A HAMLET IN SEARCH OF ITS IDENTITY MCKOWNVILLE LONGING FOR HOMEY SPIRIT

John Dieffenbach The Knickerbocker News
Section: MAIN,  Page: 4A

Date: Wednesday, September 9, 1987

Though it's been 227 years since John McKown sailed to the United States from Scotland and started serving beer in the Five Mile House on the old Kings Highway, McKownville is still undergoing development and social transition.


Many residents of this hamlet, living in the shadow of Crossgates Mall and Stuyvesant Plaza, still see the area as a close-knit neighborhood, though the knitting may be unraveling a bit. Ruth Abele said when her family first moved to Warren Street in 1951, there was a feeling of camaraderie among neighbors.


"We seemed shoulder to shoulder with couples our age and level of living," Abele said. "It's not that way now. I only know the next three of four houses. There's a considerable transition of houses."


Part of McKownville's character came from its location within the town. When the state began work on the Thruway in the 1940s


, the road created a western boundary separating McKownville from the rest of the town. To the north and east, McKownville is bordered by the city of Albany; to the south it is bordered by the town of Bethlehem.


The unity among residents of McKownville dates back at least to 1924, when the McKownville Improvement Association was formed. The association quickly became a force in the town, fighting for special interests.


Its most recent efforts include encouraging the development of Stuyvesant Plaza in the 1950s, opposing construction of the Northway in the 1960s and a bitter fight it lost against Crossgates Mall in the 1980s.


One of the most vocal proponents of McKownville was Abele's husband, Fred B. Abele, who also was an association member.


Abele, who was assistant town historian before he died in January 1985, compiled a 10-page history of the hamlet and collected hundreds of old photographs. Ruth Abele said her husband saw the growth that was occurring in the area and feared McKownville would lose its character and forget its own name.


When Guilderland decided to build a new park off Schoolhouse Road, Abele asked the Town Board to name it McKownville Park to preserve the identity established by six generations of McKowns.


The last living McKown, John McKown's great-great-great-granddaughter, died childless in 1965. The board honored Abele by naming the park the Fred B. Abele McKownville Park.


McKownville's self-interest has also made its way into town government, most recently when John Smircich ran for the Town Board in 1980. The Highland Drive resident served for 7 1/2 years, resigning in June because, he said, the board needed "new blood."


Smircich said one of the most radical moments in the hamlet's history came in the midst of the Crossgates battle, when residents suggested incorporating McKownville as a separate village to keep the mall out.


"The perception was the (town) board wasn't listening," Smircich said. "I was obviously not an advocate of (incorporation), and once people realized the cost (in taxes), they changed their minds."


The residents' point was that McKownville could incorporate and become entirely self-sufficient. With about 2,000 of the town's 29,000 residents, it's the most densely populated part of Guilderland. The section contains most of the commercial tax base, has its own grocery stores, shopping centers, fire department, motels and easy access to two major highways.


But Salvatore Amato, a Dillenbeck Drive resident for 26 years who served on the Town Board and Planning Board and is now chairman of the Conservation Advisory Council, said all those conveniences may be what's breaking up McKownville.


The State University at Albany campus and the Woodscape and Woodlake developments have brought more short-term residents and nameless faces into the stores. And some neighbors have aged, died off and been replaced by younger residents, Amato said.


"It's not bad, but it changes the nature of the community," Amato said. "The new people who've moved in, some of them we've gotten to know. It has gotten more urban in its nature in that you look to your neighbors for help or for socializing less and less."


James S. Cameron is one of those newcomers, having moved to Glenwood Street in 1977. Cameron, president of the McKownville Improvement Association, said the hamlet is not losing its unity, but going through another transition.


"I recall when we moved in, one of the very first nights a bunch of kids came over to welcome our kids," he said. "Generations grow up together. I think McKownville has reflected that feeling."


To rebuild the closeness the older residents remembered, Cameron said the association "needs to reach out to people in new developments as well as those in established areas."


One way the association has done that is by holding neighborhood dinners to welcome new residents and help them meet other people. Cameron said the association also sponsors candidate meetings at election time to bring everyone together so they can express their views to elected officials.


It also has met with the Town Board on issues of traffic, water, sanitation and improvements to the park, and with SUNYA administrators, when new construction is under way behind somebody's house.


"They're in our neighborhood, so we want to be appraised of things they're doing," Cameron said.


With continued effort over time, Cameron said, the association will be able to rebuild the unity that has always been part of McKownville's history.