"Agreeing to Disagree"
It's up to the voters now as opposing sides in Albany's charter-reform debate hold fast to their differences
(Metroland, Oct. 22, 1998)
Two years of contentious debate will come to a head Nov. 3, when Albany voters decide whether to adopt a rewritten city charter submitted by the Charter Revision Commission. In the days preceding the general election, voters will encounter television and radio spots and direct-mail flyers about the proposed charter, but critics of the material say this public-education campaign is too little, too late. And as the vote draws near, the two sides of the charter debate also have vastly different opinions about whether the proposed charter improves upon the existing one.
"Instead of spending time looking at what we can do to protect our forever-wild areas or ensuring we have good technological advancement in the future, we spent time fighting over minutiae," said commission member Mary Ellen O'Connor. "What we ended up with is a document that is less than mediocre." O'Connor, who was the only member to vote against putting the proposed charter onto the ballot, said the charter revision process got bogged down in politics and infighting because of members with vested interests in retaining mayoral authority.
The commission was formed two years ago with the intent of modernizing the city's 1883 charter, and one topic the commission explored was distributing power from the mayor's office to other areas of city government, particularly the City Council. "I don't think one person can make all the decisions for a city that is becoming more diverse [in terms of] cultural and ethnic backgrounds," O'Connor said.
Commission vice chairman Stephen Schechter said he thinks too much distribution of authority results in bureaucracy. "I'm a firm believer in energetic yet limited government," he said. "I think local government needs strong executives, because local governments are engines of service delivery." Although Schechter agreed that a majority of commissioners had "a commitment to retaining a strong mayoral form of government," he said reports that the commission had split into a pro-mayor faction and a pro-council faction were exaggerations. "The idea of labeling the two factions is more myth than reality," he said.
"Oh, my God, the commission was so factionalized," O'Connor countered. "When we started out, we really wanted to do a good job, but no matter what was brought to the table, it had to be a huge -- and, I think, unnecessary -- discussion because of the mayoral faction."
The disparity between Schechter's and O'Connor's versions of events is indicative of the debates that clouded the commission's work, and these debates are why O'Connor thinks the document being voted upon Nov. 3 is a disappointment. O'Connor wrote her own version, which she called the People's Charter, but her request to get it onto the ballot alongside the commission's version was voted down.
O'Connor and Schechter are both members of the commission's Public Education Committee, which prepared the TV and radio spots as well as the direct-mail flyer. These materials were scrutinized when Alderwoman Shawn Morris (7th Ward) said they might represent endorsements, on which it is illegal to spend public money. The TV spot is noncommittal, declaring, "It's up to us, the people, to decide," and mostly serves to remind viewers about the direct-mail flyer, which features a chart comparing proposed changes to corresponding points of the existing charter.
Schechter said the nature and timing of the public education material was determined by a combination of the late delivery of the commission's document -- it was due in January but submitted to the city clerk Aug. 27 -- and what he described as the public's short attention span. "Politics is simply not a daily part of [people's] ritual," he said. "Average voters focus on becoming informed about the issues as the date of the election draws near." But O'Connor said the reason the public education campaign is happening two weeks before the election has more to do with delays caused by infighting. "There wasn't anything to educate the public about until now," she said.
The document at the heart of this debate -- the commission's revised charter -- does contain changes, such as the replacement of the city comptroller's position with an auditor, and a change in the Common Council majority required to override a mayoral veto (from three-fourths to two-thirds), but much of the mayor's authority remains unchallenged. One example from the commission's direct-mail flyer that reflects the cosmetic nature of some of the commission's changes indicates that candidates for city positions "must present their credentials in writing to the council," even in cases when the council has no direct involvement in the appointments.
One notable change is that the council would gain authority to "increase or decrease" the mayor's budget, but how this stipulation might work in concert with the mayor's line-item veto power -- which the proposed charter retains -- remains to be seen. Similarly, the council would gain authority to approve budget transfers in excess of four percent of the city's budget, and decreases up to 37 percent of any city department's budget. This change reflects a proposed distribution of some power from the Board of Estimate and Apportionment to the Common Council.
For now, players on both sides of the debate are waiting to see what happens Nov. 3. O'Connor said she's frustrated by the whole process and thinks the revised charter lacks elements that would have made it worthwhile, but Schechter said he's anxious to see what voters make of what the commissioners accomplished.
"It's actually a 'We the People' moment," Schechter said, echoing the superimposed image of the Constitution that appears in the commission's TV spot. "I get very excited when people get an opportunity to decide what kind of government they want."
After nearly 13 years of musical mayhem, Charlene Shortsleeve cuts her losses and puts storied Albany nightclub QE2 up for sale
(Metroland, Jan. 14, 1999)
After more than a decade of being downtown Albany's home of hard music, QE2 closed last weekend not with a bang, as the cliché goes, but with a whimper. Proprietor Charlene Shortsleeve, often referred to by scenesters as the high priestess of Albany clubs for her devotion to underground music and her taste for mysticism, shut the doors of the club in the wee hours of Sunday morning following a show Saturday night by Nation of Fear and the Erotics. Although several more shows, by acts including Last Call and Murder Junkies, were scheduled to happen at QE2 in coming weeks, Shortsleeve says she couldn't take the club's financial problems one more day and closed it ahead of her original schedule. Some of the canceled shows are being rescheduled at alternate venues.
Shortsleeve says she didn't even have the heart to organize a goodbye party for the club's patrons and employees, whom she considers her extended family. By Monday of this week, rumors were already flying among local promoters and musicians that Shortsleeve had left town, recruited her brother to run the club, or already sold it to someone. Shortsleeve, who is still very much in Albany, confirms that she had planned to run the club at least until February so that employees could look for other work if a buyer wasn't lined up, but she says that plan didn't work out. And though she says there's a serious buyer negotiating to buy the club, a deal hadn't gone through as of press time.
Jason R. Martin, a local experimental musician who fronts the band Brown Cuts Neighbors and also leads the performance-art collective Department of Experimental Services, says he's sad Shortsleeve is leaving the business and hopes she can find a buyer interested in protecting QE2's character as a haven for the avant-garde.
"I've always found it to be a very easy, user-friendly space," Martin says. "In the early '90s, Char was the first promoter who ever took Brown Cuts Neighbors seriously. We were a bunch of crazy teenagers with video cameras and cardboard cut-out headgear. How many promoters are gonna book that -- and then come up to the group afterward and say we did a good job?"
