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