Albany was once a bustling riverfront city, where sloops, schooners and steamboats plied the mighty Husdon, laden with goods from around the world. A mile-long strip of shoreline was enclosed by a wharf of warehouses, coal yards and dockage facilities. This lively scene is but a distant memory, kept alive by a small historical marker honoring what was then known as the Albany Basin.
The Albany Basin was eventually filled in, with the construction of Interstate 787 perhaps the final nail in the coffin of a once-thriving waterfront. For decades, the city’s downtown languished, with retail, restaurants and other businesses finding it tough to survive in an area mostly sustained by state employees and other daytime workers.
The people who frequent the West Hill Farmers Market live in the neighborhood, usually just a block or two away. Many of them discovered the small-but-busy market while walking down the street, headed elsewhere. Perhaps they passed by a few times before opting to stop, curious about what it had to offer. “They’d been here for some time before I decided to come in,” said Tinesha Hooks, a West Hill resident who gets fresh produce from the market. “I get a lot of fruit here. It’s expensive at stores.”
Tucked between Clinton Avenue and First Street, the farmers market occupies a once-vacant lot on Quail Street. It’s a welcoming and relaxed enterprise, where friendly staff greet the many regulars who arrive each Saturday afternoon looking for healthy, nutritious food. The West Hill Farmers Market, now in its second year, is part of an ambitious effort to make one of Albany’s poorer areas into a greener and more entrepreneurial place, where residents grow their own food, eat fruits and vegetables harvested in the neighborhood and sell fresh produce from their own garden plots.
Nearly two decades have passed since Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain were arrested. They’re older, wiser, sadder. Years behind bars robbed them of the opportunity to see their children grow up. Now free, they have readjusted to life outside prison. They can reflect on what happened to them. But things are not, and will never be, the same. The long, strange and often maddening saga of Aref and Hossain, Albany Muslims apprehended in an FBI sting operation in 2004, is now the subject of a compelling documentary, titled “Witness.”
The film screened earlier this month at a well-attended, sometimes emotional screening at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy. Hossain and his family were in the audience, as was Aref’s daughter. Locally, the details of the story are well-known: Aref, an imam at a mosque on Central Avenue and Hossain, owner of a nearby pizzeria, were sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2007, convicted of money laundering and terrorism-related charges. But the case against them was controversial almost from the start, with many observers – including this writer – coming to believe they were wrongfully prosecuted. Outraged Capital Region residents joined forces to support Aref and Hossain – a network of friends and helpers that exists to this day.