annual tribute to Capital Region residents who make a difference
often refers to people who stick out, go above and beyond
their peers in sticking their necks out, risking or excelling
in some unusual way. They almost never act alone, but they
soar above somehow. Metroland’s local heroes issues
have for many years celebrated these kinds of heroes.
This year, however (perhaps as a backlash to go-it-alone cowboyism),
we’re instead recognizing people who have worked with others—from
two-person teams to group efforts of thousands. It takes a
particular kind of heroism to both work for a dream and work
in coalition, to take heroic measures and still be one in
Underground arts entrepreneurs Chip Fasciana and Tommy Watkins
and internationally known culture jammers the Yes Men and
are teams, the former bringing art to Albany’s abandoned spaces,
the latter bringing double-takes and humor into the greatest
bastions of corporate and media doublespeak.
The Rev. Sam Trumbore has gotten a lot of deserved attention
for his role officiating marriages for two same-sex couples,
and declaring them legally binding, this spring. But he couldn’t
have done it without the couples themselves, who made the
decision to open a truly personal moment to the world for
the greater good.
This year also saw many impressive gatherings in our region
that remind us what it looks like when movements are born.
The outraged members of Save the Ballet forced open the closed,
highly questionable dealings behind the doors of the Saratoga
Performing Arts Center. The dynamic group of people who came
together around Chris D’Alessandro and David Soares—themselves
a team in many ways—and made themselves a political force
to be reckoned with. And the largest group of all, the swing-state
volunteers, whose lack of sleep, worn-out shoes, and persistent
faith may well have turned the tide in key states like Pennsylvania
and New Hampshire.
Working with others is rarely easy. But doing it well may
be the most important thing we can do.
art-and-activism outfit the Yes Men must have an extensive
team of mischievous elves working around the clock for them,
to get done what they get done. Or, rather, what they get
undone. “Mike Bonnano” and “Andy Bichlbaum” (otherwise known
as RPI professor Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin, respectively)—and
their unnamed compatriots—stage actions designed to expose
the extent to which corporate interests and government have
worked hand-in-glove, with rapacious zeal, to pursue profit
over public good and to avoid all accountability for the destruction
along the way.
Most recently, the Yes Men stirred up controversy when Servin
was invited—via a phony Web site established by the Yes Men,
DowEthics.com—to speak on BBC World Television about the chemical
company’s stance on the 1984 Bhopal chemical spill at Union
Carbide factory. (Union Carbide is now a wholly owned subsidiary
of Dow.) Servin, as “Jude Finisterra,” took the offer and
appeared, claiming that after 20 years of negligence, Dow
was finally willing to own up and remediate the results of
the disaster that killed thousands (the lingering contamination
of which is estimated to claim a life a day in Bhopal still).
Within hours, the fake story was Google’s top news hit.
Dow, of course, denied that it would take such action, and
the Yes Men helped them along that path by issuing a retraction
on behalf of the company: “Dow will NOT commit any funds to
compensate and treat 120,000 Bhopal residents who require
lifelong care. . . . Dow’s sole and unique responsibility
is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes
against its bottom line unless forced to by law.” This phony—though
true enough in spirit—retraction also topped Internet news
lists, generating active discussion and debate about a disaster
that has been mostly ignored for two decades.
The group has tackled other sneaky entities, such as the World
Trade Organization (as illustrated in the recent documentary
The Yes Men), and punk’d such sketchy string-pullers
as the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. (Remember
the news item that claimed the foundation had advanced Ed
Meese as a more appealingly right-wing presidential candidate
for 2004? Yep. The Yes Men were behind that one, too.)
Pundits—including some local scolds—have tsk-tsked schoolmarmishly
about the irreverent manner in which the Yes Men have pursued
their agenda, claiming that such high-jinks do no actual good
and may, in fact, cause harm by inflating expectations or
giving false hope to victims of corporate greed—as if the
greatest tragedy facing the victims of capitalism’s inhuman
appetite is disappointment. Point is, nincompoops, Bhopal’s
been out of the headlines for 20 years; now, it’s back. You
wouldn’t have wasted your column inches on a decades-old issue
if the Yes Men hadn’t given you a timely hook and the opportunity
to soapbox while calling them egomaniacs, now would you? So,
we applaud the Yes Men for bringing this—and other such examples
of ongoing corporate and/or governmental malfeasance—to the
fore, and for calling into question the accuracy and reliability
of the news media that pitch this falsity so confidently.
