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Pvt. Poppa: 9-year-old Taylor O’Brien and her grandfather, 58-year-old Pvt. Robert Kappes. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

Weekend Warriors No More
Families brace for the unknown as 600 men and women from the Army National Guard unit based in Troy leave for service in Iraq

‘Poppa, it’s here again. Can I go?” asked 9-year-old Taylor O’Brien, bouncing in place beneath her grandfather’s camouflage cap as the green Humvee rounded the corner of Troy’s Glenmore Road Armory this past Saturday.

“Yes. Just be sure to sit back,” said her grandfather, “Poppa,” 58-year-old Pvt. Robert Kappes, from Latham. “Just sit back and remember to wear your seatbelt,” he added, his graying eyebrows slightly furrowed as he watched his granddaughter speed off. It wasn’t clear whether Taylor heard Kappes’ warnings over the clap of her flip-flops; she was nearly halfway across the parking lot at “yes.”

Joining the line of children behind the military vehicle waiting for a tour of the Armory’s grounds, Taylor enjoyed the lighter side of this past Saturday’s (May 22) event, a sendoff for the 600 Army National Guardsmen stationed in Troy who were deployed to Iraq earlier this week.

“It’s gonna be hard for her once I go,” Kappes said, looking in Taylor’s direction. The little girl was up with him at the crack of dawn, he said, wearing that cap around the house as they got ready for today’s event. “I really try to keep [the deployment] away from her because she’s kind of soft. She cries a lot,” said Kappes, who recently retired as a maintenance worker with the Albany Housing Authority. “I tell her, ‘Poppa can’t do nothing about it, honey. Poppa’s been told he has to go.’”

As Taylor enjoyed the slow ride around the building, soldiers inside the Armory were being reminded to update their wills and choose responsible parties to represent their interests in family court or divorce proceedings. Such concerns sound like standard pre-deployment fare, the equivalent of in-flight safety instructions. But unlike the fuselage full of passengers who’ve heard it all before, these men and women were rapt with attention. These men and women with families, mortgages, and well-established lives here in the States are on their way to Iraq and will likely not return for 18 months or longer.

Members of the National Guard, a military reserve unit usually activated to handle domestic issues, like natural disasters, are typically older than their active-duty counterparts. In fact, most guardsmen have already served in active duty. National Guard units are rarely used in combat situation. But all that has changed. The soldiers’ departure earlier this week marked the largest single deployment of national guardsmen to a combat zone since World War II.

Approximately 1,200 soldiers from the unit, a seven-state Army National Guard company known as the 42nd Rainbow (which is headquartered in Troy), are off to Iraq.

“In the last two or three decades it’s been highly unusual for a guard unit to be sent into combat,” said Scott Sandman, spokesman for the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, which oversees New York state members of the 42nd Rainbow. “However, this is a dynamic that has changed since 9/11. The National Guard is more critical now than ever before in terms of its importance to the nation’s fighting forces.”

During previous activations, members of the 42nd Rainbow ran cleanup operations out of Battery Park following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, served as corrections officers during various prison strikes throughout the state and helped farmers milk their cows in Watertown following the ice storm of 1998. While the prospect of entering a war zone is unsettling, many guardsmen spoke of the deployment with the emotional detachment of soldiers committed to duty.

“I’m grateful to be an American citizen and I feel that my service is just a way of showing my appreciation,” said Lt. Col. Frantz Michel, 40, an investigator in the New York State Troopers’ computer control unit. “I work with some amazing people in this unit . . . people who are willing to leave their families, leave their communities to help their country. You don’t find these kind of people often.”

Kappes, Michel and the others won’t touch down in Iraq for another couple of months. The unit will make training stops in Watertown’s Fort Drum, Texas’ Fort Hood and a U.S. base in Kuwait before heading to Iraq. The servicemen and their families have been told to prepare for an 18-month deployment, but many families acknowledged that this could be lengthened at any time.

