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Strong ties breathe life back into Mansion
Albany -- Tight-knit living for newcomers, old-timers credited for neighborhood's resurgence
By RHEA DAVIS, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, February 1, 2004


Bound by the towering buildings of the state Capitol and the gritty housing projects of Albany's South End, a downtown neighborhood is flourishing with small-town spirit.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, children played in the snow-covered parks that dot the Mansion neighborhood and a couple walked hand in hand, smiling at passers-by. A group of people lounged at The Free School, sharing coffee and banana bread. Others took in the scene from their stoops, despite the bitter cold.

With suburban flight putting a dent into Albany's population, residents of the Mansion neighborhood are working to make their district one of the more inviting in the city -- and many say their efforts are paying off.

Realtors say they're seeing record numbers of people moving into the nine city blocks near the governor's mansion. Residents believe organizations such as The Free School, an alternative school for children that also features a community bakery and classes in yoga and Scottish folk dancing, make their neighborhood distinctive.

The Ironweed Collective, whose members fix neighborhood kid's bicycles at no cost and operate a space where people can swap books and music for free, also has added a communal flavor to the district.

"I love it here," said Marci David, who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years. "I never want to live anywhere else. I will stay in this house until they carry me out feet first."

Such loyalty isn't unusual in this historic neighborhood that runs from Eagle Street to Trinity Place and Park Avenue to Hamilton Street.

In 1975, a group of neighbors formed the Mansion Neighborhood Association to unite against construction plans that threatened their homes and to welcome newcomers to their neighborhood. Almost 30 years later, they still are hosting block parties and neighborhood cleanups.

They've even developed a brochure touting the restaurants, stores, cultural facilities and community gardens that garnish the area.

Real estate agent Ellen Picotte said she has seen a sharp spike in interest in the neighborhood over the past two years.

"I think the Mansion is a hidden treasure people have finally discovered," said Picotte, who sold seven homes in the neighborhood last year. "I used to have to drag people down there, but I don't have to do that anymore."

The future of the Mansion district appeared uncertain in the 1970s when construction of the Empire Plaza almost decimated the neighborhood.

The plaza project leveled more than 98 acres in downtown, and many fled the construction noise and dust. A small group of people stuck it out. A few others moved into the area, enticed by housing prices as low as $5,000.

Mark Yolles, who moved to the Mansion district from Bethlehem 32 years ago, said he was one of the people attracted by the cheap real estate. He and his wife, Pola, also were looking for a neighborhood where they could walk to stores and restaurants.

Over the past decade, they've seen the neighborhood come back to life.

"There is more interaction between people in this neighborhood than almost anywhere else," Mark Yolles said. "Certainly more than in the suburbs."

When the Yolleses moved into the neighborhood, the streets were full of glass, most of the houses were abandoned or used as illegal apartments for iron workers, and the neighborhood was overrun with feral cats and garbage.

But the dilapidated houses and abandoned buildings didn't discourage them.

"We used to call ourselves urban pioneers," said Pola Yolles.

In 2004, houses on Elm Street, where they live, are valued at an average of about $120,000, according to the Albany assessor's office.

Assemblyman and local historian Jack McEneny said those who remained in their homes during the Plaza construction helped reinforce a sense of community that continues today in a neighborhood known for its diversity.

"There is no norm there, no stereotype," he said. "People who live there embrace diversity. They love it, encourage it and foster it."

But not all residents like the changes they've seen in the neighborhood.

Barbara Jackson, 70, remembers when she and her brother and sister used to run up and down Grand Street peeking in family-owned stores and dodging street vendors.

She recalled sitting on the stoop of the house she was born in and still lives in. There was the smell of peppers and sausages, the sounds of accordions and streams of lights that lit up the streets during the neighborhood's countless Italian festivals.

Jackson thinks the neighborhood still is a pleasant place to live but said Myrtle Avenue and Grand Street have become riddled with crime and drugs as problems from surrounding neighborhoods creep closer. Sometimes she feels like she lives in a world different from that of the people who live three streets down.

"People here are really trying to keep up the neighborhood and the parks and keep it looking nice," she said. But she said that unlike many of the other streets, Myrtle Avenue is often littered with garbage.

Many residents agree that there are problem areas in the neighborhood, but they point to several projects that they hope will revitalize Grand Street. A $5 million initiative is under way to convert 11 abandoned homes on Grand and Ash Grove Place into affordable apartments. Another project is turning long-abandoned St. Anthony's Church into a community art and cultural center.

Police who patrol the area say such revitalization projects and a strong neighborhood association are important in keeping crime out of the area.

"There have been improvements," said Albany Police Sgt. Fred Aliberti, who supervises community services officers. "But there are still many challenges," he said, including drug dealing in the South End.

Marshall Miller and his partner, Dorian Solot, recently moved to the Mansion neighborhood from the Boston area after visiting several times.

"There is a feeling of living in a village inside a city," said Miller, 30. "People are smiling and waving, saying hello."

They were pleasantly surprised when neighbors invited the couple to dinner the night they finalized the purchase of their house, helping them unload their moving truck and salt their stairs.

Such acts have kept Chris Mercogliano, 49, in the neighborhood for more than 20 years.

"I think it is pretty unusual and unique to see the level of community that exists here," he said. "It is really rare these days, especially in an urban environment."