Grief and healing converge at Troy street altar that survived winter into spring
By Lynda Edwards for Times Union
Miraculously, the evergreen boughs encircling the Sixth Avenue altar honoring the dead stayed in place despite numerous windstorms roaring through Troy. The altar itself has survived snow, ice storms, drenching rain, melting slush and mud since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday when it was built from logs and stones by volunteers from the Sanctuary for Independent Media, a former church turned cultural center nearby.
Neighbors tied purple and orange paper roses onto the logs with ribbons. Photos and drawings of loved ones killed by COVID-19 or gun violence were clipped to cords strung from the altar to nearby trees. Some photos and drawings are inside plastic cling wrap to protect them from dust, rain and time.
An Arctic blast recently ripped two red paper hearts from the string and hurled them at the cold blue sky. New red hearts dangled on the string days later.
Designed by artist Nancy Weber, the altar, situated on the edge of Freedom Square nearby the Sanctuary, was meant to be temporary, like the sidewalk candles, flowers and chalk messages that often appear on the site of a shooting death in Troy or any other city. But this altar kept growing in the beautiful, historic neighborhood that has suffered foo much from gun violence. The Sanctuary was going to clear it away before spring. But as Easter Sunday approached, it was still growing. Now, it will stay in place through April.
Genesis Cooper, 15, drew a picture of Ayshawn Davis, age 11, killed by a drive-by shooter on Old Sixth Avenue last year. Ayshawn had a sweet smile and was a good student who worked part-time at a pizza parlor. His death ripped a hole in the community. Cooper clipped his photo to an altar string.
“He did everything right, and still died young,” said Genesis.
Genesis and two other teen girls from the neighborhood – Gabriela Espada, 14, and Shansanique “Nique” Pollack, 15 – worked on the altar as Sanctuary volunteers. They love Sixth Avenue for its beauty: Victorian brownstones with diamond casement windows, shade trees lining blocks. Defunct groceries are painted cheerful lime, pink and orange.
As young Black women, they’re aware of a hidden geography.
“Sixth Avenue is the valley, where we live,” Nique said wryly. She waves toward streets slanting sharply above Sixth Avenue: “Up there, that’s the hills. Kids used to walk all over to friends’ houses.” Although her mom and dad provide a happy home, she said “parents in the hills get scared to let their kids walk into the valley to visit.”
They carry themselves with confidence. Still, Gen and Gabby said that creepy guys catcalling sometimes prompt them and their female friends to alter their path to the Boys & Girls Club or the library. They always make it to the Sanctuary and to Lansingburgh High, a school they wholeheartedly love for its devoted teachers and diversity. (“At lunch, students of all races mix and talk; it’s not like schools where students self-segregate,” Nique said proudly).
But outside, “I still feel uneasy when a car slows down and follows me,” Gen said, a fear shared by many girls in the neighborhood.
Gen’s grandparents are raising her. She calls them “mom” and “dad.” Her grandmother is a nurse who organized an event supporting better wages for nurses’ aides. She’s a social justice activist role model for Gen.
Still, Gen said her family was “overwhelmed” watching January’s violent U.S. Capitol insurrection. They wondered whether it’s safe to talk politics with strangers who may be racists who see confident Black females as a trigger.
Gabby lives with an older brother, kid brother and a dad. But she’s sometimes alone in her house and one night someone broke her windows. She seems abashed over her normal reaction of fright.
“I want to be a marine biologist; did you know 80 percent of Earth’s oceans are unexplored?” she said, eyes sparkling. “I’m not afraid to be the first explorer of a sea. I’m a feminist. I should be strong enough to handle danger.”
Urban Grief founder Lisa Good heads an organization that raises awareness about trauma. Here’s her take; “You shouldn’t have to be strong in your own home,” says Good. The girls may be poised but they “are still children … Society shouldn’t burden children with being strong all the time.”
Creating a safe healing space
Lansingburgh High School sophomores Nique and Gen and freshman Gabby are aspiring scientists who won Riverkeeper Water Justice fellowships. The Sanctuary hosts their lab work which will includes measuring bacteria and microplastics in their community’s water supply and monitoring sewage overflow.
