The Old NYS Museum Albany NY

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The old NYS Museum in the wonderfully iconic State Education Building was a garden of earthly delights. Tens of thousands of  NYS school children visited  the museum during its 60 some odd years, until it closed when the “new” Museum in the Cultural Center in  the Empire State Plaza opened in the 1970s.

9353424451_b4ce44d14f_zBut for the children of Albany, especially the baby boomer kids of  the ’50s and ’60s,  the Museum was special. It was a source of infinite wonder; it was our own very, very  cool playground.   The Museum was on bus lines; it  was located within walking distance of  two ethnically diverse neighborhoods, Arbor Hill and the South End,; both teeming with children.  And it was free.   When kids in Albany sighed, “I’m bored”,  many an Albany mother replied, “Go to the Museum”.  That was  the big deal about the old Museum.. it was kid friendly.

Rotunda NYS Education Building
Rotunda NYS Education Building

The Museum was on the 5th floor; to get there you passed though the grandeur of the State Ed Building.   The exterior of the building is magnificent and imposing with its massive 36  Corinthian column colonnade.  But it’s even more  gorgeous inside.  The scale is part of it; but it’s also a stunning example early 20th century Beaux-Arts architecture. The central rotunda with a barrel vault ceiling and stupendous chandelier are awe-inspiring. It never failed to take my breath away.  Even the rowdiest kids calmed down, lowered their voices and stopped fidgeting,  sensing they were in the presence of something special. 960x540 (1)

When you reached the Museum floor, the first thing  you saw was a replica of the Gilboa prehistoric forest, filled with ancient fossilized tree stumps and  wonder of wonders, a waterfall.  I don’t know about other kids, but for me, it was so peaceful, it was the equivalent of a Zen garden.

Picture-23-600x364But then the fun began.  The old  Museum was really a museum of natural history. Just up the street was the Albany Institute of History and Art. It had an excellent collection of old Dutch paintings, china, furniture and artifacts, and 2 Egyptian mummies!  But other than the mummies, the Institute held little attraction for most of us kids.  So when I think about the old Museum,  it’s impossible not to think of the movie, Night at The Museum.

Where you went next depended on your mood.. did you want to go visit the Iroquois Indian diorama exhibits?  I remember the first time I saw them; I swear it was if the pages of a National Geographic had come alive. There were Native American artifacts… huge pots and best of all, arrow points and arrowheads. Arrowheads were part of our Akbany childhood. Between digging in back yards and playing in the residential, commercial and public constructions sites that dotted the city for 2 decades, kids were always finding, them.  They were a staple of school “show and tell”.  But the Museum placed them in context.. you  understood that cool thing you found dated back thousands of years.  And then you looked back at the Iroquois exhibits and began to have a better understanding of the people who used them.

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You could visit the huge Cohoes mastodon; one of three on display. or maybe a stroll through the  taxidermy  animal collection (which I found sort of creepy.)  The paleontology collection was amazing.. rows upon row of cabinets of miilion year old fossils,  There were botany and biology exhibits; beautiful illustrations of the birds, flora and flowers we saw in our yards and park, and those funky mushrooms we saw growing in the woods.

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The fossilized sea life and shells were pretty nifty. I  still love a curvaceous wentletrap or a nautilus.

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G-11366Every time I visited, there seemed to be something new.. or something I’d missed. I first fell in love with

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Pyrite

sedimentary rocks; fascinated by the layers and strata in limestone and shale.  But there were so many choices.. the sparkling Herkimer Diamond, the “man made diamond”, iridescent quartz of all hues, meteorites, minerals and rocks that shimmered like gold or looked like coral.

The was a tall (maybe 4′)  pillar of rock salt that showed the tongue depressions of decades of New York school children who had licked it.  And we licked it too, just like our parents and aunts and uncles had done before, (I always called it Lot’s Wife.)

There was a bunch of rocks that glowed in the dark in a small room.  Recently someone said that the State Museum was the perfect “group date” for young teen kids in Albany.  You could go into the little dark nook and steal a first kiss.  The Museum had it all.