The unit is expected to handle headquarters responsibilities, working in support roles to command staff at an as-yet-unknown base in Iraq, but a number of soldiers Saturday expressed uncertainty as to what their responsibilities would be once arriving in Iraq.

“We don’t know what we’re going to be doing over there,” said Luanna Dupigny, 24, Albany, a specialist in the 42nd’s intelligence unit. “We were told not to expect to do our [current] jobs because that just might not be possible once we get there.”

Luanna’s mother, Vangrel Dupigny, 48, of Albany, fanned herself with the day’s program as she watched her daughter take part in a drill Saturday morning. Vangrel, a former guardswoman herself, said she was proud of her daughter for continuing to serve in the guard during these difficult times. Harold, Luanna’s father, was proud of his daughter as well, but said that doesn’t stop him from railing against this “unjust war.”

“We’re sending our boys and girls over there to die and I’m not even so sure the Iraqis want us over there,” he said, over prompts to hush up from his wife and son. “Luanna said, ‘Not today,’ ” Vangrel reminded him.

“I’m sending my daughter over there, I have the right to say these things,” he told them, and continued.

“Regardless of how you feel about this war, you have to support the troops as we’re sending them over there,” Vangrel said after her husband finished. “As a soldier you don’t do what you want, you do what you’re told and that’s what they’re doing. They’re doing what they’re told.”

Kappes, the recent retiree, expressed uncertainty about the deployment and what it will entail, but also acknowledged that it was his duty as a member of the armed services for 37 years to serve when asked. He was uncertain, however, whether he’d even be allowed to stay in Iraq seeing as how he was two years away from the guard’s mandatory retirement age.

“I don’t know once I get over there if they’ll just send me back because I’m too old,” Kappes said with a shrug. “I just don’t know. It’d make her happy, though,” he laughed, pointing in the direction of the corner his granddaughter would soon round on the Humvee.

Kappes stood beside a picnic table behind the Armory smoking a cigarette when a member of his unit tapped him on the shoulder. “Kap, formation.” A final exercise and color presentation to signal the day’s end. Kappes excused himself and rounded the corner, fishing a black beret from one of his cargo pockets.

A few minutes later, Taylor rounded the corner on the back of the Humvee, her seatbelt still in place and back firmly against the seat. As the vehicle parked she whipped her head around and scanned the ground where her Poppa just stood. Unbuckling her seatbelt and turning herself around, Taylor gave the parking lot a lengthier scan, the mouth on her freckled face slightly open. Seeing that Poppa was gone, Taylor turned back around, buckled her safety belt once more and waited for the ride to begin again.

—Travis Dufree
tdurfee@metroland.net


Site of things come? New Scotland Avenue in Albany’s Park South.. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle
What Would You Do?
Albany officially opens public-comment period on its completed Park South plan—and residents sound familiar notes of concern

The full draft plan for Albany’s Park South neighborhood, in the works for a year and a half, was presented to the public at the Delaware Avenue Boys and Girls club on May 18. Public comments will be accepted until June 15, and the plan is expected to go before the Common Council on June 30.

Before it was released, there was a lot of controversy over the plan concept, its goals, and its possible effects [“Whither Park South?” Newsfront, Dec. 4, 2003; “The Process Matters,” Newsfront, Dec. 18, 2003]. Now there is an actual plan draft that tries to at least clarify, if not address, many of the concerns raised.

Everything in the plan is centered on attracting private developers; no public subsidies are expected. The only parts of the plan that would involve actual action by the city would be two catalyst projects along New Scotland Avenue, part of a goal to make New Scotland a three-block-long consistent gateway from the park to Albany Medical Center. The proposed projects are a mixed-use office building with ground-level retail, and a mixed-use student housing complex with ground-level retail. These projects would be encouraged by the city through a request for qualifications process and an urban-renewal ordinance that would let them condemn a square block or so (likely between Morris and Dana or Morris and Myrtle) for the student housing project. (Albany Med owns most of the properties west of New Scotland and is expected to be willing to offer some of them up in exchange for new, “functional” office space.)

