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The customers are coming: a bustling Lark Street. Photo by: Teri Currie

Lark Rising
As the controversy over Lark Street’s facelift fades into the past, businesses say they are starting to reap the benefits

Business was so good several weekend nights this summer that Joe Romeo kept his Lark Street gift store open past his normal 11 PM Saturday closing time. Across the street, a long-vacant townhouse at 302 Lark that has two floors of retail space and was damaged years ago in a fire, is finally under renovation. Further up Lark, businesses have expanded, redesigned their interiors or just opened in vacant storefronts.

One year after a controversial renovation that caused a long dry spell for merchants, Albany’s Lark Street is coming into its own. Although most of the information about sales figures is anecdotal, business owners say they are drawing customers from a farther range, and seeing shoppers later into the weekend hours than ever before. Several attribute the improvements to last year’s $2.5 million renovation, which added new sidewalks and granite-paved crosswalks, more street lights, new trees and a generally cleaner, brighter appearance.

Lee Cohen, co-owner of the Daily Grind coffee store and café, likens the renovation to painting a house: It doesn’t make the market value skyrocket, but it sure makes the house look better if you’re trying to sell it.

“Doing a street over like this, where you’re not really doing anything except upgrading, is there a fundamental difference?” Cohen asked. “I’m sure the city would say there is. You’re walking down a funky street that looks a little rough, it takes on a different aura from when you’re walking down a funky street and it looks clean.”

Looks apparently count in more ways than one, because Christopher Burke, the president of the Lark Street Business Improvement District, has heard several people compliment the wider new sidewalks. (Former BID executive director Joe Cunan resigned in June to take a job in New York City, and will not be replaced, Burke said.) Actually, the new sidewalks are the same width as the old ones; they just seem wider because they’re less heavily shaded.

“I think we kind of shook the Bohemian label we had,” Burke said. “It’s much more balanced. I don’t think that existed, five, six years ago.”

The renovation had its detractors, who were motivated as much by the politics behind the project as by their concerns about the disruption. Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings had obtained the $6.5 million federal grant to redo Lark Street, then announced that the city would instead use that money for a reconstruction project on New Scotland Avenue.

Amid accusations of bait-and-switch tactics, the city bonded the money for Lark Street and promised speedy progress to jittery merchants who envisioned an already-bad parking problem getting really bad. The city celebrated the finished project a year ago, at the 2003 Larkfest, and gradually the shoppers returned to stores where the owners had waited out the reconstruction with crossed fingers and gritted teeth.

The festive mood shattered on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, when Albany police officers opened fire on a driver fleeing a motor-vehicle stop and instead killed an innocent bystander, 24-year-old David Scaringe, as he stood at the corner of Lark and State streets.

Eight months later, business owners still reach for words to address the tragedy, mindful that even though life on Lark Street has returned to normal, the shooting might as well be yesterday for Scaringe’s family and friends.

“It’s still discussed regularly by us and by people in the area,” said Brad Junco, owner of Capital Wine and Spirits, whose entrance is a few steps from where Scaringe collapsed. “But people still come here.”

Even before the New Year’s shooting, residents of the Lark Street area had been shaken by a spate of street crimes in the preceding two years: armed robberies, muggings and a sexual assault. Crime statistics for the area were not readily available from the Albany Police Department, and the state Division of Criminal Justice Services does not break down citywide statistics by neighborhood. But anecdotally, several area residents and business owners say that Lark Street seems safer since the renovation: The lighting is better, the overhanging tree branches are gone, and more pedestrians are out at night.

Detective James Miller, the police department spokesman, noted that citywide, several categories of major crime decreased between 2002 and the first half of 2004.

Neighborhood groups in the Lark Street area also redoubled their efforts to work with the Albany Police Department. As a result, better information about crime in the area is getting out to residents, say Doug Ebersman, who co-founded the Lark Street Community Watch, and Richard Conti, the Common Council member representing the 6th Ward, which includes Lark Street.

Other problems on Lark Street continue, however, with no clear solution. Among them: absentee property owners. Of the 131 properties in the BID’s area—most of them along Lark Street—38 have owners living out of Albany or even out of state.

“It’s a big deal for us, I think because we tend to have the biggest problems with the people who live in Florida, or wherever,” Burke said.

And a few businesses along Lark Street have been revolving doors, including the site of the former Mama Rosa’s Pasta Café at 271 Lark, which has also been a deli and a coffee shop in the last few years. Burke attributes the rapid turnover at some storefronts to the fact that commercial rents on Lark Street are generally still low enough—three figures instead of four—to attract entrepreneurs with better ideas than business sense. He has followed the businesses that have failed in the last few years on the street, and is convinced that many of them failed because they made poor business decisions, such as not adjusting their hours to shopping trends, for example.

