West Albany clings to past

Residents of neighborhood defined by bygone days react to loss of another historic landmark

Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Friday, July 28, 2006

COLONIE - Clutching a thumb-sized nub of a cigar, Thomas "Curly" Riccardo sat on his front porch on Sumpter Street on Thursday and pointed one-by-one to saloons and speakeasies that are no longer there.

Just as easily, he ticked off three murders he recalls in his 88 years living in West Albany and the houses nearby of young men who died in World War II. West Albany is in many ways defined by what's gone - the rail yards, stockyards, slaughterhouses and jobs that drew people to the densely packed Colonie neighborhood.

Add now what's left of the Bennett House, a 19th-century bar, hotel and reputed brothel for gritty western cattlemen that was gutted by fire Wednesday.

Officials said Thursday the fire that left at least five families homeless was accidental, caused by an unattended candle left burning on a dresser in a third-floor living room.

For more than two hours, dozens of firefighters from throughout the town battled the blaze that shot through the old wood construction aided by a sewer vent. A large section of the roof collapsed.

The future of the faded landmark, which now holds apartments and a vacant first-floor bar, is uncertain. Peter Lattanzio, chief of Colonie's Department of Fire Prevention and Control, said the building is not in imminent danger of falling down, and its fate is between the owner, listed as Nina Crisafulli, and her insurance company.

The burned-out corner of Exchange and Sumpter streets is yet another symbol of forced change here.

West Albany was never actually a village in the legal sense, but that never stopped the residents - for years overwhelmingly Italian - from calling it one. Some, like Ricardo, still do.

Self-definition is just part of the defiant independence that characterizes this changing ethnic enclave, which proudly wore its "Wild West" moniker as a place apart from both the city and town it connected.

"At one time," a Times Union reporter wrote about a half-century ago, "it was as much as your life was worth to cross the bridge from Albany to West Albany on a dark night."

More recently, the area gained the distinction of being a neighborhood even Wal-Mart wouldn't fight for. And the mottled smoke stack rising high above from the old First Prize/Tobin Packing plant, where developers hoped to put the mega-retailer before the town opted not to support it, might as well be an industrial tombstone.

About 600 people, many of them from the neighborhood, lost their jobs when most of the Tobin plant closed in 1981, three decades after the New York Central Railroad moved almost all its operations to Selkirk.

So on Wednesday when fire roared through the building next to his home, Ricardo greeted it as another incremental change in a neighborhood that isn't what it once was.

"It was a boom town," Ricardo said, recalling streets filled with neighbors who raised pigs and chickens in their backyards and helped each other when times got hard. "It was busy then."

Now, the retired construction worker said, "I practically know nobody. People move in and out. I used to know everybody."

Is this latest loss sad?

"That's what everybody is saying," Ricardo said. Asked what keeps him here, he replied: "I was born here and that's it."

For the families who lived at 2 Exchange St., the problems trump the slow-motion evolution of a neighborhood.

Dave Hudson lost everything. For about a month, Hudson, 27, had been sharing his mother's first-floor apartment with his wife and two children while he stashed away extra cash from his two jobs as a mechanic and stockroom worker for a down payment on a house of his own.

That cash - about $2,000 - was literally ruined Wednesday with just about everything else he owned, said Hudson, who grew up in West Albany and was burned out of a previous home on Corning Street in 1989. He said he has no renters insurance.

Hudson and the other victims have been aided by the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York, which he said will provide him shelter at a hotel until Monday. He also hopes to get help from the town's Fire Victims Assistance fund. The Fuller Road Fire Department donated nearly $1,300 to that fund Thursday night.

West Albany might seem like a hard-luck hamlet from the outside. And it is true, said longtime resident Angela Audi, that many of the old families have left, replaced by younger crowds.

But some like Audi still care very much about the place, where she has lived for 65 years. She offers a stranger a tour of Exchange Street, the main drag, and gets up every Sunday morning before Mass to unlock the doors of St. Francis DeSales Church, where she was baptized and received her first Holy Communion. There is a resiliency here. Even after the periodic floods that inundate the lower parts of the neighborhood, most people come back. According to a church history, when St. Francis burned for the second time in 1908, residents formed a bucket brigade to put it out. The next year, the "villagers" rebuilt the church themselves. Bennett House also survived a 1907 fire that damaged its attic.

When a chance to revitalize the Tobin site arose with Wal-Mart - a kind of development many communities are have fought to keep out - the neighborhood association rallied behind it, recognizing that it could shock some life into one of Colonie's oldest sections.

A certain amount of change is inevitable, Town Historian Kevin Franklin points out.

"These buildings are altered so many times through the years," Franklin said. "Sometimes the stories behind the building and the history behind the building outlasts the building."

Staff writer Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@ timesunion.com.