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A friend’s father was the building superintendent of the State Ed Building; I’m still jealous.

If you are on Facebook,  you might want to join the  Facebook Group, “Albany …the way  it was”, to share  your memories of Albany, NY with others. Here’s the link.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/375351089205442/606197369454145/?notif_t=group_comment

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The Public Market Albany NY

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Albany NY Open Air Market early 1800s by James Eights

 

In the  early 1800’s Albany’s open air public market was located at the intersection of State and Market Street (now Broadway).

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 Over time the market are moved north, as real estate in the City center became more costly. By the early 1880s  it was held once a week and located at the top of the State St. hill, just below Eagle St. and the State Capitol.

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 By the late 1880’s it was re- located  near the base of the Madison Ave .  In the early 1890s, over some opposition who wanted located closer to the Hudson River and railroad lines,   it was relocated to the Lyons Block.   This was a large open area below the Lyon’s Printing Company Building.  It was bounded by Grand, Hudson, Beaver and Daniel Streets.  In the early 1930’s, there was again sentiment to move the market farther south,closer to the River. Those efforts were unsuccessful, and in the mid 1930’s the market was enlarged, through the demolition of buildings on Philip and  Grand Streets.  The market remained in that location for about 30 years.  However, the Lyons Building was demolished in early 1964 to make way for construction of the Empire State Plaza, and the land around it appropriated for the same purpose.

I think my last visit to the Market was in 1963, when  I went with my grandfather to buy flats of petunia to plant for my grandmother for Mother’s Day.  I was about 12, and had no idea I would never see it again.

Here’s a reminiscence by Charlie Mooney, a columnist for the Albany Knickerbocker News, about the old Public Market.

Albany NY Knickerbocker News 1964 - 1326

1890s
late 1880s
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c. 1890
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Lyon Building when first constructed in 1892

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AFD Fire Dept. Hook & Ladder #1 on parade. Public Market  Looking northeast on Beaver and Grand St. October 1910 albany ny early 1900s .
AFD Fire Dept. Hook & Ladder #1 on parade
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market place grand and beaver

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West Point cadets drilling in the Public Marketplace 1918
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Albany Open Air Market c. 1922

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1185259_10201289338266856_1247889850_nMarket  in the 1930s

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Overflow from Lyon’s Block on to Market St. mid-1930s
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1936

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1961 A couple of years prior to the demolition

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Albany’s South Mall Part 5 Shovel Ready?

February 1961 

The re-invention of New York’s  Capital City was viewed by Governor Rockefeller as the renewal of Albany, but also as a pilot program.   Albany would serve as a test case for  a  state and local partnership to reinvigorate  the  decaying cites of New York State.  His ability  to  pull this off would serve be a feather in his cap when he ran for re-election in 1962,  and when he sought his party’s presidential nomination in 1964, which he most assuredly would.  Time was of the essence. The Harriman State Office Campus would be completed on his watch, the new State University at Albany construction would begin shortly and serve as a model for enhancement and expansion of New York’s public college and university system. It  would  rival, if not surpass, that of California, the best in the nation.

 Albany would be the crown jewel, garnering national, perhaps  even international attention.  It would be a modern city, stripped of the old, surrounded by a modern transportation network of highways  moving  hundreds of thousands of people every day around the jewel. It would be a model of efficient government and public administration. It would provide empirical evidence of what Rocky could do for the country, as he reached for the national brass ring.

As I mentioned before, Rocky’s ideas weren’t new, they were shared by most governments in the Northeastern corridor and in the Midwest   Older , rusting cities needed to be brought into the 20th century.  Kennedy, the new president, was just as eager  at a national level.  if we could put a man on the moon, we could make it happen across the country. Money was no object.  Massive re-development was the ultimate stimulus package for a sagging economy.