A number of local business owners expect Lark Street to continue improving, however, and they’re measuring their faith in six figures. Among the businesses where the owners have bought the buildings in the last few years: Bomber’s Burrito Bar and DeJohn’s Restaurant and Pub, at the site of the former Lulu Café. There, owner John DeJohn did a $150,000 renovation after he took over the building in August 2003.

“I wouldn’t want to open it anywhere except Albany,” said DeJohn, who worked in several local restaurants before starting his own. “Lark Street’s got diversity and class.”

—Darryl McGrath


What a Week

Um, I Didn’t Say That

Just when you thought Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s tactics couldn’t go any lower, the Billings Gazette reported that several veterans have found their names attached without their permission to one of SBVFT’s attacks on Kerry. One vet guessed that based on a survey of swift-boat vets he knew, as many as 25 percent of the names on the letter were there without the named’s knowledge. Gives a certain ring to the rest of their claims. . . .

It’s for Deer Hunting, Yeah...

The same administration that brought us the Patriot Act let the 1994 assault-weapons ban expire Monday, since apparently libraries and peace protesters are more dangerous than widespread accessibility of assault rifles,
AK-47s, and uzis. As Albany reels from
a spate of gun violence, reports that there has been no rush to purchase
the 19 types of newly available
weapons may provide a little relief, but law-enforcement agencies around the country have predicted it will make their jobs harder in the long run.

Don’t Vote for Me

Tom McPheeters, a Democratic committeeman in Albany’s Mansion Neighborhood, decided that the two women on the ballot with him, running for two committee slots, should both have a chance at the job. So in what may have been a never-before-tried campaign tactic, he fliered the neighborhood asking his neighbors not to vote for him. “I had to, because otherwise people would vote for me because they know my name,” he said. It worked; he lost.

Don’t Believe the Gloom

There are lots of lessons to remember from the 2000 presidential elections, but one of them is that (aside from Supreme Court votes) it’s the electoral college votes, not the popular vote that wins you the presidency. And those omnipresent polls that give Bush such good ratings are actually showing that Kerry is in the lead on that front, by more than 100 votes, and has been since May. According to the Orlando Weekly, seven states that were previously contested have moved to Kerry and eight states that once supported Bush have come back into play.



Thank you, thank you: Helen Desfosses congratulates David Soares at his victory party. Photo by: John Whipple

Trailmix: Primary Shake-Up
Albany’s establishment surprised by dramatic wins from insurgent Democrats

Despite being called “destined to stay in office” by the Times Union in its nonendorsement on Sunday, District Attorney Paul Clyne lost dramatically to challenger David Soares in the Democratic primary Tuesday (Sept. 14).

As of midnight Tuesday, with nearly all the polling places reporting, Soares had 14,030 votes—more than the entire turnout for last September’s primary race for county comptroller—to Clyne’s 8,684. Soares had picked up last-minute endorsements from Assemblyman Jack McEneny, former comptroller Carl McCall, and the national advocacy group MoveOn.

Margaret Walsh also won her race for the family court judge nomination against the Democratic Committee’s pick, John Reilly, 11,408 to 9,738, with most precincts reporting.

Total turnout for the election was higher by nearly 3,500 voters than for the 2002 Democratic primary, which included a statewide race for governor.

At Soares’ victory party, supporters and volunteers were giddy with excitement, relief, and not a little amazement. “This is big,” said Vera Michelson. “I don’t think we know yet how big this is.” Several other people echoed that sentiment, calling the election historic, and the beginning of a new day. Others recounted stories of their day, checking in with voters they’d spoken to on the doorsteps or driving people without transportation to the polls. Arbor Hill activist Barbara Smith described with awe the feeling of bringing a young woman to vote for the first time.

“People have been searching for years for a way to unite white progressives and black progressives,” Tom McPheeters, a Democratic committeeman from the Mansion neighborhood, said happily as he scanned the multiracial crowd.

“We built a coalition of young and old, African-American and white, men and women, gay and straight, experienced activists and first-timers, suburbanites and urbanites,” said Soares. “The era of reactive prosecution is over.”

Bob Haggerty, Clyne’s campaign manager, told the Times Union he hoped the voters “wake up” by Nov. 2. Clyne will appear on the ballot on the Independence Party line in November, and Republican Roger Cusick will also join the fray.

