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Local Heroes
Our annual tribute to Capital Region residents who make a difference

Most of us live under a constant bombardment of information about the antics of people who are rich enough to hire publicists (J.Lo has the flu, everyone!) or at least have enough time on their hands to do nothing but self-promote (no names here). So its always refreshing to find, and gratifying to celebrate, people who spend more time doing the work that our community needs than talking about how good they are for doing it.

Tyrell Pryor played a leading role in cleaning up a long-neglected park in his Troy neighborhood, but he wants to make sure his buddies get credit for their parts as well. Gabrielle Becker, who is spearheading a campaign to turn St. Anthony’s Church in Albany’s Mansion Neighborhood, counts among her successes that she has built an organization that could continue without her if it needed to. And Erin O’Brian, executive director of Albany’s Women’s Building, is far more comfortable talking about the importance of empowering other people to help themselves than about herself.

But sometimes being a hero means doing things that don’t come naturally. And sometimes that does in fact mean seeking publicity, at least for your cause, if not yourself. Emma Dickson took the frightening plunge into public speaking in order to get her Pine Bush community listed on the state and federal historic registers. Matto has been tireless in the local DIY music and arts scene bringing together and promoting a slew of worthy area artists. Jim Kunstler continues to publish his hard-hitting monthly newsletter, Civitas, to provide a crucial dissenting voice on local politics in Saratoga Springs. And when Stephen and Roger Downs decided to test out Crossgates Mall’s policy of kicking out people wearing antiwar shirts, they didn’t expect—or even necessarily want—the frenzy of media attention they would receive. Nonetheless, they took the opportunity to make a strong case for freedom of expression.

Heroism can take place in or out of the public eye, or in the process of trying to redirect that eye to something it’s been ignoring. But in any case, these local heroes deserve more of our attention than they’re likely to ask for.

Photo: John Whipple

Gabrielle Becker

Gabrielle Becker, 22, Albany, is the activist behind the nonprofit organization Mansion Community Arts, Inc., which is working to turn St. Anthony’s Church into a community center.

To Gabrielle Becker’s astonishment, the grassroots movement she started just 18 months ago has reached the point of critical mass: The effort to restore and reopen St. Anthony’s Church as a community center could continue on without her. That’s not to say the young Bard graduate is going anywhere; Becker is full of ideas on how to move forward with arts programs and community outreach. It’s just that what began with her and a few volunteers has grown into a formal organization with legal nonprofit status, and has earned the support of key elected officials like Albany Common Council members Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2) and Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1)—not to mention Mayor Gerald D. Jennings.

When she was still at Bard College, Becker starting thinking about moving back home to Albany to do community work; this evolved into the idea of restoring St. Anthony’s, which is at the corner of Madison Avenue and Grand Street. Petitions in hand, Becker and a few like-minded neighbors went door-to-door in Albany’s Mansion neighborhood to see if there was interest in a community center. They collected more than 200 supporting signatures.

Since getting the keys to the church from the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese last summer, Becker and her small-but-dedicated army of volunteers have been busy. A regular series of “work parties” were held to clean the church, which has been vacant since the mid ’70s. An “Italian open house” was held, and the former parishioners of St. Anthony’s were invited to see the progress.

Although people were enthusiastic, Becker says, “everyone asked the same things: ‘What are you gonna do, and how are you gonna pay for it?’”

Becker says the answer to this lies in “calling people that know more than you, and saying, ‘What would you do?’” Now that the zoning issues have been resolved—Mansion Community Arts, Inc. was granted the zoning change allowing the reuse of the church—the MCA can really move forward in a tangible way, and Becker has enlisted Web site designers, architects and grant writers for the effort.

Becker is cool-eyed enough to know that work ahead will not be easy. Aside from the fund-raising, the church needs expensive infrastructure work that will take time to complete. She also knows, however, that the MCA can’t just “hold its breath” until the building is ready. That’s why she’s already planning a garden project, on a nearby vacant lot, to involve the neighborhood children this summer.

