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Rockin’ against abortion: Phil Eddy and Paul Troiani, founder of Capital District Rock for Life, picket in front of the Albany Women’s Health Center on Lark Street. Photo: John Whipple

Not Your Mama’s Picket
A new pro-life organization is changing the face of the clinic picket line

They’re not who you expect to see pacing in front of a women’s health clinic with “Abortion is Homicide” signs and pictures of fetuses. But for the past few weeks, early in the morning, there they were: college-age kids wearing black, some sporting mohawks or T-shirts from hard-core bands. And all of them have been pushing literature and lectures with a vigor, which has some patients complaining.

The new generation of picketers in front of Planned Parenthood’s Albany Center for Women’s Health on Lark Street belong to Capital District Rock for Life, a month-old chapter of national Rock for Life. The chapter was founded by Paul Troiani, from Rotterdam, an incoming senior at the University at Albany and an intern of the state Right to Life party. (The party is not involved in the chapter or any of the picketing.) Moved by deep Christian convictions, Troiani founded the group because he believes it’s the responsibility of the “survivors of Roe vs. Wade” to expose the fact that “abortion is an act of violence against a child.”

This Saturday, Aug. 23, Troiani was joined by Phil Eddy, a Nassau resident who had just returned from a summer working for national Rock for Life. Eddy—who once called himself a riot grrl—is practiced at busting stereotypes about pro-lifers. Although he is Christian, he insists his change of heart (he was pro-choice in high school) was not religious, but based on seeing a picture of an aborted fetus. He is friends with a pro-life Wiccan, and says that in Lancaster, Penn., where he attends college, he can go to a “secular hard-core show” and have trouble finding anyone who is pro-choice.

Rock for Life is clearly pitched to Eddy’s generation. The group’s hip, well-designed Web site sells “Abortion is Mean” stickers and provides a huge list of “pro-abortion” bands to avoid along with an even longer—though more obscure—list of pro-life alternatives. It seems likely that the hard-core shows Eddy attends are populated with bands from this list.

The new blood does not appear to indicate imminent threat of “rescues” at the Lark Street clinic. All chapters of Rock for Life sign a pledge not to engage in illegal acts, said Troiani, and the federal and state access to clinic entrances acts make most “rescue” tactics resoundingly illegal—with stiff penalties.

On a more philosophical note, Eddy dismisses some of the more extreme anti- abortion groups—ones that shout at women entering a clinic or post videos of them on the Web—as “terrorists,” and “fetus worshippers.” “We care about the women too,” he says. “I’ve known a lot of women who’ve been really messed up by abortion.”

But is Rock for Life really a kinder, gentler anti-abortion group?

National Rock for Life is opposed to abortion under all circumstances, including rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother—and the local chapter has been handing out anti-contraception pamphlets, calling birth control pills abortifacients because they sometimes work by preventing implantation rather than fertilization. And while he insisted they won’t do the same, Eddy does speak glowingly of Operation Rescue—a group known for its aggressive and disruptive protests—saying they have “binders full of pictures of the babies they’ve saved.”

Blue Carreker, director of public affairs and marketing at Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood, says the new group is more verbally aggressive toward both patients and escorts than the recent regulars have been. “They tend to push information on patients even when patients say they don’t want it,” she said. “They verbally harangue staff members and escorts.”

“We have never worked to keep anyone from expressing their opinion, including in front of our center,” Carreker emphasizes. “Where we draw the line is harassment, obstruction, and intimidation.”

Both Eddy and Troiani said that Albany is a tough pro-choice holdout; they have faced vocal, sometimes virulent, opposition from people on the street.

On Saturday, Troiani had a video camera sitting on his car, pointed at the clinic door. Other days he stands with it, recording passersby. He said they are videotaping for their own protection, and also to prove that they are not obstructing the door, because he claimed that the clinic has brought—and lost—two unfounded suits against other anti-abortion groups for blocking the door.

