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Liberated liver: Sarahjane Blum and a rescued duck.

Foie Wha?
Some claim foie gras is heaven on toast, and some claim it’s animal cruelty. Who’s right?

Foie gras—a paté of the fattened liver of a duck or goose, often baked or sautéed—is considered one of the world’s greatest delicacies. It inspires passionate reactions from people, typically polarized into one of two camps: a swooning endorsement, or an angry tirade.

Foie gras (French for “fat liver”) has been the subject of controversy for many years. It is produced by force-feeding a duck or goose a pound of corn-rich food (a tenth of its healthy body weight) at least three times a day. The ducks are fed by being caught, pinned, and having an inflexible, unlubricated metal pole put down their throats, depositing the food directly into their stomachs. This repeated force-feeding results in a metabolic illness called hepatic lipidosis. By the time of slaughter, the ducks’ livers are essentially diseased organs, six to 10 times their healthy size, and yellow from fat.

(When filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who ate nothing but McDonald’s for an entire month for the film Super Size Me, visited a doctor at the end of his quest, the doctor dryly informed him that his liver was “turning into paté.”)

Banned in many European nations, foie gras is produced in only two places in the United States—Sonoma Foie Gras in Sonoma, Calif., and Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Liberty, N.Y.

Recently, Sarahjane Blum, an activist associated with the anti-foie gras Web site, was arrested after helping liberate several birds from the Hudson Valley Foie Gras facility. She and others from and the Animal Protection and Rescue League spent a year undercover investigating and documenting the conditions of the factories, eventually producing the documentary Delicacy of Despair: Behind the Closed Doors of the Foie Gras Industry. Blum was taken into custody after screening the documentary at a conference at Syracuse University, and charged with felony burglary. She is awaiting trial.

“The conditions were filthy,” says Blum. “Every animal was sick or injured.” Because of the excessive force-feeding, the birds often have neurological problems, and regularly become so obese that they are unable to walk and must drag themselves along by their wings. During her investigation, Blum observed bloody wings and beaks, birds being literally eaten alive by rats, birds that had contracted pneumonia from being forced to inhale food, and birds that had exploded or choked to death on their own vomit. The pre-slaughter mortality rate of birds in foie gras production is more than 20 times higher than in other poultry- producing industries.

The producers of foie gras claim the force-feeding practices are not cruel and the ducks are healthy and happy. They claim that ducks in the wild will swallow whole fish and even lobsters, and that their necks are structured to stretch to accommodate large quantities of food.

Local veterinarian Holly Cheever disagrees. The arguments presented for why foie gras production is not cruel, she says, are laughable. Cheever, a Guilderland vet and vocal opponent of foie gras production, was allowed to tour the Hudson Valley Foie Gras facility in 1996 at the request of Whole Foods Market, which makes it a policy to inspect facilities of companies it considers doing business with. In her report to Whole Foods, Cheever rebuffed the company’s claims that the force-feeding is similar to the natural feeding process of migratory ducks, and that ducks have a cornified (hardened) esophagus. In fact, the birds used in foie gras production are Moulards, an artificial hybrid that do not exist in nature, and do not migrate. On the farms, the ducks are often kept in small isolation cages, making it impossible for them to get any type of exercise. Also, the claim of a cornified esophagus, she says, is completely false.

After reviewing her report, Whole Foods Market declined to carry products from Hudson Valley Foie Gras’ parent company, D’Artagnan Inc. (Hudson Valley Foie Gras declined to be interviewed for this story.)

For some local restaurants, however, foie gras is simply a matter of taste. Davis Britton, the head chef of the Springwater Bistro in Saratoga, says he averages 25 orders of foie gras appetizers an evening, and never receives complaints from patrons about the inclusion of foie gras on the menu. He says he visited the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm, and found it satisfactory.

Both New York and California are considering bills outlawing the force-feeding of birds. The New York bill, introduced by Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany), would amend the state’s animal cruelty law to make it “unlawful to force feed a bird, by hand or machine, for the purpose of fatty enlargement of the bird’s liver.” The bill, though currently stalled in committee, it has received more than 1,000 postcards of support from all over the country this year alone. Jim Van Alstine, campaign coordinator of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, also has a local campaign in the works.

—Ashley Thiry

Find Me the Money
Schenectady is searching for new ways to make ends meet, but officials have yet to find a surefire solution to the city’s financial dilemma

Necessity, according to Plato, is the mother of invention. These days, lawmakers in the cash-strapped city of Schenectady are learning just how much truth is contained in that statement as they entertain potential sources of revenue for the coming years.