Asked what it’s like to see her idea becoming reality, Becker smiles: “I feel pretty good about the project.”

Photo: Chris Shields
Stephen and Roger Downs

Stephen Downs, 61, and Roger Downs, 32, Selkirk, decided to test reports that Crossgates Mall was asking shoppers to remove antiwar T-shirts or leave the premises. When the elder Downs was arrested for refusing to remove a shirt that read “Peace on Earth,” the mall became a poster child for the knee-jerk intolerance pervading the country just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

When Stephen Downs read a Metroland news story [“Visualize World Peace . . . Somewhere Else,” Jan. 9] describing Crossgates Mall security guards forcing shoppers wearing antiwar T-shirts to leave the mall, he couldn’t believe that such subjective, reactionary censorship was taking place so close to home. After discussing the possibilities with friends and each other, Stephen and his son, Roger, decided to test the policy.

On Monday, March 3, father and son went to the mall to purchase and don two custom-made shirts. Roger’s read “No War With Iraq.” Stephen’s, a two-sided number, read “Peace on Earth” on one side and “Give Peace a Chance” on the other. Twelve minutes later, at the food court, a mall security guard confronted the duo and gave them their options: Remove the shirts or leave the mall. Roger complied. Stephen refused and was arrested for trespassing.

Stephen, who at the time held a job investigating alleged misconduct among judges throughout the state, informed his boss of the arrest on Tuesday, and it was his infuriated boss who began contacting the press. Before he left for work Wednesday morning, Stephen had completed eight radio interviews, just a taste of what was to come. By the time he arrived at the office that morning, press requests were on the verge of crashing his office’s voice-mail system, and there was a mountain of paper messages on his desk. He received requests from the Associated Press, Amy Goodman, The New York Times, Reuters, Bill O’Reilly, and The Times of London, to name a few.

The story broke in many newspapers Wednesday morning, and later in the day a few hundred people flooded Crossgates to protest the mall’s policy. Many wore antiwar T-shirts. None was arrested.

As the media circus intensified, the Downses found themselves thrust into the role of spokesmen for the antiwar movement—a position with which they were none too comfortable. “[The attention] was embarrassing, more than anything else. We’re not heroes,” says Roger. “You look at everyone [who protested the arrest], and they’re incredibly dedicated. . . .They are people who dedicate their life to this sort of thing.”

“Here we are coming in and stealing all the thunder,” Stephen says. “I felt guilty about the whole thing. I do a sort of half-baked, second rendition of what [other people had] been doing all along and the media decides to pick up on that. Why not pick up on the original thing?” But they nonetheless managed to diffuse the spotlight, and they stayed on-message: Mall management shouldn’t selectively enforce an individual’s right to expression.

The incident spawned debate nationwide, and provided fodder for pundits and Internet entrepreneurs alike. (“Boycott Crossgates” T-shirts and bumper stickers can be located with a quick Google search.) Following the arrest, the New York Civil Liberties Union began a billboard campaign featuring a photo of a mouth covered in yellow tape and “Welcome to the Mall. You have the right to remain silent.” In June, the Downs donated the shirts to the New York State Museum for its permanent collection of political T-shirts.

Photo: Chris Shields

Emma Dickson

Emma Dickson, 59, Guilderland, is a fourth-generation resident of the 70-year-old African-American community in the pine barrens bordering Rapp Road in Guilderland. Due to her efforts, and those of Jennifer Lemack of the New York State Museum, the overlooked neighborhood was recently elected to both the New York state and federal registers of historic districts.

Emma Dickson was once, she says, a little shy about telling the story of the African-American neighborhood in the pine barrens of Guilderland. Though she was proud of the community in which she grew up, and personally motivated to uncover and preserve its history, she found grand-scale public speaking intimidating:

“I was reluctant,” she admits, when describing her first engagement to speak in an auditorium full of schoolchildren. “That was the first time, the first time I had told the history to a group that large. I was used to telling it to family groups and gatherings.”