The plan divides the rest of the neighborhood into areas that should be preserved (the row houses on Madison and some on Knox) and areas that should be a mix of rehabilitation and new construction (everywhere else). This latter section has been the subject of much of the fear from residents. Fears of widespread demolition and loss of properties appear to be justified by statements in the plan like: “It is likely that development interest will be attracted to large contiguous parcels and not scattered infill; acquisition and demolition may need to reach beyond only dilapidated and non-contributing structures” and “Preservation and rehabilitation should be carefully considered but . . . should not compromise the ability to attract development interest and investment.”

But Albany’s Planning Commissioner Lori Harris insisted recently that the only area where the city would actually exercise eminent domain would be for the two main projects on New Scotland. The rest of the neighborhood are “as the market dictates” areas, she says. All the detailed descriptions in the plan about converting multifamily to single-family housing, building new row houses with off-street parking, and good urban design are just guidelines for what the planners hope will happen as a result of renewed interest in the neighborhood after the two projects on New Scotland: developers, ideally including some of the landlords who are currently investing in the area, becoming interested in widespread investment in the area. But while they would be encouraged when it came to things like acquiring occupied parcels Harris said, “they would be on their own.”

The comments from the crowd at the Boys and Girls club sounded eerily familiar to meetings over the past six months: concerns about process, ownership, and displacement. Why do we need so much demolition? Why can’t we have senior housing instead of student housing? Aren’t people going to be displaced? Are we going to get fair market value for our homes? Are you going to take our feedback as seriously as that from business owners or outside investors? Can’t you just step up code enforcement and policing?

The answers were similar as well. Only student housing could adequately absorb land-acquisition costs, according to the economists. A bold move is needed to attract investors; code enforcement won’t be enough. And lots of “We don’t know yet” and “I’m sorry if I didn’t explain myself well enough before.”

Harris is impatient with any comments that don’t include a recommendation of what else to do. She acknowledges that many people believe Park South has been targeted for neglect by the city in order to lower its property values and allow a powerful interest like Albany Med to take over. While saying, of course, that this wasn’t done, Harris dismisses its importance for the planning process. “Even if that were true, what’s the answer? We still need to do something today that improves tomorrow.” She also says that after every meeting she gets several calls from people who are supportive of the plan, but were reluctant to speak up because they feel in the minority.

Comments made since March (when the plan went up on the city’s Web site) haven’t been incorporated into the document yet, to avoid the appearance of privileging people who’ve been active all along over those who may have just found out about the plan at this meeting. And many comments will be listed in an appendix and not much more. “There’s been a lot of comments as to why people are afraid or angry, but in terms of the actual substance we haven’t had a lot yet,” said Harris. “In terms of recommendations to change the plan, we’re still hoping for some.” She noted that some suggestions, such as flexibility on the numbers of students and their location, and a request to coordinate services in the area, have been incorporated. But in terms of “comments like ‘We don’t think student housing is a good idea,’ that’s not something you’re going to see come out of the document.”

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


Lessons in Activism
On the 50th anniversary of landmark Supreme Court decision on school segregation, hundreds rally at the Capitol in spirited support of educational equality

With signs reading “Brown 1954, CFE 2004” supporters of educational equality convened at the Capitol steps last Thursday (May 20) to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated schools inherently unequal. Today, the inequalities Brown sought to eradicate still exist in inequitable school-funding formulas that result in less money for urban and rural areas, compared to the suburbs. The New York Court of Appeals ordered the state to change those formulas after a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. To those outside the Capitol that day, CFE is another step on the road to the equal educational opportunities promised by Brown.

Supporters came by bus to Albany from every corner of New York state to participate in the spirited rally: students of all ages, parents, teachers, legislators and advocacy groups including Alliance for Quality Education, New York State Interfaith Alliance, New York Council of Churches, and Citizen Action.

