annual tribute to Capital Region residents who make a difference
is an act of community and urban renewal for the Marketplace
Gallery’s Samson Contompasis.
still views art as a pat-on-the-head kind of thing. We are
the capital city of New York and I want us to start acting
like it,” says Samson Contompasis, artist and curator of
the Marketplace Gallery, an airy loft in downtown Albany’s
historic industrial Greenbush Tape and Label Building. “There’s
so much potential here, it’s retarded.”
story of the Marketplace Gallery is, by now, just as pervasive
in the local arts community as Contompasis himself, whose
dark beard and ponytail cut a distinctive image at art events
around the area. After a fire ravaged the gallery he and
his two brothers ran last August, they reopened this February.
Since then, Contompasis says, curating boundary-pushing
shows and organizing local arts events has become “every
second of my life, everything I make, the true love of what
The Marketplace Gallery has become a hub of “ultra-contemporary”
street-art-inspired work, showing local artists alongside
up-and-comers from New York City, Boston, France and Israel.
But, as a born-and-raised Albanian, Contompasis feels a
“moral obligation of cultural responsibility” toward enhancing
Albany’s cultural profile as much as his own brand.
got this sad, broken image of dumb-ass state senators that
fuck everything up for everyone,” he says. “Even the people
who live in Albany have succumbed to this image. Art is
meant to inspire, anger, love. It brings that out of them.
It says, ‘Give a fuck!’” Having lived in cities like Portland,
Ore., and seen how other postindustrial towns like Pittsburgh
and Baltimore have turned themselves around by “letting
young ideas work,” Contompasis has taken to collaborating
on the kind of events that attempt to “shake people out
of their chairs.”
Contompasis is a champion networker, promoting the work
of the area’s artists with wild enthusiasm and spearheading
a number of collaborative projects that have made huge strides
in unifying the energy of the local arts community.
In July, the Marketplace Gallery teamed with the Historic
Albany Foundation for HEAVY, a massive show of art, installations
and music in Albany’s historic St. Joseph’s Church. Proceeds
went toward the ongoing restoration of the landmark space,
which has reciprocally become increasingly available to
the arts community. “We’ve had three mayors in 100 years,”
says Contompasis. “That shouldn’t even be legal. The only
thing that’s happened is more and more buildings have been
In addition to another St. Joseph’s event this summer, Contompasis
is organizing a citywide show modeled on Atlanta’s huge
Living Walls mural and poster show. “My intention is to
find pretty much every bare wall we can get in Albany and
access the world’s great street artists who are willing
to come here and do something like this.
looking to change the entire scape of Albany,” he says.
It’s both an artistic and cultural mission. “I want to go
to a specialty macaroni-and-cheese shop in Albany. I want
there to be seven coffee shops. It’s a matter of people
needing to take a chance. I want my home to be as great
as all the places that I love.”
Keefe, as cofounder of Birthnet and as an activist on the
local and national levels, has been a tireless advocate
for women’s birth choices and midwifery.
should not have to go into childbirth fully steeped in this
to protect themselves,” says Carolyn Keefe. “They should
just be able to go in and get the care we all deserve.”
Unfortunately, as Keefe, a consumer advocate for evidence-based
maternity care and access to the midwifery model of care,
has known for a long time, that’s currently exactly what
parents have to do if they want to protect themselves and
their babies from unnecessary and often detrimental interventions,
hospital procedures that stack the deck against nonsurgical
birth, and habits that interfere with the establishment
In 2001, Keefe, Tisha Graham, and Betsy Mercogliano founded
Birthnet, a local organization that conducts public education
and advocacy about evidence-based maternity care. Keefe
also has served on the board of the national Citizens for
Midwifery since 2002. “This is a much bigger issue than
the few months women are pregnant and having babies,” she
says. “We all pay into a health system, and we pay for the
problems. The outcomes can impact mothers and babies for
This past year was a banner one for Birthnet’s cause, and
Keefe was in the thick of it. It started with the news that
St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy was merging with Samaritan Hospital,
and all its birth services moved to the new Burdett Family
Care Center in the Samaritan complex. St. Mary’s has been
one of the few hospitals in the region supportive of the
midwife model of care, and its stats show it: dramatically
lower c-section rates, higher VBAC rates, higher breastfeeding
rates. With barely two weeks notice, right after New Year’s,
Keefe and a couple of colleagues organized testimony—and
turnout—for the state’s merger committee meeting, which
doesn’t usually get any public attendance, let alone a room
full of women with babies.