Shortsleeve, who booked the new-music club 288 Lark in the '80s, bought QE2 in 1986 with her then-husband, David Shortsleeve. She had fallen out with 288's owners and wanted to establish a performance space where her musician and artist friends could ply their underground wares. Previously a White Tower hamburger joint, QE2 opened Aug. 13, 1986, and since then it has hosted myriad styles of performance, from punk and gothic rock to poetry and plays. It's been used as a movie location, become a home away from home for its regulars, and evolved into a proving ground for cutting-edge bands, local and out-of-town alike.
"There were two or three years in the late '80s when we had caught up to the bills and we could take a salary," Shortsleeve recalls, adding that her ex-husband has a better head for business than she does. After they divorced and he left the fold, Shortsleeve explains, the club's always-tenuous cash flow became unmanageable. "It got to the point where we had my friend's mother running to the bank two times a day with deposits to cover a check," she said.
As the new year started, Shortsleeve knew she had to shut down the club and try to pay off the debt she'd accrued keeping QE2 in business. "I've been wanting to sell it for the last year," she says. "It just got to the point where I was gonna go postal if I didn't."
Shortsleeve says she plans to go back to school for art and theology so she can resume the fine-arts career she got sidetracked from almost 20 years ago when she became a concert promoter and club manager. But first, she says, she plans to take a long nap. "I'm taking my coffin home and crawling in," she jokes.
Shortsleeve is encouraging her prospective buyer to retain QE2's current staff, which includes a mostly part-time array of bartenders, doormen, lighting technicians, and sound engineers. Ideally, she wants someone to reopen QE2 as soon as possible with as few changes as possible to the club's far-ranging booking style. "That's what I would like to have happen," she says, "but I know it's not realistic."
Martin, who in addition to being a frequent QE2 performer has also been a devoted patron of the club for years, says the mix of performers Shortsleeve booked in the club made for adventurous nightclubbing that he hopes a new owner will re-create. "At times when the local scene was unenthusiastic about live music, Char would still book interesting acts you wouldn't normally see in a nightclub," he says. "You could just walk in on a weekend and never know what to expect. She really brought a mixed bag to the scene, and I hope that continues."
Although she knows she can't guarantee that QE2 will be the same as it was if and when it reopens, Shortsleeve predicts that if the sale she's negotiating goes through, the club will be better than it was before simply because it will be financially solvent. "I don't imagine it will be closed very long," she says.
Asked whether she envisions getting back into the club game once her QE2 debts are paid off, Shortsleeve emphatically says no. "It's been a real trip -- a great adventure," she says. "But I wouldn't want to do it again."
Schenectady residents express concern about possible toxins in a long-closed city landfill
(Metroland, March 4, 1999)
If the allegations raised by nearly 100 Schenectady residents are true, toxins buried in a long-closed landfill are making them sick. The residents, all from the Mont Pleasant neighborhood, recently signed a letter informing Schenectady Mayor Al Jurczynski of their intent to sue the city over alleged environmental hazards at the Cheltingham Avenue Landfill, which has been closed since about 1980.
"It was built and closed by standards that are now out of date," said attorney Robert H. Feller of Albany firm Feller & Ferrentino, which is representing the residents. "For instance, it has no artificial liner and no natural liner of clay. . . . Rainwater can go right through the landfill."
Water is at the heart of residents' concern, because the 75-acre site, which is bordered by a decrepit fence that has many gaps, contains several creeks, ponds, and other channels via which groundwater from the landfill is fed to tributaries leading to the Mohawk River. Residents, who contend that standing water on the site is often muddied with an unidentified orange substance -- which one neighborhood man described as looking "like rust" -- worry that toxins from garbage buried at the landfill are seeping into the city's water supply.
"We're in the middle of a residential neighborhood with an old city dump that wasn't closed properly," said mechanic Jeff Taber, whose home is within 500 feet of a creek that passes through the landfill. "I want to have the water tested, and I want to have that orange stuff tested."
Feller explained that the letter to Jurczynski, which was dated Feb. 17, begins a 60-day period during which the city can contact representatives from either the state Department of Environmental Conservation or the Environmental Protection Agency. If such measures are taken, legal action would be put on hold. But if at the end of the 60-day period the city has not shown serious intent to examine the site, Feller said, residents are entitled to pursue legal action.
That legal action might be premature, though, because Feller said there is not yet any proof connecting substances at the landfill with health problems. For his part, Taber -- who is not among the residents who signed the letter to Jurczynski -- is worried that there may be a connection between the landfill and a recent escalation in his daughter's asthma symptoms.
In his letter to Jurczynski, Feller outlined the most serious allegation: "We would like to bring to your attention anecdotal information suggesting that there is a high incidence of cancer in the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the landfill. While we are not in a position to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between the landfill and a higher incidence of cancer . . . we do believe that there is enough information to warrant a serious study of this matter."
Schenectady Public Works Commissioner Milton Mitchell said the city had not yet found evidence connecting health problems to anything in the landfill. "We are investigating it, and if, in fact, there's any credence to the allegations, we will take the necessary steps to remedy the situation," he said.
Taber, who grew up in the Mont Pleasant neighborhood and has owned a home near the landfill since 1995, said he's upset with the city for not cleaning up the site and upset with neighbors for not warning him of the possible hazards when he moved into his home. "I never paid attention to it," he said. "It closed up when I was younger, and I went to Mont Pleasant High School, where the back football field was a closed-up dump."
The current concern over the Cheltingham landfill is closely related to ongoing concerns about another landfill. The Delta Villa family, many members of which signed the letter to Jurczynski, owns a now-closed dump that adjoins the Cheltingham landfill. The family initiated a lawsuit in 1997 alleging that toxic materials from the Cheltingham landfill had tainted their site; that lawsuit, which is now being handled by Feller & Ferrentino, led to the idea of suing the city for possible health hazards in the Cheltingham landfill.
"It's a fairly easy matter to get through the fence and get onto the landfill property," Feller noted. "Kids have been seen playing in there, building forts in what amounts to a mountain of garbage."
There are several unanswered questions regarding the landfill, which Feller and his prospective clients hope will be addressed by either city officials or environmental agencies. For one thing, Feller wants to know why the EPA put the landfill on an inventory of "hazardous substance sites" that was released in 1995 -- and subsequently removed the landfill from the inventory because a determination was made that the city was properly managing the site.
