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Tough Love
Arbor Hill public-mural design loses wall space amid discussion of “appropriate” visions of the community

The young man stands in a sleeveless T-shirt and gold chain, staring directly at the viewer, in front of a backdrop of Clinton Avenue buildings. “Still Got Love for You” say the large words underneath him, and beneath that is a longer text about the achievements of African-Americans. “Welcome to us, the first alternative movement of the modern world,” it begins. This is Yacob Williams’ latest plan for an outdoor mural in Arbor Hill. And at the moment it is a plan without a home.

Williams created four murals in Arbor Hill in 2002 to great acclaim, working with schoolchildren who provided him with the ideas and helped him paint [“Picturing a New Tomorrow,” Dec. 12, 2002]. This time he got his idea from a group of community service workers from the community prosecution unit who were clearing a vacant lot at the corner of North Swan Street and Livingston Avenue last summer. They first asked for a dedication wall, commemorating crime victims. “It was amazing to hear they had an opinion because we don’t often ask them anything . . . except name and ID,” said David Soares, an Albany County assistant district attorney who runs the community prosecution unit. Williams took various ideas from the workers and fashioned a design that he felt was positive yet realistic.

“What kind of message do I want to communicate to people driving though Arbor Hill who never get out of their car?” he asked himself. The answer? “A very strong message—I wanted him to be looking at viewers as they are passing by with a little attitude. It’s a tough attitude, not soft, because I want people to know that it’s hard here.”

Nonetheless, the core message of the design, said Williams, is love. “Not only do I want people to be drawn to the image, but to the literal message. Instead of judging a book by its cover, you encourage them to open the book and read it. I want people to walk up to the wall and read the message, which says ‘Still have love for you.’ This person is conveying the message that he still has love for his community, his people, ” he said.

When Williams first started talking about creating another mural, Kate Wilyard, a manager of Clinton Avenue Apartments, offered a wall that faces the corner of Clinton Avenue and Lark Street. A five-member committee got together, envisioning the mural as part of a larger community project, including a block party. But Williams said that in initial conversations about his ideas, the committee pressured him to make changes to portray something more upbeat: in his words, “Clinton [Avenue] as hunky-dory, kids up and down the street . . .” As part of this conversation, Monique Wahba of the city planning department also asked him to tie it into the Arbor Hill Plan, he said. Wahba declined to comment.

Such conversation is not unusual when it comes to art, especially public art, pointed out Arbor Hill resident Barbara Smith, who has worked with Williams on various projects, and thinks his most recent design is “beautiful and dynamic.” “It’s hard when you’re doing public art,” she said. “People who have a part in that often have ideas of what they would like to see. . . . It certainly raises emotions.” Nonetheless, Smith said, “Great art is always uplifting. That doesn’t mean that it has to portray anything in a particular mood.” She noted that world-famous paintings such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a response to the Spanish Civil War, often take on very difficult or controversial subjects.

Williams felt that the requests being made of him would take him too far from the vision of the people who originally “commissioned” the work—the community service workers. “They were kind of turned off,” he said, when he brought the new ideas back to them. “They said ‘What’s wrong with a dedication wall? Why you going to paint the neighborhood as hunky-dory when it’s not?’” Williams felt it would compromise his integrity as an artist to swerve from the original vision, and he completed a printed version of the design.

Reactions were mixed. Soares was thrilled. “The majority of our youth, particularly males, that’s who that piece reflected. [It’s] a viewpoint that we often stifle because we make certain preliminary judgments based on the dress or the intimidation factor. Those young men are the future of this community. It was a work of brilliance, to have that kid that you would otherwise be intimidated by” presenting the mural’s positive message, he said.

The response from the committee was much different. Wilyard won’t discuss what the group wished to see, or what they didn’t like about the design presented, saying she considers it a “private matter.” But it appears that that the group believed Williams had agreed to made more adjustments based on their input. “The final design wasn’t what was discussed, wasn’t what was agreed upon,” said Wilyard. “It was an 11th hour change.”

“There was some very heated discussion,” recalls Soares. “Some [young ladies] felt it didn’t reflect their vision of the community.”

At the end, Wilyard said, the group made a “unanimous decision that this design wasn’t appropriate.” As a result, while funding might be forthcoming, the mural no longer has a home.