“I needed to come so that action can be taken so that children can have a fair chance to fulfill their dreams, to be successful, to be full participating people in society,” said Carol Robinson, a parent of nine public-schooled children from Rochester.

When the Court of Appeals “gave their pronouncement in CFE less than a year ago they alluded back to Brown; they knew they were following in those footsteps,” CFE’s executive director Michael Rubell told the crowd. “They knew one of the biggest problems in following up the Brown vision was a lack of resources and a lack of equity in resources.” Unlike the Brown decision, which lacked a timeline, the court ordered New York to retool its funding formulas by July 30.

“There can be no freedom without education, and there cannot be quality education without the resources necessary in every school building,” said New York City Councilman Robert Jackson, an original plaintiff to the CFE case. On top of a solution, state Democrats and advocates like Jackson are calling for a $2.5 billion down payment, out of the $9.5 billion that CFE has determined is necessary, to jumpstart the changes beginning this year.

“We are going to ensure that we don’t pass this budget until our children are done by correctly,” pledged Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson (D-Bronx), who said it was unfortunate that it took a court order to fix the inequities. The issue has been cited as the major reason why this year’s state budget is late [“Finish Your Homework,” Newsfront, May 6].

The many students who attended were proud to be there and clearly understood the connection between Brown and CFE. “They try to fix the problems that occurred 50 years ago, but it’s still not quite solved today,” said Toni, one of the students who came from Brooklyn’s ACORN Community High School, where the education focuses on social justice and change.

When about 200 of the attendees calmly tried to enter the Legislative Office Building via the concourse entrance at the Justice Building to deliver declarations to their legislators, they were stopped at the security stations by state police and detained for about 20 minutes. Despite the fact that the buildings are open to the public, the police demanded to know with whom the group had appointments.

AQE’s executive director, Regina Eaton, was told the delay was routine and only occurred so more officers could be deployed throughout the building, though Eaton had never heard of any other such delay. The group, at that point, was primarily African-American, and Eaton felt the encounter was particularly poignant on a day commemorating moves toward greater equality because it gave “a little bit of a taste of what life was like in case we forgot.”

—Ashley Hahn
ahahn@metroland.net


Becoming Besicorp: Former BASF site in Rensselaer gets closer to hosting a Besicorp newspaper recycling plant. Photo by: John Whipple
Rensselaer Surrenders
City Council approves benefits package for proposed newspaper recycling facility, and some say gave up home rule

The City of Rensselaer has been locked in an ongoing battle over the cleanup of the former BASF site, which comprises three state Superfund sites along the Hudson riverfront. And in January the City Council was chastised by state Sen. Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) for rejecting Besicorp’s plan for a newspaper recycling facility and power plant proposed for the sites [“Unfit for Print,” Newsfront, Feb. 5]. Neighborhood leaders, council members and environmental advocates wanted a better cleanup of the industrial site and were wholly unsatisfied with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s plan which would remove a fraction of the on-site pollutants and relegate the land to industrial use well into the future [“Cleanup Time,” Newsfront, Feb. 26]. They were hoping to take advantage of riverfront property for mixed-use development that could help the ailing city, but that now looks unlikely.

The Rensselaer City Council held an emergency meeting on Monday (May 24) to discuss the terms for a host-community benefits package if Besicorp moves into town. The details of the agreement were hammered out in Assemblyman Ron Canestrari’s office with Besicorp officials and council members last week, and on Monday the council passed a resolution, 7-2, approving the agreement. Besicorp agreed to pay the city $15 million over 20 years and the city agreed to grant or support all necessary easements and permits for the projects, and to oppose neither the DEC’s recommended cleanup plans for the BASF site nor the necessary permitting process under state and federal law through litigation or administrative means. The city had already passed a resolution authorizing its lawyers to pursue legal action regarding the cleanup.