"We believe there may be an issue of the neighborhood being neglected because it's lower-middle-class," Feller said.
"That's totally unfounded," Mitchell said. "We treat everyone in the city equally the same. That's a ridiculous comment from a lawyer who's suing the city."
Facelift for Albany"
Will low-income neighborhoods pay the price for downtown renewal?
(The Source, June 26, 1996)
Can downtown Albany be saved?
The schizophrenic character of the Capital City makes it difficult to answer this question: Is Albany the home of sleek, pristine office complexes like the Empire State Plaza, or is Albany the home of abandoned, crime-ridden ghettos like the worst blocks of the Arbor Hill neighborhood? Perhaps the real question, though, is this: Who wants downtown saved? During business hours, Albany thrives with affluent state workers, but at night, the city pulls up its covers like a frightened child. After 10 p.m., Albany becomes a ghost town.
"We've got a captured 9-to-5 base," said Alicia Fernandez, manager of the Capitalize Albany Advisory Committee. "We've got to expand that into the evening." Capitalize Albany, along with a handful of community and government groups, is trying to resurrect Albany's downtown by giving facelifts to key neighborhoods and by attracting new businesses.
"They've got a long haul ahead of them," said Joe Sluszka, executive director of the Arbor Hill Development Corporation. "I understand the concept of renovating Albany into a more user-friendly environment, but you've got to forget the words. You've got to look at the realities of what the city has done."
These are two sides of a debate that grows more heated each time Mayor Gerald D. Jennings announces a new, expensive downtown project like the riverwalk park that was outlined in a press conference earlier this month. City Hall has an ambitious vision for Albany that could turn the sagging capital into a thriving cultural center, but residents in poor sections of Albany fear they're being overlooked.
"I think the time will be coming soon," Sluszka said, "when people will be saying, 'Why are we spending all this money pouring concrete into sidewalks when we have real needs in our community that aren't being met?'"
* * *
Mayor Jennings and New York state Gov. George Pataki have pooled their considerable resources to support a number of private firms that promise to make dramatic changes to downtown Albany. Capitalize Albany, the Albany Local Development Corporation, and four business improvement districts (BIDs) have targeted thoroughfares including State Street, North Pearl Street, and Lark Street as integral to the revitalization of the city.
"Lark Street should be the life of the of the Capital Region," said Phillippa Cohen, executive director of the Lark Street BID, "but to bring the suburbanites back in, we have to make improvements." As if to underscore Cohen's point, the Capital Region was recently named by "Money" magazine as the 8th worst place to live in the U.S.
Cohen's group, fully functional since March, is starting small. Fifteen trees have been planted along Lark Street; cleaning, sidewalk repair, and painting projects are underway; an outdoor exhibit series called Art on Lark started last weekend. "The most ambitious project," Cohen said, "is putting together a master plan for the whole street and implementing it."
The changes proposed for Lark Street are typical of the changes proposed for other targeted areas: cleaner streets, prettier facades, more parking, a more diverse retail base, broad-appeal events, and, most importantly, an increased level of cooperation within the community.
BIDs are private organizations funded by specially leveled city taxes. The Lark Street BID, initiated by local Ben & Jerry's franchise owner Tom Rowlands, collects a 3.3 percent property values tax that was voted into effect by Lark Street property owners. "I work for the property owners," Cohen said. Her minimally staffed office coordinates expansion projects among local business owners who collectively hope to form a "vision" of a rehabilitated Lark Street. "I personally don't think Lark Street has fallen off the edge," Cohen said. "It's still a happening place."
Another happening place, if City Hall has its way, will be Broadway and the Hudson riverfront. The massive projects announced last month include digging a canal, building a footbridge, and excavating a marina. These areas will then be decorated with ornate walkways, trees, and spaces for outdoor festivals. The city is trying to stimulate three things. First, nightlife. Second, new business. Third, downtown residency. As Fernandez said: "We have a lot of vacant space. Some of the downtown office complexes could be nicely rehabbed as apartments, but there's not a demand."
That's the problem inherent to talk of revitalization. The city wants to develop at huge costs to draw in tourists, residents, and businesses, but people continue to leave Albany in droves. After an excruciating downsizing of the state workforce, Albany is fast spiraling down much the same way Schenectady did after General Electric, that city's largest employer, cleaned house in the late '80s. And with Troy's business base as decayed as Schenectady's and Albany's, the urban centers of the tri-city area seem like economic black holes.
"I think the worst time was 1987-89," Sluszka said. "There were a number of shootings that were very clearly drug-related. That had a chilling effect on the rentals of the 82 Arbor Hill properties that had been rehabbed."
Eighty-two homes in Arbor Hill. The South End. The Empire State Plaza. Albany has a history of redeveloping neighborhoods, then not knowing what to do with them afterwards.
"I think there is very real concern in the Arbor Hill neighborhoods when one recognizes that the Henry Johnson Boulevard development project has been going on since 1991," Sluszka said, "and the resources that have been put into that project don't come close to the money the city is talking about for downtown. Funds are disappearing like smoke."
Which funds? Sluszka's Arbor Hill Development Program is currently fighting a $17,000 cut in its annual budget, because that cut eliminates a crucial job position of housing counselor. More than 20 residents with poor credit histories obtained mortgages through the AHDP last year. "Home-owning is one of the key goals of this organization," Sluszka said, "so to eliminate our housing counselor would be to admit defeat.
"The irony," he added, "is that we're talking about a program that is extremely successful."
Money, money, money. That's the reverberating theme whenever the subject of downtown is raised. For minority neighborhoods such as Arbor Hill, the issue is forcing the city to commit money for renovation; for affluent neighborhoods, the issue is where to spend a seeming excess of cash.
* * *
The BIDs shouldn't be seen as robbing the poor and giving to the rich, though. Each BID has specific, limited parameters, and funds are raised and spent within those parameters. A neighborhood with a BID is a neighborhood that has decided to take its fate into its own hands. But for a BID to work, the entire neighborhood needs to be involved.
"Absentee landlords are tricky to deal with," Cohen said. Part of her job is convincing out-of-towners that their Albany property values will grow if the standard of living on Lark Street is raised. The Lark Street BID's first major project, which is expected to be completed by this fall, is a renovation of the "gateway" block at Madison Avenue and Lark Street. New trees will be installed, facades will be revamped, and a "uniform look" will be established. That uniform look, as detailed in Lark Street BID literature, reflects upscale shopping districts in other cities while trying to retain the "unique historical charm" of Lark Street, Cohen said. "We're not using the Madison Avenue block as a pilot," she added.
