Blogs > Fresh Ink

Barbara Lombardo writes about journalisml, local news and anything else that strikes her fancy. She is executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News, sister papers in the Digital First Media family. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Secret Gardens Tour this Sunday -- be inspired!

I’m no gardener, but I know a beautiful one when I see it. And I’ll be exploring 11 of them in and around Saratoga Springs this Sunday, July 13, for the 20th annual Secret Gardens Tour.

Hope you will, too.

The forecast is warm and sunny. Perfect!

Full disclosure: I’m a former chairwoman and currently handling publicity for the event as a longtime member of the organization that presents it – Soroptimist International of Saratoga County.

Truth is, the Secret Gardens Tour really is a fun event and the gardens are fabulous.

The creative gardens represent a mix of urban and rural settings, including Palazzo Riggi, the North Broadway home of Michele and Ron Riggi and a number of gardeners who have invested years of sweat equity and loving care into their personal oases. Sun, shade, water features, tiny spaces, sprawling property -- a great variety. To read about the gardens on this year’s tour, check out The Saratogian article and photos.

I always come away inspired and full of ideas, which I plan to implement someday. Not Sunday. Someday. Meanwhile, I simply appreciate the imagination, knowledge and hard work of others.

It amazes me that people can create and maintain these wonderful gardens, and then so graciously and proudly open them up for hundreds of people to enjoy. I can’t thank the owners enough. They are doing it not just to showcase their gardens, but to support good causes.

Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 on the day of the tour, if still available. Tickets may be purchased in advance at all four Cudney’s Cleaners retail locations (visit www.cudneys.com for addresses and hours); or at the Saratoga Springs Visitor Center, 297 Broadway, from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday and beginning at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. The gardens will be open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The event is a major fund-raiser for Soroptimist International of Saratoga County, whose mission is to improve the lives of women and girls locally and around the world. The Saratoga club has provided more than $20,000 a year in awards and grants for local programs, such as Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services of Saratoga County’s Project Hope and Power, scholarships for local women heads of households obtaining a college degree, and initiatives to provide health care, clean water and education in the third world. You can learn more at www.soroptimistsaratoga.org. There's information about joining, too.

Putting on this tour is a huge project for Soroptimists. While most of the heavy lifting is literally done by the garden owners, Soroptimist members and friends invest lots of time ahead of and on the day of the tour to provide an enjoyable experience for garden lovers and make this fund-raiser a success.  

By the way, if you buy a garden book at Northshire on Saturday or Sunday and mention the tour (whether or not you’re going on it), they will donate 20 percent of the sales to the tour. Likewise, enjoy a meal at Forno Bistro or Boca Bistro on Sunday and they’ll donate 30 percent of your tab if you mention the tour.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Seeing Paul McCartney in concert: I want to hold you hand!

Paul McCartney’s still got it.

McCartney from far side of sold-out Times Union Center.
Cell phone panorama during McCartney concert at Times Union Center.
Glad my husband and I made the once-in-a-lifetime splurge to see the legend in person at the Times-Union Center in Albany Saturday, July 5. 

Some 13,500 people packed the arena where McCartney played an assortment of mostly Beatles, a couple of Wings and several newer songs for three solid hours, with breaks only to banter with the audience, tell a story about the old days, and, near the end, bring up a Rochester couple whose signs read: “He’ll only propose to me if he meets you” and “I have the ring and I’m 64 years old.” The guy sang a bit of guess what and then McCartney instructed him to get down on one knee and propose. He did, and she accepted. 

Selfie at McCartney concert
Two huge vertical screens on either side of the stage focused mostly on McCartney, who seemed small by comparison – at least from the other side of the arena. But this was a big show, and he carried it – with his voice and overall presence.


People can comment and argue over his choice of songs, and the almost constant light-show, plus what I thought were kind of gimmicky pyrotechnics during “Live and Let Die” -- although it looks pretty cool in the accompanying video taken by Lisa Lewis, editor of The Record and The Saratogian. 