“Schenectady is in dire straits,” observed Councilwoman Barbara Strangfeld, “so we have to consider every option.”

Schenectady currently holds the state’s lowest bond rating, and city taxpayers have grown increasingly frustrated at shouldering the bulk of the city’s economic burden. A small group of city residents recently saw fit to make a trip to the state Capitol after Schenectady was denied the state aid lawmakers were expecting.

Among other revenue-generating proposals currently circulating through City Hall is a program that would ask tax-exempt and nonprofit organizations to voluntarily kick in some money to city coffers.

The Fair Share program, introduced by Strangfeld at a recent City Council meeting, recommends that agencies such as hospitals and colleges cover the cost of the city services they use, in return for occupying what would otherwise be taxable property. According to city assessor Tony Popolizio, tax-exempt organizations account for nearly $600 million of the city’s $2 billion assessed property value.

“[The program] would be strictly voluntary,” explained Strangfeld, who pointed to Binghamton’s fledgling Fair Share program as a model for Schenectady.

In order to garner support for the program, Binghamton Mayor Richard Bucci distributed a letter in 2003 to the city’s tax-exempt agencies describing the level of the city’s financial needs. The letter then detailed the amount each organization would pay if taxed in the standard method.

“I respectfully ask you to consider donating 50% of this amount,” Bucci requested in bold print near the end of the letter.

While initial estimates expected the program to add $2 million to the city’s revenue, Fair Share has gotten off to a slow start in Binghamton, collecting slightly more than $20,000 since inception.

“You have to consider it a long-term program,” reasoned Strangfeld, who added that many tax-exempt agencies may need several years to work the donations into their annual budgets.

If approved, Strangfeld’s assessment may prove accurate, as similar, more established programs in Erie and York, Penn., have brought in more than $300,000 for each community.

Yet the agencies holding most of the city’s tax-exempt property have been less certain about the program’s potential. Along with Union College, St. Clare’s Hospital and Ellis Hospital hold a large portion of the city’s tax-exempt land.

“If you’re asking about giving our fair share, we’ve already made a significant investment in the community,” said Union College spokesman Charlie Casey, who described Fair Share program as a “shortsighted solution to the city’s economic problems.”

According to Casey, Big Brother Big Sister programs, as well as mentoring and other community-service activities, have enabled the college to donate its “fair share” in ways that often go unrecognized by city residents. Along with renovating much of the outlying area to the tune of nearly $25 million, Casey added that the college provides use of its athletic fields to community sports programs.

These contributions, said Casey, are in addition to the $250,000 the college pays for water and sewer service each year.

Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton agreed that the college and other nonprofit agencies provide a number of benefits that often fly beneath the radar of city officials and residents.

“If the college wasn’t here, there would be a significant impact on the city,” said Stratton, “so we can’t look at the nonprofits simply as a cash cow.”

Stratton added that keeping the program voluntary was key to its success, and indicated that some of the city’s nonprofit organizations are already making the type of donations detailed in the program. In April, members of the nonprofit Schenectady ARC presented the city with a check for $22,000, saying that, “we want to pay our way and be part of the promise of Schenectady.” The organization has been making annual, voluntary payments of $20,000 for a few years.

For Schenectady residents, the notion of nonprofits easing the city’s tax burden is a welcome proposal. Faced with rising property taxes and potential new fees for public safety, garbage and other city services, some residents are skeptical about of the real value of these tax-exempt organizations’ contributions.

“I don’t want to sound unkind, because what ARC did was wonderful,” explained Schenectady resident Patricia Zollinger, “but for the rest [of the nonprofit agencies], painting bridges and creating soccer fields just isn’t enough.”

—Rick Marshall

Structural support: Members of Save Wellington Row at Friday’s rally. Photo by: Teri Currie
Bringing Down the House
A sudden announcement has put the Wellington Hotel in a wrecking crew’s sights, but questions still surround the controversial plan

If a historic landmark falls apart in the middle of the city and no one pays attention, is it a problem? Until there’s more than a decade of neglect, a dangling 5-ton cornice, and plans for a shiny new convention center involved, the answer from Albany City Hall would appear to be a resounding “no.”

