At 85, neighborhood matriarch a ‘loving’ cornerstone of Troy park
July 24, 2020
By Tyler A. McNeil for Albany Proper
This article originally appeared on Them+Us Media
A woman with a friendly face sat across the street from a young Kevin Pryor as he played with friends in a grassy lot decades ago in Troy.
The lot, now called 7th & Ingalls Park, has been under renovation since spring. The surrounding neighborhood, once full of families in single-family housing, is now full of unfamiliar renters.
However, the woman with the friendly face still sits in a chair on the sidewalk across the street. Except now, she’s 85 years old.
“Same person,” Pryor, now 54, described the woman, whose name is Geneva Pompey. “Loving, caring — same person.”
Maintaining the area, watching out for children, and, in recent years, assisting a community youth organization, Geneva Pompey has helped generations of park-goers across from her longtime home at the corner of 7th Avenue & Ingalls Avenue.
And Pryor doesn’t want the community to forget that.
In May, he launched a petition to rename the park after her on Change.org, which he hopes will eventually nudge the City Council toward adopting a resolution that does so. So far, the petition has gained 1,923 signatures and counting.
Council President Carmella Mantello has voiced support for the change. Mantello and Councilwoman Kim Ashe-McPherson, whose ward includes 7th & Ingalls Park, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“We’re not going to sleep on [the petition] because once we fall asleep on it, next thing you know, the park will be named after something or someone else,” Pryor said. “Even though there could be some other people whose names should be on some things, Geneva Pompey deserves that park.”
But Geneva Pompey didn’t ask for that.
“What my heart said right, I’m going to do it,” the Troy senior said through a facemask, while sitting on a recliner in her living room. “If [the park] is in my name or not, it doesn’t matter to me.”
The now-retired resident has made her presence known in the neighborhood, by admonishing children for playing in the streets, nourishing them, and cleaning up the lot long before it was an established park. At that time, it was the normal, neighborly thing to do, she said.
A number of former residents familiar with Geneva Pompey have described her as a fixture in the community, North Central, which is a neighborhood right above Downtown Troy. One of the few Black families in the neighborhood at the time, the South Carolina-born Pompey moved into her current home with late husband Cleveland Pompey in 1968. (She first moved to Downtown Troy in 1956 following her husband’s deployment in the army).
Her life in North Central has, at times, been speckled with adversity. In 1980, her husband died of lung cancer. Three of Geneva’s children, Johnathan, Cleveland Jr., and Jennifer, died from complications from disease between 1993 and 2014. She believes that her Baptist faith has provided guidance for overcoming tragedy.
“We prayed for the Lord to help us through it and he helped us through it,” Geneva Pompey said.
“It’s all faith,” said the matriarch’s 61-year-old niece, Cathy Prince.
Prince is part of Geneva Pompey’s shrinking network of North Central neighbors. Once numbering more than 60 families total, it has dwindled to close relatives or members of her congregation at Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, which is a block away from her residence.
Sitting outside the home, passersby seldom greet Geneva Pompey anymore, a shift from what Prince called a normal interaction while growing up in the neighborhood. There are fewer and fewer familiar faces.
“A majority of them died or moved away,” said Noreen Pompey, 61, one of Geneva’s last two remaining daughters. “We’re the only ones here from when we first moved here.”
That’s not the only major change that’s taken place in North Central since its heyday. Deindustrialization and economic divestment feature prominently in its economic decline. What was once a prosperous working-class neighborhood fell into stark poverty in the latter half of the last century. Vacant buildings pepper the neighborhood. There has been a small push towards gentrification closer to the riverfront.
Frequently the target of economic development revitalization initiatives, North Central and the abutting North Hillside neighborhood are some of the most persistently downtrodden areas in Troy. According to 5-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half of residents live below the federal poverty level, and nearly two-thirds of children live below the federal poverty level.
Gun violence throughout the last decade has plagued the city’s poorest communities, and community activists have identified poverty as one of its root causes. Most recently in North Central, 18-year-old Donnovan Clayton was gunned down on 6th Avenue.
Four years ago, Jeff Curry, a Troy community advocate, developed a plan to combat potential violence early on. Under Pryor’s nonprofit, Troy Look, Curry started For All Children Everywhere (FACE), a free summer program focused on deterring kids from trouble by developing their relationships in the community.
FACE hosted basketball games, cookouts, backpack giveaways, and movie nights at 7th & Ingalls Park. Curry said the location was selected to “decrease violence and bring positivity to the neighborhood.”
It might not have been the same without Geneva Pompey.
Curry didn’t initially request her help, but she showed up to help anyway. Geneva Pompey didn’t ask for anything in return or complain.
“I was thinking ‘does this woman need or want some money or something,’ giving us all this stuff,” Curry said about his first interaction with Geneva Pompey. “Every time we needed something, she was there..”
She would give out dozens of hot dogs and water for the children at a time when the program struggled to handle the catering load. Before FACE bought a generator last year, she would let the program use her electricity for movie nights. She once brought over her hose to create a community watering hole.
The Troy senior even offered to let the program use her backyard for equipment storage and occasionally allowed children access to her bathroom.
“She has always been a kind-hearted person and everybody in this area knew her,” Prince said. “Now you just have outside people coming in, participating in the park and stuff, so they’re just now knowing what type of person she is.”
With a pandemic still on the radar and the park currently under renovation, Geneva Pompey has interacted with FACE less than usual. It hasn’t deterred her, though. The North Central matriarch made an appearance at the program’s interim Hoosick Street event space on July 16 during a basketball game.
After Geneva Pompey met Mayor Patrick Madden at the event, the city executive reportedly declared support for renaming the land in her honor. According to Pryor, the mayor is waiting for the Common Council to endorse the measure.
The Mayor’s Office has not confirmed Pryor’s claims at press time.
“I think it’s a great idea because usually when you honor somebody’s name, they’ve passed away,” Curry said. “But we’re glad she’s still here and in the North Central area every year, we can celebrate the day that the park was named after her.”
This article was updated on July 25 to include Council President Mantello’s support for the name change.
Tyler A. McNeil joined Albany Proper as an Investigative Reporter in October of 2020 after a merger with Them + Us Media. McNeil specializes in investigative reporting on public policy, law, infrastructure, development, and municipal planning. He’s been featured in the Daily Gazette, Times Union, NYUP, Southern Saratoga Magazine, New Food, Wareham Week, Sippican Week, Amsterdam Recorder, New Food, and Townsquare Media.