It’s important to be reminded from time to time not to eat
everything you’re fed.
the Ballet, a group of concerned arts boosters and local business
owners, was organized in response to the Saratoga Performing
Arts Center’s attempted termination of the annual residency
of the New York City Ballet. They are an excellent example
of something fine and rare: grassroots organizing in the arts.
safe to say that neither the Saratoga Performing Arts Center
board, nor the organization’s long-serving president Herbert
Chesbrough, had any idea of the controversy that would follow
when SPAC announced on Feb. 13 that the New York City Ballet’s
annual summer residency would be canceled after the 2004 season.
The news hit the local arts community like an earthquake,
however. The SPAC amphitheater, after all, had been designed
and built (nearly 40 years ago) with the ballet in mind. The
ballet had become as much a part of summer in Saratoga as
horses and fancy hats, and its economic impact on downtown
Within days, ballet supporters began circulating petitions
to keep the NYCB at SPAC. John and Janice DeMarco, owners
of the Lyrical Ballad bookstore, started one; so did Saratoga
Springs resident Lisa Mehigan, who set hers up online. Within
weeks, “Save the Ballet” signs began appearing in the windows
of businesses in downtown Saratoga Springs, as an ad hoc Save
the Ballet Committee was formed (and quickly endorsed by Saratoga
mayor Michael Lenz). By March 15, committee member (and Saratoga
County Arts Council executive director) Dee Sarno reported
that $90,000 in pledges had been collected from people who
intended to buy tickets to the ballet.
Save the Ballet, which now included the DeMarcos, Sarno, Mehigan,
Claire and Kathy Stancampiano, and Jennifer Leidig, incorporated
as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and began a long summer of fund-raising
and activism. They worked on attracting corporate support,
and reached out to local politicians; their seriousness and
dedication helped enlist the support of Sen. Joseph Bruno
(R-Brunswick) and Assemblyman James Tedisco (R-Schenectady),
as well as the participation of an initially disinterested
Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
Through the efforts of Bruno, the state offered a two-for-one
matching grant to help fund the NYCB residency; it required
SPAC to raise $600,000 by July 31, 2005. By early August,
Save the Ballet had helped collect more than $400,000.Their
activism kept up the pressure on SPAC, too, which responded
to the mess they’d created by, among other things, hiring
an Albany-based PR firm.
While still not thrilled with SPAC’s current management—“To
say that SPAC is run like a circus is insulting to circuses
everywhere”—Save the Ballet’s Jennifer Leidig is pleased with
the direction events are moving. A recent audit by the New
York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
revealed that, among other things, the numbers SPAC offered
as justifying the termination of the ballet were dramatically
incorrect, and that the SPAC board was guilty of, at best,
terrible mismanagement. Leidig says this has given the folks
at Save the Ballet a true sense of vindication: “I was so
happy for the community. This [the report] is what we’ve been
screaming about from the beginning.”
Barnes and George Jurgsatis have been together for well over
two decades, but they never believed they would be able to
get married. “I personally never visualized having a wedding,”
says Jurgsatis. “I never thought the day would come.” Last
January they began to discuss going to Canada in the summer
to get married, but figured it would be “a very civil thing,
quick . . . not personal.”
time Lynne Lekakis and Elissa Kane went to a wedding for the
past several years, they would discuss the parts they might
incorporate if they ever had their own, and the parts they
wouldn’t. They talked about getting married when it became
For many years, the Rev. Sam Trumbore of the First Unitarian
Universalist Society of Albany has believed that it should
be up to him to decide who he would marry, not the government.
the San Francisco and New Paltz weddings started last spring,
these five people came together to add Albany to the history-making
gay-marriage map. Trumbore knew the moment had come when he
heard that two of his UU colleagues, Kay Greenleaf and Dawn
Sangrey, had been arrested for performing marriages in New
Paltz. He considered joining the rotation of ministers in
New Paltz, but decided he wanted to do it in Albany, and with
people he had some connection to.