The story of Elder Louis W. Parson’s migration from Shubuta, Miss., to Albany’s South End, of his risky missions back to his hometown to retrieve the beleaguered sharecropping members of his congregation (one carload at a time), and of his 1930 purchase for them of a 14-acre plot of land in the “country” west of Fuller Road, is so compelling that it seems it would tell itself. Or, at the least, would provide grist for the mill of some high-priced screenwriter and a major motion-picture studio. But the community was, in actuality, long overlooked by everyone but the 23 families who settled there (18 of which are still represented among residents).

Dickson says that in high school, her Albany classmates were baffled when she explained to them where she was from: “‘Rapp Road? Rapp Road?’ They were so used to saying ‘street’ that when I told them they would just say, ‘Oh, you’re from the country.’”

Country ripe for development, as it happened—not the type of attention small and fragile neighborhoods can easily bear. In the years after the construction of Washington Avenue Extension in 1970, sprawl began its creep westward: The pine barrens suffered the intrusion of Crossgates Mall and Crossgates Commons, in addition to other commercial and residential development. The fate of the modest cluster of cottages and bungalows seemed uncertain.

Fortunately, Dickson’s investment in her community and her motivation to speak out caught another kind of attention: First, that of New York State Museum research fellow Jennifer Lemack, who joined Dickson in ferreting out the details of Elder Parson’s travels and the settlement of the Rapp Road community; and, then, of a representative of the New York State Department of Parks and Recreation, who helped guide them through the process of securing historic-district status.

It is far easier, Dickson says, to convince a panel viewing a slide of a Tiffany window of the historic importance of a single church than it is to impress upon them the significance of a living community—but they did it, perhaps saving the neighborhood from a future in an archeologist’s dustpan.

Dickson will continue to tell her stories to schoolchildren and other public gatherings of folks interested in the dramatic migration of Parsons and his congregation, but she’s now freer to focus on her favorite audience:

“We have these huge family reunions—over 300 people out here. We do a play or tell stories about the history, and there’s families all down the line; we have four generations out here. We are very hopeful that the history is as important to them as it is to us.”

Photo: Ellen Descisciolo

Jim Kunstler

Jim Kunstler, 55, Saratoga Springs, publishes Civitas, a monthly broadside of local politics and civic arts in Saratoga Springs. He’s also a well-known author of books on urban planning, and a novelist.

“You have to hack your way through a lot of lunchmeat in this world,” and Jim Kunstler is at the ready with a machete. This metaphor graces Civitas, Kunstler’s monthly newsletter, and to him it means, “It’s hard going as you navigate your way through the pitfalls, and troubles, and travails of life.” So he prints Civitas to help Saratoga Springs residents make sense of the place.

Kunstler, who gained national acclaim as proponent of new-urbanist design in the mid ‘90s with his books The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere, wrote a monthly column on urban planning and local politics for The Saratogian until about four years ago, when the paper started to object to his more political writing. “I was attacking the Republican establishment, for whom they are the unofficial protectors,” he explains. Rather than endure censorious editors, Kunstler set out on his own.

Civitas is essentially “a lone newspaper column unattached to any newspaper, but necessarily so,” he says, lamenting that The Saratogian is the only game in town. “It’s an odious rag.”

Kunstler spends about three days monthly putting Civitas together all by himself (not counting the copiers at Kinko’s). “It’s kind of a burdensome little sideline because I do have a regular professional life beyond it,” he says. Usually Civitas comes out every third Wednesday of the month, and the stacks of single 11-by-17 sheets disappear almost as quickly as they came.

Kunstler tirelessly scrutinizes Saratoga in every issue, often breaking stories. The latest edition (Dec. 3) is all politics: He blazes through seven examples of Mayor-elect Mike Lenz’s “deliberate, calculated lying,” decries the “monkeyshines” at Skidmore’s polling place, and exposes how The Saratogian’s publisher pressured the staff to endorse Lenz to keep the city Republican chair, who is not coincidentally a major advertiser, happy. “Saratoga has a particularly pernicious Republican machine that would sell this town down the river in five minutes for lunch if they could do it,” Kunstler says.