Feb 1, 1961

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And JFK was more than willing to help Mayor Corning, despite Rocky’s being a  potential opponent in the 1964 election.  The Democratic Machine’s ability to deliver votes within the City and County of Albany was on a par with the  great political machines of Chicago and Boston.  Such was the power of Mayor Corning and Dan O’Connell,  legendary political boss for over 30 years.  During the days of the hard fought 1960 Democratic presidential primaries a special visit had been paid by close Kennedy aides to the Mayor and Uncle Dan (as he was known).  (And since this is Smalbany, they went to visit Dan at his house, and of course the neighborhood was atwitter when we saw the limos on my street during that visit.  

Additionally. Joseph Kennedy,  JFK’s father,  owned an office building on State St. and had been the major owner of RKO when it built the Palace Theater.  Everything is intertwined.

February 6, 1961

feb 6 1961

February 8, 1961 

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February 14, 1961

feb 14 1961

The consensus of those who had moved to suburbia  was that Albany needed many things to draw them back to the urban core – a convention center, better lighting , parking and removal of “eyesores”.

February 2, 1961

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feb 2 part 2

February 4, 1961

feb 4 1961Although Mayor Corning had already commissioned a study and plan to re-invent the city, a housing survey conducted by the State was moving forward, designed to elicit formation about available housing stock at all income levels, deteriorated areas, community development needs, and needs of employees.  All this information would be correlated with urban development activities all ready under way  (cart before the horse?) .  The results of the survey would not be made public  (LOL- how times have changed), but provided to the Mayor to  release as he saw fit.

February 4, 1961 

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The survey of downtown business was moving along as well.  The urban planning firm of Candeub, Fleissig & Associates has been retained by  city merchants .  The Candeub firm has been retained by the Mayor two years prior  to develop  the urban renewal plan for  Albany that had been made public only recently.

Candeub was the the largest and most powerful urban planning firm in the nation at time.  As federal money for urban re-development became abundantly  available across  the country, Candeub was  recommended to large and small cities  everywhere by federal housing officials. isadore Candeub was the primary partner in the firm, and a 1948 graduate of MIT with a degree in  city planning,   Candeub was  ubiquitous in municipal and environmental planning almost everywhere; Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina, California,  Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and even Alaska.  Candeub’s approach to urban planning epitomized the time. It was all about the modern, the new, and efficiency, with the little thought to what we today call “social capital’. Candeub, i think,  was the most influential single entity in urban planning throughout the  1960’s and into the 1970’s and put its stamp on America that would persist for generations.

(I’m not going into the a long discussion of the 1960’s approach to urban planning.  For anyone who is interested, I recommend  the work of  Jane Jacobs, one of the first ( and most influential) activists in fighting conventional urban planning in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Get a copy of  her book, The Death and Life of  Great American Cities (1961) and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (1975), the story of Robert Moses.

February 8, 1961

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Albany’s South Mall Part 4 The Era of Good Feelings

On January 23, 1961, an Albany Knickerbocker News editorial was cautiously optimistic about the “New Albany”.  Rocky and Nelson would get along and Albany would re-invent itself.

January 23, 1961

jan 23 1961

Downtown merchants would be surveyed to determine what they saw as  their needs and the needs of the City.

January 24, 1961

 jan 24

 Plans to create “by pass” highways in Delmar and Slingerlands were well underway.  These roadsed  would allow commuters to bypass Albany city streets to reach the their suburbs.

January 26, 1961

jan 26 1961

January 30, 1961

jan 30 1961

Another sign that things were moving along was the announcement  on January 27 that about 120  applicants for the new the high rise projects  had been approved.  The first 100 apartments were scheduled for residence in March

January 27, 1961.

january 27 1961

The optimism was contagious.  Mr. Swartz , owner of Swartz & Levinson Shoe’s, was planning to open a new resraurant, Hugh Denniston’s, on Green St, . in the Capitol Hotel.   (Hugh Denniston’s was the name of the tavern in which George Washington was presented with  the keys to Albany when he and Marha came to the city for the baptism of  the daughter of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler in 1789.)

