz. “It’s really going to dominate the landscape.”

For several months of the construction cycle, the project should generate up to 800 construction jobs, injecting an estimated $120 million worth of earnings into regional households, Reagan says. More than $30 million likely will be pumped into local supplies and services, he said.

The DEC held a Dec. 8 public information meeting about the DEIS. Statements about the document will be accepted at a legislative public hearing scheduled for 6 PM on Jan. 20 at the RCS High School auditorium.

“We’ve been waiting for it,” Falzon says. “We’ve pushed for the modernization and now we’re looking to make sure it’s as good as it can be for our region. It’s got to be significantly better than the old plant. Our primary concern is air quality issues, including fugitive dust and mercury.”

Friends of Hudson is interested in traffic and visual impacts, Falzon says. The organization—which fought unsuccessfully to block the tire burning permit—has opposed the existing plant since 2003.

“We have not advocated for putting Lafarge out of business in Ravena,” Falzon says. “We’ve been in favor of Lafarge cleaning it up from the very beginning. It’s our belief that existing industry has a right to operate, but not in blatant disregard for the health and safety of residents of the region. Up until now, Lafarge has operated with impunity.”

This September, the EPA finalized laws that will limit mercury emissions for the first time ever, starting in 2013. The legislation mandates an 83- to 97-percent cut in the output of mercury, particulate matter, hydrogen chloride and hydrocarbons at more than 100 cement kilns across North America. The change should save the public billions in health costs and prevent thousands of premature deaths, heart and respiratory incidents, the EPA estimates.

Even after the restrictions kick in, Lafarge Ravena may legally send 176 pounds of mercury per year into the atmosphere. At this rate, Lafarge will be allowed to discharge 8,800 pounds of mercury by the time it expends its limestone supply in another 50 years or so.

Last month, the Portland Cement Association, representing more than 40 of the continent’s largest cementmakers—challenged the EPA limits in court.

“The Lafarge plant in Ravena New York has been operating for almost 50 years without the proposed emissions limits and has perpetrated the myth that it is perfectly safe and legal,” Falzon says. “We’ll never know just how much damage has been done to the public health and the environment, but we know that without EPA limits, these companies will continue to pollute with impunity and continue to expose the public to unnecessarily high levels of dangerous emissions.”

Those living within 30 miles of Lafarge Ravena were awarded $490,000 in settlement money this fall under an agreement between Lafarge North America, the EPA and 13 states that host Lafarge cement plants. The corporation also agreed to curb emissions of the respiratory toxins sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide at all of its plants in the United States.

Though nobody has established causality between illness and Lafarge Ravena, environmental whistle-blower-turned-consultant Erin Brokovich came to Ravena in 2009 on a fishing trip for the class-action law firm Weitz & Luxembourg. It’s not clear that she got any bites, but Kunz says, “Weitz & Luxembourg is continuing to follow what’s happening in Ravena. They’re going to be just as interested in what Dr. Bank finds as everyone else is.”

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