GLOVERSVILLE -- A discussion with Vince DeSantis about the topic of small cities and their importance to human civilization is likely to start in prehistoric hunter-gatherer times, pick up speed as he describes the role of ancient Athens, and later the early Colonial American cities, and then end somewhere in an improved future, a time after he may or may not have served as the elected mayor of Gloversville.
DeSantis, the newly appointed mayor of Gloversville, gave a talk about the social benefits of urban forestry in front of the John Burroughs Nature Study Group Friday at the Hales Mills Country Club in Johnstown.
DeSantis has served the city of Gloversville for a long time, as city judge from 1993 to 2011, then as councilman-at-large from 2016 until Thursday when he was named mayor after Dayton King resigned. He will serve until a special election in November for the final two years of King's third term. DeSantis can run for election if he wishes.
He has also thought deeply and for a long time about the many aspects of small city life, many of his thoughts on which are encapsulated in his book "Toward Civic Integrity: Re-establishing the Micropolis."
The 219-page book includes theories on how globalism and urban renewal have affected cities, often using Gloversville, Johnstown and Amsterdam as examples. It also pulls few punches when talking about how bad planning can damage a city, using the city of Amsterdam's decision to build a downtown mall in the 1970s as an example of what not to do.
"They assembled substantial urban renewal funding and performed what amounted to a lobotomy on the center of the city. Old buildings were razed and the traditional grid with a Main Street and connecting side streets was obliterated. It was replaced by a system of highways and ramps to speed traffic to, from and through the center of town, all of it surrounding a new indoor shopping mall," he wrote, adding that when the mall went into decline it left the city with a downtown disconnected from the public.
DeSantis said the science of urban planning has advanced since the '70s, including knowledge about the importance of green space. He told the nature group about how trees help absorb pollution in cities and absorb rainwater that would otherwise result in sewer overflows. He said he's hoping the city, through grant writing, can help obtain funds to help subsidize the planting of more trees to help develop the "urban canopy."
He also talked about a community garden he helped establish on city property, which allows the Gloversville Housing and Neighborhood Improvement Corp. to allocate parts of the garden to residents of the city to grow fresh vegetables. DeSantis is the founder and president of the GHNIC. He was also instrumental in the creation of Schine Memorial Hall LLC, within which is the Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market, a location he calls downtown Gloversville's "anchor store," where he can often be seen volunteering.
Patricia Beck, the retired publisher of the Leader-Herald, asked DeSantis why more small cities don't establish community gardens.
DeSantis grinned good humoredly, but said he didn't know.
Beck, who said she likes the idea, pressed DeSantis for his take on why more communities don't embrace the concept.
"Pat is a newspaper person, she wants me to call someone a name," DeSantis said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Another member of the study club offered an answer. "It's because they don't have a Vince!"
DeSantis was born and raised in Gloversville, descended from three generations of glove cutters in the glove making industry.
"My mom sewed gloves from the time she graduated from high school. All of my aunts and uncles were in the glove business," he said.
DeSantis said the leather industry was already in decline in the 1960s and his parents had instilled in him the need to attain higher education. After he graduated from Gloversville High School in 1966, he attended C.W. Post College and then law school at St. John's University. During law school, however, he was drafted to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. His job in the military was as a personnel management specialist, which allowed him to observe European cities. That helped him to form some of his ideas about how communities connect with cities.
After he graduated from law school in 1977, he worked as a lawyer in private practice before being appointed assistant Fulton County district attorney, and then assistant city judge, before becoming city judge.
As judge, DeSantis said he viewed his role as trying to help rehabilitate some of the people in the city. He said he was able to see a lot of the changes taking place. He also saw what wasn't working.
He said he had "high hopes" when the city passed anti-blight codes, but then was disappointed when he saw they weren't being enforced.
"Now we have a neighborhood quality administrator whose sole job, with a full-time assistant, is blight," he said.
DeSantis said as mayor he intends to continue to fund the quality administrator position, currently paid for with a grant, and create a building department with a second building inspector. He said he believes that blighted and abandoned homes in the city can make marketing the rest of the homes in the neighborhood extremely difficult.
DeSantis said he learned a lot watching his younger brother Frank DeSantis serve one term as mayor in Gloversville during the 1990s.
"I learned it's walking through a minefield, being mayor," he said.
Frank DeSantis said he's ready to offer his brother any advice he can about being the city's acting mayor, but he doubts he'll need much help. Frank DeSantis said the six-member City Council his brother is dealing with, which unanimously appointed him mayor, appears to work better than the old 12-member council he had to deal with before the city reduced the council to one member per ward plus a councilman-at-large.
"He's my older brother. He's always been there for me. When I went into the military, I went to Vietnam and came back. I had to reorient myself to civilization again, and he was there for me for that. I really respect him. I really love him, and I think he'll do well," Frank DeSantis said.
If Gloversville’s council is less contentious now than in past years, Vince DeSantis is likely one of the reasons why. He formed "the Gloversville Party" when he ran for office in 2015, a banner under which both Democrats and Republicans can run together on a ticket, eliminating party feuding.
“George Washington hated political parties,” DeSantis said. “ Politics in Gloversville can be tough, especially when party politics gets involved, but I think that when people are high-minded enough they can get past that and really come together for the good of the city.”
Most of the Gloversville Party members are registered Democrats, but even staunchly conservative Republicans on the council supported Vince DeSantis's appointment to acting mayor.
He said he hasn't decided yet whether he will run in the special election in November, although he thinks it's likely he will.
He said the city should be looking toward technology to increase efficiency without having to hire more personnel, as well as marketing and targeted investments to help the city flourish.
"We're at a time in history where there is a demand on the part of educated young people to live in cities, and small cities are much better situated to do this because our environments are much more changeable, we have far fewer hurdles to overcome than large cities or mid-sized cities," he said.