So Trumbore asked Lekakis and Kane, who were members of his
congregation, and another congregation member who was friends
with Barnes and Jurgsatis mentioned it to them. “We were very
happy to do it here in the United States instead of having
to run off to Canada,” said Jurgsatis.
Leaving aside the bit about having only two weeks to plan,
most noncelebrities don’t dream of their weddings being an
above-the-fold news story. “We’re behind the scenes sort of
people,” says Lekakis as she recalls the decision to go forward.
At first “we thought it was going to be just a quiet church
wedding,” says Jurgsatis. Then when they realized the media
would be invited, adds Barnes, “we thought there would maybe
be a radio station, a newspaper, maybe one TV station.” He
chuckles. “We were surprised.”
As it turned out, the ceremony was “a perfect combination
of political act and truly moving personal experience,” says
think we were a little self-conscious going into it, but when
the actual ceremony was going it was very personal. . . .
We totally lost track of the media being there,” says Jurgsatis.
The couples are in it for the long haul, having sued the state
and county for a marriage license, a case they expect to head
all the way to the Court of Appeals. But so far the experience
has been more positive than they could have dreamed. Despite
the publicity, practically none of the feared backlash or
hate mail has manifested. Instead they’ve gotten presents,
parties and congratulations from relatives, coworkers, and
strangers in the grocery store, plus a lot of chances to talk
with the less certain about why they feel equal marriage rights
Trumbore is actually disappointed that he wasn’t arrested,
“because that gets it more in the public eye, more attention
on the couples.” But the experience has forged relationships
between him and many gay rights organizations in the area,
putting him more strongly in the middle of the fight. And
the gratitude taught him just how significant a small act
on the part of a straight person, who doesn’t “have to” stick
his neck out, can be.
Kane agrees. The most wonderful surprise was the vociferous
support of the FUUSA congregation, she says. “To have a group
of older straight people leading the charge. . . . Never 20
years ago would I have believed it.”
D’Alessandro had two inspirations to become a police officer:
Superman (this has been a lifelong goal) and Frank Serpico,
who risked his life and career to expose corruption in the
NYPD. His interest in Serpico may have been prophetic.
working his way to the level of commander, and becoming in
charge of the detective’s office, D’Alessandro began to raise
concerns to his supervisors about problems he encountered
with overtime, record-keeping, etc. Eventually, in May 2002,
he was transferred to a different position, in what many see
as retaliation. But from what he describes as a real low point,
he was ‘reborn’ in his new position as North Station commander
when he met up with community prosecutor David Soares and
began walking the streets of Arbor Hill and figuring out how
to take on-the-ground community policing to the next level.
People who’d never trusted a police officer in their lives
grew to trust D’Alessandro.
Then politics appeared to intervene, as informal word came
to Soares and D’Alessandro that they were causing an imbalance
of power where people no longer had to go to City Hall or
their councilperson to get their needs met. Not long after,
D’Alessandro was suspended and then, this January, fired,
allegedly for involvement with a derogatory flyer.
He has been fighting to get his job back ever since, but also
to encourage people to continue both the organizing work and
the “light-shining” on the APD. Months after he was fired,
he still showed up at neighborhood watch events in Arbor Hill
to show support. And Serpico showed up at a legal fund-raiser
for him, which moved D’Alessandro so much that “I could barely
stand, almost couldn’t talk.”
than a year ago, David Soares was talking to real-estate agents
about selling his house. He was frustrated, nay furious, to
see the support draining away from his Arbor Hill Community
Prosecution initiative, tired of forming collaborative solutions
that couldn’t move forward due to a lack of resources, incredulous
at the sorts of politics that were intervening in a project
that had received so much praise at the start. The loss of
Christian D’Alessandro on the streets to work with side by
side added insult to injury.