Albany’s primary season was ugly right up to the end. Albany’s Democratic Committee won an injunction in court Friday barring the Soares campaign from spending any more Working Families Party money, using the argument that since the Democratic party can’t spend on candidates in a Democratic primary, the WFP shouldn’t spend on one of its own uncontested candidates during a Democratic primary. Though the judge agreed, several election law experts disagreed strongly. The issue went to court on Wednesday (Sept. 15).

Clyne supporters, including Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, dismissed Soares’ victory as being due to “money from New York City,” presumably referring to the statewide WFP, even though the candidates spent approximately the same amount.

Soares said that because the Rockefeller drug laws affect people across the state, “The fact that I received support from outside the county shouldn’t surprise anyone, and I appreciate that support. More importantly I appreciate the overwhelming support from the people of Albany County.” Soares said that during the campaign, “I spent my time on the doors, I spent my time on the phone. I had over two dozen fund-raisers in the homes of Albany residents. I had a woman who stopped in and gave us a check for $7.41 and showed us how she came up with that sum, because she had paid all her bills and bought her medication and that was what she could give. That’s a reflecton of what this campaign meant to people.”

Meanwhile, things got tense on Saturday (Sept. 11) at Third Ward Councilman Michael Brown’s annual Arbor Hill block party at the Ten Broeck Mansion when first Walsh, and later Soares, put in appearances. According to Scott Snyder, Walsh’s campaign manager, “The second Margaret arrived, Michael Brown went in her face and told her the ‘ground rules’ which were no talking on stage, which she didn’t want to do anyway, but he followed her around. . . . It potentially was dangerous. Michael Brown called the police, and told them Margaret called the police. . . . The people there didn’t want us to leave. They said ‘You’re fine, we want to talk to you, don’t leave.’ ” Snyder said that after 20 minutes they decided that they would leave for the sake of the party.


Overheard:

“Is that our bus?”
“Yes it is.”
“Then why is it purple?”
—Two elementary school students viewing an approaching CDTA 13 bus in front of Hackett Middle School. The bus was completely covered in a CDPHP advertisement.

According to Soares, when he arrived later, Michael Brown told him he couldn’t speak on stage, and Soares replied that he didn’t want to speak on stage, he just wanted to walk around and meet voters. Soares said Brown threatened that if Soares stayed he would turn off the music and stop serving food and drink, and did proceed to turn off the music. Alex Navarro, of the Soares campaign, said it was Soares’ understanding that Brown or an associate of Brown called the police.

Brown insists that both Walsh and Soares were demanding that they get to speak on stage, and says their campaigns both called the police after he confronted them. “Peg Walsh can talk about diversity all she wants, but her true colors came out in the park on Saturday,” said Brown. “It’s like she’s on the show Cops. It’s like she wanted to put our community under some type of seige. . . . She wouldn’t have done that on New Scotland Avenue.”

Eyewitness (and Metroland contributing photographer) John Whipple backed up Walsh’s and Soares’ accounts. He said that Brown was very aggressive and kept repeating that they couldn’t speak on stage and Walsh and Soares kept responding that they didn’t want to. Whipple said Brown did turn off the music until the candidates left, and noted that several Arbor Hill residents at the party attempted to calm Brown down, telling him he was the one causing trouble.

“This is a democracy, you can’t just go around doing stuff like that,” said Snyder.

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


Loose Ends

A long-opposed plan for a power plant in Glenville [“Tuned Out, Turned Off, Unplugged,” Newsfront, May 2, 2002] has bit the dust. After many rounds of tireless activism from residents and trouble finding a financial backer, Glenville Energy Park has declined on Monday to appeal its latest court loss, effectively scuttling the project. . . . Freedom of speech has returned to the DC Metro, where a controversial advertisement advocating marijuana legalization is running this month. A federal district court ruled unconstitutional an amendment in the 2004 federal spending bill that would have defunded any transit agency that accepted ads critical of current drug laws [“Say Anything You Want About Drugs—as Long as You’re Against Them,” FYI, Feb. 5], allowing drug-policy-reform groups to move forward with their media campaign. . . . Coming under harsh fire for the visual effects of its proposed plant [“Cement Soundbites,” FYI, Aug. 5], St. Lawrence Cement has proposed a smaller smokestack—exactly what it said a few years ago would cause unacceptable pollution. And DEC Commissioner Erin Crotty has “ungrandfathered” the company’s mining operation, subjecting it to full environmental review. . . . Joining courts in San Francisco and New York state [“Go Read the Law Again,” FYI, Sept. 2], a federal court in Nebraska has ruled that the so-called “partial-birth” abortion ban passed last October is unconstitutional. . . . Gaston Hooks, a process server in Schenectady who ran the dramatic “Eviction Squad,” [“Get Out,” Sept. 25, 2003], has been held in civil and criminal contempt of court for continued illegal operation of a paralegal and legal document preparation business, according to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s office. Hooks reportedly has been continually defying 1999 and 2000 court orders to cease operations