Cohen's group is moving carefully, and with good reason. The New York State Department of Transportation, which will be intimately involved with most of the renovation projects that involve repaving streets and expanding sidewalks, recently announced that the North Pearl Street project is $3 million short of funding its proposed $7 million budget.
But if the city can't make its dreams come true, then it can put its dreams on paper. Capitalize Albany has garnered extensive publicity by presenting idyllic architectural plans and maps of the city dotted with locations slated for renovation. "This is a 20-year plan," Fernandez said. "This plan will survive this mayoral administration."
The plans have in fact survived at least one mayor administration already. Arbor Hill's Sluszka noted that former Albany Mayor Thomas Whalen III was the administrator who called for a "24-hour downtown," a phrase that echoes in current City Hall statements like Fernandez' remark that "When the Knickerbocker Arena has an event, everyone downtown should be open."
There's no question that City hall has an exciting vision for Albany, but there doesn't seem to be a track record proving the city can make that vision a reality.
* * *
Skepticism may be premature. BIDs are a new idea, and they've worked in cities like New York, but Albany residents have yet to see that a BID can make a major difference in this area. "At the beginning," Cohen said, "Lark Street residents were like 'Is she going to do anything?' Once you start cleaning up the street, people want to be more involved.
"I worked in an area that was far worse than Lark Street, and revitalized it into a really good neighborhood," Cohen continued, referring to a past renovation project in her native London, England. "Lark Street is certainly going to have a facelift."
The mechanics of changing downtown have changed. Because of the BIDs, "We at City Hall don't need to worry about the day-to-day maintenance" of BID neighborhoods, Fernandez said. That means City Hall personnel can dedicate their time to nurturing business relationships, coordinating upcoming projects, and facilitating construction.
Ironically, the most dramatic change happening on Lark Street right now has nothing to do with Cohen's BID. The long-vacant Lemme's Market, at the corner of State Street, has been an eyesore for years, with the haphazardly hung wood boards enclosing the site splattered with flyers for concerts and graffiti, and with the market's unused façade fading, chipping, and peeling.
But for the last several weeks, workers have been shoring up the sagging roof, clearing out decayed walls and floors, and prepping the site for interior reconstruction. The owners of Troy restaurant Elda's Trattoria and Café purchased the corner site nearly two years ago, and they've finally begun work on Elda's, a business that will dramatically change the face of Lark Street when it opens this fall.
The café will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., serving lunch, dinner, and drinks, and featuring live music on weekends. Elda's represents a 180-degree turn for the north end of Lark Street, which had long linked its fate to lower Central Avenue. As proof that money rules whenever development is the issue, the biggest change on Lark Street is coming from one business, not a business improvement district.
Elda's owner Elda Abate has a simple explanation why she wants to lead the charge to Lark Street. "People bring people," she said.
Finest Take Spotlight in Woodstock"
Today's events at film fest include the presentation of an award to Tim Robbins
(Times Union, Sept. 22, 2002)
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. -- Although signs of this town's legendary musical heritage are everywhere, from outdoor sculptures of guitars to banjo-wielding hippies playing on street corners, movies are the focus in Woodstock right now. The third annual Woodstock Film Festival concludes tonight, and organizers are winning raves for their ability to blend cutting-edge movies with the folksy spirit that defines this small community about 53 miles south of Albany.
Haskell Wexler, the celebrated cinematographer of such pictures as "Coming Home" and "Matewan," spent Saturday drifting from screenings to seminars to parties, all the while soaking in the friendly excitement of the festival. "The work of organizing a festival of this size in a small community is momentous," the five-time Oscar nominee remarked. "The atmosphere that is set up is one of volunteerism and community. That upbeat feeling is not based on whether or not filmmakers can get distribution. There's a certain poisoning of art when it gets infected by big-city commercialism."
"So far, everybody's been very embracing," said John Walsh, a young director on hand to screen his first feature, "Pipe Dream." "The scale of Woodstock is much more manageable than other festivals, where you just feel steamrolled by the scale."
The festival commenced on Wednesday with a concert by Arlo Guthrie, and has featured a full schedule of screenings, seminars, parties, and concerts at locations throughout Woodstock and neighboring communities such as Bearsville. While several high-profile screenings sold out in advance, a source of frustration to latecomers, the festival seemed to be running smoothly, with festivalgoers blending in with the townsfolk and tourists walking up and down colorful thoroughfares, including Tinker Street.
"People just relate on a very friendly level," said Meira Blaustein, the festival's executive director. "Somebody like Haskell Wexler, who's a legend, can interact with someone who just notched their first feature, and they can learn from each other." Blaustein said that attendance figures would not be available until after the festival.
Karen Herman, 35, a Scotia native who teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said she was at Woodstock for the third year in a row. "The breadth and depth is amazing," she said. "There's a lot more to offer this year. The town seems a little less crowded, which is weird."
Herman is part of a Princeton, N.J., group called Global Cinema Café, which presents screenings of socially conscious films. She said that she admires how Woodstock emphasizes movies that speak to important issues. "Images, paired with music and words, have a way of breaking down defenses before people can get them up," she said, "so people respond to the messages in movies."
The activist spirit to which Herman referred will be reflected in today's events, which include the presentation of the Honorary Maverick Award to actor-writer-director Tim Robbins. Robbins is one of many celebrities, including actresses Marcia Gay Harden and Parker Posey, appearing at the festival this year.
Attorney General Spitzer's proposal to broaden use of involuntary commitment draws fire
(Metroland, Feb. 4, 1999)
If a plan by new Attorney General Eliot Spitzer gets voted into law, New York residents with mental illnesses could be involuntarily committed for up to 72 hours of medical observation and treatment based on the recommendation of one psychiatrist. Currently, the recommendations of two psychiatrists are required before a patient can be involuntarily committed.
Spitzer announced the plan last week in reaction to a January incident in which a Buffalo woman was pushed into the path of a New York City subway train by a mental patient who had stopped taking his prescribed medication. Under Spitzer's plan, patients who are reported to have stopped taking their prescriptions could be committed until they were back onto their medication. Patients could be reported by family members, neighbors, or doctors, and the person reporting the patient would be required to convince a judge and a psychiatrist to commit the patient.
