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Times Union, October 24, 1998

Neighborhood sees a change for better

Albany -- Center Square Association marks 40 years of grass-roots activism


Staff writer

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 plan.

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 Johnson Boulevard.

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 vibrant.

"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 love.

"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 had potential.''

First published on Saturday, October 24, 1998