Actually, the first case wasn’t lost, said Carreker. Brought against Citizens Campaign for Human Life more than eight years ago, when the pickets were larger and more obstructive, it resulted in an agreement that balanced clinic access and the rights of the protestors. The clinic brought the second suit a few years later, she said, because they felt that agreement was being violated. (The charges did not involve blocking the door.) The clinic lost only because the defendants successfully argued that they had not been a party to the original agreement.

By the way, although the Rock for Life site calls pro-choicers “pro-aborts,” Capital District Rock for Lifers don’t like the term “anti-abortion.” They prefer “pro-life,” not just because it sounds more positive, but because they are also against euthanasia, cloning, stem-cell research, and physician-assisted suicide. Though it’s not official policy of the chapter, both Eddy and Troiani are also vegan and anti–death penalty.

Capital District Rock for Life has four core members at the moment, but they hope to grow once the semester starts. “We’re only a month old,” Troiani pointed out.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Over the river and through the woods: the Dix Bridge between Washington and Saratoga Counties. Photo: Ellen Descisciolo

A Bridge Runs Through It
In Washington and Saratoga Counties, artists band together to benefit—and, ideally, to preserve and restore—a forgotten but historic bridge

If you stand in the center of the Dix Bridge facing north, you can see the spot where “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne’s army cut through the bank to cross the Hudson on a bridge of boats. That is, if you are able to stand on the bridge at all.

Spanning the Hudson River and Champlain Canal since 1903, the Dix Bridge stands patiently, but only the wind is allowed to cross it. In the mid-’90s the three-span bridge was “red flagged” by state inspections, according to Willie Grimmke, Washington County’s public-works superintendent. Neither Washington nor Saratoga Counties, the bridge’s joint owners, had the money to make the necessary repairs, and when a diving inspection revealed further serious structural damage to one of the piers underwater, the bridge was closed.

Now the members of Hudson Crossing Project, a joint effort between residents of Saratoga and Washington counties, want to preserve the bridge for pedestrian and bicycle use as part of a larger park project.

The idea for the park came about when Route 4—from Waterford to Whitehall—was designated as a “scenic byway” by both the state and federal governments, explained Marlene Bissell, the chair of the project’s steering committee. This designation came with a charge to communities on the route to create destinations for travelers. The Hudson Crossing Project took up that charge, hoping to promote educational tourism and economic development by taking advantage of the area’s history and environment. The bi-county park the group is promoting would link a series of sites, including Stark’s Knob, the Knox Trail Pocket Parks, the Champlain Canal’s newly restored Lock 5, the Dix Bridge, and the Adirondack School.

According to Bissell, the new park’s component pieces will be “marketed and intertwined,” to create a unified park, “even though they are all owned separately.” The Dix Bridge is the “centerpiece of this plan” as it will connect the two counties. “If the bridge were out in the middle of nowhere, with nothing around, it would be worth saving anyway,” says Bissell. “But it’s really a combination of pieces.” The project hopes to lease the land on the Saratoga County side of the Dix Bridge from New York State Canal Corp. to build an environmental education center.

Bissell said the new park will help focus local tourist attractions “on history and the area itself, rather than just on commercialism.”

The bridge, commissioned in 1900 by a mill owner who didn’t want to pay tolls on other local bridges, is now on the National Historic Registry. In part it is registered because it is a High Warren Truss Bridge, examples of which are apparently becoming scarce. It only helps that the Dix Bridge helps mark the spot where Burgoyne crossed the Hudson on his way to the battles of Saratoga in 1775.

Despite its history, the bridge is an expensive project for anyone to undertake. “A new bridge at that location would be in the $3 to 5 million range. With the county’s experience a full long-term rehab wouldn’t be too far off that range,” Grimmke estimated. “It’s challenging to justify that amount of expenditure, particularly when Washington and Saratoga Counties have a lot of other bridge needs . . . and with local government funding becoming scarcer and scarcer.” But, he was also quick to point out that dismantling the bridge would also be expensive, and if nothing is done to save it, the counties will have to do that anyway.

“Essentially, if someone gives Washington and Saratoga Counties a boatload of cash to fix it even for pedestrian use, we’ll probably fix it,” said Grimmke. But he added that for the bridge to be safe for even pedestrian use, it would still need to be upgraded to almost full structural soundness.

