They make an unlikely pair: A 70-plus bearded white guy, who’s perhaps just a tad scruffier than in the heyday of his career as a local elected official; and a clean-cut, 50-year-old African American man whose commanding presence draws the eye – even without the crisp white shirt, the prominent gold badge and the gun on his hip.
Strolling along in some of Albany’s toughest neighborhoods, this duo would likely get noticed even if they didn’t happen to be former Assemblyman Jack McEneny and City Police Chief Eric Hawkins. But given their respective public profiles, they often generate even more attention.
And that’s exactly the point.
“All kinds of people come up and introduce themselves,” McEneny said. “…In public life, it’s easy to say, ‘My door is always open to you.’ But it’s not that easy. There are some nice, gracious offices, but people know it’s your office, not theirs.”
“When you’re on somebody’s front stoop, or in their neighborhood, they’re much more at ease. You go to people on their own turf, and they have much more confidence.”
Hawkins said the pair gets stopped “constantly” – sometimes for 30 or 40 minutes at a time – by people who just want to talk. They know McEneny from his many years in a variety of public posts – both appointed and elected – and they recognize the chief from his appearances on TV and in the newspaper.
But meeting these two in the flesh, right there on their very own street, is something unexpected for many residents, and, to hear Hawkins and McEneny tell it, very well received.
“They see us in person, in their environment and they drop their guards down and really start talking,” the chief said, unwittingly echoing McEneny’s own words in a separate interview.
“They share things,” Hawkins continued. “We have some real good conversations. That’s one huge benefit for us – especially for me being a new chief – is to get out and meet these folks that otherwise I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet.”
McEneny and Hawkins have been touring the city on foot for several months now. It has been a near weekly date, but it’s very informal. They haven’t made a big deal about it.
There was no press release or official announcement about the guided tours being provided to the new chief from Michigan by the local historian who has probably forgotten more about the city than most people will ever know.
Hawkins said he’s grateful for the opportunity to get to know McEneny, spend time with him, and see his new home through the eyes of a lifelong resident (with the exception of some time away to attend college and graduate school and do a stint in the Peace Corps).
“Being new to the city, a lot of times I would get in the car and just ride around and see the neighborhoods,” Hawkins said. “With Jack it’s different. I’m learning about the history of the city and how the different neighborhoods developed over the centuries – personal stories about the people who lived in the areas. It’s been a wealth of knowledge I’ve been able to get from Jack.”
The walk-and-talk idea was born when McEneny visited Hawkins in his office on Henry Johnson Boulevard not long after he was appointed chief. McEneny, who initiated the get together, did not arrive empty-handed, bringing along a copy of his book, “Albany: Capital City on the Hudson.”
“We decided that the next time, we would meet and just walk a neighborhood,” Hawkins recalled. “He’s an historian, knows all about Albany, and I thought it would be a great idea to walk with him and get to know the city.”
“Jack will pick a neighborhood based on what I’m interested in, and we’ll walk two, sometimes three hours, usually a couple of miles.”
McEneny said he usually calls the chief on Fridays to find out what his schedule looks like for the next week. They rarely have had to cancel, though the understanding is that a significant incident that requires the chief’s attention could arise at ay time. One day a big storm forced them to reschedule, but otherwise, they’ve been able to stick to their pre-arranged plans.
“Jack, he’s very generous about it,” Hawkins said. “He tells me all the time (if) something comes up, don’t feel like he’ll get his feelings hurt if I’ve got to cancel.”
Hawkins said he has been fascinated to learn about the city’s architecture and how a wide variety of ethnic groups and religious organizations shaped it into what it is today. This information has given him a deeper understanding of how different neighborhoods became so racially and culturally divided, he said.
“He knows which groups were here, two-and-half three centuries ago,” Hawkins said. “He’s talking about architecture – things I never noticed – how it’s different in the neighborhoods. Me just getting that insight helped put some more perspective on the Albany experience.”
McEneny said he thinks the tours would be worthwhile even if all he and the chief did was talk about history and architecture because “there’s something worthwhile” about that. But it’s the people – or, as he put it, “the audience that presents itself” – that makes the experience really meaningful.
“They’re absolutely thrilled (to see Hawkins in person),” McEneny said. “One guy, who I knew as a kid but is today maybe in his 50s, couldn’t wait to tell the chief about the neighborhood police units.”
“He said as a young man, this was our police force, a totally different attitude. You knew (officers’) names, they didn’t wear uniforms, they walked everywhere…I had said something similar to the chief, and I’m sure he listened. But it was different coming from this guy.”
Hawkins said the walks have been so beneficial that he hopes to continue them “throughout my time as chief…as long as Jack is willing and able to do so.”
McEneny, who has continued to be very active in the community since his retirement from the Assembly at the end of 2012 that capped a decades-long career in public life, appears to be game.
“It’s a neat thing with the chief,” he said. “I enjoy his company. I think he enjoys mine. We both learn something. When you stop learning it’s all over.”