THIEVES LEAVE PANTRY DRY

Copper thefts at vacant Albany bathhouse affect center, revive debate

BRYAN FITZGERALD
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Friday, April 20, 2012

ALBANY -- For Yvonne Brown, the free biweekly feasts at the St. John's/St. Ann's Outreach Center on Fourth Avenue are more than just a rare opportunity to enjoy a hot, hearty meal.


The 59-year-old South End native has been walking from her South Pearl Street home to the center every Tuesday and Saturday afternoon for years, chatting with dozens of familiar faces over plates of lasagna and baked chicken. Their stories of hard times often mirror her own.


"It's not just about eating well. It's a community thing," said Brown, who is on disability and stretches Social Security checks to make ends meet. "It makes you feel good."


It's easy to see why Brown was devastated when she got to the center on April 10 and, for the first time that she can remember in 26 years, the center's tables were bare. Volunteers arrived and found the building had no running water, rendering the kitchen and its bathrooms useless.


Public Bath No. 2, the shuttered bathhouse adjoining the center, was burglarized over Easter weekend. Every inch of its copper piping was stripped. Due to an antiquated water system set up in 1905, all water flowing into the center is funneled through the bathhouse. The center has been dry since the theft.


Deacon Ray Sullivan, the Parish Life Director for St. Francis of Assisi Parish, which oversees the center, hopes to have water back by Friday. The church has to use its strained reserves to pay the roughly $8,000 it is costing to tap directly into a main water line on Franklin Avenue, Sullivan said.


"We rely on donations," Sullivan said. "We don't have that kind of money."


Though the center should be dishing out hot lunches by Saturday, Sullivan, community activists and some local politicians were dismayed by not only the theft, but what they say was an inability by the city -- which owns the bathhouse -- to both maintain the 107-year-old South End landmark and help after the piping was stolen. Others complained that the building has been neglected since it was closed in 2010 to alleviate a budget crunch.


"This is a neighborhood that doesn't need another sign of decay and doesn't need for the city to be turning its back on it," said Albany Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro, who voted to keep the bathhouse open in 2010. Public Bath No. 2 was shuttered two days before New Year's that year after the Common Council's vote to keep it open was vetoed by Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings. The council then fell two votes short of overriding Jennings' veto.


Reached by phone Thursday, Jennings said he knew the bathhouse's piping had been stolen shortly after the theft was reported, but said he only learned Thursday morning that the center, which serves more than 500 meals a week, had been without water for 10 days. Jennings said he was deeply troubled by the news and instructed the head of the city's water department to help any way that was needed.


"I wish someone had reached out to me sooner," Jennings said. "It's one of the more crucial food pantries we have. It needs to be up and running."


Albany Police Chief Steve Krokoff said the piping was stolen between April 4 and 10. Krokoff would not go into details of how police believe the theft occurred, other than to say the thieves broke in through the bathhouse roof. Sullivan said he was told by police that three U-Haul trucks were backed up onto grass abutting the bathhouse. Piece by piece, piping was then tossed to the ground out of windows and loaded into trucks.


"How did nobody see anything?" Sullivan said. "How did nobody hear it?"


Whether the city would foot the bill for the center's new water line was unclear. Robert Cross, the city's commissioner of water, said that even though the city is responsible for the bathhouse, city code does not mandate that it pay for the outreach center's current problems, even if they were caused by an issue with the bathhouse.


Common Council member Lester Freeman, whose 2nd Ward includes the South End, said he had discussions with some city officials and believed at least some help in funding was on its way. Freeman voted to close the bathhouse in 2010.


Cross said that since January 2011 there have been two other occasions where water to the bathhouse was temporarily shut off due to heavy leaks. He said the outreach center was told on both occasions to find a way to tap into a source not reliant on the bathhouse. Sullivan said he did not remember being told to build new water lines. Jo-Ann Garrison, an outreach coordinator for the church, said she vaguely remembered being told in the winter of 2011 that they needed to establish a new line, but assumed the problem was fixed after the city turned the water to the bathhouse back on and never brought up the issue again. Sullivan said that even if the city had told him to build a new line, it would have been nearly impossible to afford.


Sullivan said he tried to reach out to the city for help immediately after the theft was reported, but was did not get a quick response.


"It took forever to hear back from them," Sullivan said. "They said they could maybe put in a temporary fix, but it took too long to get an answer. We had to get to (the center) running again."


Susan Holland, the executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation, said the bathhouse would not have been looted if it was still open or if the city had made more efforts to lease, sell or find another use for the building.


"This is what happens with vacant buildings," Holland said. "If it was occupied we wouldn't have this problem."


Holland advocated heavily for keeping the bathhouse open in late 2010. Though use of the bathhouse had declined greatly since its peak in the early and mid-20th century, when many of the South End's working poor retreated to the building's warm pools after laboring in low-paying jobs, the question of whether to keep the bathhouse open sparked a hotly contested debate. Many claimed it was a haven for a heavily poor neighborhood void of a community center. The city, facing a $23 million budget gap at the time, said the pool's annual costs of nearly $223,000 and thousand of dollars more for improvements far outweighed its benefits.


Jacqui Williams, a South End resident and community activist, said the closing of the bathhouse and the theft of the piping are both emblematic of how the city views her struggling neighborhood.


"The South End of Albany is a beautiful, historic area that literally had its potential stolen from it again and again," Williams said. "This building had its guts ripped out from it. For the city to say they did all that they can do is not acceptable."


Jennings scoffed at that notion, saying that the city is and has always been committed to reviving the South End.


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