But the Hudson Crossing Project will not be discouraged. Inspired by the success of benefit art shows held to draw attention to restoring the Bow Bridge in Hadley-Luzerne—and the federal grant money that followed—the project decided to hold some of its own.

Two weeks ago, two art shows to benefit the project opened: One of invited local artists at the Saratoga Springs Open Space Gallery and one of amateur work at the Schuylerville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Of the 26 artists invited to participate in the Saratoga Springs show, 23 contributed work, most of which was specially made for the occasion. “We are unbelievably delighted with the work of the artists,” said John Borel, who curated the show with his wife, Phyllis Bader-Borel.

The shows will close on Friday, Aug. 29, but Borel has not ruled out further plans for the works, and has asked the artists if they’re interested in further participation. “What we would like to do next is a book, or an auction, or maybe further showings,” he said.

“The goal was to raise awareness for the need to first save, then restore the bridge, and raise awareness of the greater Hudson Crossing Project,” said Bissell. She feels that the art shows have been doing just that, because many of the artists involved, as well as the show’s visitors, had not known about the efforts to save the Dix Bridge.

Borel echoes, “Hopefully it will get a few heads turned toward the bridge, which otherwise might have remained anonymous.”

—Ashley Hahn

Whose Responsibility Is This Anyway?
Albany politicans say state highway maintenance law is unfair to cities

Where State Route 9 becomes Henry Johnson Boulevard in the City of Albany, the road is obviously in a state of disrepair. The blacktop is worn and the aggregate is even exposed in some areas. As Henry Johnson heads to its pitched and piecemeal intersection with Clinton Avenue, the street is pocked with pothole patches—quick fixes staving off a direly needed repaving job. But turn around and take Route 9 into Loudonville in the Town of Colonie and it’s smooth sailing.

Is this a patent case of city politicians neglecting a historically blighted neighborhood? Not at all, say the city’s politicians. Instead, they say, it’s a case of an outdated state law that unfairly sticks cities throughout New York with the bill for maintaining their state highways—a tab the state picks up for its towns and villages.

“All the other municipalities get it paid for by the state, and we’re not saying take it away from them, we’re just saying include us in the pot,” said Alderman Jim Sano (Ward 9). Sano has cosponsored a resolution before the Albany Common Council calling on the state Legislature to take a closer look at how the state’s highways are maintained.

Currently, the city spends approximately $2 million a year to maintain its 250 miles of streets and an additional $750,000 per year on snow removal. But New York state law also requires that it maintain eight state highways that cross its borders: Central Avenue (Route 5), Henry Johnson Boulevard (Route 9), Van Rensselaer Boulevard (Route 377), Pearl Street/Broadway (Route 32), Delaware Avenue (Route 443), New Scotland Avenue (Route 85) and Southern Boulevard (Route 9W).

Sano said the cost of fixing one of these state highways, which are major thoroughfares through the city, is often too great for the city to undertake on its own.

“If we want to undertake a massive project like, say, Western Ave., we can’t. We have to wait until we get federal funds,” Sano said. “The patches and the stuff like that for the city’s streets has to fit into the amount budgeted and [funding] a major highway project is just not workable.”

This year alone, the city’s Department of General Services was scheduled to start 3.8 miles of new construction projects on city streets; no state highways were included. Sano said he researched statutes in New York’s surrounding states and all take responsibility for the maintenance of their state highways, even in cities.

John Marsolais, deputy commissioner of DGS, agreed with Sano, saying that New York’s law unfairly burdens cities. Marsolais also noted that the state law creating this funding scheme was written in the 1940s when populations and resources were centered in the cities.

“Years ago there wasn’t much development in the outlying areas and the services of the state would be needed,” Marsolais said. “Now it is sort of reverse. Look at Colonie, with the mall and Target just over the city line. There is a much stronger tax base [in outlying communities] than when the law was put in place.”

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, who said he’s brought the issue to the attention of a number of state lawmakers, sees the possibility for major cost savings should the law be changed.