“The first thing that everybody has to realize here is that the BASF site has been an industrial site for over 100 years. It’s always going to be an industrial site,” said Rensselaer Mayor Mark Pratt. “You will never have kids running in lilies on that property.” Pratt agrees with the cleanup plans as well as the project, citing the money the project could infuse into the city. He says a complete cleanup and rezoning is highly unlikely because the property is surrounded with other industrial sites. “Who wants to live in the Port of Rensselaer where it’s all industrial businesses all around you?” he said. If, however, the Besicorp project does not go through, he says the city “would then go after a more stringent cleanup” to attract another developer.

Councilwoman Albertine Felts, who led the charge against the project and advocated for a better cleanup, is profoundly disappointed that the council, which once supported her, has now turned in favor of the project. “Why this city always settles for less is beyond me,” Felts lamented. “It’s like grasping at straws all of the time . . . because they don’t think we can get better.”

Felts has written to State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, requesting an investigation of the negotiations for criminal abuses. She says the company essentially forced the financially troubled city of Rensselaer to agree to all its conditions within three working days or lose its one-time $15 million offer. “These conditions constitute . . . coercion under (economic) duresse (sic), i.e. extortion,” she wrote. She further objected to the demand that the city agree to grant permits before they have the plans in hand.

To the Coalition Against Riverfront Pollution’s Eric Daillie, the city gave Besicorp a “blank check.” He said Besicorp owner Michael Zinn “got caught trying to buy his way around federal election laws, and he was convicted of a felony in 1997 and spent time in jail. Today he is trying to buy his way around federal and state environmental regulations and local laws. We feel this is a knife at the throat of the city at the last minute.” To Daillie, the timing of this agreement and the council’s acquiescence to Besicorp’s demands comes too close to when the project will go before state and local boards for its permitting and funding.

With 12 cooling towers and the industry’s notoriously bad odors, Felts said, “if that paper plant comes, you’ll notice.”

—Ashley Hahn
ahahn@metroland.net

Whose Lines Are They, Anyway?
Following a victorious challenge of Albany County’s voting maps, Aaron Mair has a few bones to pick in Albany proper

Here we go again?

Aaron Mair, a longtime environmental- and civil-rights activist, dropped a bomb on Albany’s Common Council last Monday (May 17) when he alleged that the city’s voting maps are skewed and do not provide adequate representation for the city’s growing racial-minority population. Mair, who last year successfully spearheaded an effort that forced the Albany County Legislature to change its voting maps on similar grounds, said the lines need to be changed prior to next fall’s city elections. Mair said he would pursue a lawsuit to force a change should the council not take action.

“This is about constitutionally following the law so that minority voters are getting the adequate representation guaranteed to them by the Voting Rights Act,” Mair said. “We’ve told the city that its minority population is near 40 percent and that they have an obligation to reflect that in representation.”

Of the city’s 15 wards, there are currently four—South End, West Hill and two in Arbor Hill—where racial minorities make up a majority of the population. Black lawmakers have been elected in all four of those wards. The city had four such wards when it redrew its maps in the early 1990s, and no additional minority-dominated wards were added when the city last adjusted its wards in 2002.

According to U.S. Census figures, the total number of city residents decreased by 5 percent from 1990 to 2000, falling from 101,082 to 95,658. Over that same period, however, the city’s ethnic minority populations grew from 27,942 to 36,471 residents, an increase from 28 to 37 percent of the city’s total population.

Mair’s proposal creates six wards where racial minorities make up a majority of the population, and it would lead to incumbents running against each other in a number of cases.

It’s uncertain, however, if city officials will decide to do anything about Mair’s proposal. Joe Rabito, Mayor Jerry Jennings’ executive assistant, who chaired the city’s redistricting commission in 2002, said that state law requires the Common Council to redraw its voting maps only every 10 years, in accordance with new Census data. But regardless of state election law, Rabito said, Mair’s reputation precedes him.

