HISTORIC ARBOR HILL'S CHANGING FORTUNES

Irene Gardner Keeney Staff writer
Section: LIVING TODAY,  Page: G1

Date: Sunday, August 3, 1986

On the lower end of Arbor Hill's Clinton Avenue, an army of workmen swarms over boarded-up buildings, restoring them to former glory.


Up the avenue, beyond Northern Boulevard and the noise of the reconstruction, a crowd of people - young, old, black, white - line up for free, government surplus cheese outside the food pantry run by the Albany United Methodist Society. It's a typical day in Arbor Hill, a neighborhood full of social contrasts.


For many years, Arbor Hill with its elegant 19th century townhouses was the most fashionable part of town. It takes its name from the Ten Broeck Mansion "Arbor Hill," the federal style home Gen. Abraham Ten Broeck built in 1798 on five acres given him by his father-in-law, Stephen Van Rensselaer, the Patroon.


As the city changed, so did much of Arbor Hill. Townhouses were split into apartments and renters supplanted homeowners. The neighborhood took on a solid working class character as a succession of ethnic groups moved in and added a special urban flavor.


But its aristocratic origins were of little concern to absentee landlords who failed to maintain the buildings. Over the years, numerous houses were vacated and boarded up. By the start of the 1980s, the county owned most of the abandoned property.


Today, Arbor Hill is on the move - again.


Headlines hail its rebirth as a process of neighborhood renewal gains momentum. For some, it's an opportunity to own one of Albany's historic townhouses. For others, "gentrification" may mean they can no longer afford to live in their own neighborhood. Developers also saw bargains behind those boarded-up windows. Renovated buildings now boast modern apartments and hefty rents.


Charlene LeGrange, a librarian at Albany Medical Center, has watched this cycle of change during the 20 years she has lived in Albany, six of them in Arbor Hill. LeGrange and David Benziger are one of many young couples restoring homes on First Street in the area known as the Ten Broeck Triangle.


"Arbor Hill is a very complex neighborhood, like most neighborhoods," she says. "It reminds me of what J.D. Salinger wrote: 'It's full of love and squalor.'"


LeGrange, former chairman of the Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens and currently financial secretary for the newly re-opened Community Center, says it was decay - not gentrification - that moved people out of the Arbor Hill. "When David and I came here, most of the houses on the street were boarded up. People had moved farther up the hill, or over to the projects."


But the current renaissance may keep them from returning, she says. "They can't come back because of the rents. There's not enough space either - most of them have families."


"It does no one any good to keep slums," says David Stacey. "The developers are doing over vacant buildings. They are not driving anyone out. It's good that someone is doing something with them. It costs $250,000 to restore some of these old shells. They have to get something out of them. Of course, there are always the speculators. But that's American system of free enterprise, isn't it?"


Stacey and his wife Judy, and their two sons Michael and David John, live on Ten Broeck Street. "The last house on the street, across from Ten Broeck Mansion. It's the yellow brick house with an iron fence around it," he says. The house was built in 1873 by the contractor who built other houses on the street. "He had a piece of land left over so he built the house to fit the land. There's not a square room in the house." Stacey is an Englishman who grew up in Australia. The family moved to Arbor Hill in 1979. He ran the West Hill Tool Library in Arbor Hill until its insurance jumped from $400 a year to $1,500. Now he works as a contractor. Judy Stacey is an Albany Urban Renewal employee.


The Staceys are enthusiastic about the future of Arbor Hill. They've bought the house next door and are slowly renovating that one too. "It's good to see development," says David. "The neighborhood is perking up. But it's changing."


Stacey's biggest fear is that it's changing too fast. "It's a very transient neighborhood. It's gone from Poles to Italians to Jews, then blacks. Now it's going white again. But there are fewer families moving in. Families give a neighborhood stability. One of the problems is these houses break up too easily into one-bedroom apartments. It's becoming too yuppified," he says, referring to the influx of young, well- paid professionals.


Community activists contend that these upscale newcomers may be the only ones able to afford Arbor Hill if the present trend continues.


"Houses for low- and middle-income families are disappearing from Arbor Hill," says the Rev. Dr. Walter Taylor, director of the Albany United Methodist Society. "What we need are multi- bedroom houses." He cites a 1984 study showing that average household income in Albany is $23,200. In Arbor Hill it is $12,100, with per capita income at $4,130. "Look at the rents they are asking for these houses," Taylor says, claiming that $500 a month in not unusual for the renovated quarters. "That should indicate to anyone who wants to look at it that we have a problem. Low income families are going to be forced out of Arbor Hill."


"It's sad," agrees Maria Markovics, co-director for the United Tenants of Albany which represents renters. "People who lived here all their lives can't afford the houses. If you stop to do the addition, if you are making $125 a week, you can't pay $450 for rent. The figures don't work." Markovics says the new housing is a step forward, but it does not address the demand for family housing which far exceeds the supply. "There are long waiting lists for all the public housing projects."


Marie Bennekin also has been observing the changing scene in Arbor Hill. And, despite its ups and downs, the Democratic committeewoman says she's "high" on Arbor Hill.


"I love it here. It's my community. I was born at 107 Third Street and I live at 171. You can see how far I moved," she says, laughing. "I don't want to leave Arbor Hill. I could have but I know what it was and I have all the faith in the world in what it's going to be.


"So many good things are going on in Arbor Hill. There are a lot of negatives, but there are positives outsiders don't see. Our backyards have swings and swimming pools too."


One of the benefits of growing up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood is it helps you get along with everyone, she says. "When I was growing up the neighborhood was Polish. There were no locks on the doors and everybody got along. If I was playing at your house, I'd have lunch and take my nap. If you were at my house, it was the same. I never heard the word 'nigger,' until I went to school."


But not all Arbor Hill old-timers share Bennekin's enthusiasm. Florence Frazier comes back to visit her friends, but she won't live in Arbor Hill any more.


"I moved out," she says. "I lived on Swan Street, but I couldn't get insurance. They put me in a risk pool because it was a high-risk area. There were rough kids in the neighborhood, fire setters. These kids were not into education. My family is. It always has been. I decided I couldn't raise my kids in this kind of a neighborhood, so I moved out."


Judy Stacey agrees the neighborhood needs as much work as the houses. "You don't just buy a house here, you buy a neighborhood. I walk the dogs at night, 11 o'clock to midnight sometimes. I've never had a problem. But we have neighbors who are afraid to go out. People are sometimes intimidated by bunches of people sitting on the stoop at night, but that's all part of city life."


Like Marie Bennekin, the Staceys are in Arbor Hill to stay. "There are so many advantages. We have softball and basketball courts, wading pools, simple, low-keyed parks and an excellent elementary school. We have the Whitney Young Health Clinic and the new shopping center is coming. There's good bus transportation. We have really good facilities. People may not always utilize them, but they are there and open to everyone," Judy Stacey says.


The Staceys like to sit on their front stoop at night. They say it's easy to imagine the sound of carriages coming up to the mansion. For Judy Stacey, the neighborhood retains a sense of its bucolic beginnings.


"In Arbor Hill, you don't get the feeling of being trapped in the city, of being away from nature. The children and I know where to pick raspberries along the river, and where to find grapes and mulberries for mulberry wine. Our sons have learned how to live in the city. They know what drunks are. They're not scared when they see a group of six or eight kids hanging out on a corner. They know how to deal with that. You can't buy that kind of education - it teaches you how to deal with people.


"People are so negative about Arbor Hill, but we love it here. It's one of the nicest neighborhoods in Albany."