A Ribbon Cutting At Giffen

June 30, 2012

Volunteers rebuild a South End public schoolyard and the County Executive muscles in on Jerry’s turf

The other day, the first day of summer, I went down to the bottom of Morton Avenue to attend one of those ribbon cuttings, this time for a new playground at Giffen Memorial Elementary School. Giffen is the designated public school for my neighborhood, it also has a nice big auditorium which occasionally serves as a meeting place. The school is central to the South End, and like the rest of the South End it has suffered terribly from decades of planned negligence but now is coming back to life.

I’m very happy to find out that the school itself has been successfully fighting back against this policy of decay, and we are seeing very positive results. More importantly, I saw lots of evidence that there are quite a few people who are working to make Giffen a school to be proud of. This includes, besides the neighbors and parents of kids, volunteers from several local businesses who donated labor for the playground.

And we had exactly two politicians show up. That turned out to be plenty. What I didn’t see at this dedication was the mayor of Albany Jerry Jennings, I saw none of His minions, nor did I see anybody who is trying to stay on His good side. Which is odd, because He loves to preside over playground dedications.

The New Playground And Play Area At Giffen Elementary Public School The New Playground And Play Area At
Giffen Elementary Public School

I showed up at Giffen School about a half hour before the 10:45 AM event and was puzzled. I drove my pickup around the school several times but I could see no sign of the event being set up. I finally noticed that there was a new looking playground inside the schoolyard fence, but the equipment was being used by a squad of children carefully supervised by three female teachers. Did I get the day wrong?

I’m more used to those Albany Housing Authority (AHA) ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings that involve elaborate set-ups. Those events involve pavilions, seating, a ceremonial mound of dirt bristling with gold-painted shovels, and sometimes even food. And yes, the corporate media shows up in full force with their equipment, and so does City of Albany mayor Jerry Jennings. Always.

What I got to see here at Giffen is how you conduct a ribbon cutting ceremony when you do not have an endless supply of taxpayer money to spend. If I understand correctly, this project was initiated and carried out by the administration of Giffen School itself with crucial assistance from the County of Albany, not the City. As far as I could see the City did not willingly help this project, and I was told that they didn’t spend one cent.

Kids Come Outside For The Ribbon Cutting Kids Come Outside For The Ribbon Cutting

Of course a lone male does not drive repeatedly around an elementary school without a female chaperone, that’s how guys like me get put on sex-offender lists. (Ladies… seriously, males are always alert to this sort of threat to themselves. Ask any sensible fellow.) So I decided to park my truck inside the compound and walk around, taking care to look obvious and rehearsing my reasons for being there so that I could counter any accusations of being a child snatcher pervert.

Eventually the kids using the new play area went back inside single file and after a bit several other strange adults showed up, so I could relax. I talked to a fellow from the Momentive Corporation, he told me about the volunteer days that he and his coworkers had participated in the past two weekends. “We had about 90 volunteers cleaning up, from my company and from others, and we completely transformed the lot,” he told me.

Ah, here we get to the very heart of the matter. This big yard inside the schoolyard fence, encompassing perhaps a third of the school property footprint, was your basic urban abandoned lot. The weeds were high and uncut, piles of garbage were strewn about. Some of the garbage was as high as my waist,” the guy from Momentive told me.

The Kids Find Seats The Kids Find Seats

Several people who live nearby later told me the lot had been an overgrown trash pile for decades. So then, it’s great that so many persons came down to the South End to restore the abandoned part of the schoolyard. Indeed it’s a wonderful thing that so many care about our school, and for what it’s worth I’d like to personally thank all of the volunteers.

But this begs the question, why was most of the schoolyard abandoned in the first place? Why wasn’t this yard mowed and the garbage picked up now and then, why couldn’t children use this part of the school to play and learn for so many decades?