The decision was painful for Williams, who felt like his artistic integrity and ability to represent his community faithfully was being questioned. But he has also remained positive. While still looking for another wall on a business corridor, he has decided to print up 1,000 posters of the design, at a cost of $1,500, compared to $10,000 to execute a mural. “I’m not really going to sweat it,” said Williams. “Why let my time and energy go in vain? . . . A lot of people ride through our neighborhood with contempt. It’s very important to change this image. [I want to show a] positive message from an ordinary person on Clinton Avenue that we’ve still got love for you.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute
maxel-lute@metroland.net


Prelude to a discussion: (l-r) Chief Wolfgang and Commissioner Nielsen at a Feb. 11 Common Council caucus meeting. Photo by: John Whipple

On the Defensive
Albany Police chief emphasizes the positive in the face of “unsubstantiated accusations,” but others say important questions remain unanswered

The council chambers were overflowing on Monday evening as police officers and concerned citizens packed the hall to hear Albany Police Chief Robert Wolfgang report to the Common Council in response to two letters’ worth of questions they had sent him.

Wolfgang read from a prepared, single-spaced, 18-page statement that covered a wide range of issues, including hot-button topics such as the firing of Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro, the use of overtime, and the department’s relationship with the Citizen’s Police Review Board.

On the subject of overtime, he referenced a recent overtime audit, conducted by Urbach Kahn & Werlin LLP. The report determined, based on a sample of 132 records out of 34,000 from November 2002 through October 2003, that while some sloppy or inconsistent record-keeping opened the potential for overtime abuse, there was no indication of further fraud on the scale of recently arrested Officer Jeffrey Metcalfe. City Comptroller Thomas Nitido noted that the report examined only whether current controls were being followed, and didn’t assess the adequacy of those controls.

The chief pulled no punches in justifying the firing of D’Alessandro, saying the flyer he has been accused of creating was a “hateful bias-based attack” that counted as aggravated harassment. He also called the commander “insubordinate” and described his first transfer out of the detective’s office as “for his good and the good of the Albany Police Department” due to accusations that he was creating a “hostile work environment.” He did note that at the same time D’Alessandro had also reported problems in the office, but the content of his allegations was not specified.

Wolfgang also struck out at the citizens who have been raising questions about the department regularly at council meetings, calling them “dissidents committed to destroying those around them at all cost.” He took specific issue with Helen Black, president of the Ten Broeck Triangle Neighborhood Association. While he didn’t name Black, he referred to her as an “irresponsible” person who wants to “inflame the public and create dissension and unrest in our community and police department,” and specifically singled out Black’s “slanderous” comments that he had lied at the Feb. 11 caucus. At that caucus, when asked about an overtime report produced independently in 2002 by D’Alessandro, Wolfgang repeatedly said he did not know what report was being referred to. In his statement Monday he mentioned the report and discussed its contents, which he said had no relation to personnel decisions surrounding D’Alessandro.

Along with his response to the council’s inquiries, Wolfgang made clear that he was not pleased with being called to present information in such a formal fashion, calling it an “inquisition,” when “it would be so much easier to pick up the phone and have this dealt with.” Comments like these spurred Councilwoman Shawn Morris (Ward 7) to observe that the council has not accused the department of anything, and that it was “irritating to have these accusations thrown back at us for asking questions we not only have a right, but an obligation to ask.”

The surprise of the evening came when Det. James Lyman, president of New York Law Enforcement Officers Council 82, of which the Albany Police Officer’s Union is a local, spoke during the public comment period. He blamed the low morale of the department on the lack of leadership from Commissioner John C. Nielsen, who he said runs the police department rather than the chief. “I question why [Wolfgang] feels the necessity to defend the Albany Police Department, which he has not be allowed to truly lead without interference,” said Lyman. In sharp contrast to comments from the mayor and the chief, Lyman also thanked the “community members that attend these meetings and that are supporting Cmdr. D’Alessandro [for] expressing their support for each and every one of us. We are not their issue. They are questioning the leadership and demanding accountability.”

Reached Wednesday, Lyman said his one and only concern was the men and women of the police department who “deserve to be represented by our leaders in a more positive way,” and said it wouldn’t be a problem that the commissioner is the real head of the department if he offered the needed leadership and support. He noted that Nielsen “attempted to get me not to speak” at the meeting. “He grabbed me as the local union president [James Teller, who spoke before Lyman] was speaking. He said ‘Are you going to speak?’ and I said ‘Yes,’ and he said ‘Is it going to hurt us?’ and I said ‘No,’ and he said ‘Is it going to be productive?’ and I said ‘It’s going to be the truth and it needs to be said.’ ” Nielsen could not be reached for comment.

In a chock-full public-comment period that had to be extended several times, a number of residents, many identifying themselves as members of the newly formed Coalition for Accountable Police and Government, sounded a couple common strains in response to the chief’s presentation. They emphasized that they were not attacking rank-and-file officers, but instead trying to support them by keeping their leadership accountable, and said their questions had not yet been satisfactorily answered.

“Now the difficult work begins,” noted Renee Silver. “As much as I understand the chief’s desire to protect the department. . . . I cannot believe he is telling us everything he knows. . . . We need to know who knew what and when.” She questioned specifically why Officer Kenneth Wilcox, who recently filed notice of claim against D’Alessandro for racial discrimination, “took several years to find corroborating evidence, and then when they wanted D’Alessandro out, he found it.”

