The South End Brought Back To Life

July 31, 2010

Construction begins in earnest on and near the bottom of Morton Avenue in the South End

Groundbreaking ceremonies tend to be silly, forgettable affairs. A bunch of elected officials and a smattering of obscure bureaucrats take turns congratulating each other in front of the corporate media. The leaders of society then line up with shovels in front of a pile of dirt and for a few seconds pretend to work like real people while the cameras roll.

Admittedly such events often serve a purpose other than to massage political egos. They can help to focus public attention on a project or series of projects that need to be noticed. Without question, an essential component of the Phase 2 reconstruction of the downhill parts of Morton Avenue in the South End of Albany is public visibility.

This little $10 million dollar project is also meant to begin to meet the tremendous demand for housing in downtown Albany. But in terms of overall strategy, the idea is to “kick start” responsible private investment in the South End by showing investors that the City is behind their potential investments and will not abandon the neighborhood on a political whim.

So let the politicians pose and gabble for their 15 second sound bites on the evening TV “news.“ Let them in turn advertise their official approval of the reconstruction. That’s their job.

Our Leaders Agitate The Dirt For The Cameras Our Leaders Agitate The Dirt For The Cameras

There was a well attended groundbreaking ceremony on July 14 at 90 Morton Avenue, an empty lot wedged between the recently rebuilt Eagle Court Apartments building and another vacant building half suspended in legal limbo. There will be two 3-story homes built on the site for a total of six 2-bedroom apartments. Overall, a mere 43 living units are being constructed in the surrounding neighborhood, but to the casual observer the project looks a whole lot bigger.

There used to be a multiunit apartment building at 90 Morton Avenue, owned by Bruce Ploof, brother of the notorious slumlord Roger. One Friday around ten years ago the building caught fire, by Monday morning the big brick structure had been carted away to the Rapp Road “Landfill” and nothing was left on the site except dirt. I’ve always wished we could see this kind of miraculous efficiency when it comes to preserving Albany’s buildings and enforcing building codes.

I would talk to Bruce every so often. He hated owning the building and paying his brother Roger an exorbitant mortgage, he hated dealing with the less than ideal tenants that his brother sent him. “I’d get out from under it if I could,” he told me. The fire and the quick efficient demolition solved his problem.

Since then 90 Morton has been a vacant, grassy lot. I considered it a good sign that somebody, presumably the City, mowed the grass and picked up debris for the past ten years.

Our Leaders Agitate The Dirt For The Cameras Corporate Media Points Cameras

On the downhill east side of 90 Morton are two attached vacant buildings, 84 and 86 Morton Avenue. AHA has acquired 86 and will be renovating it as part of this Phase 2 project. (Eight phases are planned.) But 84 is still owned by a downstate “investor” named Martha Hobbs, who is going through some sort of bankruptcy. The City has been applying pressure, Steve Longo really wants to renovate that boarded up mess.

This whole project is Steve Longo’s baby. The head of Albany Housing Authority (AHA) has worked long and hard to make this happen, drawing up plans and “cobbling together” funding from a variety of sources. I know for a fact that he has put in at least 11 years of work on rebuilding the South End, I first heard him describe his plans in 1999.

Steve Longo At The Podium Steve Longo At The Podium

So it was perfectly appropriate that Mr. Longo act as the master of ceremonies for the groundbreaking. After all, without him few of these politicians and bureaucrats would normally have any reason whatsoever to descend into the unglamorous South End. But now that Mr. Longo’s efforts are showing spectacular results, they all want to be seen with the success.

Most of the speeches for the TV cameras were vapid fluff but thankfully all were short. His Majesty Jerry Jennings the Mayor of Albany was of course first to speak. We learned from Him that 30 percent of the construction jobs for the project are supposed to be filled by City of Albany residents. Totally unprecedented.

This sensible new policy is partly due to efforts by activist Tom McPheeters, and also by Carolyn McLaughlin, back when she was a mere Common Council member and not The President. From what I could see, Tom did the basic dirty work that brought this issue to the public. Carolyn, meanwhile, used her “seat at the table” to introduce this new attitude toward City employment into City Hall.

And of course, Treasurer Kathy Sheehan’s recent explosive report on employment in the City has had an effect. In general, City employees who are suburbanites are paid more, receive more benefits and have more job security than City employees who actually live within the City limits. Even the Common Council has focused on this serious inequity. Ms. Sheehan’s report makes official what everybody already knows.

Mayor Jerry Jennings At The Podium Mayor Jerry Jennings At The Podium

This is a huge problem, one that has been quite characteristic of the Jennings administration. Almost all City sponsored construction jobs have traditionally been reserved for suburbanites, and most of the higher paying City jobs have also been given to people who don’t pay taxes in the City. Because of this bizarre employment policy, City of Albany taxpayers have been paying a large portion of their taxes to suburban municipalities via City employees.