Just be fair: Mohamid Alza Idi in his Fourth Street Market. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Mopin’ All Night
City residents are still divided over Troy’s new midnight curfew for convenience stores

Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian ignited controversy last month when he announced, in the wake of a late-night murder, that he would introduce legislation making it illegal for the city’s convenience stores to stay open after midnight. Although Tutunjian’s proposal was recently signed into law, there’s still no shortage of critique surrounding the city’s decision.

“All of these other stores can stay open,” said Mohamid Alza Idi, owner of the Fourth Street Market in Troy, as he gestured Sunday night at the bright lights of the pizza shop and bars near his small grocery. “How is that freedom?”

Tutunjian has described the late-night convenience stores as havens for criminal activity, citing the July 3 murder that occurred outside a store in South Troy. According to Tutunjian, the bulk of the stores’ business after midnight consists of addicts and dealers purchasing drug paraphernalia.

“The owners of these businesses can’t be expected to control their customers,” said Captain Paul Bouchard of the city’s Community Police Department, “but as a free society, we have the right to impact the quality of life around here.”

The new law requires any convenience store smaller than 1,500 square feet and with fewer than six gasoline pumps to close from midnight to 5 AM Sunday through Thursday and from 1 to 5 AM Friday and Saturday. Only seven stores in the area currently stay open that late. Stores can be fined up to $1,000 for violating the curfew and assessed points for code violation. One violation could result in up to 12 points, enough to require a yearlong closure. The new law is scheduled to take effect Oct. 28.

At a public hearing held earlier this month, opponents of the midnight curfew far outnumbered supporters, but the legislation still passed the City Council unanimously. Council members insisted that they had received many calls from constituents supporting the legislation, despite the few words of support it received at the hearing.

“If my baby gets sick at 3 AM, where can I go to get the things I need?” asked one speaker who advised the city to continue bus routes later into the night if the law was passed. A number of other speakers pointed to the lighting and surveillance that the late-night businesses provide for pedestrians, as well as the ability to purchase snacks or cigarettes after working a night shift.

“[The curfew] would allow their larger competitors who carry many of the same products to stay open all night,” said Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores. “Not only do we reject this blanket indictment of our trade, frankly we resent it.”

However, Bouchard indicated that city statistics show an overwhelming number of calls to his department are coming from the stores keeping the latest hours.

“When you compare stores that are open all night to stores that aren’t, what glaringly comes out is that 95 percent of the stores that don’t have late hours have minimal calls about disturbances,” said Bouchard. “These are calls that take a lot of manpower.”

Yet Alza Idi claims that he would have been willing to work with police on an alternative solution if he had known about their concerns beforehand, since he had been the one to call them on a number of occasions in the past regarding safety issues around the store. According to Alza Idi, any concerns that the mayor or police had about his store had never been communicated to him before the legislation was introduced.

While the relationship between convenience stores and criminal activity is not a new problem for most cities, laws such as the one introduced in Troy have yet to be considered in neighboring cities. David Soares, who won Tuesday’s Democratic primary for district attorney and who worked in Albany’s community prosecution unit for several years, described an alternative method of dealing with criminal activity around the late-night markets.

According to Soares, some store owners in Albany’s Arbor Hill agreed to install extra lighting, cameras and fencing around their businesses after a dialogue had been opened up between themselves and law enforcement officials.

“We told them that if they cleaned up their property and made it unfriendly to the dealers, they’d get more people buying milk and groceries and that sort of thing,” said Soares. “And if we helped them make it a place where people bought their milk, they’d agree to stop selling so much tobacco and things like that.”

“The dialogue has to be there if it’s going to work,” he added.

—Rick Marshall
rmarshall@metroland.net


Making a commitment: Members of the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church men’s chorus sign a pledge to work to end sexual violence. Photo by: John Whipple

We Can’t Take It Anymore
Coalition for Change and Hope crosses many lines in bringing together those affected by violence

To one side of the Capitol steps, the nattily dressed members of the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church Men’s Chorus signed the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s pledge to work toward ending sexual violence. At the bottom of stairs, some young children from Arbor Hill looked with curiosity, but no fear or disgust, at the representatives from the transgender community who were waiting to speak. (“Is that a lady?” one said.)