It worked: The committee required the physical layout of
the center to be redesigned, required a midwife to have
a seat on the board and on the medical committee setting
policy, and took the unusual step of granting a limited
permit, contingent on the type of care to be delivered.
A few months later, Keefe organized consumer support for
the Midwifery Modernization Act, which removed the requirement
for licensed midwives to have a “written practice agreement”
with an OB (their competition) in order to practice. Despite
active fighting from the OB lobby and veto threats from
the governor, the MMA passed.
researches tirelessly, speaks eloquently, and cares deeply
about improving the care women and families receive during
their childbearing years. We in the Capital District are
profoundly lucky to have Carolyn in our corner! Thank you
is hardly sufficient,” says Betsy Mercogliano, a doula,
midwife, and coordinator of Albany’s Family Life Center.
are still way too many women and babies experiencing unhealthy,
inappropriate care,” says Keefe. “To see what happened this
past year was amazing. It really restored my faith in democracy.
Our impact was not the most money, the most letters after
our names, the most inside connections—it was passion.”
Tonight host Liz Benjamin challenges politicians and
voters alike with her provocative coverage of New York state
don’t wake up in the morning and think about how I’m going
to tear people limb from limb,” says YNN’s Capital Tonight
host Liz Benjamin as she paces back and forth in her office.
“I prepare somewhat for interviews, but I have enough base
knowledge that I don’t have to. I read up on all the clips
and then I let an interview go where it is going and I think
that is probably the smartest thing you can do as an interviewer—is
listen to what a person is saying.”
While her intentions may not be to maim, Benjamin has earned
a reputation during her 15 years as a political reporter
as a room- storming, be-everywhere, take-no-prisoners journalist
and blogger. It doesn’t hurt her tough-as-nails image that
she is an accomplished triathlete.
this year, Benjamin transitioned from heading up the New
York Daily News’ state political blog to television
when she became the anchor of Capital Tonight on
YNN. She still maintains her must-read blog, State of Politics,
while delivering an hour of news and hard-hitting political
interviews every night. “No matter how much people talk
about ‘cable news is dying,’ people still get their news
from the Internet and TV,” says Benjamin. “To meld two of
them together makes a really powerful way to get information
to people in a fun and cutting edge sort of way.”
The show came at just the right time, with state government
falling into shambles, elections approaching, and an electorate
largely frustrated with the political landscape. Benjamin
delivers a nuanced show that educates upstate voters on
the ins and outs of state politics and introduces them to
the most important political players.
hope that I provide—on the best days—a show that is entertaining
and informative, and I also hope people find it accessible,”
says Benjamin. “I’m not an anchorwoman and I’m never gonna
be and that’s OK—I mean for me. I don’t aspire to read news
off of a teleprompter. I aspire to put shows together that
are meaningful. We did a whole week focusing on redistricting
reform. That is not something you get to do if you just
read a teleprompter.”
Benjamin provided viewers a real service during the debates—and
showcased her in-depth political knowledge—by asking tough,
pertinent questions while other anchors looked lost. Benjamin
was not involved in the gubernatorial debate that, while
entertaining, interesting and inclusive of all the candidates,
did not provide much substance.
