One House And One Gang At A Time

November 3, 2009

Mayor Jennings finally takes responsibility for the South End,
and slugs The Wife in the jaw

I went deep into the heart of the South End to attend one of those ceremonies at the start of a public project, this one at 19 Odell Street alongside Krank Park. Nothing big and exciting, just another very old abandoned house which is about to be rehabbed. Well, that was important enough for me, so I went down to watch and take pictures.

We only had two elected officials at this short, sweet event, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings and Albany County Executive Mike Breslin. The crowd was composed mostly of City and nonprofit agency office workers glad to get out of their offices on a nice day, along with several curious neighbors. And the press, which happened to be me. I was The Media. What a weird feeling, I gotta tell you.

Those of us who follow these things understand that this little rehab on Odell Street may actually be the start of some big things… if everything goes right. Which it should. This is a test run, a science experiment if you will.

19 Odell Street, Setting Up For The Ceremony 19 Odell Street, Setting Up For The Ceremony

Habitat for Humanity is in charge of carrying out this project. Executive Director Steve Haggerty told me this is the first rehab that Habitat has attempted in the Capital District since 2002. That surprised me, I’d thought that the last attempted rehab of a vacant building in the City by Habitat was in the 1990s nearby on Osborne Street, a very bad memory for everybody all around.

What makes this Odell Street rehab particularly interesting is that Mayor Jennings not only approves of bringing this vacant house back on line, He has allowed Albany Housing Authority (AHA) to assist with their time and resources. That’s not all. When it looked like the project was about to fall through for lack of cash, He directed Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money to fill the gap, money that originates with the Feds.

The house is a plain, two story two family house probably built around 1870. This is fairly new for the older houses in this neighborhood, many of which were constructed before the Civil War. Over the years more than a few of these modest old treasures along Odell have fallen victim to urban removal and demolition by neglect, leaving plenty of gaps along the streetscape.

Habitat has been aggressively building in the neighborhood, four new houses finished, owned and occupied directly across the street, with three more planned in the empty lots next to number 19. They’ve built and are planning to build several more around the corner on Stephen Street.

These Habitat projects are near the amazing Jared Holt project, which is between Broad and Clinton Streets. All of this is being coordinated by the South End Action Committee (SEAC) which is a partnership between the City, nonprofit agencies and interested members of the community. This is the sensible way to do it, clustering all the new construction together where the rot is greatest and then building outward from the center. That way the neighborhood itself is transformed and made attractive to home buyers and investors.

Four Owner Occupied Habitat Houses Across Odell Street From #19 Four Owner Occupied Habitat Houses
Across Odell Street From #19

Mr. Haggerty explained that this house was chosen not only because of it’s proximity to the new Habitat buildings but also because structurally it was in fair shape, having been empty of inhabitants for only 18 months. A similar plan of rehab under the same sort of conditions has worked for Habitat in other communities, there’s no reason why it couldn’t work here. I can only applaud the decision to save this existing building rather than tear it down, I hope the rehabbing experiment succeeds.

In answer to my question Mr. Haggerty with understandable reluctance told me that the projected cost of the project was around $100,000. “Of course that includes volunteer labor and donated materials,” he added. Yes, I recognized that estimate as very cheap. Keeping costs down is the sort of thing that Habitat does best.

Government sponsored rehab tends to be pricier than the private versions, there are several reasons for this. One is greater oversight every step of the way, some of it admittedly unnecessary but most of it unavoidable. Putting together funding packages, an art at which Steve Longo of AHA is a grandmaster, incurs legal and administrative costs.

But it’s important to understand that the real costs of government funded construction and rehab projects are always up front and visible. Almost all private construction takes advantage of government subsidies, many of which are in the form of services and infrastructure. To give one obvious example, future investors on Odell Street will be building on the back of today’s rehab and construction projects.

Habitat Executive Director Steve Haggarty At The Podium, From Left Albany Housing Authority Director Steve Longo, Mayor Jennings, Albany County Executive Mike Breslin, Habitat Board President Brian Osterhout Habitat Executive Director Steve Haggarty At The Podium, From Left Albany Housing Authority Director Steve Longo, Mayor Jennings, Albany County Executive Mike Breslin, Habitat Board President Brian Osterhout

At the same time as this lovely little event was going on, one of the most notorious and reportedly the most violent street gangs in Albany were being rounded up en masse, many of them just a few blocks away. The Media tells us that they are known as the OGK or Original Gangsta Killas.