I’m glad he was feeling well enough to start up his U.S. round of tours with this opening in Albany, and lucky to have seen the show in person.



Friday, June 27, 2014

Your turn to speak up on vacant eyesores in Saratoga

I’m not the only one fed up with vacant, neglected residential property in their neighborhood. More than a dozen of you responded to my piece about vacant homes and the apparent lack of city pressure on owners. I’ll share some of your stories and comments today. But first, an update on communication with Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen, a member of the City Council.

The owner of this disaster at 32 Park Place
told me this is their next project. Sorry,
Phila Street residents.
I get the sense that regardless of good intentions, the doubling of the staff to two code enforcers and the addition of clerical support have barely made a dent in their feeling of being overwhelmed, documentation is not a strong suit, and the year-old law regarding vacant properties is not getting it done.

Mathiesen emailed to tell me that the law was sparked not by the regrettable deterioration of 66 Franklin St., but “to provide a dis-incentive for people to hang on to vacant properties for many years while they gradually deteriorate and continue to adversely affect surrounding homes and neighborhoods.”

However, Mathiesen noted, “I agree that more needs to be done as far as follow-up for the Vacant Properties Ordinance. The operations of our office have been compromised while in our temporary space. We will be doing much more on this when we are back in our City Hall offices. I will have more information on your other concerns once I have spoken to our staff. I will get back to you soon.”

We can be reasonably patient without letting the city off the hook. I’ve asked for documents showing to when and to whom letters about vacant property were sent, whether they were received, and what has happened since. While we’re waiting, here are excerpts from some of your emails. (I didn’t ask whether I could use writers' names, so I won’t. But I do thank everyone for their encouraging comments. And I will use photos if you can send them as jpegs, please.)

Wild animal kingdom: We have, more than once, reported rodents, feral cats, possum and other wildlife. The large addition in the upper rear half of 32 Park Place, makes it more than a residential building, almost like a bed and breakfast. It's just dry timber. … Thanks for the helpful information and bringing/keeping this issue in the public eye.

Wish it were mine: I’ve been following Helen Simpson's vacant properties for years. Tried to buy the white house on Phila, but she had just purchased it before I could follow up. Count me in on anything I can do to help in the future.

Dangerous and disgusting: As a Phila Street resident, I am thoroughly fed up with the lack of any upkeep effort whatsoever on the part of the owners. Indeed I worry that 63 Phila will collapse onto my house! I am in the process of writing up a petition in order to more firmly bring this issue to the attention of our elected officials. Pigeon crap is not only ugly but can pose a very real health risk (it is friable and can, when dry, take to the air), especially to the very young and very old.

Owner MIA: Oh how I related to your article regarding vacant homes. The house across the street from me (67 Monroe Street) has been vacant for eight years. My understanding is that the owner is "missing" and she abandoned the home. Code Enforcer Dan Cogan has been supportive and did have the two-foot lawn mown this past week. Several people want to buy the house, but without contact information that task is impossible.

Another mystery owner: We would like to know the status or any pertinent information regarding the vacant house at 5 Gick Road. It is a terrible eyesore on the neighborhood. Small animals abound around the property. Heaven knows what is in the house! I believe the property is in the hands of a lawyer but nothing seems to be happening.

Birds, squirrels, who knows what: I have another address for you. The main house at 200 Caroline St. has been vacant a long time. Occasionally the owner cuts the grass but there is absolutely no maintenance to this very attractive house. There are large holes in the columns and eaves with squirrels and birds going in and out. The east side of the house is deteriorating badly on the exterior. Who knows what’s going on inside? Behind the house is a very nice cottage that has been vacant for years and is also overgrown. And at the far south end of the property is a barn/garage, the roof of which fell in about five years ago and the city made the owner fix it. But that building is a leaner anyway. The property has been on the Preservation Foundation’s Ten-to-Save list for several years.