"There's not much of a safety net there to make sure patients are going to continue with their medication and treatment," said Spitzer spokesman Marc Violette. The purpose of Spitzer's plan, Violette explained, is to create a mechanism by which patients who pose a threat to themselves or others can be forced to follow prescribed treatment plans. Violette said Spitzer's office is preparing a bill that will be presented to the state Legislature, probably next week. He said he wasn't sure yet whether the bill had sponsors in either house.
Advocates for the mentally ill began issuing statements decrying Spitzer's proposal almost immediately following the attorney general's announcement, and some area mental-health professionals said they think Spitzer's plan is discriminatory and needless.
Edward Knight, CEO of the Mental Health Empowerment Project in Albany, said Spitzer's plan won't work because it's impossible to keep track of every mental patient in the state. "If somebody is not taking their medication," he said, "you'd have to be with them 24-7 to find out." Furthermore, Knight said, using legal authority to enforce medical treatment plans has dangerous repercussions. "People don't like force," he said, "and force brings abuse."
Violette responded to Knight's comments by saying that such concerns are addressed in Spitzer's plan. "I think the safety mechanism there is that you need a judge's order in order to get a person out of where they're living and back into a program," Violette said.
Bonnie Whipple, coordinator of consumer initiatives for the Mental Health Association of Fulton-Montgomery County, said Spitzer's plan is a step in the wrong direction. Groups like Whipple's provide ombudsman services to help mental patients -- who she said are often confused and overwhelmed by bureaucracy -- through procedures such as court appearances. "Oftentimes the people are so afraid of the authorities, they don't know what to say," Whipple said. "They're afraid of the system."
Whipple argued that Spitzer's plan gives too much weight to the opinions of psychiatrists and doesn't leave room for patients to express their own wishes. "I don't want anyone telling me what to do, based on personal experience of being drugged to the point of not being able to function because some well-meaning, well-educated doctor thought he knew what was best," Whipple said. "I don't believe in forcing medication on people."
Although Whipple agreed that mentally ill people who pose legitimate threats should be monitored, she said the fact that independent advocates are usually not involved when involuntary commitments are proposed leaves room for abuse, intentional or otherwise. Spitzer's plan is based on a common misconception, Whipple said: "The majority of people living with mental illness are not violent. But when an incident happens, the press will jump on the fact that someone with mental illness committed a violent act."
Not all mental-health professionals questioned Spitzer's plan, though. Shortly after Spitzer made his announcement, Jonathan Stanley, assistant director of the Arlington, Va.-based Treatment Advocacy Center, issued a long statement in support of Spitzer's proposal. Among other things, Stanley stated that "individuals with untreated severe mental illness commit almost 1,000 of the 20,000 annual homicides in the United States" and noted that 39 states have policies similar to what Spitzer is proposing.
The Mental Health Empowerment Project's Knight said the statistics upon which Spitzer based his plan are "bogus" and cited medical studies that he said prove that involuntary commitment doesn't work. Like Whipple, Knight said the solution to the problem of state residents with untreated medical illness is compassionate care, not strong-arm tactics. "Research has shown," he said, "that outpatient commitment has absolutely no effect."
& Roll With the Changes"
Assessing the new landscape one year after a conglomerate took the reins of Saratoga Performing Arts Center
(June 14, 2001)
That was the clear message received by local concertgoers who attended pop concerts at Saratoga Performing Arts Center last year, when the beloved venue was rocked with a number of dramatic changes. A large corporation called SFX Entertainment was hired to book concerts. Ticket prices seemed to creep higher. Advertising became more prevalent. And, in the most controversial development, strict ground rules were imposed that prevented fans from bringing umbrellas, blankets, and other items into the venue.
By the time the dust settled, countless concertgoers were left with a bad taste in their mouths. It seemed that an organic venue had become a corporate one, for no good reason.
As SFX settles into the sophomore year of its 10-year contract -- Aerosmith's June 8 gig was the second SPAC show of 2001 -- staffers at the corporation's local office are anxious to make a fresh start. "We do business differently from how SPAC has done it, and there are going to be growing pains," says John Huff, executive director of SFX Saratoga Concerts Inc. "We want people to come to SPAC and feel comfortable, but also to feel safe. We are trying our best to listen to what the local community needs, and to be responsive to those needs."
This year, SFX will employ SPAC's old ground rules, meaning that blankets, lawn chairs, and umbrellas are once again welcome. Umbrellas will be banned only at the most crowded concerts, such as the Dave Matthews Band's two gigs, but SFX has retreated entirely from its blanket ban. "We've taken a lighthearted approach -- we'll never again say the word 'no' and the word 'blanket' in the same sentence," Huff says. "We only wanted to focus on a couple of elements last year, and it got misconstrued as 'everything was different.'"
In a way, though, everything was different -- which is why SFX entered the picture in the first place. Throughout the '90s, the concert business underwent a major market correction: Ticket prices for music performances were raised to match what people were paying for sporting events and Broadway shows. This led, for instance, to the sticker shock of paying $110 to see the Eagles at SPAC in 1994 -- well before SFX even existed. As rock stars became more savvy about money, the guarantees that they demanded from venues grew dramatically, making the touring market much more competitive.
SPAC, which uses income from pop shows to support its classical schedule, found itself between a rock and a hard place: The venue had the choice of paying big advances and risking big losses, or paying smaller advances to artists without the drawing power to fill the venue.
"SPAC can't be expected to pay a $500,000 advance -- if they lose the $500,000, they've only got 20 to 25 shows to make it up," Huff says. "For us, with 26,000 shows a year, we don't take those losses lightly, but we've got a better chance to make it up. I think the changes in the industry were beyond SPAC's control, and I think they did a great job of surviving those changes as long as they did."
A local promoter who asked not to be identified by name concurs that the live-music world is vastly different from what it used to be, even on the club level. "It's gone through the roof," he says. "I can tell you, shows that were costing me $600, $700 three years ago are costing me $1,750 to $2,000 now. It's a tractor pull."
The promoter, who has dealt with SFX, has nothing but kind words for the company. "From an artist perspective, I think people like the professionalism of SFX. They're meticulous, they spare no cost -- I don't think artists could be happier," he says. "I think SFX got a horrible rap because they're a smart company. If SFX wasn't here, there would be another company. My thought is, 'Let the people who know what the hell they're doing do it.'"