Saturday’s Walk and Rally for Change and Hope, organized by the newly formed Coalition for Change and Hope, brought together people from Arbor Hill and the South End, plus supporters from throughout the city, who walked from gathering points in their respective neighborhoods to the Capitol where they rallied against various forms of violence affecting their communities. It also was more successful at bringing together separate communities under a common banner than many events organized specifically for that purpose.

At last fall’s Confronting the Politics of Fear conference, Damu Smith of Black Voices for Peace told a workshop on race relations that if white people wanted African-Americans to turn out for antiwar organizing, they needed to turn out themselves at events that dealt with violence affecting black communities here, such as police brutality. Smith would likely have been pleased with the crowd of a hundred or so, which was about 50 percent white and 50 percent people of color.

“It was a walk organized by people of color, organized for people of color, in neighborhoods of color,” said Karla Andreu, an organizer from South End. “It is a sensitive issue; you don’t want to be talking about violence in those communities and perpetuating those stereotypes.”

Nonetheless, Andreu was very pleased with the diverse turnout. “It was great to see people together who [usually] would never come together, like the transgender folks with the black church people with youth, with politicians,” she said. “That really made me happy.”

Organizer Barbara Smith said that the crowd that was there was a direct result of the politics of the sponsoring groups—a key member of the Coalition for Chance and Hope is the Stand for Peace Antiracism Committee, which was formed in October 2001 to strengthen the leadership of people of color in the peace movements. SPARC wants to “be completely inclusive and to make connections between the many forms of violence that we face,” said Smith, hence the decision to have the rally address not only gun violence, gang violence, and other street violence, though that was a major focus, but also police violence, sexual violence, and hate crimes. Rally speakers included Arbor Hill and South End parents and youth; Karen Jabonaski, the fiancée of David Scaringe, who was killed by a police bullet last New Year’s Eve; Councilman Dominick Calsolero (Ward 1); Jamie Ghost and Charlene Dodge from the transgender community; Jacqui Williams, director of policy and advocacy for NYSCASA; and David Soares, Democratic nominee for district attorney. A representative from the Muslim community was expected but was unable to make it.

This interwoven approach resonated with many attendees. When asked why she decided to attend, Williams replied, “I’m alive. I’m a woman. I’m a person of color. I’m a resident of the South End. And I work for the Coalition on Sexual Assault.”

On the walk to the Capitol, Williams and Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin discussed the situation in the South End. Williams, who moved to the South End from Queensbury about a year ago to have more of a connection with a community, said the fear of violence is so high that it has taken until quite recently until many of her neighbors were comfortable saying hello to her. She knows of several neighborhood residents who always leave the area on weekends because they don’t feel it’s safe for their children.

At the rally, Kameshia Rorie, a resident of Arbor Hill, showed the crowd bags of trash she had collected from her front lawn that morning, which included weed bags, a Heineken bottle, playing cards and a condom. “I’m kind of shy, but I feel we’ve got to make change, and we’ve got to make change soon,” she said, adding that she was afraid to let her kids play in their own rooms because those rooms face the street.

The violence “has never stopped” in Arbor Hill, said organizer Beverly Padgett. “I’ve seen it go on the down-low for a while, switched to the South End for a while, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. . . . I’m just amazed that there’s such an influx of guns all of a sudden.”

Calsolero spoke passionately about the recent shootings in his neighborhood, saying he fears for his 14-year-old son. “We’re being told Albany is safer now. Well, come to Arbor Hill, come to the South End. Our neighborhoods aren’t safe, people don’t feel safe, people aren’t going out. One of my constituents around the corner from me won’t even sit on her front porch any more,” he said. He mentioned the Common Council’s resolution passed in January asking the mayor to set up a gun violence task force, and called for it to be implemented. “We can set up a task force on a convention center, we can set up a task force to privatize the state campus. . . . We can set up a task force on gun violence,” he said, to applause.

Jabonaski spoke of the need for accountability from the police department for the use of deadly force. She spoke directly after two children were invited up by the emcee to give their thoughts. One said he was afraid of having his family members arrested and of being shot by the police.

Along with a task force, attendees at the rally emphasized after-school programs, improving education, getting guns off the street, and drug treatment as top priorities. Coalition organizers said they will meet again to discuss moving forward with these ideas.

The only real disappointment of the day was a lack of media coverage, which some said might have been due to confusion over the role of David Soares, who was a speaker at the nonpartisan rally, discussing alternatives to incarceration and ways to fight violent crime. “We wanted to invite people who had solutions to offer,” said Andreu. “It wasn’t that we were making an event for him. People need to respect that.”

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


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