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Leg work
Lincoln Park residents form friendships as they hit the streets to fight crime, blight
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First published: Wednesday, August 29, 2007



It's a quiet summer's evening, and that's how neighbors embarking upon their "walk and watch" hope it stays. But it wasn't always this quiet in Albany's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

When residents got together in June last year to form these daily foot patrols, a teenage foursome a "juvie gang," as residents say was spray-painting houses, stealing bicycles, ripping up flowers and tipping over planters. They were depriving residents of the serenity and security they coveted in this long, skinny neighborhood of frame houses overlooking picturesque Lincoln Park.

And other scary things lurked ... Creepy adults on Morton Avenue doing drugs ... Vicious dogs at a ramshackle rental ... Heavy, dead limbs threatening to squash children in the park ... Water pipes sticking out of sidewalks ... Cars turning right on red without stopping or considering that a pedestrian, a neighbor, a child, might be trying to cross the street.

Residents could have accepted all these as unavoidable inconveniences of city living and, perhaps, stood by as they got worse. But instead Dean Hartley, a 64-year-old former college English professor and long-time activist, organized a neighborhood meeting 14 months ago, and about a dozen residents volunteered to participate in a "walk and watch."

"We want to keep our neighborhood," Hartley says as he sets off on the daily patrol. "We don't want to lose it; look at all the lost neighborhoods in Albany. Ours is just a small one, and there's not much glamour, but we want to keep it secure."

On the walk

His hair tied back in its customary ponytail, Hartley has company this evening Mary Wilson, who leads the sight-impaired Janet Carr, and Sheila Horton. They don't take two steps from Hartley's basement apartment on Morton Avenue before he looks up and points to a branch hanging on power lines.

"There's a guy moving in next door, and he's going to take care of that branch," Hartley says. "He's in his late 20s, and he's a hard worker, and he's renting the house. He's already cleared out all the brush and everything."

"This house?" Horton says.

"Yeah, this one right here, the gray brick one, you know, with the vacant lot we've been having problems with," Hartley says. "He's a very tough kid. He's going to restore the inside and paint the outside. It's going to be one less place to worry about."

Hartley and Carr wear their "Lincoln Park Neighborhood Watch" hats, and Hartley has a whistle hanging on a cord around his neck. Before forming their watch they conferred with an Albany police officer, who distributed whistles and flashlights, and Stewart's donated $100 for the hats.

At least two neighbors at a time, every evening, walk the four blocks down Morton alongside the park, from Delaware Avenue to Eagle Street, and then the four blocks back up Catherine Street, which runs parallel to Morton. They blend in and draw little attention, although everyone in the neighborhood knows they're out there.

Some of the two- and three-story houses are nice freshly painted, sturdy porches, hanging plants and some are eyesores sagging porches, broken windows, littered yards. A few are boarded up and look as if they should be torn down.

"This house here," Hartley says, stopping in front of a run-down house with a large, enclosed porch, "is one of our many triumphs. We got them to move half a ton of furniture and junk and old papers out of here. It was a fire hazard."

"But it's a lady, and she has a son and a daughter in their teens, and her husband passed away," Horton says. "So she's by herself, and it's difficult for her."

"Well, it's difficult," Hartley says, "but she did get a lot of it out of there."

Problems, too

That triumph quickly gives way to an ongoing frustration as the walkers continue down Morton. They point out a gap between the step and the foundation of a large, abandoned, brick building. The brickwork has given way leaving a gap large enough for a child to fall through into the basement.

"We have reported it," Hartley says. "We were told the person who has to correct it is the landlord, who happens to be absentee."

Horton shakes her head.

"There's got to be a way to make absentee landlords accountable for their dilapidated buildings," she says.

The residents make note of dangerous and unsightly conditions and discuss them at monthly meetings. Hartley, as watch chairman, reports them to the appropriate city agency. Although every problem isn't resolved, many are. And that's because of the residents' clout as a group.

"You need to be organized," says Dominick Calsolaro, Common Council member representing the Lincoln Park neighborhood. "It carries a lot more weight when you write a letter on the neighborhood-association letterhead rather than when you write or call as an individual."

Some victories

Hartley tried for more than a year to get the city to cut the dead branches from trees on the Morton side of Lincoln Park. He got nowhere until forming the neighborhood watch and approaching the city as head of a group. A couple of months later, city workers pruned the trees.

Calsolaro has worked with the residents and helped get them sidewalks on Catherine and flower baskets on Morton.

"It's not a big thing, but in a way it is for the people who live there," Calsolaro says of the flowers that hang from utility poles. "They see other neighborhoods in the city get them, and they wonder why didn't they? It gives them a little more pride in where they live."

The successes are mounting. Working with the police and the landlord, neighbors got the mother and her four disorderly teenagers the "juvie gang" evicted. They persuaded the city to embark upon a study of the Morton and Oneida Terrace intersection for possible "no right turn on red" signs.

They got city workers to lower some of the water pipes protruding from sidewalks. They were treacherous to walkers, especially Carr, who navigates with her cane when she's out by herself; when she walks on patrol she "keeps both ears turned up," she says. And they got the city to plant trees along Morton, remove debris from vacant lots, mow overgrown fields, seal up abandoned houses and get rid of the tenants with the dogs pit bull and Labrador retriever that kept getting into Horton's backyard and threatening to eat her for lunch.

They also may be helping in ways they can't measure. Their presence seems to be deterring troublemakers from hanging out on the street or even moving into the neighborhood, they say.

"Since we started the walk and watch, there's not as much litter," Horton says. "The neighbors are cleaning up their property. In my block, everybody is helping out together.

"Like, I'll clean in front of my house, and I'll go down to the three garages they don't even belong to me and I'll sweep and pick up out front. And now people across the street are picking up garbage from their neighbors."

Making plans

No one on their walk has encountered a crime or violence, although Carr and her partner one night called 911 because of a domestic argument with crying children. Neighbors have gotten to know one another, and now they're working on a plan for a neighborhood emergency: Residents' contact information, instructions on how to turn off utilities, where to congregate (perhaps the Lincoln Park pool house).

But mainly, like this evening, they walk attentively down the street, past nice homes and homes in disrepair, past littered yards and yards with tended gardens. They notice a threatening face, a window recently busted out, a homeless man living quietly in an abandoned garage.

Their neighborhood isn't perfect, they say; it's not posh. But because they're walking, and because they're watching, it's a better place.

Tom Keyser can be reached at 454-5448 or by e-mail at LINCOLN PARK FACTS

* Looking over the greensward of Lincoln Park and the Lincoln Park pool house, residents of the Lincoln Park neighborhood have one of the city's prettiest views of the Empire State Plaza and Immaculate Conception cathedral.

* Bonnie Weddle is one of several exiles from the Center Square neighborhood living in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. "We got priced out," she says. She says she's paying $200 to $250 per month less to rent a two-bedroom apartment than she would be paying for the same apartment in Center Square.

* Washington Park and its statues of Moses and Robert Burns are better known than Lincoln Park and its statue of Martin Luther King Jr.; however, the King Memorial just off Morton Avenue is splendid. It features the eight-foot statute, civil rights marchers in bas-relief and excerpts from King's writings and speeches, including his quoting from an old song: "If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he's traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain."

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2007, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.