And you wonder why the City has a budget crisis. The fact that Jennings himself announced this major change to His employment policy indicates that this issue has taken on a life of it’s own. The Mayor would never even think to recycle some employee wages back into the City economy unless He felt compelled to do so by public opinion.

This new revised employment policy gives some hiring preference to City residents, but not necessarily to people who live in the South End. All too many people who live in this part of town have been unemployed for so long that they have no idea how to find and hold a “real job.” That’s what happens to people when you systematically loot their community and deliberately isolate it from investment for more than half a century.

Contrary to standard suburbanite propaganda, folks around here desperately want to work and bring a little dignity to their lives. Almost every time I do any work to the outside of my buildings on upper Morton Avenue, cleaning up or painting or whatever, I get approached by people asking me for work. “Hey, you need a painter I can paint. Lemme mow your grass. I can fix stuff, too.”

I have a few folks I trust to do occasional work for me, but most of these guys who accost me on the street usually turn out to be more trouble than they are worth paying. Not that most of them are untrustworthy, but usually I’ll have to closely supervise these folks and carefully instruct them how to do the job. I don’t have the time or money to train people.

Three Homes Under Construction On Catherine Street Behind Morton Avenue Three Homes Under Construction On Catherine Street Behind Morton Avenue

I chatted with the foreman for the Phase 2 construction project early one Saturday morning, a guy named Gary. He also deals with folks looking for work. “I had a fellow come to me the other day, said he wanted work. But he said he was only available between ten and two a couple of days a week. I told him to go talk to Albany Housing.”

For those of you who are not familiar with construction jobs, and I know there are a lot of you out there, it is essential that the employee be available when the work needs to be done. I see these guys on this project out working on the buildings at 7 AM every day until late afternoon. And mainly because the project started late for the season I see them working Saturdays. too.

Once again, Steve Longo to the rescue. AHA has a program that begins by teaching the applicants how to find and hold a job. If that makes you snort with derision, sittng in your cubicle reading this instead of “working,” please consider your younger years and the long learning curve you followed reluctantly when you first went out to work for The Man. Now consider what would have happened to your “career” if you grew up in a place where there were no jobs and you never had an opportunity to learn to obey a boss for money.

The program also teaches job skills, particularly construction. There are supposed to be eight phases of development for these South end projects so there will be plenty of work in the future. The idea is that by investing in training AHA will create a pool of local workers who are ready to lend their skills to the later phases of construction.

Construction Of Homes Along Morton Avenue Construction Of Homes Along Morton Avenue

Not too long ago there was an undisputed understanding among our elected officials that Cities, such as Albany, have become outmoded. Our chosen leaders of society sincerely believed that “no one” wanted to live in a comfortably efficient urban environment with convenient goods and services. Instead, they imagined, “everyone” wants to reside in an isolated housing unit located nowhere at all and only accessible by automobile.

So throughout the second half of the violent and wasteful 20th Century and into our own century, all too many of our elected officials have worked steadily to ruin and ultimately flatten our urban environments, obliterate our Cities. Through an interlocking set of subsidies and tax laws, our politicians have seen to it that wealth has been drained from our sustainable Cities and squandered by the disposable suburbs.

Current Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings is one of these enthusiastic anti-urban politicians. His is actually the third City administration in a row that has worked to ruin Albany beginning with the ascension of Erastus “The Mayor” Corning in 1942 and continuing through Jerry’s alcoholic predecessor Thomas Whalen.

Corning and Whalen are gone forever, I’m happy to report. Jennings continues in office as an anti-urban relic of the last century. But He no longer has a free hand to do whatever He wants to Albany. In order to stay in office and continue to collect His share of the pie He has been forced to accede to public demands and reluctantly start rebuilding the City that He and His predecessors have worked so hard to destroy.

Construction Of Homes Nearby On Clinton Street Construction Of Homes Nearby On Clinton Street

You see, hating Cities is rapidly going out of style in the face of reality. Marking time in the suburbs, depending on cars, buying lots of gasoline and paying high taxes is becoming an unreasonable burden for more and more people. And let’s not forget the numbing dullness of suburbia, the isolation caused by lack of public space limits an individual’s options and opportunities.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard suburbanites say to me, “I don’t like the suburbs but the City is so run down, the schools are terrible, the police don’t respond to calls etc.” It’s hard to argue with that. Who wants to live in a place where the people in charge don’t want you to live there?

Over the years I’ve heard many people ask rhetorically, “Why is Morton Avenue so run down? You’ve got sturdy 150 year old houses overlooking the park, a short walk from downtown and from neighborhoods like Lark Street and Delaware Avenue. Who wouldn’t want to live there?”

Brick House On Morton Avenue To Be Renovated Brick House On Morton Avenue To Be Renovated

Well, for a while no one in their right minds wanted to live here except nuts like me. Meanwhile, those of us who prefer to live here have been considered “undesirables” (a broad category that includes among others criminals, lunatics, working class black people and nuts like me) and we were treated accordingly by City officials and police.