Heartbreaking decay: The Brackett cottage on Excelsior and the former Ash Grove Inn out Church Street -- passing each makes me weep. 

Junk to boot: I live near another vacant eye sore in Saratoga. It is on the corner of Jefferson Terrace and East Broadway, near the racino. Not only is the house in shambles, there is junk and an old van in the yard for over a year. Can't believe this is allowed for such a long time.

Those of you who have dealt with the code enforcers typically describe them as polite, responsive and concerned. That's been my experience, too. So what's actually being done to cite and follow-up on violators of the vacant property law (which I describe in my previous post)? Stay tuned.



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Vacant eyesores mar Saratoga neighborhoods

The fence keeps people off 69 Phila St., but not pigeons, who
obviously do their business on the porch.  
Living in walking distance to downtown Saratoga Springs evokes images of neighborhoods where people nod to passersby from the porches of lovely hundred-year-old homes.

And then there are houses like the one across the street from mine: vacant for decades (except for occasional street people and wildlife), with once-beautiful woodwork hopelessly decayed, long stretches of weeds poking through the rotted porch, and a shrubbery-shrouded side serving as an impromptu toilet for people headed home from the bars.

A law to discourage property from going to pot was adopted in February 2013. I’m trying to find out who it applies to and how it’s being enforced. Soon as I do, I’ll let you know.

The owners of 32 Park Place, uninhabited
for decades, said this will be their next project.


The monstrosity on my street is one of an estimated 50 vacant properties in Saratoga Springs – less than 1 percent of the parcels in the city, but eyesores that have been ignored with impunity for too long.

The owners of the house near mine, Helen and Harold Simpson, own other downtown properties. Two are vacant buildings on Phila Street that they hoped to split into three lots instead of two. The zoning board in 2005 reasonably rejected their request. Almost a decade later, the two boarded-up houses, with pigeon crap covering the porches, remain a disgusting reminder that nothing really prevents people from buying property and letting them go to seed.

Another reminder appeared in recent property transactions showing the same couple bought yet another empty downtown house, this one on High Rock Avenue, for $266,774. More property when other parcels are yet to be made habitable? I’ve complained to the city about the Park Place house as a private citizen, but the issue of property left to rot is really a public issue.

Last month, I sent the city a request for any records documenting complaints, city responses, inspections, violations, building permit requests – anything – related to the house on my street. A few days later, in what I was assured was strictly coincidence, the owner called me for the first time ever, with the news that they planned to pursue permits for renovations on Park Place this summer and suggesting I check out their latest completed projects on the West Side.

Then, about a week ago, I was bemoaning the presence of boarded-up houses with the head of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, who mentioned the city has a law requiring vacant properties to be registered. So I filed another request with the city, this time asking for all records pertaining to enforcement of the law. The city has acknowledged these requests and promises a response in accordance with the state Freedom of Information Law.

The city vacant property law, reportedly prompted by a fiasco on Franklin Street, in which a historically significant house deteriorated beyond repair, was adopted in February 2013. The law notes that vacant buildings “are likely to become both unsightly and unsafe (and) quickly develop a negative effect on their surrounding neighborhoods as well as on the entire city.” 

The law requires a $250 annual registration fee for each vacant residential structure (and $500 for non-residential), along with proof of safety inspections, a written intentions for the premises and other information. Owners are supposed to register on their own or within 30 days of getting a notice to do so from the city. Scofflaws face a penalty.

