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No known association: Yacob Williams (left) and Aaron Mair. Photo: Joe Putrock

New Kid on the Block
Artist-activist focuses close to home with a new neighborhood association in Arbor Hill

To address the growing list of problems in his community, artist and burgeoning citizen-activist Yacob Williams announced his intentions to form a new neighborhood association in Arbor Hill at a public meeting last week. The announcement came as a surprise to Aaron Mair, president of the existing Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Association, who appeared taken aback.

“So they’re just going to push out the old neighborhood association,” Mair huffed when Williams made his announcement at a Nov. 18 meeting to discuss the progress of the city’s Arbor Hill revitalization plan. But Williams doesn’t have a takeover in mind; he just wants a more neighborhood-focused neighborhood association.

“I don’t want to be critical of [Mair’s] work in the past,” Williams said. “I just want to speak for the quality-of-life issues of the neighborhood and give the residents a mechanism to discuss these with the city.”

Where Mair’s neighborhood association focuses more on civil rights and environmental justice, Williams wants to focus more on community service. One of Williams’ ideas for the new neighborhood association is to compile a list of Arbor Hill’s elderly and shut-in residents, and enlist a corps of volunteers to help clear their sidewalks and steps throughout the winter.

“We need to be a little bit more organized in our community,” Williams said. “I think that when you empower people and give them the opportunity to be of service to the community, there are a lot of people out there who just blossom like flowers.”

The idea for the new group, tentatively dubbed the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Association, developed out of the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Advisory Committee, the group selected by Mayor Jerry Jennings to draft a revitalization plan for the neighborhood. Williams cochaired the group’s quality-of-life subcommittee, but became increasingly disenchanted with the group when city officials began to focus its efforts on planning block parties and planting flowers.

“When [the city is] talking about what [it] did, you know we planted 100 tulip bulbs in a garden and this, this and that—that’s nothing but superficial, cosmetic stuff,” Williams said. “That may sound nice to some people, but it doesn’t sound nice to people who are having drug problems on their streets and don’t get any resolution from the police department. . . . There will be time to celebrate, but there is work to do.”

After discussions with a number of Arbor Hill residents, block associations and existing neighborhood groups, Williams decided to move ahead with plans to form the new group. An attorney has been helping Williams draft a preliminary set of bylaws for the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Association, and they will be presented at the next meeting of the quality-of-life committee at 200 Henry Johnson Blvd. on Dec. 1 from 6 to 8 PM.

“We figure if we form a neighborhood association, which is driven by grassroots and people in the community, we won’t fall into that rut where the city is running it, setting our agenda and telling us what our action plan is and what our principles are,” Williams said.

Barbara Smith, a 15-year Arbor Hill resident and member of the Community Prosecution Board, supported Williams in the creation of the new neighborhood group.

“My perception is that often times Arbor Hill residents do not get heard and responded to in the way that other neighborhoods do around the city,” Smith said. “I’d like to see us set our own priorities and figure out effective and cooperative ways to achieve them.”

Smith does not, however, want the formation of the new group to ruffle any feathers in the existing neighborhood association.

“What is important is not to make this into a toe-to-toe, schoolyard standoff and to think about what’s really going on here,” Smith said. “This community has many needs. Why can’t we have like 25 or 20 groups that are all about making positive changes in this neighborhood instead of getting involved in turf wars?”

But Smith’s concerns may not be an issue: When later asked about the formation of the new neighborhood association, Mair contradicted his initial reaction and welcomed the new group. “The more neighborhood associations the better,” he said. “Diversity is a good thing; it’s a sign of growth and motivation, and we want to encourage that.”

Mair said his initial reaction was influenced by the forum in which it came, a meeting of the mayor’s Arbor Hill Neighborhood Advisory Committee, of which Mair has been a constant critic.

“Remember the process under which this is coming out of,” Mair said. “This is coming out of a process that is totally controlled by the city.”