Then his wife Tina had a few words to say. She pointed out
how happy the job had been making him—the creative solutions,
community accountability board, collaborations with law enforcement,
actual communication with residents—and asked if he would
have let these guys push him around on the playground when
he was young. Shortly afterward, Soares told his boss, Albany
County District Attorney Paul Clyne, that he would be running
for his position. Clyne fired him, and the rest is history.
We can’t call Soares a local hero for what he promises to
do in the DA’s office—the proof will be in the pudding, which
is in the future (though clearly we’re hopeful). But the courage
to put one’s self forward on the ballot in this notoriously
nasty local political climate is by itself an act that is
democracy strengthening. So is taking on an issue, like the
Rockefeller Drug Laws, that conventional wisdom says people
don’t vote on.
risked his job and ran himself ragged with an effort and a
message that inspired hundreds of people to come together,
forge new connections, and possibly launch a new movement.
“He has lifted the human spirit and the aspirations of our
community,” says campaign volunteer Bill Washburn.
. . and the activists they inspired
Smith, a nationally known activist and author who has worked
in many movements and for many causes, calls the response
to Chris D’Alessandro’s firing and David Soares’ campaign
“one of the most dramatic pieces of organizing that I’ve ever
been involved in.”
Bill Washburn, past principal of Albany High, says that he
and others “decided to stand” on this issue “because we believed
that the truth in this matter ran deep.”
Smith and Washburn were joined by hundreds of others who mobilized,
some for the first time, around either D’Alessandro, Soares,
or both. Many were young people. Many were sticking up for
their own neighborhoods for the first time. Many felt encouraged
to be fighting for something rather than against something
for a change. “It was a confluence,” says Washburn, of the
sort that births movements.
talk about community. This was community,” says Soares, who
recalls that along with the incredible demands of the campaign
work, people were cooking for his wife (who had taken on two
extra jobs), watching their children, and generally “keeping
us from suffering” from the vicissitudes of campaigning.
These volunteers let bills go unpaid and hobbies unattended
(Smith notes that people knew this was serious when she stopped
keeping up with current movies, one of her passions) as they
knocked on doors, organized events, and raised funds.
were days when I was up at 4:30 or 5 . . . and would return
home at 10:30 or 11 at night and get up and do it again,”
says Washburn. “There were hundreds of people who gave in
the same way, in their own way.”
Early on in the D’Alessandro fight, people turned out to speak
at meeting after meeting of the Common Council, even after
being called malcontents and rabble rousers. Even as they
formed the Coalition for Accountable Police and Government,
many worried privately about repercussions from going so public.
“Did I have concerns? Yes. Do I still have concerns? Yes.
. . . When you make a decision to stand, you can have some
concerns about some of the implications and realities, but
you know it’s the right thing to do,” says Washburn.
thing that was so unique about this was people just did [what
needed to be done],” says longtime activist Vera Michelson.
“We said, ‘We know we’re asking the impossible, but the impossible
needs to be done.’ And they just fell in and did it.”
you manned a phone, knocked on doors or e-mailed until your
clicking finger spasmed, your efforts were appreciated, swing-state
volunteers. But the question is: Where are you now?
the run-up to the election, we heard from unions calling fellow
members in Florida, organizations like Planned Parenthood
and Citizen Action organizing bus trips for door-to-door registration
drives and advocacy groups opening their doors—and phone banks—to
volunteers. We heard stories about local residents traveling
to nearby swing states in order to help the elderly and the
just-old-enough-to-vote register for the first time. Heck,
we even heard about kids nagging their families about making
sure that distant aunts and uncles vote. People lost sleep,
spent money they didn’t have, and missed putting their kids
to bed to be part of the effort.
But when we recently attempted to contact some of the local
organizations that sent volunteers to New Hampshire, Pennsylvania,
Ohio and other nearby swing states—as well as the organizations
that arranged national phone banks and e-mail blitzes—in true
selfless form, nobody was willing to stand up and be recognized.
We’re not sure why, though.