Is anyone registered? I’ll keep you posted on the city’s answers. And if you know of any vacant property that ought to be registered, please email me atblombardo@21st-centurymedia.com

Monday, June 2, 2014

Ingrid Michaelson comes to Clifton Park: I'll take her the way she is

You’ve heard Ingrid Michaelson’s songs even if you don’t know her, because her music has been in TV shows and commercials. She is a wonderful pop-singer/songwriter with a crisp, distinctive voice and music and lyrics that appeal to people of all ages – though the vast majority of the 800 or so people at Upstate Concert Hall May 27 were 25 or younger. I expected to be the oldest, at 60, though I think I was beat by a white-haired Williams College professor.
I figured that a 6:30 p.m. concert on a Tuesday night would have me home by 9. Ha! The doors opened close to 6:30 and there were two opening acts (Storyman and Sugar and the Hi Lows), so it was 9:20 before Michaelson and her five-person band appeared. 
She was worth the wait, and we stayed until the third encore at about 11 p.m., in time to catch the tail end of a torrential downpour.
This was my first time at Clifton Park’s Upstate Concert Hall – formerly known as Northern Lights – and only my second time at a standing-room-only indoor concert. The first was to see The Hold Steady at WAMC’s The Linda in downtown Albany. My husband and I were happy in the back, where we could lean against a wall.
My pal Peggy and I got luckier at Upstate Concert Hall. We waited in line for an hour for the doors to open (plenty of time to overhear college girls gripe about parents, boys and absent friends), and when the 50 or so people ahead of us staked out their space at the foot of the stage, we claimed two spaces on a padded bench toward the rear but still only thirty feet or so from the elevated stage.  Five or six other “old people” joined us. During Michaelson’s performance, we stood on the bench for a fairly unobstructed view.
She sang a mix of new and old songs, including my favorite “The Way I Am.” She was personable and just the right amount of chatty. She shared a funny story with the audience about her father telling her she was mentioned on TV by JayLo, who said an American Idol singer had taken one of Michaelson’s covers to a new level. Then she showed them a thing or two.
Peggy and her daughter Sophie and I had seen Michaelson two years ago in a sold-out concert at The Egg in Albany. Definitely an older crowd in the Egg than at Upstate Concert Hall, but both were enthusiastic and UCH may have the Egg crowd beat. I'm glad I was part of both.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Getting to know Chicago better with each visit: this time, zoo and lakefront

My husband and I enjoyed a whirlwind weekend earlier this month in the so-called Windy City, where it wasn’t particularly windy and where our son Joe is in a computational neuroscience graduate program at the University of Chicago. 

This time we didn’t get to the school or his neighborhood in Hyde Park, which is about eight miles south of the heart of downtown. But we did walk for miles, hoofing it from the zoo – where admission is free, imagine that – south through downtown and past the Navy Pier to our hotel in the financial district called The Loop, where elevated trains traverse.

Joe, Summer and Jim on Chicago River boat cruise
on May 11 with Navy Pier in the background.
Gorilla at the Chicago Zoo,
which has free admission.
Chicago is my kind of town: extremely walkable, with plenty to see and do, a cool mix of old and new architecture, a concentrated downtown core, lots of museums, skyscrapers that aren’t overwhelmingly imposing, and a massive lake along which people can walk, run, beach, boat or just relax. Yeah, the per capita murders are way up there, but that just means don’t go where you shouldn’t. We’ve never had a problem. Glad Joe is a direct flight away in such a great place to visit.

I always like to check out new places to eat, and enjoyed rack of lamb at The Gage near Millennium Park and lobster bisque and scallops at Devon. We lucked out with the weather, and on Saturday we checked out the farmers’ market, the zoo, and the beaches and walkways along Lake Michigan.

I call it the Wilco buildings they're on
of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album cover.
I had just finished reading “Devil in the White City,” Erik Larsen’s non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (and a serial killer preying on young women), which really made me appreciate architect Daniel Burnham. He was the main man behind construction of the fair and later the person responsible for, among many wonderful things, the parks and trails that let people enjoy Chicago’s miles of lakefront.

For my third consecutive year I rode along the river on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s boat cruise. Last May we shivered in hats and gloves. This time I ended up with a sunburned nose. Each time, though, it was a fun way to see the city’s lively riverfront and the wide variety of offices, residences and hotels, from the Wrigley Building to Trump’s tower.