—Travis Durfee

Photo: Joe Putrock

We Care About Medicare

Dozens gathered outside the Leo O’Brien Federal Office Building in Albany at noon last Friday (Nov. 21) to protest the contentious Medicare-expansion bill being debated in Congress. The rally was organized by Citizen Action New York and New York Statewide Senior Action Council to urge New York’s Democratic Sens. Hilary Clinton and Chuck Schumer to vote against the bill, which the groups consider an inadequate response to existing problems with the federal health-care program. The legislation includes a program to provide seniors with prescription-drug benefits, which Republicans have pointed to as a reason to support the bill. But the demonstrators were concerned that the federal program would reduce benefits for more than 300,000 seniors in New York enrolled in the state’s Elderly Prescription Insurance Coverage Program. Opponents say that by using private insurers, placing a cap on Medicare spending and not allowing the government to negotiate prescription drug prices, the legislation will pave the way for the privatization of Medicare. Some members of the group tore up their AARP cards, lambasting the advocacy group’s support for a bill that many think has more benefits for drug companies and HMOs than seniors. The bill passed in the House, 220 to 215, on Saturday, and in the Senate, 54 to 44, yesterday (Tuesday); Clinton and Schumer both voted against the measure.

Ready for more: ice hockey coach Paul Dion. Photo: Chris Shields

Off Thin Ice
An outpouring of alumni support saves Skidmore hockey from the ax

Skidmore College’s hockey team laced up this fall for what looked like its last season after athletic-budget reapportionments that cut the team. But thanks to some active alums and generous checkbooks, men’s hockey is on for next year. In fact, the athletic department now has an endowment.

Jim Ricker, who helped lead the charge to save the team, had three sons who all played hockey at Skidmore, and his wife and two daughters-in-law are alums as well. “It was agonizing thinking of the kids making the decision to go to Skidmore, for the school but also for hockey, and being confronted with this right at the start of the school year,” Ricker said.

The decision to cut hockey came in an effort to balance the resources devoted to men’s and women’s sports. With the money saved on men’s ice hockey, the college was able to bring three part-time women’s coaches up to full time, as hockey’s budget was three times larger than the next-highest athletic budget, according to Ricker.

So a determined group of hockey alums put up a Web page with a petition and started soliciting donations. In about two months they garnered some $2.5 million in pledges—a significant chunk of change for a school not known for its athletics, much less men’s athletics.

“Whatever it is that you’ve heard about hockey players . . . they’re the kind of kids you want in the school to have some kind of a balance,” said Ricker. “The school is certainly known for its arts, and it’s got a very strong female population, and you don’t want to go backwards in terms of the coeducational process.”

After the announcement in September, hockey coach Paul Dion urged players to stick it out, and thinks the struggle helped his players bond “better and quicker than ever before.”

To publicize their predicament on campus, hockey players sported T-shirts saying “Hug a Hockey Player. They may not be here tomorrow” and staged demonstrations, including a game in full gear on the campus’ central quad. Dion said his team’s poised efforts went a long way in the eyes of the college, and Ricker found them appropriately “within the spirit of a liberal-arts school, where you’re not supposed to sit back and just be numb about things.”

Over parents’ weekend in October, alums and hockey parents met with the college’s new president, Philip Glotzbach, and that “further opened his eyes, along with the fund-raising, that there really is this strong group of people that care a lot about the school, a lot about athletics, and obviously about hockey,” said Ricker. “People just saw this as a real reversal and a statement that was saying [Skidmore] was not going to be a serious place for athletics.”

When the team was reinstated almost a month later, Glotzbach said, “Most important to me is that this development will allow us to improve the athletic experience for our entire community.”

For “kids from New England high schools and prep schools in particular, hockey is a big part of the athletic program,” said Ricker. For Skidmore to drop hockey and not have a football team sends the message that “it’s probably not a serious athletic environment for males.”

Skidmore offers no athletic scholarships, but does actively recruit for its teams, something coach Dion now has to catch up on. “We’re hoping we can get a competitive class, but it’s going to take a lot of extra work,” he said. “We salvaged one kid this weekend, and now he’s going to change his application to early decision here.”

“[The fundraising] really accelerated the whole notion of boosting athletics at the school,” said Ricker. There is now a formal committee to better the athletic programs and facilities, which will begin meeting in December.

Last weekend, the rink was packed with enthused community members watching Skidmore’s first home games, and they were supportive to the end even though the team lost both. “We want to put on a good show, but we also want to win,” said Dion, “so we’ve got to get back to the drawing board.”