It’s one of many activities that Sanctuary Director and RPI media arts professor Branda Miller offers in the neighborhood. Miller wanted the altar to be “a place where the community can gather, share and heal spiritually.”
It complements the People’s Health Sanctuary planned to open around late summer in a rehabbed building near the altar. The new space will have a kitchen for nutritionist-chefs and volunteer healthcare practitioners including Dr. Xavier Coughlin, 38, who splits work between hospitals in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and Troy. He served as a street medic during the Black Lives Matter protests.
“That kind of work is why I became a doctor,” said Coughlin, who yearns to spend more time getting to know those he cares for.
Corinne Carey, state director for Compassion & Choices (America’s biggest nonprofit dedicated to end-of-life care) plans to volunteer, too. Carey bakes cookies for the free pantries around the altar. The pantries are in metal and plastic boxes that once contained free brochures. Repurposed into “people’s pantries,” donors stock them with nonperishable food. Many in the neighborhood bake goodies then wrap the treats in foil and label them.
Miller asked Lisa Good and Troy 4 Black Lives organizer Luz Marquez-Benbow for guidance and insights in developing the altar. Benbow is also a rape survivor and a respected advocate for sexual abuse survivors. She met with Gen, Gabby and Nique at the Sanctuary to discuss their concerns.
Gabby especially welcomes wisdom from women like Benbow. Last year, Gabby lost her beloved godmother who was raising her while her father is separated from the family for a long time. She was a role model as well as caregiver.
“I miss having her female perspective on situations,” Gabby said, sadly.
Gabby’s father asks female friends for perspectives he can share with Gabby.
“He always says: Now, I’m not sure this is right but here’s what a female friend I respect told me,” Gabby said, smiling wistfully.
Benbow burns sage at the altar. She left a T-shirt inscribed with the name of a late activist friend. She isn’t sure if his death was suicide or a bad batch of drugs. She’s asked how a ritual can ease the pain of death that comes too soon.
Benbow responds with a proverb – as long as the dead are remembered, they aren’t truly gone from our world.
“That’s why loved ones say their names and write them on sidewalk altars,” Benbow said.
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The altar was built on King’s birthday. Since then, shootings and the pandemic continued to batter Troy. In March, 12-year-old M.J. Rivera was sweeping the floor at home in Troy after a virtual school day and was shot through a window. The shooter permanently paralyzed the pre-teen. Prayers for Rivera written on pastel paper in Spanish and English are now clipped to the altar.
Gabby, Gen and Nique believe in King’s dream of America “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” They attend vigils and rallies. But Gabby had to drop her water justice fellowship. She’s needed at home where there are sometimes challenges as her father tries to parent and work. Now that she can attend school in person, she’s focused on bringing her grades back to pre-pandemic heights.
Sometimes, the girls wonder if Troy will have a sense of community again.
Then, Genesis remembers pre-pandemic Little League games with the whole neighborhood cheering the players and enjoying free hot dogs. Gabby recalls neighbors of all races helping each other dig out from a blizzard, laughing, chatting.
Nique believes Sixth Avenue’s community is dormant, like crocus and tulip bulbs under frost wanting to blossom – with the altar at its heart.
Freedom Square has a stage backed by a glittering mosaic wall where bands played before the pandemic. Nique remembers neighbors of different races bonding into a community with “people on porches listening to music. Little kids drawing on sidewalks with colored chalk, walking by houses, people waved you over to talk.”
The girls talk almost dreamily about how Freedom Square’s cherry and pear trees will bloom pink and white. As Benbow once observed, the altar bolstered their belief that they can shape their community to match their ideals, even if it’s a struggle.
“The women 100 years ago who fought for the vote and against racism, they got knocked down. Did they stay down? No! Knock me down. I’ll get back up and fight,” Nique said.
When the girls talk about their neighborhood, it’s possible to imagine the glow of King’s dream reflected all over the community, the hills and in the valley.