The short answer is that the Giffen schoolyard lot was abandoned because of politics and religion. Or, perhaps I should say more accurately, the politics of destruction and the religion of applied stupidity. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Project Coordinator Jefferson Weidman Of Arbor Hill Elementary School Project Coordinator Jefferson Weidman Of
Arbor Hill Elementary School

More public attendees arrived, and then each class of little kids filed out of the school building to sit around the new play apparatus. I have to say, what a well behaved bunch of kids. I don’t recall behaving that obediently when I was a kid, but then I don’t recall receiving such close attention as these kids were getting from their teachers.

I talked to Jefferson Weidman, a long time teacher at Arbor Hill Elementary across town. Mr. Weidman is a big booster of public education and no lover of “charter” school privatization. As I understand it he was the coordinator for the project and acted as liaison to the City.

Ready For The Outdoor Assembly Ready For The Outdoor Assembly

The first politician to show up was my First Ward Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro who is most definitely not trying to curry favor with the mayor. Giffen School is not part of his ward, mind you, but like Dom it is part of the South End. The current representative for this ward, the Second, obeys the mayor so he wasn’t allowed to attend.

Dominick greeted me by yelling at me. “Did you get my phone call? Don’t you ever listen to your messages? Did you read that thing from that guy that I forwarded to you with my responses? You know, I’m trying to keep you informed about your neighborhood. Do you even read any of my emails?” It’s always great to see him.

The phone call that I hadn’t listened to yet (it came after I’d left my house for the morning) was about the demolition of two three-story brick buildings from the 1800s located two blocks from my house. Thanks to Dom’s emails I’d known for months that these buildings were condemned to die by “emergency demolition.” But that had been months ago and somehow I had irrationally thought that perhaps they would not be murdered by the City.

Destroyed Brick Buildings At Morton Avenue And Eagle Street Destroyed Brick Buildings At Morton Avenue And Eagle Street

So on my way down to the ribbon cutting at Giffen I saw the heartbreaking pile of rubble. In the 1980s these two buildings were viable and inhabited. But then… I don’t want to start. It doesn’t matter anymore. Suffice to say these buildings were allowed to decay for thirty years and suddenly the other day they became an emergency.

The City has never spent one dime to preserve or stabilize empty historic buildings, but they have limitless funds to destroy them. Years ago Dominick tried to set up a building stabilization fund, but Mayor Jennings laundered the money through the City’s general fund and ended up using that money to tear down buildings. Last month the Common Council floated another bond issue to specifically tear down more buildings. There will be no bonding to stabilize empty buildings in Albany.

City Of Albany Common Council Member Dominick Calsolaro At Left Greets Albany County Executive Dan McCoy City Of Albany Common Council Member Dominick Calsolaro At Left Greets Albany County Executive Dan McCoy

The new Albany County Executive arrived, Dan McCoy, six months into his first term. This was the first time I’d seen Mr. McCoy at one of these dedications, but not the first I’d heard of him in the South End. He carried himself like the Big Man In Charge, a role usually reserved for the absent Jerry Jennings.

Which explains why Jennings was not present, not to mention that the mayor is no friend of Albany public schools, His former employer. Several times I loudly asked where was Jerry? We all know He loves playground ribbon cuttings. And He rarely misses a chance to pose in front of the media.

The line I heard several times was “The mayor is still recovering from knee surgery.” Okay, but exactly seven days later He attended a dedication over on Delaware Street, another demolition but this time with replacement buildings, and His Majesty cavorted about just fine. Listen, Dominick once attended a memorial service after he had surgery on his foot, I pushed him around a rambling old church in a wheelchair. When a politician wants to attend a function, the politician will attend.

(By the way, County Legislator Luci Mcknight wrote to me that she wouldn’t attend this ribbon cutting because she had a mammogram scheduled for that time. I sure as hell wasn’t going to try to talk her out of that.)

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings On June 27 On Delaware Street Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings On June 27 On Delaware Street

I’ve been getting the distinct impression that Dan McCoy and Jerry Jennings are now butting heads big time. Mr. McCoy has certainly been crowding onto Jerry’s turf, nosing around the City of Albany and acting like he’s in charge, attending ribbon cuttings and congratulating local businesses on their planned improvements. Of course he does these things in the name of the County, people often need to be reminded that Jerry’s City is indeed a part of the County.

