October 24, 1998
Neighborhood sees a change for better
Albany -- Center Square Association marks 40 years of grass-roots activism
In 1958, Ellie Posner returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., to her home on
Lancaster Street. Recalling the gardens and tree-lined streets of historic Georgetown, she
turned a critical eye on her own neighborhood and found it lacking.
Posner, whose outgoing charm belies a steely determination, organized a beautification
campaign for a neighborhood that came to be called Center Square. She raised $2,000 to buy
40 maple trees and window boxes planted with petunias, geraniums and begonias.
"Albanians Pool Ideas to Glamorize Neighborhood,'' the Times Union headlined on
July 20, 1958.
And the Center Square Association was born.
On Friday, it celebrated its 40th anniversary with a party at the University Club on
Washington Avenue. The association is the oldest of its kind in Albany. Today, there are
about two dozen others, but Center Square's remains among the most active and outspoken on
a range of issues that concern residents in every city neighborhood.
"We're here for the long haul,'' said Harold Rubin, who has lived on Chestnut
Street for 34 years and served as the association president for seven years. "That's
what drives the city crazy -- we won't go away. We can afford to live anywhere, but we
want to live here. We fight for quality of life.''
Posner's beautification effort has evolved into a well-organized watchdog group whose
members are staunch defenders of the historical district, renowned for its intact
architecture, including the Brides Row brownstones on Chestnut Street where Mayor Erastus
Corning 2nd was born.
The group members believe the battle against blight can be won in Albany, and they
focus on their quadrangle from South Swan to Jay and Lancaster to Willett streets. They
stand up against what they see as potentially damaging development both within and just
beyond their boundaries. They want the city to implement a residential parking permit
In the early 1900s, Center Square was an elite neighborhood, particularly on lower
State Street where some of Albany's toniest citizens lived. The area began to slide
downhill in late 1950s and early '60s as affluent residents abandoned the inner city for
the green lawns and better schools of the suburbs.
Those who remained behind in Center Square welcomed changes in the neighborhood. People
like Nancy Liddle and husband Charles were among the first members of the association,
preferring the new diversity of Center Square to the homogenous suburbs.
"I've always thought cities are exciting places, and I like to be able to walk
everywhere,'' said Nancy Liddle, who lived first on Dove Street and then on Chestnut
Street before settling in her current home on Willett Street. "After the war, people
thought it would be more fun to live in the suburbs and barbecue in the backyard. I never
felt that way.''
Today, their neighborhood remains ethnically and economically diverse, said current
association President Clare Yates, who has lived on Chestnut Street for seven years.
Many of the originally single-family townhouses are divided into one- and two-room
apartments. But still, Yates said, a sense of community prevails.
"Here we talk over the fences,'' Yates said. "I know everyone who lives on my
block. It's not like in the suburbs where everyone drives.''
This being Albany, politics quickly became integral to the group's efforts, but it has
avoided party politics and never endorsed a candidate.
"Our approach on all matters is not to decide who the good guys or the bad guys
are,'' Rubin said. "We deal with the issues, and we play it straight.''
One of the biggest victories came in 1971, when the association helped defeat
construction of a highway that would have cut through Center Square and Washington Park to
connect Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's new Empire State Plaza with Interstate 90 via Henry
On this fight, Center Square Association enlisted Corning's help in the fight against
the highway that would have fragmented the neighborhood, but there also have been numerous
clashes with City Hall over the years.
The Center Square Association's activism spurred the founding of the Council of Albany
Neighborhood Associations. Other similar community groups throughout the city used the
Center Square bylaws as a blueprint for their own.
William Kennedy, who chronicled the history of Albany's neighborhoods, called the
associations' members "civic heroes'' for their work in keeping their communities
"The city has had to change its ways because of the rise of neighborhood
spokesmen,'' Kennedy said. "Preservation is important. It's barbaric to keep tearing
down old buildings and running highways through them.''
But Posner said she views her years of activism less as a civic duty than as a labor of
"You have to be vigilant if you love something in order to preserve it,'' she
said. "When I started the association the neighborhood was really backsliding. There
were rooming houses. There were boarded-up buildings. But I thought it was lovely -- it
First published on Saturday, October 24, 1998