little off the top: Deryl McCray at work.
Photo: Joe Putrock
is more than just a barbershop—it’s a haven in a troubled
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
The guys at Brick’s are doing their best to keep that tradition
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.
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
that fucking camera down!” shouted an officer. “Get off
the fucking sidewalk,” Geraci yelled at the guys from Brick’s.
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?
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.
concerned residents await the results of a Harvard health
study of Lafarge’s impact in Ravena, new questions arise
Laurie Lynn Fischer
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Lee Jamison of Schodack also took part in the blood draw
and hair swap. She lives downwind and across the river from
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,
Caryn Niedringhaus of Columbia County participated in the
study. So did her daughter, who lives in Delmar.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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,
But concerns persist.
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.
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.
don’t even have the whole RCS school district covered,”
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 lafargeravenafacts.com.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”