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Promise and hope was in the air. This was gonna work.  And so January 1961 ended in Albany.

January 30, 1061

jan 31 1961

January 30, 1961

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Albany’s South Mall Part 3 Dear Nelson/Dear Erastus

The first two  weeks  of January 1961 had been a whirlwind. Governor Rockefeller’s  notice of his general desire  to “improve” Albany and  the Mayor’s revelation of his specific plans for the City caused a  quite a stir.  The  rest of the month would be equally as newsworthy. Additionally, the face of Albany was changing, independent from  urban redevelopment and renewal.  New road and highway construction was moving at warp speed. Old buildings that had stood for years  anchoring parts of neighborhoods had reached the end of their useful lives and were being demolished.  High rise housing projects were almost completed in the South End and “slum clearance:” was moving ahead in North Albany.

On January 17, the Common Council authorized $250,000 to obtain rights to build the “Crosstown Arterial Highway”.  Additionally the State was planning to build the “Slingerlands Bypass”.  Construction of the State Office Campus,  well underway off Washington Ave., and the  planned construction of the new University site next door on Washington Ave., made these 2 highway construction projects more important to  increase access to both the Campus and University sites.

January 17, 1961

jan 17

People began dreaming the impossible dream.  There were thoughts of  riverfront development.  Pretty much an impossibility as  as the  riverfront arterial was being constructed, cutting off access to the Hudson.  But why let reality intrude?

 In an address to a local American Legion post, Gene Robb, publisher of the Albany Knickerbocker News,  proposed building a new Capitol  on the Hudson River.  And if that was not possible,  why not a state museum, civic center or peace memorial,  he conjectured. He  said that this was the first time in recent history  that residents, merchants, the city and the state  all had an interest in re-development.  He also indicated that additional resources would be necessary and suggested a sales tax for Albany!

Dear Nelson

On  January 18, the other shoe dropped.  Mayor Corning sent a “Dear Nelson” letter to Governor Rockefeller in which he proposed a  permanent.. not temporary,  joint city/state committee to deal with on-going  state and city issues    Nelson’s spokesperson responded to the Mayor’s letter by side stepping the request and saying that Albany still needed a “comprehensive plan”.

January 18, 1961

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January 18, 1961

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Dear Erastus

Ever the gentleman, Governor Rockefeller replied to  the Mayor’s letter on January 18th.  In  his letter of response  he thanks the Mayor for his welcome words about the Temporary State Commission and  ignores the Mayor’s request for a  permanent joint state/city committee on  state and city issues.  In his letter he also stresses the need for a “comprehensive plan” for Albany.  (The implication is that the  two year old study magically produced by the Mayor on the heels of the Governor’s announcement of HIS plans for Albany was neither a plan nor comprehensive.)

january 24 1951

No More Rent Control in Albany…..self-deportation

Yet another master stroke.  On January 20th, the State  Rent Commission proclaimed that it would be ending rent control  (in place since World War II) in Albany since a recent housing survey had demonstrated that the housing shortage had “abated”.  (Seriously?  I can’t stop laughing.)    Every other report indicated  dangerous over crowding in Albany!!  Why that was part of the rationale for urban renewal !

Rent controls had already been eliminated  on one family single homes and two  family homes.  In 1957, the City had been offered the option  to remove rent controls, but had declined. Hmmm

The timing of this decision could not be better.  Decontrol rents on multiple unit dwellings and you have a partial answer to at least one problem.  Most of the multiple unit buildings were located in lower income areas. Those were the areas slated for “urban renewal”. Take away  rent controls and  tenants would be looking for alternative housing.  There were really only  two choices. They could move into the low income,  high rise housing projects constructed by the city and for which there had not been great demand.  Or they could move out of the area. If  tenants moved out,  there were 2 options; move outside of Albany or stay within the city limits.  

A move outside Albany was possible, but not likely.  In 1961 most of the jobs were still located within the city. Many lower income persons did not own cars and depended on buses to get around. Public transportation outside the city was poor at best and in the worst case, no existent. Nor were the many apartment options outside of the city, and single family housing was out of the financial reach of  most current tenants of multiple dwelling units. So a move  uptown, but still within the city, was most likely.