Not everyone in the business shares the promoter's enthusiasm. A local club owner says that his dealings with SFX have been smooth and professional, but worries about the ongoing corporatization of the music business. "I don't think it's such a hot idea," he says. "It's like radio -- two companies own all the stations. When big business gets in, I don't think anything good can come of it. I see less and less choice. These places will be like McDonald's all around the country, all serving the same Aerosmith and Eric Clapton and Godsmack. Same bands every year, the safe draws. Which I suppose is good -- that's what the masses like. Put the most popular stuff in the biggest venues."
The promoter says that SFX has yet to flex its considerable muscles in a negative way. "The big fear was that they were going to crush everybody, but that hasn't been the case," he says. "They have actually reached out and lent their power to local clubs."
SFX, the nation's biggest live-entertainment presenter, was formed in 1996. The corporation operates 44 SPAC-like amphitheaters across the country, and 125 venues in total. Last year, it presented 26,000 events -- ranging from concerts to sporting events to touring musicals like "Fosse," which SFX is presenting at Proctor's Theatre in Schenectady this week -- to 16 million ticketbuyers.
The company's Saratoga Springs contingent is relatively small: Seven full-time staffers and three seasonal employees work out of a cramped office located on Route 9, a few doors down from the Avenue of the Pines entrance to Saratoga Spa State Park, in which SPAC is located. The setting is humble given that SFX has been owned, since August of last year, by Clear Channel, the nationwide broadcasting conglomerate.
The buyout prompted a wave of guesswork about what form the synergy between the two octopus-like companies would take, but Huff says such anxiety is premature. "We haven't seen any drastic changes from the Clear Channel purchase," he says. "It's given us more opportunities to be creative and work with our Clear Channel stations to do things like the Big Day Out [a multi-act concert presented at SPAC on May 25]. That was a show that was put together entirely by the station. We will work hard to maintain our relationships with non-Clear Channel stations, because they're critical to our success. Any concerns that were raised last year were speculation."
Another topic of intense speculation has been SFX's booking policies. Publications including "Metroland" wondered aloud if corporate control would homogenize SPAC's lineup, and this year's '70s-heavy slate seems conservative at best. Yet Huff explains that contemporary acts including Destiny's Child, blink-182, and Tim McGraw were pursued for SPAC bookings, and adds that more shows might be added for September.
"It's still a challenge to book SPAC," he says. "It's like threading a needle." The difficulty, Huff explains, is that because classical performances take priority at SPAC, many of the dates that most appeal to touring musicians -- whom, he says, generally like to hit the Northeast in July and August -- are taken before SFX starts making phone calls. Some major tours, such as U2's and Madonna's, are out of the question because the productions can't work around a fixed stage. So booking SPAC is a delicate art of matching compatible tours with compatible dates.
"We want to do as many shows as we can," Huff says. "We're fortunate, because a lot of the acts want to play SPAC because of the history, the vibe, the uniqueness of the building. So they'll adjust their schedules. We're not making a conscious effort to buy certain acts and not buy certain acts. Even though certain artists do skew a little older, Aerosmith's a good example -- most of the lawn seats were bought by twentysomethings."
Ticket prices at SPAC are perhaps the most contentious issue in this corporate era of concert promotion. The best seats for Rod Stewart's SPAC show this year will cost $107 each, so the days of plopping down $10 or $20 to see a favorite classic-rocker seem long gone.
"At this level, it's a seller's market, because there's only a certain number of artists who can sell 20,000 tickets consistently," Huff says. "We do have input from the local-market standpoint, but there's a limit to how much we can cry poor, because artists can compare this market to other markets." In other words, it's hard for SFX to talk Rod Stewart down from his $107 ticket price if he's getting the same money in cities with commensurate population and affluence.
While SFX certainly has the prerogative to turn down shows they think are too expensive for this market, they often get expensive artists and high ticket prices as a package deal. "I think we're doing our best to be cognizant of ticket prices," Huff says. "There are some limitations on what a lawn seat can sell for. The reserved seats at SPAC are so limited that there isn't that much price resistance."
SFX is working with local organizations to set up discounts at certain shows, the most notable of which is a free-admission program for young concertgoers sponsored by General Electric. Kids under 12 will get into this year's Journey, James Taylor, and Paul Simon shows free if accompanied by adults. Other shows will have discounts available through radio stations. Huff says that these programs reflect SFX's learning curve -- since coming to Saratoga Springs last year, the company has discerned that people attend SPAC differently from how they attend similar venues across the country.
"So many people enjoy coming to SPAC, and it's not just about the music -- it's the vibe," Huff says. "It has such a park-like setting. I don't know of any other building that has so much green space. . . . Instead of 'I'm going to SPAC because so and so is playing,' it's 'I'm going to SPAC, I wonder who's playing.'"
Despite the controversy that colored SFX's first year at SPAC, Huff says that the corporation is looking forward to a copacetic -- and profitable -- decade at the celebrated venue. "We're glad to be here, proud to be here, and appreciative of the help SPAC has given us as we build our activities here," he says. "As we try to do more shows, it's really critical that the Capital Region come to these shows. We need the support of the Capital Region to help us continue to bring this quality of talent to the area."
Shot Heard 'Round the Colonies"
Thousands converge on Ticonderoga for the 'Super Bowl' of War Reenactments
(Metroland, June 28, 2001)
TICONDEROGA, N.Y. -- Last Friday afternoon, folks crowded into the Ticonderoga Central Middle School gymnasium for an informational slide show. The slides depicted how, in 1758, French, Native American, and British forces clashed throughout the town of Ticonderoga during one of the French and Indian War's most significant battles. But the people watching the slide show weren't students. Instead, they were the very French, Native American, and British soldiers depicted in the slides.
Or at least they looked like them.
The hundreds of armed soldiers who invaded the school on Friday were reenactors from throughout North America. Some, such as faux Native Americans with shaved heads and multiple piercings, were utterly convincing. Others, such as French grenadiers with modern eyeglasses and facial hair, broke the illusion just a little. But all of them were brimming with enthusiasm, because Friday's main event was what one observer called "the Super Bowl of reenactments."
On July 6, 1758, British forces led by the grandson of King George III -- military genius Lord Augustus Howe -- encountered a small group of French soldiers in a heavily wooded swamp not far from Fort Ticonderoga. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., Howe charged up the hill and was killed by a French musketball. The vastly outnumbered French were victorious, in part because the British were so disoriented by the loss of Howe's leadership.
