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A Guide to the Utopian Infrastructure of Albany's Mansion Neighborhood

This lecture will present a Utopian Asset Map of the Mansion Neighborhood in Albany, New York.

Cultural Asset Mapping "provides an inventory of key cultural resources that can be utilized in a development effort." [Artscape, 2011] "Cultural asset mapping (CAM) is used to understand and interpret the complex interrelationships of cultural elements for use in strategic planning and economic development and is scaleable for use in smaller municipalities." [Voight, 2011] This field of practice developed step-by-step with the discipline of Creative Placemaking.

Cultural Asset Maps are generally produced for an audience of planners and economic development authorities. This Utopian Asset Map is produced for an audience of radicals seeking utopia, highlighting the existing utopian infrastructure of one neighborhood shattered by an extreme urban renewal project from 1962-1976 and rebuilt by an intentional community dedicated to building a school that prioritized the freedom and autonomy of children.

The Utopian Infrastructure of Mansion Neighborhood is rooted in that school--the Albany Free School--and the city block that constituted the Free School Community from the mid-1980s until the early 2000s. While the intentional community is no more, the School and its influence remain. A group of institutions spawned by members of the Free School Community and young activists who came to live in the neighborhood still hammer out radical urban futures.

Infrastructure generally refers to "the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or other area, including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function. It typically characterises technical structures such as roads, bridges, tunnels, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, telecommunications and so forth, and can be defined as 'the physical components of interrelated systems providing commodities and services essential to enable, sustain, or enhance societal living conditions.' [Wikipedia] The Utopian Infrastrucure of Mansion Neighborhood was built to provide for the reproduction of the School and to maximize human freedom. Like any infrastructure, whether a road or water main, it requires maintenance, and this guide will include a condition report on each asset.

Founded in 1969 by Mary Leue, the Albany Free School is the longest-running inner-city independent alternative school in the United States. The Free School provides unique alternatives to traditional models of education, offering families a radically child-centered and self-directed approach to learning. The school operated in a off-the-grid/under-the-radar mode until the early 21st century, maintaining obscurity from the state to preserve autonomy. Multiple crises befell the school in the early 21st century, most importantly, a cultural dispute around racial diversity and white privilege which grew into a generational divide that effectively shattered the intentional community that supported the mission of the School. Abandoning obscurity for transparency led to new fiscal burdens, which have compounded the costs of deferred maintenance on the school building and Community buildings.

Additional Utopian Infrastructure includes

  • plentiful community gardens

  • an urban ecology center -- the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center founded by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew on the maxim that “it is possible to meet human needs while simultaneously restoring ecosystems.” The Radix Center teaches practical skills that can be applied to create environmental and economic sustainability. Emphasis is placed on issues of food security, health, and the remediation of contaminated soils. The urban environmental educational center demonstrates environmental technologies and sustainable micro industries in today’s cities.

  • an arts center with a license to operate an FM station -- Historic St. Anthony’s Church / Grand Street Community Arts (GSCA), which operates an FM station at 107.3 FM.

  • a birthing center -- the Family Life Center (FLC) is one of the oldest independent childbirth support centers in New York.

  • a teen film-video academy -- YouthFX -  a hands-on program designed to empower young people ages 10-24 by teaching them the technical and creative aspects of digital film making and media production.

  • a grassroots political action committee - AVillage founded in 2009 by Willie Whyte, dedicated to community development in Albany's South End

as well as city-wide community initiatives for racial and economic justice, health, transporation, and homeownership.
The presentation will primarily consist of maps and photographs.


The presenter is former teacher at the Albany Free School (1997-1999) and former Executive Director of Grand Street  Community Arts (2016).