My husband and I ride the El like pros now, taking the orange line to and from Midway, where our Sunday night flight was a bit delayed. We didn’t have as long a layover, however, as the Duke women’slacrosse team

We watched the young women dancing and laughing and videotaping themselves over and over, having a jolly time. We realized a few days later that they used their hours in the terminal to create an imaginative music video based on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” 


Sunday, May 18, 2014

School budget priority: Kids or contracts?

People who serve on school boards deserve a public thank you for taking on this time-consuming, largely thankless, all-volunteer responsibility. Their enthusiasm, dedication to education and desire to make a positive difference should be encouraged.
Pride in their district, useful areas of expertise, familiarity with programs and a desire to make their schools even better are evident in virtually all the candidates’ thoughtful responses to questions in the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County’s voter guide at lwvsaratoga.org.
What’s missing across the board is any reference to the most expensive, complicated challenge facing public schools (and governments): employee benefits.
Benefits — for staffers past and present — eat up an ever-increasing percentage of public institutions’ budgets. Yet instead of focusing on contracts, school boards and administrators poke at programs. It’s as if the terms of contracts — the major expense to districts — are untouchable, not even open for discussion.
Whether teachers and administrators deserve these benefits is not the issue. Taxpayers can’t afford to continue to carry them. Changes to the retirement system have not gone far enough.
Look at the Saratoga Springs school budget as an example. (An informative budget package can be seen in full at saratogaschools.org.)
Total benefits account for almost 30 percent of the district’s $116.4 million budget. The dollar amount was $27.6 million in 2011-12, increasing in successive years to $30.6 million, $34.3 million, and now, in the proposed budget, almost $34.5 million. And that’s with a reduction of more than 95 positions in the district since 2009.
The biggest part of benefits is health insurance, projected at $19.5 million, which is a reduction of more than a million dollars from the current year. That’s progress.
In contrast, retirement costs are evidence of an out-of-control trend: $6.9 million in the 2011-12 school year, $7.5 million the next year, $9 million in the school year and $10.1 million for the upcoming year. As teachers and other employees retire and live for decades, the percentage of the budget going toward nothing that has to do with teaching and programs will keep rising.
District spending in Saratoga Springs will increase 3.4 percent. About 65 percent of the revenue comes from property taxes, and that is expected to increase a bit over 2.2 percent. What does that mean to you? The district budget overview anticipates a “modest tax increase for most district residents” — actual tax base figures won’t be available to the district until the summer.
This doesn’t mean voters should reject their school budgets Tuesday.
After all, what you’re voting on is a budget in which most of the spending is locked in by employee contracts that have already been approved. Rejected budgets merely result in minor cuts to things like sports programs and other extra-curricular activities that can be as valuable to the educational experience as mandated classroom fare.
No significant budget reductions will occur until school boards in districts everywhere step up to say, “Enough.” And if contractual changes apply only to future hires, it will take decades to crawl out of the benefits budget hole.

Everyone says their priority is what’s best for the students. Contracts say otherwise.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Good lord: dispute over prayers at suburban Rochester town meeting makes it to the Supreme Court