According to historians who briefed onlookers and media types gathered for the reenactment, Howe's death had cataclysmic repercussions for his countrymen. Steve Blanchard, assistant director of the Ticonderoga Historical Society, argued that Howe was so crucial to England's colonial presence, both symbolically and strategically, that had he lied, the Revolutionary War might not have begun. Furthermore, Blanchard and others said, England quite possibly would have won that war had Howe been in charge.
True to the length of the historical event, the reenactment took only 30 minutes. It also required some imagination on the part of spectators, because the swamp on which the fight occurred is now a clear hill. But it didn't take any imagination to understand the violence of the skirmish once muskets started blasting blanks and reeanactors started falling in their tracks. Several hundred "soldiers" filled the battlefield, and several thousand onlookers watched from behind police barricades.
Caught in the middle of the skirmish was Averill Park's Christopher Shaw, a singer-songwriter-storyteller known for his depictions of Adirondack lore. In full uniform and with a musket in his hands, he played Maj. Robert Rogers, a famed scout who fought alongside Howe but survived the fight, which was part of a larger encounter called the Battle of Ticonderoga Falls.
Shaw became involved because of his friendship with Adirondack historian Bob Bearor, who has written extensively about the French and Indian War. The two had done arts-in-education presentations together in area schools, and once Bearor hatched the idea of staging Howe's death, he recruited Shaw -- who had participated in much smaller reenactments -- to play a part.
"Bob has been one of the biggest driving forces in reenactment in this country since the 1970s," Shaw says, adding that he thinks such events help bring history to life. "I can't help but think of the positive effects on children. Being a father, that's always on my mind. I'm concerned whenever I hear things in schools, where kids say 'I think history is boring.' I saw kids at this event with their jaws on their knees. I'd hope when these kids go back to school in the fall, those history books won't look as dry as they did when the kids left for summer vacation."
In the hours preceding the reenactment, viewers saw surreal visions like hundreds of soldiers forming into columns and running rifle drills -- in the parking lot of the middle school. Located about a mile from the battlefield, the school was the staging area for the reenactors, so combatants of all "nationalities" paraded and mingled on school grounds. At one point, a group of grenadiers challenged a gang of redcoats to a warm-up skirmish, only to be refused. The grenadiers responded by making sheep noises at their "enemies."
Cameramen from local public-television station WMHT were on hand to tape Shaw's participation, for inclusion in a show called "Adirondack Storytellers," and dozens of other media outlets had cameras on the site. Ironically, this reenactment of a historical moment was itself a historical moment: Because the hill on which Howe died was recently sold for development, this was the first and last time the hallowed ground shook with a simulation of the nobleman's demise.
Despite all the weaponry involved in the ersatz battle, Shaw reports that the only injury involved a reenactor whose hand got caught beneath a 300-pound cannon. The reenactor got a few stitches, then returned to his role.
"I'm extremely pleased with the outcome: We were on 'Good Morning America,' we were on 'CNN Headline News,' all three networks had it, National Public Radio had it," Shaw says. "I was thrilled with the accuracy and authenticity of the event itself -- that's always a tremendous challenge. You want to give the absolute most accurate depiction of the event that you possibly can, so you're not confusing people.
"Something happened to me that I'm told happens to reenactors at least once or twice if they do this," he adds. "When I first came out onto the battlefield, I wanted to make sure I hit my mark. I had to do everything right, or it was going to look funny. But all of a sudden, I forgot about the crowd and I was worrying about my guys being where they were supposed to be. When those guns are pointed at you, you can't help but think people are shooting at you. It was the most eerie feeling. It really brought it home to me."
(To see photos of the reenactment taken by Peter Hanson, click here and scroll down to "Portfolio Nine.")
How community activism helped derail construction of a massive shopping center
(Delmar Spotlight, May 6, 1998)
There isn't much to see across the street from Glenmont Elementary School on Route 9W. Past a pockmarked dirt shoulder and a gleaming "for sale" sign, there's a thicket of trees and vines turned ugly by cans and bottles drivers have tossed out of their cars. Deeper into the woods, there's a path and then a huge clearing that stretches to the near horizon. Rife with tall, wild grass, this 77-acre vacant lot is one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land along the main drag in Glenmont, but a few years ago, it almost became the site of the biggest retail facility in the town of Bethlehem.
Southgate Commons was going to be a 474,908-square-foot shopping center dwarfed only by the area's largest malls. It was going to be anchored by a Super Kmart, feature a movie theater, and have nearly 3,000 parking spaces.
But Karen Bonventure didn't like the idea. A Delmar resident with three children attending Glenmont Elementary, Bonventure thought the concept of a mammoth shopping center clashed with Bethlehem's bedroom-community appeal. "We have to face our children if we create communities that are unlivable," Bonventure said. "We have an obligation to maintain the quality of life here."
Representatives of the Rubin Organization, the Pennsylvania-based developer that has owned the land across from Glenmont Elementary since 1971, spent two decades trying to design a mall that would fit into Bethlehem before submitting its final proposal in March 1993 to the town board. When it became clear the board planned to encourage the project, Bonventure decided she had to speak up. She distributed a flyer asking residents anxious about Southgate to meet at her house in the summer of 1993.
Ten people came to the first meeting, but a year later, Bonventure's group Citizens Monitoring Southgate had 150 members. And today, nearly five years after the group's first meeting, the group's goal seems to be a fait accompli: Rubin has given up on Southgate and is selling the land on which it was to be built.
"People were attracted to my group for different reasons," Bonventure said. "Some people were crazed about the traffic, others were concerned about the environmental impact on the wetlands." The main traffic issue was the inevitable effect upon ingress and egress to Glenmont Elementary, which would have been directly adjacent to the mall. And the potential environmental impact is obvious to anyone visiting the site; it's not a barren field but rather a thriving maze of woods and swamps.
Although members of Bonventure's group had different concerns about the mall, all agreed size mattered. "It was going to be giant," Bonventure said. "It was going to be a sea of concrete."
Bethlehem Supervisor Sheila Fuller, who saw the mall as a sizable potential addition to the town's tax base, said questions were raised about whether a big mall would boost or drain the local economy. Bonventure noted a specific example of this equation that related to Southgate. "They were going to take the Kmart out of Town Squire in Glenmont, which is already dying," she said. "Then what's left of Town Squire, and how does that serve the interest of the community at large?"
Bonventure said runaway development is a vicious cycle if areas are saturated with stores. "A giant mall kills the existing retail in town and then it itself dies," she said. "The town is left with less services than it had before."