Civitas is kind of a throwback to the sort of 18th-century broadsides that were published in pre- and post-revolutionary America,” Kunstler says. “Mine is done in the same spirit and with perhaps a similar revolutionary zeal, although I don’t consider myself a leftist revolutionary. I’m sort of a centrist.”

As for being a hero, he says, “You’re never a hero in your own town, you’re just another schmuck with an opinion.” He adds that he’s certainly not alone in this local underappreciation, but that it’s particularly ironic when he is paid to go to other towns to share his ideas.

“I don’t consider myself an indispensable figure in my town,” he says. “Saratoga did all right before I came along and it’ll probably do all right after I leave. While I’m here, I intend to make my voice heard.”

And like the motto implies, the “lunchmeat” is never-ending, and Kunstler’s not going anywhere any time soon. In the short term, the local elections are still on his mind. “There’s plenty of room for the victors to make some terrible blunders during their term in office,” he says. “And I expect they won’t disappoint me.”

Photo: Joe Putrock


Matt Laque, Albany, is a Scotia native who works tirelessly to promote local musicians and artists and the indie music scene.

Matt Laque, or Matto, as he’s better known, is an extremely busy guy. Between playing with his bands Kitty Little, John Brown’s Army and To Hell and Back, he finds time to organize huge shows like the Hawaiian Rawk Fest and smaller DIY shows. He encourages his fellow musicians and works hard to promote shows in the local media.

Right now, Matto is focusing on his work with Miss Mary’s Art Space, an inclusive arts collaborative that actually has no space right now, and its publication, Screed. He’s been helping to set up benefits to raise money for the organization to move into a new home on Central Avenue in Albany, but both money and work are needed to make that happen.

“The whole premise of the space is that it’s not curated or run by one person; it’s more or less whoever wants to do anything, and that kind of diversity is fun and it’s important. I think diversity is really important, and we had that with Miss Mary’s Art Space. I really appreciate that,” he says.

He adds, “I wish that the powers that be in the community like the mayor’s office and the business associations took a little more interest in the arts rather than having occasional token events [and] shutting places down like Miss Mary’s or giving places like that a hard time.”

When asked how he gets people to come out and support events, he shrugs, “If you do a show and it’s good and people have fun—that’s all I do. People come out.”

Matto is hesitant to take the credit for his arts organizing and promoting work: He repeats that he is by far not the only one who cares so much about the scene and that there are a lot of other people behind the events he organizes. He gives a lot of credit to online sources like the Hidden City and Bystander, and other collectives and venues. “There are a lot of good spaces—there’s the New Age Cabaret, which has a lot of good stuff, Changing Spaces. . . . Howard from Valentine’s is great, too—he cares about the music scene as much as anyone.”

There’s stuff happening every day, Matto points out, and there are enough people in the area who care enough to keep the music going. But among them Matto has been one of the most consistent and tireless in his everyday support of the Albany music scene, and he does it because he believes in it and wants to nurture it to the point where it’s a wholly united effort. All he gets out of it is the satisfaction of a job well done and a whole lotta fun. He grins, “If I were motivated by money, I’d have quit a long time ago.”

Photo: Shannon DeCelle
Erin O’Brien

Erin O’Brien, 34, Albany, is the executive director of the Women’s Building on Central Avenue, where she has been expanding its programs and helping local organizations get started. In her “free” time she is involved with half a dozen local peace and justice groups, and in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, she organized against it around the clock.

It takes more time for Erin O’Brien to list the causes she devotes her time to than many people spend on any cause at all. Aside from her job at the Women’s Building and her involvement with Women Against War, the list includes the Palestinian Rights Committee, Capital District for Justice and Peace, Ironweed Collective, Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Council, and the national organization United for Peace and Justice.

But this doesn’t seem like an unusual state of affairs to this veteran activist, who has spent the last 15 years working for nonprofits. “There’s really no choice for me, I don’t think,” muses O’Brien when asked about her career and extracurricular choices. “I just find, when I look around myself, there’s nothing else to be doing but this work. Work that not only needs to be done, but I find joy and fulfillment in.”