Witness Mr. McCoy’s direct involvement with the abandoned dry cleaner’s building filled with barrels of toxic waste at the corner of Washington and Ontario, a building that has been sitting boarded up and very visible for what, 20 years? At least? All of a sudden this building is a very big embarrassment to Jennings and Mr. McCoy is making the most of it by actually tackling the problem. You know that Jerry is furious at the younger intruding interloper, but what can He do?

Jerry Jennings With With Albany County Legislature Majority Leader Frank Commisso In April Jerry Jennings With With Albany County Legislature Majority Leader Frank Commisso In April

Jennings appears to have arranged a truce with His longtime rival and enemy, the senior Frank Commisso, who also does not see eye to eye with the new County Executive. Jennings has even endorsed the junior Frank Commisso’s run for State Assembly, although the mayor may simply wish to see the younger Commisso exit the City of Albany Common Council. Like Dominick, the junior Frank is opposed to floating bonds to pay debt and he consistently opposes the mayor’s spending sprees.

So in conclusion, we now have three big men in dark suits who want to be in charge. The Old Boys Jerry and Frank Senior have apparently allied to oppose Dan the young upstart. Dan is fighting back by currying favor with the public by promoting much needed solutions to annoying old problems in the City. I sure hope we see a lot more of this sort of competition in the South End.

Dan McCoy With Dominick Dan McCoy With Dominick

Dominick introduced me to Mr. McCoy, he shook my hand with icy politeness and Dom mentioned that I wrote a blog. “Yes, I know,” said the County Executive through clenched teeth and turned away. Another politician who hates me before we’ve even met. Ha! Must be something I speculated about that turned out to be accurate.

The County Executive couldn’t get enough of Dominick Calsolaro. Before and after the ribbon cutting Mr. McCoy chatted with the man, doing that thing that politicians do where they stand in the middle of a crowd at the center of attention and converse intimately. This is how politicians bond and bestow favor on one another.

Albany School superintendent Raymond Colluciello acted as MC. Speaking to the kids, the teachers, the visitors and the annoying guy with the cam from TV 13, Dr. Colluciello gave Giffen School principal Maxine Fontroy-Ford prime credit for pushing this project. “She wouldn’t let it go and made sure it happened,” he said.

Giffen Principal Maxine Fontroy-Ford (In Red)

Giffen Principal Maxine Fontroy-Ford (In Red)

The story I came to understand was of a heavily neglected school at the end of the supply train that got tired of waiting for the authorities to do something about this particular problem. It looks like Ms. Fontroy-Ford did an end-run around both the City and the school district, applying for and getting grants, and organizing volunteer labor with local businesses. And of course she found Dan McCoy, who was hungry to invade Jerry’s turf.

Superintendent Colluciello made it clear that the school district enthusiastically supported Ms. Fontroy-Ford’s efforts to clean up this lot and turn it into a playground, not the other way around. That’s the way it works here in the real world. The authorities have no interest in little you and your problems, no matter how big. The only effective way to get out of them the things and services you need is to knock them off their pedestals and make them pay attention.

Dan McCoy Adresses The Giffen Kids

Dan McCoy Adresses The Giffen Kids

Dr. Colluciello introduced the County Executive, making sure to make the now ritual mention of Mr. McCoy’s military service in the War Against Iraq. It’s been fascinating to watch how Mr. McCoy brought notice to himself and has built a political career on repeatedly mentioning his military service, this at a time when former soldiers are increasingly being treated like embarrassments by the authorities. Mr. McCoy had this to say:

This playground is an example of how we can provide a community resource that will promote physical activity as a healthy choice for kids. When kids have a positive experience and see exercise as fun, we can effect real change. There are approximately 4,000 residents within a half-mile of Giffen that can benefit by this $10,000 grant.