One way or another, many of the units in the multiple unit  buildings would be vacated. Win/Win for urban renewal. There would be fewer families to displace through eminent domain when the property was seized. AND,  vacant units in a multiple unit dwelling meant the property would be worth less when it was purchased to make room for urban renewal activities.  Eliminating rent control really would be the impetus for “self-deportation”.  

jan 20 1961

Albany’s South Mall Part 2 The Ugly Truth

The first  week of January 1961 set in motion  the building of the South Mall.  Nelson Rockefeller proposed the creation of a new Temporary Commission on the Capital City (TCCC) and Mayor Corning countered with a 2  two year old study that called for major rehabilitation and/or demolition of huge areas of Albany.  The recommendations of the  study, which had never been made public, would if fully implemented, affect over 12,00 families and hundreds of business in Albany.

The rest of January was to be as lively as the first week.

January 6, 1961

jan 6 1961 1On January 6, the Mayor indicated that he was going to pick  an advisory council  for the City’s urban renewal program in North Albany “shortly”.  He made this announcement  in response to press inquiries about statements on a report to the federal government about the progress of the City’s urban renewal efforts funded  by the federal Housing and Home Finance Agency.  The progress report had been submitted in Fall, 1960.  One of the questions asked specifically about “progress of the citizen’s advisory subcommittee  established  to study minority group housing programs and for full opportunity in housing for all.”   No  advisory subcommittee,  or for that matter any committee had been established .  The City’s response  on the progress report was that it would be establishing a committee  in fiscal year starting November, 1960.

The Mayor indicated to reporters that he had no idea about the size of the  council  or when he would make the appointments,   but did say that membership would include representatives from the Chamber of  Commerce, City Club, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Council of Community Services,  Albany Section of the Council of Jewish Women and the Albany Inter-Racial Council. 

The advisers for the North Albany project were named on January 14.  They included Jacob Herzog, a well known local attorney and deputy county superintendent for tax delinquencies; Ida Yarborough from the Inter-Racial Council; Robert  Young, Chamber of Commerce; Bill Kerrigan, Community Chest; Joe Cerutti , a local  labor trade union leader,  and David Bray, Albany Public Schools.

Other changes were already happening across the City.  Demolition of the Wander Building, an older  6 story commercial building that had anchored part of South  Pearl St. and Beaver St. was underway.  The building was compromised in a fire in Sept., 1960, and had sustained in excess of  $300k in damage. 

jan 21 1961

On the same day the City sold the Sheridan Ave. parking lot to the State for $173,500. The Common Council also  authorized $50,00o for unspecified rehabilitation and demolition activities. 

(I have to note that in that  Common Council meeting it  also authorized $4,000 for the “alignment of sewers” on the south end of Holmes Ct.  I gotta chuckle.   “Uncle” Dan O’Connell, the City’s legendary Democratic political boss,  lived  on the south end of Holmes Ct.  I grew up on Holmes Ct, and I’m guessing that if the sewers at that end were misaligned, the sewers at my end were also askew.  I have no recollection of sewer work at my end of the street that year or any year for that matter.)

And also January 6   an editorial in the Knickerbocker News  suggests that perhaps Governor Rockefeller will concentrate on being  governor (at least for now), and commends him for his  general interest in spiffing up Albany. All I can think of is the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Finally , in Mayor’s Corning’s annual address to the Common Council (Jan 6 as well), he outlined the changes  underway in the City:

  • the Washington Avenue extension;
  • a major portion of the  arterial highway program, (probably the river front section);
  • completion of “slum clearance: in North Albany (although no buyer for the land was identified);
  • partial completion of the South End elementary school (Giffen);
  • completion of the  Green St. projects;
  • proposed acquisition of land for a another 400 unit low income project in the South End/Lincoln Park area, and
  • continuation of  Hackett Blvd. from Edgecomb  St. to Manning Blvd.

