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Neighborhood Works II

Concluding remarks by Paul M. Bray

In the interests of time of which there isn't much of at the end of an informative and  thought provoking conference, I would like to conclude by highlighting four points:

1.    Continue building civic capital.  Last year Todd Swanstrom ended the conference by talking about Albany's patron psychology and sociologist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, who teach us about the critical importance for cities and nations to be civically strong and active.  I want to reiterate this message that is especially important in a highly politicized city like Albany where we have all politics all the time.  We all need to support civic initiatives and organizations like CANA, Albany Roundtable, Historic Albany Foundations, Washington Park Conservancy and each and every neighborhood association and social and charitable organization in Albany.  And we need great projects that come from the grass roots like ArtWalk that Doug Rice from Rochester told us about. www.Rochesterartwalk.org.  Mayor Jennings, what happened to the Albany Educationway and Education Compact?

2.    Cities like Albany can best prosper with many small initiatives like the own a home projects in Schenectady and Troy to increase resident home ownership and to upgrade all areas of the City.  Transformational or big developer projects may come along but they are not the answer to a successful and livable city.

The following is a letter to the NY Times by Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, July 12, 1999

Better to Fix Up Cities Than Tear Them Down

To the Editor:

Re: "Slash-and-Burn Urban Renewal" (op-ed, July 9)

At a time when some cities are stepping up efforts to tear down abandoned houses, my city is working harder to fix them up.

(skip two paragraphs)

Seizing a vacant, tax-delinquent property through the courts takes time.  It takes even more time to get that house sold, renovated, occupied and back on the tax rolls.  But fixing up these houses one by one is a better strategy in the long run than tearing them down.

Every renovated home stabilizes a neighborhood, preserves its traditional character and feeds the real estate market.  Empty, weed-filled wasteland is not better for a city. The need for housing is to great for us not to try.

3.    We need to have an environment that is accepting of constructive criticism and civic discourse.  In Albany there is a tendency to treat all criticism as if it was tainted by coming from persons with an axe to grind or to use Mayor Jenning's words "a disgruntled minority".  We will never progress without constructive criticism that can help us improve.

4.    Albany is not a suburb.  Cities with urban qualities like walkability and diversity make poor suburbs.  We need to recognize, appreciate and celebrate the real strong urban values including the neighborhoods and institutions we have in Albany and preserve our heritage and urban fabric.

I want to conclude by reading something I found published in another city (Buffalo) and wish it could happen in Albany in 2002.  Obviously, I have changed the name of the city and Mayor.

Citizen-city dialogue drew nearly 3,600

Mayor, Council hosted public conversation on City's future

More than 3,500 citizens of Albany came out in October and November, 2002, to join their neighbors in an extended conversation about the future of our city-about what that future ought to be and the best way to get us there.

They attended "Neighborhood Summits" in each of the Council Districts of the City of Albany, co-hosted by Mayor Jennings and the Council member from each of those districts.  Since then, the City government has been working to provide tangible responses to what citizens had to say.

The Neighborhood Summits provided a clear ranking of citizen priorities for action.  They also produced a highly detailed discussion about a wide range of specific issues.  Citizen priorities are shaping the agenda of the Albany city administration.

As demanded through the Summits, the Jenning's administration created the Mayor's Neighborhood Matching Fund to help neighborhood associations improve their own neighborhoods.

There was a lot of discussion about the basic challenges the city faces-in fighting crime, preserving housing and neighborhoods, improving education and creating jobs.

Sometimes the discussions were heated, even confrontational.  But more often, City Officials and citizens met face to face to talk about the issues, explain their points of view, and hear the other out.  It is safe to say that everyone learned a lot, and that the connection between citizens and the City is stronger for it.

As a result, we now have a better and more detailed picture about the problems we, as Albanians, face  and what we all think should be done to solve them.  And this picture is based on a larger and broader cross-section of citizens than ever before.

This does mean that the Summits were the last word on citizen priorities.  The civic discussion about what to do will never be over.  But the results of the Neighborhood Summits-carefully recorded and analyzed by the Urban Design Studio of the Ualbany Department of Geography and Planning-will serve as the basis for continuing work on problems and on planning for the future.

Creation of a new master plan for the City of Albany is using the Summit results as a starting point, and then inviting citizens to get involved again as we develop a specific vision for the future of the City of Albany together.