Black responded to Wolfgang by noting a double standard in which he was free to make accusations and “express his emotions” about her, while the public was criticized for raising their own concerns. She also took issue with the idea that only a few people are worried about the department. “We are many, but many are afraid to speak,” she said.

Councilman Dominick Calsolero (Ward 1) said he has heard many people say that there are problems in the department, while others say the current leadership is the best the department has had. He noted that it was unusual, and possibly even historic, that the council as a whole had formally requested this accounting from the chief, but said it was a good move because the council needs to “listen to the citizens that they represent.”

Members of the council, including Calsolero, have reserved judgment on the content of the chief’s report until they are able to read all of his supporting documents, though they gave him a standing ovation after he finished with an emotional statement about his time on the force, the death of Lt. John Finn, and his impending retirement. Council members will ask him further questions at next Wednesday’s caucus meeting.

—Miriam Axel-Lute
maxel-lute@metroland.net

Trailmix:

And in This Corner . . .

Competition for the Democratic party line in some of Albany County’s districts took on new levels of ferocity on Super Tuesday when postponed legislative primaries were held.

The primaries were marked by tight races, particularly in the 2nd and 3rd election districts, which cover Arbor Hill and South End neighborhoods. These particular races have been contentious since the fall [“Tangled Up in Albany,” Trail Mix, Oct. 2, 2003], when they were put on hold due to redistricting. And now that they’re over, the races are no less controversial. The preliminary results show close outcomes, and questions surround absentee ballots and errors on the part of the county Board of Elections. Machines and ballots were impounded after challenges were brought from Lucille McKnight, Wanda Willingham and Ward DeWitt.

Among the things at issue are allegedly suspect tactics employed by Jamie Gilkey, 3rd ward Democratic leader, who is the campaign manager for 2nd district candidate Marilyn Hammond and an advisor to Jestin Williams in the 3rd. Gilkey, aided by two other people, obtained and distributed unusually high numbers of absentee ballots, and news reports have implied that some of the ballots were filled out incorrectly or by party members rather than voters. The fate of many these absentee votes hung in the balance at press time as State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi began hearings yesterday (Wednesday) to decide if 162 absentee ballots ought to be opened and counted in three legislative primaries.

Currently, there is no limit in Albany County for how many absentee ballots can be requested and distributed by a single individual, though Republican Elections Commissioner John Graziano indicated that after this race, he is interested in insituting a cap.

“I’m perfectly willing to take the stand, and I’ve been open from the very beginning about what occurred,” Gilkey said. “Voters signed applications, they requested that we get ballots, and that’s what we did. They voted the ballots and signed them.” He reiterated his assertion that the charges of wrongdoing on his part are “absolutely bogus and untrue.” Gilkey has collected some absentee ballot requests for the special general election on April 27, and it remains to be seen if those will count.

Problems of a different sort plagued residents along a piece of First Street near Ten Broeck Triangle; they were mistakenly send cards telling them to report to the wrong polling place. Voters there, who thought they would be choosing between incumbent Willingham and challenger Williams, found themselves instead facing ballots with the 4th district candidates, DeWitt and Virginia Maffia-Tobler.

Maffia-Tobler appears to have defeated De Witt, but the race between Willingham and Williams has gone into extra innings. Willingham leads Williams by a scant 15 votes, but 115 absentee ballots in their district have yet to be opened and counted. McKnight appears to have lost to Hammond.

For right now, the primary results await certification, and the fight is far from over in the 2nd and 3rd districts.

“We don’t go through this in other places,” said Keri Kresler from the Working Families Party. “It’s an Albany thing and its especially bad in these districts.” With low voter turnout, about 12 percent in the primary, she says every vote really counts. Relatively few votes can sway entire elections.

Even if McKnight and Willingham do ultimately lose the Democratic line, they will still be running in the general election on smaller party lines. Both are on the Working Families Party line, and Willingham also holds the Independence line.

McKnight said running on the WFP line makes sense because the party’s values are “right in line with where I’ve stood ideologically.” The party concentrates on issues affecting average New Yorkers, stressing concerns related to labor, accessible health care, and improvements to education and affordable housing. Willingham could not be reached for comment.

The question remains if there will be time for a debate in races where there are several candidates, such as the one in the 2nd, where Hammond faces not only McKnight but Steve Segore from the Green Party and Steve Stofelano on the Independence and Conservative lines.

To Kresler, people need to move away from the idea that in Albany the Democrats always win. “You cannot say that in a special election like this, because if a candidate were to put a lot of effort into a race they could come out a winner by just having a minor party line in a special election.”

—Ashley Hahn
ahahn@metroland.net


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