Decades of warfare by the Albany City government against our neighborhood had left much of Morton Avenue a depopulated shambles. The “lower end of Morton Avenue,” down the hill across from the police station reminded the casual observer of a war zone, like a neighborhood in Port-Au-Prince after the earthquake or Gaza after the shelling.

In the 1990s when things hit their lowest point, it looked like the City politicians would succeed in their plan of leveling lower Morton, presumably with the idea of eventually selling off the vacant land and lining their pockets. And there were signs that the City was looking at the rest of Morton Avenue the same way, as ripe for Urban Removal.

But some of us who live on or near the “upper end of Morton” had other ideas. We started to rebuild our houses and try to take care of our neighborhood. I personally made a huge difference by defiantly moving garbage cans out of the alleyways and by picking up trash on the street. It took a while but eventually my neighbors started to pick up trash. I recommend that everyone do the same in their own neighborhoods.

By the early 2000s people who drove cars through our neighborhood began to notice and say, “You know, the upper part of Morton isn’t so bad, it’s starting to look okay.” I have to say that I enjoyed hearing that. Maybe soon people will start saying the same about the lower part of Morton Avenue.

Our defiance of City anti-urban policy initially did not sit well with the authorities, they retaliated heavily against our neighborhood. But things are different today, their retaliation did not have the desired effect on us like it used to. Personally, I just got angrier. City Hall has been forced to respond positively to our defiance. And that’s why we were out at the groundbreaking for 90 Morton listening to the politicians congratulate each other.

Former Scavo's Market On Morton Avenue To Be Replaced By Housing Former Scavo’s Market On Morton Avenue To Be Replaced By Housing

Steve Longo was the host but this was, naturally, Mayor Jennings’ show. He got to determine who could speak and who got to agitate the dirt pile with shovels spray painted gold. Understand that politicians live for these kinds of events, the chance to be seen and heard on TV. If you understand that then you can see how His Majesty uses events like this to dole out favors and punishments to lesser City politicians.

For example, City of Albany Treasurer Kathy Sheehan showed up, but Jennings did not even acknowledge her presence let alone let her participate. You know that if former Treasurer Betty Barnette had shown up He would have cast His benevolent light upon her. Barnette, you see, was a loyal Jennings minion who never issued any embarrassing reports about City finances.

I spotted our new Chief of Police Stephen Krokoff along with Assistant Chief Tony Bruno standing off to the fringes, but again Jennings made not the slightest indication that they were present. Former Chief James Tuffey often showed up at these kinds of events and was usually made visible by the Mayor. Just one more public snub of Chief Krokoff by His Majesty, who didn’t even call a press conference last month to announce his selection as Chief.

Albany County Executive Mike Breslin Albany County Executive Mike Breslin

Most of the speeches were like the wind, impossible to catch and gone in a moment. An exception was a comment made by Albany County Executive Mike Breslin. Mr. Breslin is not noted for his speech making abilities, but I’ve found that when he does stand at the podium he usually has at least one interesting thing to say.

I didn’t record the exact quote but this is what I jotted down in the margins of my official program of the event. We at the County, Mr. Breslin said, give millions of dollars to people who are looking for a better life. But the people we give that money to cannot convert that money into a decent life unless they have decent housing.

The more I consider that statement the more profound it becomes. What good is a family and a job if you don’t have a place you can call home, a place you want to call home? One could argue that housing is more than a fundamental individual right, it is an essential component that keeps our society from falling apart and collapsing one neighborhood at a time.

Then there was my County Legislator Luci McKnight. She has an occasional habit of saying out loud what other people present don’t want to hear. (I have the same problem, only worse.) Standing at the podium she declared, “People are going to see the new streetscape and not know about the drugs and crime we’ve had to live with for decades.”

There followed several seconds of embarrassed silence under the tent, made heavier by the presence of all those big politicians and TV cameras. How dare she mention the past! You see, the last thing most politicians and media types want is for the public to remember the past, public memory cuts deeply into their ability to control public opinion.

That’s my prime fear about all this. Once the ugliness has been repaired, people will forget that the government imposed blight upon the South End almost destroying it. They will forget that the neighbors, sick of blight, refused to be intimidated into silence and demanded that their government fix the problems it caused. People will forget that the people are ultimately responsible for the upkeep of the community, and upkeep includes making sure that the government is working for us.

90 Morton Avenue One Week Later, 7:15 AM 90 Morton Avenue One Week Later, 7:15 AM

But here’s the funny thing. This media event resulted in almost no media coverage. I found hardly any corporate media reports via google. I did hear someone say that Ken Screven from channel 10 served up some of his usual negative sound bites about the South End, but that’s all. I wonder why the suburbanite corporate media managers felt compelled to kill this story of success in the South End.

All those big politicians and all those big TV cameras. But inside the corporate media bubble it was like nothing ever happened at 90 Morton Avenue. If the point of this event was to get media exposure then the event was a near failure. Thank goodness a blogger was present.

*** EXAMINE some of the documents that made this reconstruction project possible. ***

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