The imminent takedown of the OGK explains why there was a nervous cop with an SUV stationed at the end of Odell Street, who earlier had tried to shoo me away when I pulled up in my pickup truck. I almost never see cops posted at these kinds of events, and if they are assigned to stand guard they usually look bored. This guy looked like he was ready to discharge his weapons if I sneezed.

This big bust was very good news which I heard about later around supper time. I’d been hearing stories for the past few months about several ongoing stakeouts in the neighborhood so I knew something was going down. Still, it is not only surprising that we now have official recognition of the existence of gangs in Albany, but that the police and elected officials are suddenly willing to do something about the problem.

Vacant OGK Crackhouse At Fourth Ave. And Broad Street, Shut Down Last Month By The Fire Department Vacant OGK Crackhouse At Fourth Ave. And Broad Street, Shut Down Last Month By The Fire Department

Consider this: The OGK gangsters appear to have been taken completely by surprise. Despite the recent building and renovation projects in the very center of their territory, the gangsters did not even suspect that the authorities would care enough about the South End to take them down.

This long standing official policy of refusing to acknowledge the existence of gangs in Albany has acted as a protective umbrella that encouraged the OGK to thrive in the South End. First and foremost the OGK was (is?) a money making operation, clever business people who have been taking advantage of the opportunities provided for them by the legal prohibition of a variety of drugs such as cocaine.

Operating their business in a totally unregulated marketplace, the OGK enforced monopolistic control of their territory the same way that corporations maintain control in third world markets. That is, by threats and by violence against the host population. This was Ayn Rand meets the real world, a neocon notion of paradise.

Going down the list of arrested OGK gangsters on the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) press release, it is immediately notable that only two of the 24 actually lived in the South End. At first glance that’s surprising, but it makes sense. One does not crap in one’s own nest. This firmly places the OGK in the same category as absentee slumlords, suburbanite land speculators and corporate interlopers like the Picotte Company, who planted the unwanted Walgreens on Holland Avenue.

Or, like that publicly financed and maintained “charter” school building that is now hovering over nearby Krank Park, crouching like a demon about to jump down from it’s mound and devour the neighborhood. The long term ideological purpose of “charter” schools is to destroy public education in America. Their short term purpose is more banal, to siphon up as much cash as quickly as possible from the community. In effect, the “charter” school plan resembles the OGK business model.

The Brighter Choice corporation, which thanks to The Mayor’s indulgence is the dominant “charter” school outfit in Albany, placed this demon on the mound. It would be nice to see the police drag Tom Carroll and his boy Chris Bender out of their lavish suburban mansions and haul their asses into court. But there’s a much simpler and less violent solution to this problem, all we have to do is cut off the taxpayer money and Brighter Choice will vanish instantly.

Taxpayer Funded Brighter Choice Corporation "Charter" School At Krank Park Taxpayer Funded Brighter Choice Corporation "Charter" School At Krank Park

Oh, am I being too harsh? I think not. For many decades the Albany City government has provided support and protection to a wide variety of exploiters who have grown rich and fat on the backs of City taxpayers. While money extraction outfits like Picotte make a huge profit by exploiting taxpayer funded infrastructures and subsidies, the OGK is in the same category as absentee slumlords and Brighter Choice who make their profit by exploiting the government sponsored decay and neglect of communities like the South End.

Interesting how the federal DEA had to be called in to take down the OGK gang, this appears to have been their operation all the way. Just about every police type agency in the area was given nominal credit in the DEA press release, from the Albany Police to the Rensselaer County DA to the NYS Department of Corrections. I take this comprehensive list of movie credits to mean that these local law enforcement outfits didn’t give the DEA any crap and provided whatever the DEA wanted when they wanted it without complaint.

Gee whiz, what have all these local cop outfits been doing all this time, why didn’t they go after the OGK? Like that suburbanite thug John Pikus, who is a member of that lawless gang holed up in that fortress on McCarty Avenue, the gang known as the FBI or Federal Bureau of Investigation. There he was in the DEA press release taking credit for the operation, where’s he been all this time? Guess Pikus and his fellow gangsters have been too busy cooking up entrapment schemes and “secret evidence” to do any thing useful for the community.

The plain truth is that for decades all of the local police have had the same attitude toward the South End of Albany as has City Hall. Our South End community is a dumpster and those of us who live here are garbage. That’s the way it’s been. But now something fundamental has changed.