While some might argue that the results of the election drove
our local volunteers into hiding, the facts say they should
be standing proud. More than 12 million new voters added their
ballots to the mix this election, making it possible for both
the Democrat and Republican candidates to set records for
supporting votes tallied. On top of all that, many attribute
the blue-state victory (by less than 10,000 votes) in New
Hampshire—a red state in 2000—as well as Democratic candidate
John Kerry’s wins in Pennsylvania and Maine, to the efforts
of regional get-out-the-vote campaigns. While we’re at it,
some kudos go out to the volunteers in Ohio, who helped that
state record more than 1 million new votes this election (as
for how many were actually counted, that’s another story).
According to Internet-based advocacy group MoveOn.org, volunteers
helped turn out more than 27,000 new votes in Wisconsin, where
Kerry won the state by only 11,000 votes.
Numbers were up all around the Northeast, thanks to the efforts
of local volunteers. So stand up and be counted, swing-state
volunteers. We know you’re out there, and we know that all
of the miles traveled, long-distance calls and keyboard wear-and-tear
weren’t in vain.
Fasciana and Tommy Watkins
all started because Chip Fasciana and Tommy Watkins wanted
more places to show art—theirs, and their colleagues’. Their
answer was a new project called Albany Underground Artists,
which provided an unexpected and awesome boost to the local
a year ago, Watkins had put together a show at ego, the now-defunct
Lark Street men’s clothing store, and Fasciana (who had held
quite a few shows at Lulu’s Wine Bar at 288 Lark St.—now DeJohn’s
Restaurant) had staged a show called Five Starving Artists
Surrounded by Cheesecake in a friend’s downtown storefront.
They decided to join together and put on an art show in an
empty building on Lark Street that used to house the Carosello
Bakery. About 500 people showed up for their first collaborative
effort, and a phenomenon was born.
The unassuming duo have been collaborating for about a year
now, putting together art exhibits like the Bakery Show and
the very successful Bank Show. The shows have become so popular
that the duo worry that maybe there has been just a bit too
much hubbub about the project and that it may be in danger
of losing its grassroots feeling.
was called Albany Underground Artists because that’s really
what it was—we were having truly underground shows,” says
Fasciana. “And then it got so big that now it’s like the Albany
How do they get permission to use the empty buildings?
first we didn’t,” Fasciana says.
staging one-night shows,” explains Watkins, “by the time that
the city and code people caught up with us, we’ve already
had our show, and it’s too late.
mean, they’re not going to come to our door,” he grins, “at
least, they haven’t yet.”
Currently, the Albany Underground Artists have a city-sponsored
exhibit that is being held in 16 empty storefront windows
in downtown Albany. The 16 Windows of Art is being
exhibited in empty spaces’ windows on downtown streets like
State and North Pearl. “[The windows] are celebrating those
spaces just like our art shows. . . . You want to see businesses
go in these spaces, so one of the impacts of [these shows]
is that it’s a way for people to take notice that there’s
a space and they might be able to do something with it,” says
Fasciana and Watkins do not consider themselves heroic—in
fact, they appropriately deem themselves more like enablers
of the visual-arts scene and underground artists.
sort of has an identity crisis that we’ve had going on for
a while,” Fasciana says, “like it’s a hip city, we have a
lot of culture and creativeness, but we’re just on the border
of not having our shit together enough for people to live
here and be like, ‘Yeah, Albany is cool.’ But we’re right
there. So what we’re trying to do is make that better. I mean,
you have all these people who can’t hang their work anywhere.”
Fasciana and Watkins, ironically, are planning a big show
for next September that will happen at the Institute of History
and Art. Their Underground Arts project has evolved into a
city-sponsored, wildly popular phenomenon. “The city sponsored
the Bank Show,” Fasciana says, “and the city has embraced
us and we’re doing all sorts of stuff now.”
Though to be more successful and more recognized by the community
means that the original dynamic of Albany Underground Artist
is inherently gone, Watkins and Fasciana seem determined to
keep the vibe from their original, independent effort going
like to think that no matter what happens,” Watkins says,
“we’re always going to have underground shows.”