Joy, fulfillment, and occasional sleeplessness, especially this year. “I’m the only staff person for the Women’s Building organization,” she says. “Like a lot of nonprofits, we’ve been struggling since 9/11. . . . There’s more and more people in need and less money going toward nonprofits—it’s a formula for overwork.” Add to that the peace organizing of various sorts that peaked this spring, and “It was pretty intense,” says O’Brien, who among other things took the lead on protests at the Capitol building and Crossgates Mall. “Many of us were literally working around the clock. It consumed a lot of our lives.”

Not that she’s complaining. “It was very energizing to work with literally hundreds of people in this area who were willing to take risks—fast at the Women’s Building, lie down on the highway, be out there in January in the freezing cold to hold a candle for peace,” she says, unable to keep herself from a plug for people to “get involved.”

And managing the myriad programs at the Women’s Building is no plain day job either. O’Brien is enthusiastic about her role providing facilities and technical assistance for emerging groups that further the empowerment of women and girls. One of her proudest achievements is that the building is “utilized much more by the people in the neighborhood.” Diversifying is always harder in reality than in theory, but that only makes it more important to O’Brien. “The priorities and goals of the groups [that use the Women’s Building] are determined by the people who will be participating,” she says. “It’s important [for those who have them] to use their privilege and power to support that activity.”

Photo: Teri Currie

Tyrell Pryor

Tyrell Pryor, 18, is a Troy High School senior who has mobilized youth in Troy’s 9th Street area over the past year to take back a neighborhood park long neglected by the city. Pryor has continued such community-oriented work in various projects for youth in one of Troy’s poorest communities.

A few years ago, residents in the 9th Street area of Troy frequently complained about a long- neglected city park off of 10th Street where hoodlums congregated. Two years ago, however, neighborhood residents stopped complaining and started cleaning. They took back the park. Tyrell Pryor was an integral part of that effort, mobilizing neighborhood youth for weekend cleanups and leading a bike ride to City Hall to lobby for better services.

As the cleanups continued, local media picked up on the story and city officials took note. In a reversal from months prior, when a city official likened maintaining the park to beating a dead horse, this summer City Hall said it would begin to take better care of the park again.

A broad-shouldered young man with a big, easy smile, Pryor wants to be positive role model for kids his brother’s age, something his father was to him. “Younger kids look up to me,” he says. “Whenever I see a young child, I feel like they’re my little sibling. I basically want to be able to do anything to help them out, just like my father,” Pryor says. “That’s the best thing in the world, to have a gift to care for others and to be able to help others.”

Although he takes pride in his status as a role model among neighborhood youth, Pryor readily shares the spotlight with his cousin, Maurice Branch, and their friend, Jose Serrano, both of whom helped bring neighborhood kids out to the park for weekly cleanups over the past two summers. “They’re like my brothers,” Pryor says, his broad smile spanning his face at the mention of his friends’ names.

This summer, Troy Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, a nonprofit community development organization, sent Pryor to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the Community Leadership Institute, a three-day conference for burgeoning neighborhood activists to network and learn new skills. Pryor’s eyes widen remembering the trip, and he beams at the thought of being an asset to his community worth investing in.

Since returning from the conference, Pryor has been a part of voter-registration drives in his neighborhood, and continues to work with his father in Boys to Men, a mentoring group for young males in Troy. Pryor says the group tries to teach young men how to be respectful to women, and to consider the consequences of decisions they make, like trying drugs or getting into fights. “We try to teach every aspect of being a gentleman,” he says. Pryor prefers to focus his mentoring efforts at home, however. At age 10, his younger brother is beginning to express an interest in doing positive work in the community as well. Pryor is more than willing to teach him all that he knows.

“He’s like my disciple,” Pryor said. “I teach him stuff so that he can pass it on to his friends. I just try to teach him everything that I know so that he’ll be a little bit wiser. If he has the knowledge that I have right now and he has it at his age, imagine what he can have when he turns my age.”

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