—Ashley Hahn

Tech City?
Urban advocates discuss ways to bring the high-tech boom downtown, and to the people who live there

Deb Baumes is optimistic about the Capital Region’s nascent high-tech boom. “The changes that are going to happen can positively affect everyone,” said the president of A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment, a faith-based organizing network. But she’s not complacent. “We did research, and realized that in other areas where there’s been an influx like this . . . low-income people were not taken along for the ride,” she said. “It ended up hurting low-income people, low-income areas.”

The problems with other booming regions, said Baumes, were that low-income people were not connected with the new job opportunities, or didn’t think the jobs would be within their reach, while at the same time housing prices soared, bringing additional hardship to the same families left out of the job boom.

Todd Fabozzi, a planner with the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, also sees a potential downside to high-tech growth: suburban sprawl. So far, he said, in a presentation to the Neighborhoods Work conference on Saturday, the region’s population growth has been “peanuts compared to an area like Atlanta, but the characteristics [of our development] are sprawl characteristics. If we’re going to get a growth boom and continue this pattern, we will see a decline in our quality of life.” But there’s another option, Fabozzi said: Given the long-term population decline of the region’s cities, we have, in those urban areas, “infrastructure in place for another city[’s worth of people and businesses].”

Saturday’s conference, sponsored by the Neighborhood Resources Center and the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations, and ARISE’s annual public meeting the previous Tuesday (Nov. 18), both were dedicated to finding ways to avoid these dangers and instead harness the high-tech wave to benefit the cities and their disadvantaged populations.

At the Neighborhoods Work conference, participants took a neighborhoods-up look. While the morning’s “high-tech” panelists—UAlbany President Karen Hitchcock, Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce President Lyn Taylor and Charitable Venture Foundation director Richard Liebich—focused on how the region could serve the needs of business (including “create more executive housing”), audience members suggested improving public transportation from neighborhoods like the South End to job centers like University Heights and encouraging new corporate and research presences to use local businesses for services like catering. They also participated in a lively debate about the wisdom of the draft revitalization plan for the Park South neighborhood, which currently suggests razing a block of houses for a student dorm.

Fabozzi suggested integrating the Harriman campus into the urban fabric, not allowing any buildings to be built without sidewalks, and generally preserving what is diverse, eclectic and urban about the cities—“everything the suburbs are not.”

At its meeting, ARISE presented an ambitious, multipronged “Equity Agenda for Tech Valley.” On the jobs front, the group is organizing “opportunity fairs” in low-income neighborhoods, which will provide information not only about jobs, but also training and education options and related social services, in settings that are “local, easy to get to, and not intimidating,” according to Baumes. ARISE’s youth and education task force, which focuses on kids at risk of dropping out, also has been pushing for a regional workforce strategic plan, which will look in detail at which skill sets are needed by incoming employers but aren’t getting taught to inner-city youth. The local Workforce Investment Board has recently received a grant to conduct that study.

ARISE is also looking at the housing end, supporting programs of local housing organizations like the Homeownership Collaborative, especially walk-to-work programs whereby employers support homeownership in their vicinities. Talk has also come up of needing to provide affordable housing options near suburban job centers, but that’s farther down the line.

When ARISE starts talking about suburbs, it sounds familiar to Fabozzi’s call to celebrate the urban and direct development back into the urban cores. “The more development goes out that way, the more we lose our land,” said Baumes. “People in the suburbs, some of them, are very concerned about what’s being built, what’s being swallowed up.”

“ARISE is not about telling people in the suburbs what to do,” cautioned Tom McPheeters, ARISE communications coordinator and a member of the Mansion Neighborhood Association. “We have to go about it not just that it’s the right thing, but that it’s in their self-interest.”

ARISE’s final agenda item—reform of the Rockefeller drug laws and emphasis on treatment over incarceration—doesn’t at first glance seem directly connected to high-tech growth. But ARISE members (institutions, mostly churches and neighborhood associations) ranked this their number-one priority this year, and think it’s quite relevant. Baumes explains that the harsh mandatory minimum sentences have left so many struggling and single-parent families that it has seriously weakened low-income communities’ ability to take advantage of new opportunities. “Rehabilitation instead of incarceration for 18 to 20 years is something we’re trying to promote,” she said.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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