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Playing Homeless for Money

The Homeless Action Committee’s annual Sleep-A-Thon in the Park, held last Friday night (Feb. 21) in downtown Albany’s Townsend Park, was one of the most successful in the event’s 10-year history. Between 150 and 200 people spent the night sleeping in the park, raising money to fund HAC’s single-room occupancy housing and outreach van for the area’s homeless. Homeless Action offers housing for up to 30 chronic alcoholics living on the city’s streets, and its outreach program provides food, clothing and blankets to approximately 300 people without shelter each year. So far, last week’s event—attended by church and youth groups, high school and college students, elected officials and homeless people—has raised $12,000, and pledges are still trickling in.

New York’s State of Mind

New York state residents are more skeptical than the rest of the nation about the need to invade Iraq, according to a poll released by the Siena Research Institute on Feb. 20.

The poll showed that New Yorkers distrust the Bush administration’s policy more, place more significance on diplomacy, and are more skeptical of Iraq’s supposed ties with terrorist organizations than the rest of the nation.

Only 42 percent of New Yorkers thought the Bush administration has a clear and well-thought-out policy on Iraq, and only 43 percent of New Yorkers think that the United States has done all it can do to solve the crisis with Iraq diplomatically, compared with 59 percent and 54 percent, respectively, nationwide. Also, New Yorkers are not by majority in favor (49 percent) of invading Iraq, while 63 percent of all Americans do favor invasion.

Alan Chartock, professor of communication at UAlbany, points to the proximity of the United Nations debate as a reason for the divide.

“The United Nations is of course in New York,” Chartock said. “[New York is] more in tune to listening to what other countries have to say. I think that New Yorkers are fascinated with the fact that world opinion—as well as governments around the world—seem fairly skeptical.”

The poll also demonstrated marked differences in opinion nationwide according to political party affiliation; two-thirds of Republicans are in favor of invading Iraq with ground troops, while just under half of Democrats answered yes to the same question.

New Yorkers are predisposed to skepticism when it comes to President Bush, Chartock said.

“New York is an overwhelmingly Democratic state,” Chartock said. “New Yorkers didn’t vote for the president as a group. One can only suspect that they view his actions with a little bit more antipathy than those who did support the president in the last election.”

Helen Desfosses, president of the Albany Common Council, agrees. “It’s a function of history. It’s a function of the party makeup. . . . We have two Democratic senators and we have a progressive history, ” Desfosses said.

Because New Yorkers experienced the devastation of terrorism firsthand, Chartock said, it changed the way they view war.

“New Yorkers understand that there is no such thing as an antiseptic war,” he said. “People get hurt, people die, buildings collapse.”

—John Gallagher

Stay the Executions

A resolution calling for a moratorium on all executions in New York state passed the Albany Common Council unanimously Thursday, Feb. 20, adding the city’s residents to the growing number of voices that are calling for a second look at New York’s capital-punishment law.

Richard Conti (Ward 6), the resolution’s sponsor, sees this as another step toward action. “One way to build grassroots support for state action or federal action is to have local communities express their support,” he said.

As reported in Metroland [Newsfront, Feb. 20], more than 55 groups and organizations in the Capital Region are supporting a moratorium on capital punishment in New York. The goal is to examine the fairness and accuracy of a system that is, according to some, seriously flawed.

“We’ve done our part, in putting the Common Council’s support on record and adding our voice to the many voices,” said Conti.

Once adopted, the resolution was handed off to the governor and the state Legislature, said Conti. “The governor can, by executive order, initiate a moratorium or the Legislature can, on its own, adopt a law initiating a moratorium and then establishing a process for review of capital-punishment law, and what steps should be taken to ensure that it’s not biased and not error-prone,” said Conti.

Gov. George E. Pataki signed the current death-penalty law in New York in 1995, and as of August 2002, there were six people on death row. The governor’s press office did not return phone calls for this story.

“It seems like the strategy is . . . hoping the issue will go away if they ignore it,” said David Kaczynski, executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, and a key proponent of the resolution. “I think it’s not going to go away, particularly as we get more and more people on death row and the problems become more and more obvious, just as they have in other states.” Maryland and Illinois have both adopted moratoriums on capital punishment after evidence of bias and wrongful conviction surfaced.

This evidence is changing the way the public views capital punishment, Kaczynski said.

He added, “Politicians who support the death penalty have said, ‘People demand the death penalty,’ but we’re seeing a shift in public opinion.”

This support from the public is the most important factor in bringing about any change, Conti said. “[The resolution is] also a matter of public education about the issue. It’s an old quote: ‘The leaders will follow when the people lead.’ ”

—John Gallagher

Drugstore Free Zone

As previously reported in Metroland [Newsfront, Nov. 21, 2002], the Eckerd drugstore chain has been trying to demolish two historic buildings in Lansingburgh to build an 11,000 square-foot drugstore since December 1999. Apparently, the company has given up.

Earlier this month, members of the Historic Action Network discovered that the Clearwater, Fla.-based chain had withdrawn its proposal to raze an 89-year-old former Freihofer’s bakery building and the 109-year-old structure that formerly housed the Riverside social club.

Throughout the life of Eckerd’s proposal, which had been withdrawn and resubmitted once before, community members kept pressure on the chain to use the existing structures. But citing the high costs of retrofitting the buildings, the company refused, and eventually was taken to court to halt the buildings’ destruction.

Russell Ziemba, cofounder of Historic Action Network, was pleased that the buildings wouldn’t be demolished and hopes Eckerd’s plans to build the big box will remain shelved.

“Both buildings have been fixtures in the community for years,” said Ziemba. “So many people have such fond memories of smelling the bread in the bakery and the horse-drawn wagons that operated till the 1960s. People experience pain when fixtures of their community are demolished; they feel a sense of loss and feel like they are losing their community.”

But the fight to save the buildings, located on Second Avenue in Lansingburgh at the foot of the 126th Street bridge, is not done yet. The Freihofer’s company will vacate all operations in the former bakery building in April, leaving both without occupants—and up for sale.

“Given their strategic location, we’re kind of worried that Freihofer’s may want to demolish the buildings to make the site more appealing,” said Ziemba.

But Ziemba said Historic Action has been trying to interest a number of possible buyers who might be able to use the two buildings.

“These are two well-built structures with rare and interesting architecture,” Ziemba said. “Over the years we’ve been trying to interest people in these buildings, but having a pending proposal for the site that would include demolition of both buildings, it has been difficult.”


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