It is clear that the political players are paying attention
to the show. And buzz is building among viewers—there is
currently a Facebook fanpage dedicated to having NY1 pick
up Capital Tonight. So where would Benjamin like
to be this time next year?
been so highly unpredictable, maybe Andrew Cuomo will be
a hero and run for president. Maybe we will see the stars
align and Mayor Bloomberg will run for president. I don’t
know, but I think we are agile enough to adapt and I hope
that we are still breaking news and we become a go-to thing
that you’ve got to watch that is interesting, provocative
and fun for people as well as informative. I’d like to be
in the city as well, I guess eventually, sure. But like
I told you, I don’t want to sit on a desk and read someone
else’s news. I’m really not interested.”
Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew
of the Radix Center, husband-and-wife team Scott Kellogg
and Stacy Pettigrew are showing Albany that sustainable
urban living is as feasible as it is necessary.
was involved in a lot of activist work, particularly with
the global justice movement in the late ’90s,” says Scott
Kellogg. “A catchphrase of that movement was ‘Another world
is possible.’ We would say it a lot, but we weren’t really
sure what it meant. The activist community knew very much
about what it was opposed to, what it didn’t like. What
I wanted to do was come up with a model that we were actually
in favor of . . . so that for every no, we would have a
In his quest for solutions, Kellogg and his wife, Stacy
Pettigrew, connected with the permaculture and sustainability
movements—and quickly became leaders in the field, establishing
the Rhizome Collective in Austin, Texas, and coauthoring
The Toolbox for Sustainable City Living. Family life
recently drew them back to the Northeast, and the pair are
already shaking the status quo with their newest endeavor:
reclaiming a vacant lot in Albany’s Mansion neighborhood
for the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center.
Over the past two years, the couple have navigated the city’s
murky legal waters. They succeeded in securing a zoning
variance to do nonprofit educational work on the site, received
approval from the planning department for an educational
greenhouse—the plans for which are currently at the building
department—and a variance allowing them to keep livestock
on the site.
The bureaucratic waiting game certainly hasn’t kept them
from getting to work. The once-vacant, trash-filled Grand
Street property is now home to raised garden beds, composting
and mushroom-growing operations, beehives, chickens, even
goats. The team pressed cider on a turn-of-the-century cider
press with local schoolchildren and have developed a youth
sustainability curriculum around the Radix Center. They
held two immersive Regenerative Urban Sustainability Trainings
in Albany this summer—offering more than 85 people practical
tools for implementing practices including urban aquaculture,
rainwater collection, composting, mycoscaping and biofuel
use. And, most recently, they established the Radix Community
Composting Initiative, a curbside compost pickup service
that serves double duty, reclaiming community food waste
and generating organic material for the center’s gardens.
Both agree that there is a lot of work to be done in the
Capital Region, but they remain hopeful about the area’s
potential to emerge as a national leader in urban sustainability.
And they’re determined to show Albany how it’s done.
lot of people only have vague notions of what it means to
be green or sustainable,” says Kellogg. “What’s very important
is to have functioning demonstrations of what this looks
like. To show that this is something that anyone, even in
an apartment building, can be engaged in. . . . to show
that sustainability is possible, that the technical issues
have been worked out, and that it’s something that is beautiful
and fun—that sustainable living is not just about sacrifice,
but is something that you will gain great joy and pleasure
from as well.”
With the Radix Center leading Albany by example, Kellogg
hopes “the idea of making this urgent transition becomes
owner and perennial activist Robyn Ringler refused to stand
by while her Muslim neighbors were being mistreated.
It all started when Robyn Ringler decided to ask one of
her Muslim customers what her life was like in light of
the furor that was pervading the nation over the proposed
mosque near Ground Zero.
told me every day was awful and trying,” said Ringler, owner
of Eastline Books in Clifton Park. But it was the woman’s
description of a trip to a local apple orchard with visiting
relatives, an excursion that ended in the family—even the
kids’ backpacks—being searched that moved Ringler to take
action. “I find that I have to speak up when something is
unjust, especially if no one else is,” said Ringler.
Ringler heard about the boycott of Campbell’s Soup organized
by conservatives angry that the soup company was starting
a Halal line of products in Canada. That gave Ringler an
idea for a way to show support for the Muslim community:
a Campbell’s Soup drive.
