ALBANY, N.Y. — They’re environmentalists, but not exactly the kind you’d see at a Greenpeace rally.
The residents of the B’nai B’rith Parkview Apartments in Albany are elderly, and about half of them are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Stepping out into the front lobby of the apartment complex, one is as likely to hear Russian as English. The Russian residents who do happen to speak English — gleaned from one of the occasional classes that Parkview offers to its residents — speak haltingly, in broken phrases.
But these immigrants — a large number of whom hail from the towns surrounding the area of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe — have taken up the environmentalist mantle: Warning of health and environmental risks, they are fighting AT&T’s plans to use their roof as a base for a cell tower, and they’re not making their complaint quietly.
“The people are so scared,” said Antonette Fritz, a member of the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association, where Parkview is located. Fritz, who is neither Russian nor Jewish, has been trying to block the installation of the tower since it was first announced and says that the stress is affecting the Russian residents’ health.
For many of the residents, the fight has soured what was once an extremely pleasant relationship between Parkview and its residents.
Several years ago, when a wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union came to Albany, many of the elderly, low-income immigrants settled in Parkview because the rent was subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There, they found a comfortable enclave: Parkview gets Russian satellite television and has a Russian library; Parkview administrators organize trips to the theater, have set up computers for residents and organized a Russian chorus that sings old folk tunes. (“The talent varies,” said Kenneth Rabinoff-Goldman, president of the complex, “but the enthusiasm makes up for it.”)
But in early July, the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association called a meeting to tell residents about the plan to rent out the Parkview roof to AT&T, which planned on installing a large metal tower used to transmit cellular phone signals. The announcement was met with an angry, screaming response. Several tenants shouted and stormed out of the meeting claiming that they had been poisoned by radiation from Chernobyl and would be further poisoned by the cell towers.
Following the first meeting, the executive director of Parkview, Kathleen Burns, put a scolding memorandum up on the lobby bulletin board that some interpreted as threatening. “I was truly disgusted by the behavior of the majority of the tenants of [Parkview apartments] who attended this meeting,” wrote Burns, who proceeded to outline what she called “disruptive and disrespectful” behavior by the Russian residents before ending on what was for some a chilling note: “Any further display of this disgraceful behavior at any time will not be tolerated by this management.”
Some residents panicked. One woman, a former scientist who doesn’t believe that the cell towers will do anyone any physical harm, asked that her name not be used in print because of the fear her husband felt upon reading Burns’s warning. “Nine years I lived in this building,” the scientist said. “Those nine years were extremely happy. Now everyone is nervous.”
“Just the fear is going to destroy them,” said Lesya Epelbaum, who with her husband owns the Babushka Deli, a Russian market a few blocks from the apartment complex.
In early August a second meeting was scheduled that included representatives from AT&T, the city of Albany, a former professor of Environmental Health from the Harvard Medical School, and a Russian-to-English translator. Rabinoff-Goldman, who did not attend the first meeting, warned residents that the “rules of decorum of the meeting” would be followed strictly.
Parkview’s experts were prepared for the meeting — but so were adversaries of the cell towers. Dr. Peter Valberg, the former Harvard professor, assured the group that the cell towers were safe. Unlike Chernobyl, which emitted a massive amount of ionized radiation, Valberg said, cell towers emit a very small amount of non-ionized radiation that is safe, and far below the levels prescribed by the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
But the residents were not convinced. “Isn’t it true that [for] the 1996 Telecommunications Act the [telecommunications] industry not only sponsored that act, but helped write it?” asked John Velie, a non-Russian Parkview resident.
Valberg looked a little bewildered for a moment: “I really don’t know the politics…”
“Well, I do!” exclaimed Velie.
Several other residents came armed with the book, “Cell Towers: Wireless Convenience? or Environmental Hazard?” edited by B. Blake Levitt, which outlines the possible dangers of cell towers and includes in its appendix studies that have been conducted on small animals.
Spokesmen for AT&T said that Parkview was picked for the towers because it was the tallest building in the area, and it best suited AT&T’s needs. When one resident raised his hand and asked in Russian why the cell tower could not be moved to another location, the spokesmen from AT&T looked bewildered before they repeated that Parkview best suited their needs.
Two days after the second meeting, the Albany Board of Zoning Appeals approved AT&T’s request to lease the space, and the cell tower is set for installment in late November. Fritz says that the only hope of blocking the towers now is for a lawyer to take the case pro bono.
“The tragedy of this is that it’s become a kind of cause célèbre for the neighborhood association,” Rabinoff-Goldman told the Forward.
After the second meeting ended, Rabinoff-Goldman said he was approached by a member of the neighborhood who said that he didn’t believe anything Walberg, AT&T or anyone else at the meeting said. “He said, ‘They’re all lying,’” recalled Rabinoff-Goldman.
Part of the explanation for the enormous skepticism, Rabinoff-Goldman said, is the fact that so much of these residents’ former lives were bogged down in lies. Back in the Soviet Union, “whenever they heard there’s no danger, they [weren’t] going to accept it.”
But Rabinoff-Goldman said that after the issue is resolved, it will bring in thousands of dollars in yearly revenue for the Parkview residents. “The benefits outweighs the — well, I’ll call it ‘detractions.’”