“You wouldn’t have a redundancy in equipment, you could deal with some overtime issues—this has statewide implications,” Jennings said. “As far as I’m concered, [the state] ought to really take a look at this and see if there’s a better way to do business here.”

Sano’s resolution, which was also sponsored by Alderman Michael O’Brien (Ward 12), was recently voted out of the Common Council’s General Services committee with a favorable recommendation. The Common Council is expected to vote on the resolution at its meeting on Sept. 4.

“A highway is a highway is a highway,” Sano said. “We’re not asking for an increased level of funding. We’re just saying include Rochester, include Syracuse, include Buffalo. If it’s a state road, the state should take care of it.”

—Travis Durfee

Collecting From the Sharks
A predatory lender agrees to pay thousands to its borrowers—but should they accept?

It was a classic case of bait and switch. Thousands of people who obtained a mortgage with Household Finance or Beneficial between Jan. 1, 1999 and Sept. 30, 2002 found that the fine print contained some nasty surprises.

According to a lawsuit filed by all the state attorneys general, the two subsidiaries of Household International regularly misrepresented the amount of points, fees, and interest borrowers were signing up for, and wrongly told borrowers that credit insurance was required. They then attached stiff prepayment penalties to their loans to discourage refinancing once the sordid details became obvious. Tactics like this are known as predatory lending.

The case was settled in Dec. 2002. Household admitted to no wrongdoing, but did agree to reform a number of its practices. And it is distributing $424 million among those affected. All the qualified borrowers—24,000 in New York state—received notices about the details this summer.

Settlement awards are pegged to the loan amount. The high end is around $15,000, but the average in New York is more like $1,500. “This is generally a very good settlement they’ve been able to carve out, in terms of stopping certain practices and getting some fairness,” said Anne Erickson of Greater Upstate Law Project.

But the tricky part is that opting for the settlement means giving up all other legal claims on Household, even though the long-term damages from a predatory loan can run much higher than the settlement amounts. Borrowers who are stuck in a very high-interest loan, with payments they can barely afford, may be better off trying to negotiate with Household for a refinancing on better terms than accepting a lump-sum payment of $1,500, said Susan Cotner, director of the Affordable Housing Partnership. On the other hand, for those who were only charged excessive up-front fees, the settlement might make the most sense.

The most important thing, said Erickson, is that anyone opting out in order to pursue greater claims with Household needs to have an attorney.

The fight against predatory lending isn’t new. In the Capital Region, the Affordable Housing Partnership launched a program called HomeSave a few years ago. HomeSave offers financial counseling and affordable home-repair lending alternatives. The program is also in the process of setting up refinancing options for predatory loan victims through a pilot program with Fannie Mae, and it is launching a legal assistance component. GULP, a participating organization, has hired a lawyer who will be devoted completely to the issue.

And just in time, since the deadline for opting in to the Household settlement is Oct. 14.

Since the letters went out, the Affordable Housing Partnership has been working feverishly with GULP, Legal Aid, and the Legal Project to prepare a response system that will allow as many borrowers as possible to consult with an attorney before making their decision. The groups are planning a training session for lawyers on Sept. 19, and may set up either legal clinics or a system of one-on-one meetings.

The planning is difficult, however, because under the settlement, Household doesn’t have to release the names of those affected. The company was afraid someone would use the Freedom of Information Act to get their customer list through the back door, explains Bob Connors, principal bank examiner for the state. All the advocates have is some data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act that points them toward zip codes where Household loans were more common.

“We have no idea what volume we’re looking at,” says Cotner. Once the groups start their outreach in earnest, they expect to get a better sense of how many people are likely to respond. “We are ready to accept contact information for people getting these letters,” says Cotner, “and then we will get back to them with a checklist explaining the six or seven legal documents they need to have for an attorney to determine if the settlement makes sense for them.”

For more information, contact Legal Aid Society of Northeastern NY Albany office, (800) 462-2922, Saratoga office, (800) 870-8343; GULP, 462-6831; the Legal Project 435-1770.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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