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
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
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
"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
Such loyalty isn't unusual in this historic neighborhood that
runs from Eagle Street to Trinity Place and Park Avenue to
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
They've even developed a brochure touting the restaurants,
stores, cultural facilities and community gardens that garnish
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
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
"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
"We used to call ourselves urban pioneers," said
In 2004, houses on Elm Street, where they live, are valued at
an average of about $120,000, according to the Albany assessor's
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
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
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
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
"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
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