Arbor Hill public-mural design loses wall space amid discussion
of appropriate visions of the community
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
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
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.”
to a discussion: (l-r) Chief Wolfgang and Commissioner
Nielsen at a Feb. 11 Common Council caucus meeting.
Photo by: John Whipple
Albany Police chief emphasizes the positive in the face
of unsubstantiated accusations, but others say
important questions remain unanswered
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
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.
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.
in This Corner . . .
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.
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
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
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.
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.”