Bonventure's main weapon was factual research. Through several committees, her group gathered information about the environmental and economic impact of large malls on communities and presented it to the town board. "Citizens Monitoring Southgate did an excellent job of raising concerns," Fuller said.
The group kicked into overdrive in March 1994 when Smith & Mahoney, an Albany engineering firm hired by Rubin, submitted its draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). The citizens' group responded with a 44-page document questioning large issues like a contradiction between two estimates of parking lot size and minute details such as whether the mall's proposed flower beds would be refilled annually. "It was a lot of work," Bonventure said. "But I'm glad we had an impact. I don't think huge retail development is the best way to improve the tax base. I don't think Latham is better for having Latham Farms, and I don't know if Guilderland is better off for having Crossgates."
Whether those communities grew after malls were built may not be the issue, though; the relevant question is one of community character. As was made clear in a recent chamber of commerce survey, large-scale development isn't welcome in Bethlehem. "I think the whole thing was a learning process both for us and town officials," Bonventure said. "Bethlehem residents want planned, controlled, rational growth."
Despite all the efforts Bonventure and her group made, Southgate ultimately succumbed to pressures that had nothing to do with residents' efforts: In late 1994, Kmart terminated its contract to become the mall's anchor store when its superstore program went bust. Doug Grayson, senior vice president of Preit-Rubin, the company that absorbed Rubin, downplayed the role of Citizens Monitoring Southgate in the demise of the proposal. "Any time you propose development on greenfields, you have opposition," Grayson said. "The opposition in Bethlehem was actually pretty modest compared to objections we've seen in other jurisdictions."
Grayson said two other factors that affected the proposal were New York state's time-consuming SEQR (state environmental quality review) process and the emergence of Bethlehem's LUMAC (land use management advisory committee) report. Like the recent chamber survey, the LUMAC report proved town residents don't want big shopping centers. "What had an impact on the proposal was the amount of time it took to get through the entitlement process," Grayson said, "and the opposition to the mall had some effect on that timeline."
"We don't want to contribute to the perception that Bethlehem is filled with a bunch of NIMBYs," Bonventure said, referring to the acronym for "not in my backyard." "That was a point we always wanted to make. Growth is important, we understand that. We wanted to target a specific project."
Fuller said the construction last year of Windsor Companies' Price Chopper Plaza in Slingerlands is proof developers can get big projects approved here, a seeming contradiction to the perception that residents don't want "destination point" plazas that will lure shoppers from out of town.
Bonventure, who had only lived in town for about two years when Southgate was proposed, has put the citizens' group away for now -- her documents are all in a box in her basement. Currently studying to be a social studies teacher, she said she's happy if her activism proves residents can make a difference. "We made no statements that weren't backed up by data," she said. "We were trying to be responsible." Bonventure said she was impressed by how many citizens helped her group and by the cooperation she got from town officials. "We were not adversarial and they were not adversarial," she said. "They were very forthcoming with whatever information we needed."
Bonventure said she hopes future developers will learn from the Southgate story, which proves Bethlehem residents will fight to protect the character of their town. "I think citizens are a necessary counterpoint," she said, "to the interest of developers."
Only Come Out at Night"
An appearance by author Anne Rice draws over one thousand horror fans
(The Source, Aug. 21, 1996)
The Vampire Lestat wore braces.
There he was, in all his lace and velvet finery, with telltale blue veins crawling across his deathly pale cheeks and dozens of ethereal women dressed in black filling the shadows around him. But this wasn't Tom Cruise in "Interview With the Vampire." It was 15-year-old Mike Turner, dressed as Lestat to welcome "Interview" author Anne Rice to a book signing last week.
"I want to show everyone that I have the personality of Lestat," Turner declared grandly as he stood next to a Snapple truck in the parking lot of Albany's Stuyvesant Plaza on a humid, windy afternoon last Thursday. Turner, along with dozens of fans who dressed in costume as characters from Rice's best-selling horror novels, was part of a crowd of approximately 1,300 that rained upon Stuyvesant Plaza's the Book House to meet Rice, 54, whose visit was as flamboyant as a scene from one of her books.
As people waited in line and as store clerks brought stacks of Rice's books from the storeroom to the cash register like beavers trying to build a damn during a flood, Rice arrived in a double-decker tour bus with black-tinted windows and the title of her latest novel, "Servant of the Bones," painted across the side. Rice disembarked to wild cheers and a crush of TV cameras. A red carpet was laid before her and she swam through the crowd, trailed by a male escort and two female assistants, both of whom wore bejeweled headdresses matching the one atop Rice's shoulder-length, black-and-gray hair.
Once inside, Rice met briefly with the press to answer questions about good, evil, and Antonio Banderas. "Literature, for me, is really Hawthorne, Poe, Mary Shelley, Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,'" Rice said. "All of them use supernatural characters to discuss good and evil." The author said that good triumphing over evil is the theme of her work, but "to understand evil, you have to romanticize it, because it is seductive."
Rice was cordial but restless answering reporters' questions. She quietly tapped a gold-painted fingernail on the table behind which she was seated, clearly anxious to get to the fans, of whom she spoke reverently. "I feel more fortunate than a rock star," Rice quipped, "because I don't have to sing."
Rice joked about her recent appearance on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," on which she explained that "Servant of the Bones" was written with film star Antonio Banderas in mind to play the lead character, Azriel, in a movie adaptation. "I haven't spoken with Antonio," she said, swooning just a little, "but I've certainly told everyone else in the world."
The Albany stop came 14 days into Rice's 44-city tour, which concludes on September 15. Book House owner Susan Novotny said her store sold nearly 1,300 copies of "Servant of the Bones" at $20 apiece, and that the signing, which began around 5:30 p.m. and ended at half past midnight, outdrew Rice's recent appearance in New York City.
"It was spectacular," Novotny said. "It proved that Albany can bring out a big crowd." Novotny explained that publishers usually don't include Albany on author tours because they think the Capital Region is a "backwater" area. She thinks the success of Rice's appearance may draw other big-name writers to Albany. "It's a feather in our cap," Novotny said.
Why did so many people turn out to meet the maker of vampires, zombies, mummies, and ghouls? "She's very romantic," offered Mary Porcaro, who came dressed in a mask and feathered headdress, and who playfully gave her age as "210." Most said they came because they "love" Rice's books. But perhaps the most eloquent explanation was given by Ivette Ortiz, 24, who was dressed like an undead Egyptian monarch.
Ortiz said she came "to see the Queen."