Jerry Jennings Speaks Jerry Jennings Speaks

That fundamental something is not Jerry Jennings Himself, but His approach to dealing with the South End has changed profoundly. As always He is very much the guy in charge of the City. What has changed is that Jerry the politician is adapting to a new set of rules, a new way of staying afloat in a stormy sea, you might say.

As this decade of the new century has progressed, Jennings has had to listen to an ever widening and ever louder chorus of angry citizens asking questions He can’t answer. Why are gangs and other criminals tolerated? Where do the illegal guns come from? Why don’t the police respond when we call them?

Why won’t the City enforce building codes, and why does the City encourage the creation of vacant buildings? Why has basic maintenance and repair of our neighborhood infrastructure been suspended? Why does the City routinely make war upon small businesses, but lavishly support big corporate outfits that suck the community dry?

On and on, that’s for starters. The Mayor is getting tired of these valid criticisms that He’s hearing over and over. Politically He survives because He still controls most of the polling booths on election day. But more and more lately, He has to hear what people really think every time He marches down the steps of City Hall. He’s tough, but I know the constant criticism wears Him down.

That’s why The Mayor called in the DEA to get rid of the gangs in the South End. Or maybe former Police Chief James Tuffey used his own connections to bring in the feds, same thing. Either way, Jerry the politician has had no choice but to respond to the voices of the people.

Steve Longo And Mike Breslin Go Over The Numbers Steve Longo And Mike Breslin Go Over The Numbers

While the big OGK roundup was going down nearby, where I was standing on Odell Street Jerry Jennings presided over the rebirth of number 19 without showing any concern or a hint of nervousness. He was as cool as a cucumber in a crisper drawer. I’ll say it again, whatever else you can say about The Mayor he’s a real pro at what He does.

For sure He knew about the imminent raid, He even had a statement ready for the DEA afternoon press release. Yet He didn’t see fit to cancel the little ceremony on Odell. I suppose that if He did that would have raised a lot of eyebrows and possibly tipped off the targets of the raid.

If the Odell event had been canceled at the last minute for sure The Media would have noticed. After all, these events are put on for the benefit of The Media, and the news crews and content providers were clearly expected. As it was, none of them bothered to show up, the innovative rebuilding of one South End house apparently is not newsworthy.

The only media they had was me. A sweet young thing walked around with an armload of press packets, I asked her if I could have one. “I’m sorry, these are for The Media,” she informed me with polite regret. “I’m a blogger,” I said, “does that count?” She looked around uncertainly and said, “I’ll go ask if you can have one.”

Eventually she handed me a packet, I could have had them all. Simply by showing up I had unintentionally assumed the designated role of The Media. One by one the various officials present walked up to me and exchanged a few words and let me ask a few questions. Most of them were aware that I am genuinely concerned about housing issues and the South End in general, but it still felt odd to be the focus of attention like that.

Checking Out The Plans For #19 Checking Out The Plans For #19

The Mayor arrived in his big black chauffeur driven SUV and circulated among the fawning dignitaries. I watched Him for a bit and noticed that He was avoiding looking at me, which I expected. A moment later I was looking down fiddling with my camera and I heard His voice up close, “Dan.”

I started, then shook hands etcetera. He told me that it was important to try and save these houses “if we can. If this goes well I hope to see more like it.” And He wanted me to know that He understood the importance of clustering these projects together to have the maximum positive effect on the neighborhood. I agreed that this was essential and that I was glad that He saw it that way. And He tossed in something about the positive effect of the “charter” school hovering over Krank Park, to which I made no comment. Then He moved on.

See, like it or not I was The Media. And I was very polite, deferential even. This despite His having slugged my wife in the jaw the week before.

Okay, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration. Earlier in the week The Wife and her co-conspirators had held a press conference on the steps of City Hall, announcing that Save the Pine Bush had the day before filed suit to stop the latest expansion of the Rapp Road “Landfill” in the Pine Bush. Oh yeah, she was in good form. Here’s some of her harangue, from the Hearst Times Union report by Brian Nearing:

The City needs to adopt a rational solid waste policy that does not include destroying 15 acres of rare Pine Bush ecosystem. The landfill causes multiple destructive impacts on rare habitat and species… Why is the DEC permitting more acres of Pine Bush to be destroyed in exchange for remediation of the Pine Bush? You don’t kill something in order to save it.