“We’ll probably end up addressing this in court,” Rabito said. “We welcome the debate, really. Anything that increases the public’s participation is a good thing. It’s just too bad that we’ll probably end up in court. . . . I wish [Mair] would have proposed this when the redistricting commission was doing all of this work two years ago.”

Rabito said the redistricting commission held 25 public meetings and five public hearings in different locations throughout the city while creating the existing voting district maps from February to August 2002. Rabito remembered Mair attending a few committee meetings and presenting his plan, which the redistricting commission found unfeasible.

“We looked to see if creating a fifth [minority dominated] ward was doable, but doing such would’ve diluted the minority voting strength in the existing wards,” Rabito said. “We tried to create such a district for the better part of two meetings—we wanted to make sure we did due diligence—but we had difficulties creating a fifth district, let alone a sixth.”

But Mair simply believes that the redistricting committee ignored the information he gave them. The activist has posted his plans on the Web (http://216.55.182.132/FairData/Albany_2004/) and is urging city officials to do the same with their data, so to better inform the public.

“Whether I was at one, or two, or a dozen meetings, the question is . . . what did you do with the information that was divulged to you?” Mair said. “If the issue is trying to shift blame . . . it only underscores the manifest ignorance of the [redistricting] commission.”

Though Mair’s lawsuit against Albany County led to the court-ordered creation of a fourth minority-majority district, voters in the new district elected a white incumbent legislator, Virginia Mafia-Tobler (D-District 4), over her challenger, Ward DeWitt, who is black. But Mair said he isn’t looking to ensure the election of legislators of a certain skin color, but that minority voters have the ability to elect whomever they want.

“The issue is not whether because these people are black, they’re going to do things for black voters,” Mair said. “The issue is do we have the same ability to choose a representative be they black or white. . . . If the people can’t affect the dealing of the deck, they can’t be asked to deal with the hand that they’ve been dealt.”

Mair said he would give the council 30 days to review his plan, and has insinuated that a lawsuit might follow around that time. Common Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti (Ward 6) said the council plans on reviewing the redistricting issue at its next caucus on Wednesday (June 2).

“I think we also need to look at some of the legal issues in terms of reopening a reapportionment process and doing such outside of when the state constitution says we can,” Conti said. “If we do that, are we just opening ourselves up to a lawsuit from someone else?”

—Travis Durfee
tdurfee@metroland.net

Questions That Bother Us So

Why are those information displays on CDTA buses so often wrong?

It’s a device regular patrons on CDTA buses have come to recognize. Perched high above the center aisle, between the driver’s space and the front door, is a thin, rectangular electronic display. This display is intended to provide all sorts of information, including the next bus stop, the date and time, and confirmation that a patron has requested a stop. With the information sliding across the display from left to right, the effect is that of a snappy electronic news ticker, giving up-to-date info on exactly where you are.

There’s something else regular patrons have grown accustomed to: the electronic sign displaying incorrect information or, sometimes, absolute gibberish. Common examples include an incorrect date or time, or an indication that the bus is approaching an intersection that’s actually on a another route. (One recent evening “New Scotland Avenue” was indicated as the Quail Street Belt—the No. 3 bus—approached the Empire State Plaza.) Occasionally a sad, lone letter “b” will endlessly disappear and reappear on the display, block after block.

So, we asked CDTA, what’s the deal with the displays?

“This is a work in progress,” explained CDTA spokeswoman Margo Janack.

The displays are linked to a global positioning system developed by INIT Innovations in Transportation, a Virginia-based subsidiary of a German corporation. Though it is common in Europe, Janack said that this is one of the first such GPS public-transportation systems introduced in the United States. INIT, she added, customizes each system for a particular transportation authority.

How long will it take to get all the bugs out?

Janack explained she would be “hard-pressed” to give a particular time frame, but said that it is likely that the problems will be ironed out by the end of this year.

“We apologize for the growing pains,” Janack said, and added that the eventual service to CDTA’s patrons will be worth the wait.

—Shawn Stone
sstone@metroland.net


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