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timesunion.com
In the groove on Grove
Everyone looks out for everyone else on Grove Avenue
 
By TOM KEYSER, Staff writer
Click byline for more stories by writer.
First published: Sunday, July 13, 2008

 

Grove Avenue in Albany is a neighborhood for our times.

As gasoline prices soar toward $5 per gallon, here on Grove Avenue residents walk or bike to work, church, stores and restaurants.

As food prices rise with no end in sight, residents of Grove Avenue share the food they grow in backyard gardens.

As people across the Capital Region profess with greater regularity that they no longer know their neighbors, residents of Grove Avenue clear the snow from each other's walks, plant flowers in each other's yards and hold keys to each other's houses. They dispense hundreds of ice pops every summer to kids wearing "Grove Avenue Gang" T-shirts and sit with elderly neighbors when they go into the hospital.

And if the news of economic inflation, environmental disaster or general doom-and-gloom becomes too much, then residents of Grove Avenue can fall back on their old standby: Par-ty!

"If you're going to ride out a social crisis in a small, sustainable community, then Grove Avenue is a good place to start," says Bill Peltz, a retired anthropologist and activist who with his wife, Janet, moved to the neighborhood four years ago on the recommendation of their daughter-in-law, Ruth Ann Smalley.

"Ruth sold us on the idea of this being a family-oriented, old-fashioned neighborhood," Peltz says. "Within two months of moving in we knew more people than we'd known in eight years over on Summit," their previous neighborhood about a half mile away.

It's hard not getting to know your neighbors on this compressed block of Grove between Helderberg Avenue and the dead-end at the Albany Academy. The nearly identical houses -- 48 in all, 24 on each side -- are about 13 feet apart. They have patches of front yard the size of bed sheets.

George Doody, a musician and teacher who has lived on Grove for 15 years, likens it to "dorm living for adults." In tight quarters like this, it's in everybody's best interest to get along.

But it's more than that. Residents here strive to be helpful. That's the culture of the street, says Joe Stenard, a professor and financial planner and the fifth generation of his family to live in the same house.

"As a member of the neighborhood you feel a responsibility to help keep it special," he says.

Sometime around the late 1940s, Stenard says, his grandfather, Bud, a civil engineer for the state, took over the mortgage payments for a neighbor who had lost his job. That charitable act helped define the neighborhood as Stenard's grandfather saw it.

"He always called this the avenue of America," Stenard says. " 'All of the best of America's right here,' he used to say."

Many of the neighbors make a case for that still being true. Stenard's wife, Alicia, made sure that their elderly next-door neighbor, who lived alone, was not neglected.

She took him along when she ran errands and took him shopping and to doctor's appointments. He liked old movies, so she and her husband invited him over to watch such films as "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade."

And when he fell ill, Alicia drove him to the emergency room. The next day, as she sat with him in her room, he died.

"He always said, 'I never want to be one of those old people alone in a nursing home,' Alicia says. "I told him, 'Don't worry, Mr. Taylor. We'll never let you be alone.'

So Alicia could visit Mr. Taylor in the hospital, a neighbor watched Alicia's 3-week-old daughter. That sort of neighborhood collaboration happens frequently on Grove.

"When it snows it's almost like the Civilian Conservation Corps," Joe Stenard says. "You see everybody marching out with their shovels and snowblowers. If I don't get up early enough to shovel my own walk, then somebody will have shoveled it for me."

Isabella Carey babysat the two children next door, becoming their surrogate grandmother, says the children's mother, Debbie Schramek. Now, Schramek and her husband, Dan Gonsiewski, look after Carey, who's 87.

When Carey's daughter, who lives in Arizona, can't reach Carey by phone, she asks them to check on her. Carey's daughter e-mails them pictures of her daughter (Carey's granddaughter), and they print them and run them over to Carey. Gonsiewski installed a window air-conditioner for her and visited her every day in the hospital when she had knee surgery.

"And if Isabella's got nothing to do," Schramek says, "she'll cook us up a big pot of spaghetti and meatballs."

Ruth Ann Smalley came home one day and found her neighbor, Steve Shashok, planting lungwort and cranesbill in front of her house. He had overheard her say that she was having trouble finding a plant to grow in the shade.

Shashok, one of several residents who walk to work -- he works at the state museum -- has done similar plantings for residents of the street, as have other neighbors. Yard work and gardening are often shared endeavors, as evidenced by the neighborhood garden in the Peltzes backyard.

It sprang up last summer after Smalley, their daughter-in-law, went door-to-door urging residents to become more ecologically aware and self-sustaining. Somebody suggested a community garden. Somebody else pointed out that the Peltzes had the sunniest backyard.

In a twist typical of this tight block, residents can stroll unannounced into the Peltzes' yard and pick lettuce for their dinner salads even if they didn't grow it. Smalley, an English professor and working member of the Honest Weight Food Co-op, says Grove Avenue is a neighborhood equipped to deal with tough times.

Neighbors are quick to come together, she says, as happened in December at a holiday tree-trimming party for families. Three of the dads brought ukuleles and started playing carols. Others quickly went home for their guitars, flutes and fiddles.

Now there are eight of them, and they've formed a band. They're thinking about calling it Strength in Numbers.

Tom Keyser can be reached at 454-5448 or by e-mail at tkeyser@timesunion.com.

Inside scoop

* Of the 48 houses on this block of Grove Avenue, all but one were built in the 1920s from the same blueprint. Therefore, the houses look the same, although porches have been enclosed and rear rooms added. The houses are vertical with a front porch on the ground floor, a three-window bay window on the second floor and a single window in the attic.

The one house that's different is the oldest, says George Doody, who lives there. It was built in 1919 on New Scotland Avenue and moved to its current location in 1929, he says. It's wider and not as tall, and the roof pitches from front to back, whereas the neighboring roofs pitch from side to side.

* The parties? Oh, the parties! Start with the block party, and then add the Helderberg Neighborhood Association party. There's Alicia and Joe Stenard's ice-cream social, which this year turned into Joe's 40th birthday party. There's Kristin Barron and Steve Shashok's Guy Fawkes party, which commemorates the English revolutionary with a small backyard bonfire and eight years ago turned into Isabella Carey's surprise 80th birthday party. And don't forget the tree-trimming party, the bowling party and the kids' wash party, where neighborhood kids lather up with soap and shampoo, and parents hose them down.

And Halloween? Trick-or-treaters arrive by the busload to find residents dressed in spooky costumes roaming the street, porches decorated like haunted houses and candy being given away by the fistful.

* It's not only for the "Grove Avenue Gang" T-shirts that people move here. It's because they don't want that McMansion in the suburbs or that 30-minute commute to work, and they do want to reduce their carbon footprint. As Barron puts it: "Living in the city is much fairer to the environment than living in suburbia."