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Good lord.
A dispute over prayers at a town meeting in a Rochester suburb made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It shouldn’t have had to go that far. If only people treated others as they’d like to be treated, as Jesus used to say.
But that’s not what happened. So the dispute went all the way to the Supremes, who this week decided 5-4 that religious prayers at the start of municipal meetings in Greece, N.Y., do not violate the First Amendment.
I’m not a lawyer, Constitutional or otherwise. But I remember as a reporter sitting in a local town hall and feeling “excluded and disrespected” — words used by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion — when Jesus Christ was invoked at the start of what was supposed to be a secular, municipal, public meeting.
And I believe today what I thought back then: Town officials should know better.
The line separating church and state is casually blurred in this Christian nation, and a quick prayer to open a meeting may seem like a small thing. But not everyone believes in God. Not everyone who believes in a God believes in Jesus.
And what is Jesus doing in a town meeting, anyway? As a Jewish woman sitting in a government meeting, the prayer stung. It reminded me that I’m a member of a religious minority and that well-meaning people are oblivious to how that might feel. But the case isn’t about feelings. It’s about the First Amendment.
Justice Kennedy wrote that the town of Greece did not violate the First Amend­ment “by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.”
Dissenting Justice Elena Kagan, as reported in the New York Times, could not reconcile the town’s practices “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” Her thought was to require ‘that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”
It is common for a chaplain to bless government proceedings, from Congress on down. Politicians routinely rally listeners at the close of a speech with “God Bless America,” a mini-prayer offered without reference to any god in particular. And prayers find a place in secular arenas in time of tragedy. It seems to be human nature to appeal to a higher power for things out of our control. We need all the help we can get.
However, it shouldn’t be necessary for courts and lawmakers to get involved in how a town board opens its meetings. A perfect ceremonial opening is the Pledge of Allegiance (written in 1892, with “under God” added by Congress in 1954).
Tradition aside, there’s no reason for prayers at municipal gatherings. But town board member compelled to include a prayer should be mindful that not everyone shares the same views about religion, and citizens should not feel uncomfortable in their town hall. It’s not about faith or the First Amendment. It’s about feelings, after all.
Barbara Lombardo is executive editor of The Saratogian and The Record. Her blog is Fresh Ink.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Saratogian parking lot a money-maker for local nonprofits

The warm weather’s here, sort of, and once again The Saratogian is making its parking lot available to local nonprofits for fundraising.
Last year organizations raised more than $46,000 total by collecting fees for parking in The Saratogian’s lot off Lake Avenue. It’s a great way for a group that benefits the community to raise hundreds of dollars in a single day. And for visitors, a ten dollar contribution helps a local cause and buys you a parking space in the heart of downtown for the entire evening. All the money collected goes directly to the organization working that day.
Most Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and some holidays are booked by one group or another through August, and many dates are booked through October. There are still some openings. People interested in securing a date for their nonprofit should call Rhoda Pickus at 583-8702.
The lot is private property and people parked on non-fundraising days risk being towed at their expense. Sorry, I can’t change that. But I can credit Publisher Mike O’Sullivan for creating The Saratogian Parking Lot/Community Fundraising Partnership, and I do encourage those of you enjoying downtown to support local groups on the evenings that they are charging for parking.


Monday, April 14, 2014

The Passover story, Twitter-style: Let's get out of here

By Tuesday afternoon, the turkey should be in the oven, the matzah balls simmering in soup, and the apples and walnuts ready to be chopped into a mixture symbolic of the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build the Pharaoh’s cities.
Tuesday evening is the second night of Passover, and I am hosting my side of the family for the seder – the service that takes place at the dinner table as participants recount the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.
Passover specifically refers to God passing over the homes of Jewish families as he brutally punished the Egyptians for their leader’s refusal to free the Jewish slaves. The seder is the retelling of the story of entire Passover story,
beginning with the birth of Moses and ending with the Jews escaping through the parted waters of the Red Sea. And, like many of the Jewish traditions with which I was raised, it’s capped off with a plenty of food.
The basic script for the seder is in a booklet called the Haggadah. Everyone takes turns reading from the book and eating or drinking the food and wine that represent various elements of the story.
My family seders run less than an hour, but the exact length depends on how much is recited in both Hebrew and English, how many verses of the numerous songs are tackled, whether my sister brings out the felt characters of Moses and the gang that enthralled the kids in their younger days, and how cold the turkey is getting.
So I had to laugh last week when a package addressed to me at the newspaper office included two copyrighted Haggadahs. One is titled “60-Minute Seder, complete Passover Haggadah.” The other is “30-Minute Seder, The Haggadah that Blends Brevity with Tradition.”
What next? The story of Passover on Twitter? “God to Moses: You can do it! Moses to Pharoah: Let my people go! Moses to Jews: No time to let the bread to rise; let’s get out of here!”