In the past week, city officials have moved quickly—some critics say too quickly—in announcing plans to demolish the Wellington Hotel, a downtown Albany landmark near the corner of State and Eagle streets. The 10-story hotel suddenly gained the attention of city officials last Tuesday (Aug. 17) when a passerby noticed that a section of the massive brass-and-wood cornice running along the roof had dislodged from its moorings. After blocking off the street and removing the cornice, a team of engineers was sent into the building to investigate the structure’s integrity. Their report confirmed what many city residents were already well aware of—that the hotel had deteriorated significantly since being abandoned nearly two decades ago.

At a recent press conference, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings said that the city has been unable to contact Wellington owner Samuel Sebba, a London businessman who purchased the property in 1987 as a speculative investment. Jennings added that the cost of any necessary demolition would still be the owner’s responsibility, with the project getting underway sometime in the near future.

However, questions remain as to why the Wellington, which lies within sight of City Hall, was allowed to decay to the level described by city-commissioned engineers. After announcing plans to demolish the hotel, Jennings said that he had no recollection of the last time a city official had been in the building, let alone when it last had been inspected.

“We’re not saying that [the Wellington] is perfectly sound or habitable right now,” explained Bill Brandow, a local architect and member of Save Wellington Row, an ad hoc group pushing for renovation of the Wellington and neighboring historic—and vacant—buildings. “We’re just saying that it doesn’t pose the sort of imminent danger that would require demolition.”

The group rallied near the Wellington’s cordoned-off sidewalk on Friday (Aug. 20) to voice their disappointment with Jennings’ decision and announce the results of an analysis by Donald Friedman, a New York City preservation engineer whom the group had commissioned. While Friedman’s examination of the building was limited to an exterior appraisal, his findings contradict many of those cited by Jennings as basis for demolition.

“The structural description on page one [of the city-commissioned report] is odd,” indicated Friedman in his examination of the city’s report. According to Friedman, a type of inner architecture described in the city’s report was rarely used during the time of the Wellington’s construction.

“[A section of the city-commissioned report] states that the condition of the interior floor and frames constitute an imminent threat to the public,” said Friedman. “It is not clear how, since the building is not open to the public.”

According to city code, vacant buildings must not only be sealed against public intrusion but also against weather effects. While the initial engineers’ report describes extensive water damage—courtesy of a leaking roof—there is no record that the Wellington was ever found in violation of city code.

“There are 800 other vacant buildings in this city,” said Jennings when questioned about the city’s sudden concern for the Wellington. “We deal with them when we can.”

Yet the contradicting reports have led some critics to question whether the destruction of the Wellington is really a matter of public safety, or simply a convenient transition into another project: the Albany convention center. Jennings and other city officials have pushed for Albany to become the new home of a major convention center for several years now, and the block on which the Wellington currently sits is one of three potential sites under consideration for the $225 million project.

When asked what effect the decision to demolish the Wellington will have upon the convention center project, Jennings aggressively dismissed the question, saying, “anyone who goes down that route [of questioning] is very wrong.”

The city’s decision is not without its supporters. Elizabeth Griffin, director of the Historic Albany Foundation, agreed with the city-commissioned engineers’ assessment. Griffin added that her organization would provide input during the project, and any demolition deemed necessary would occur in a back-to-front and roof-to-street direction, preserving as much of the “State Street streetscape” as possible and allowing for development in cleared areas.

“It isn’t likely that very much of the rear of the building would be incorporated into the new structure,” explained Griffin.

Still, some lawmakers are looking to curb the city’s use of sudden “emergency demolitions.”

Albany Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) is hoping that the plight of the Wellington Hotel might revive interest in an ordinance he introduced in February 2002 to the Common Council. The ordinance would only allow for the city-sponsored “emergency demolition” as a last resort, providing that no other options capable of preserving the targeted building or its residents were available. The ordinance also would allow a building’s owner to commission a structural report, rather than relying on city-commissioned engineers’ findings.

While Calsolaro acknowledged that such an ordinance probably would not change the current situation with the Wellington—an unresponsive owner essentially forfeits decision-making power—he added that the surge of preservation-minded support brought on by the Wellington’s demise might help push the ordinance out of committee.

As for a link between the convention center and the city’s sudden interest in demolishing everything behind the State Street façade, the only Common Council member to vote against a recent convention-center resolution was cautious about framing the scenario as anything but coincidence.

“I wouldn’t make any connections just yet,” said Calsolaro, “but it would certainly make [the convention-center project] a little bit easier if parts of those buildings were already torn down.”

—Rick Marshall

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