When Ringler, using her store’s mailing list, sent out a
plea for donations of soup cans to show support for the
Muslim community, she was a little nervous. It’s not that
she is a stranger to attention or to contentious issues—you
might know her as the young nurse who took care of President
Ronald Reagan when he was shot, or perhaps as the outspoken
voice of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, or from her Times
Union blog about gun control—but she has moved on to
a new venture: an independent bookstore in the big-box-ridden,
notoriously conservative suburb.
Ringler started the store about three years ago after realizing
she had a retirement fund left over from her time as a nurse
at the hospital where she took care of President Reagan.
It was serendipitous to say the least. Ringler’s daughter
had gone on to college and the mother had decided to move
behind the scenes in her once-public crusade to stop gun
After the initial mailing, about 25 people on the list immediately
wrote back asking to be taken off. For a struggling bookstore,
losing 25 people from your customer base can be devastating.
But it wasn’t long before Metroland and later the
Times Union highlighted Ringler’s efforts, and a
whole new slew of customers came through her door bearing
Campbell’s soup cans. They told her, “‘I didn’t know you
even existed, but I had to support what you are doing.’
It was heartening to say the least,” said Ringler.
By the end of the drive, Ringler was able to donate over
800 soup cans to a local food pantry. But the end of the
soup drive is not the end of her activism. Ringler has held
fund drives for breast-cancer research and collected pocketbooks
for homeless women; she is currently collecting letters
for troops in Iraq, hoping to gather around 2,000. What
inspired this drive? The husband of one of her customers
has been stationed in Iraq for over a year. “He said it
would be great if you could send 2,000 letters and I could
distribute them to show everyone that they have support
back home.” If Ringler’s track record is any indication,
those troops should be expecting a lot of mail.
Lesser, executive director of the Egg, is a longtime fixture
on the Capital Region arts scene. His programming and taste
have helped enrich our culture.
Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller’s vision for New York state had
a large cultural component. This certainly affected the
way the SUNY system was developed, but it was also a central
part of his effort to build a government center here in
the capital, Albany. The Empire State Plaza fulfills its
purpose as a place to carry out the state’s business, both
in the five skyscrapers that tower over the city and in
the warren of offices beneath the plaza level. But the ESP
is also a cultural center, with the New York State Museum
and Library, a rich collection of publicly-owned-and- displayed
art in the concourse, and the Egg, one of the most appealing
performing arts centers in the area.
Peter Lesser programs the Egg, but he got his start in the
was living up in the Adirondacks, in the village of Saranac
Lake, and at the time there was just no live music going
on,” he says. So he did something about it. He got involved
in subletting space from a local theater company.
musicians played for tips, my wife made the coffee and cupcakes
and I put up the posters. . . . Long story short, everyone
had a great time, and it just sort of grew and we started
[booking] some regional acts,” Lesser remembers. “It was
our own nonprofit, the Java Jive Coffeehouse.”
Eventually, Lesser got involved in putting on outdoor concerts,
which gave him the “bug” for the business. There were sporting
events, winter carnivals and concerts, all over a five-year
period. Then, he says, “I just happened upon an ad for the
job of managing director of the Troy Savings Bank Music
He was hired. Lesser’s success there led to his being recruited
to become the executive director at the Egg.
primary responsibility is programming, which really drives
everything else we do here. . . . I was hired to increase
the amount and depth and quality of the programming,” he
says. He succeeded.
His job also includes community outreach, and putting on
shows for schools. There’s also been a little bit of fundraising
on the side. “But now,” Lesser says, alluding to the state’s
fiscal problems, “there will be a little more fundraising
on the side.”
The great artists Lesser has helped bring to the Egg have
included Laurie Anderson, Savion Glover, Kris Kristofferson,
Mark Morris and Philip Glass. We hope he’ll continue to
bring luster to the capital of New York, just as Rocky envisioned.