January 6 1961

arterial  jan 6

On January 10  an interesting article appears in the Albany Knickerbocker News.  The New York State Homebuilders Association  opposes the State’s efforts to become involved in building middle class housing ( small,  but key pieces of both the Governor’s and Mayor’s plans for Albany) . The group also opposes many zoning ordinances under development for residential housing across the state.

In mid January, the Mayor  told the Menands Rotarians that the  river front arterial highway should be completed by 1965, He said that the highway would be a “ground level” and pass under the Livingston Avenue bridge   (Yeah, well part of that came true.)  When asked about parking in downtown Albany, the mayor said the ultimate solution was “buses”.  (LOL)

January 13, 1961 

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The first response to the Mayor’s plans came from the black community – the  black associate pastor of  Temple Baptist Church, the Rev. Dorman Avery.  (Since this is Smalbany,  his wife taught me 10th grade English 5 years later.) The Reverend proposed a churchman’s committee to to “disturb becalmed Christians” and break down racial barriers in Albany Churches.  He made this proposal when he spoke to laypersons in the Interchurchmen’s Fellowship luncheon at the First Reformed Church on January 10th.  The Reverend urged  the Committee to focus on housing discrimination and support of the proposed federal Metcalf-Baker bill that would outlaw housing discrimination in private housing.  

Reverend Avery made the argument that  making housing more accessible was a preferable means of church integration than having predominantly white churches in predominantly white neighborhoods invite black families to become parishioners    He cited his own experience.   The Temple Baptist Church. located on Clinton Ave. had made a conscious decision to remain  in its location.  As a result, the church was become increasingly integrated. (That part of the city became increasingly segregated, and within  a decade, the neighborhood was mostly black, as was the church membership.)

January 10, 1961

jan  10 1961

The issue of  racial  integration and urban renewal was raised 2 days later, again in a a church group.  In mid January(12th) a sociologist, Dr. Wheeler,  from the State College of Education told the Layman’s League of the First Unitarian Church that  fear of racial tension and problems was keeping  the people of the South End, both black and white, from applying to live in the new integrated  high rise housing projects.  Dr. Wheeler indicated that  while some South Enders would rather live in houses that were “ready fall down” than move into the integrated housing despite the fact that the apartments would be some of the “nicest in the city”.   He concluded, however, by saying that the City officials were resourceful and would not permit the  buildings to be unoccupied for long.

Hindsight is again 20/20.  The Green St. projects never were racially integrated to any appreciable degree.  They were, for the most part, occupied  by black  residents.  Most of  the  white residents of the  South End simply moved.

I have to think that  the report of this meeting sent a shock wave through Albany. It chronicled overt prejudice – in your face and unmistakable racism.  The genie was out of the bottle. For years racial issue had been buried or glossed over.    But for many decades  schools and even some churches has been integrated  and  if neighbors were not actually “neighborly”, there at least appeared to be a certain respect for each other. 

But the post World War II black migration to the North, increasing middle class  and westward expansion  in the City  began to change the demography of  Albany.  The population increased to its highest point in 1950.  The poorest sections of the City were dangerously overcrowded.  There were more absentee landlords purchasing investment properties.

Events in Albany would play out against the national backdrop of increasing racial tensions and the Civil Rights movement in the south.  Everyday newspapers, TV and radio reported the events in Georgia, Mississippi and other southern states.  Federal troops had been sent by Eisenhower and the Kennedy Administration would push desegregation with all its power. Powerful, eloquent and courageous black  leaders were emerging who were giving voice to the disenfranchised.The delicate balance was about to be upset in Albany, as it was throughout the country.

January 13, 1961

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More  of the community started to take notice of the Mayor’s plans.  In mid January a Citizens Committee comprised of  local community leaders was formed to address general City planning issues, with the intent to ask the Mayor to confer with the Advisory Council for the North Albany project.  Alas, none of the members had any direct relationship to the soon to be affected residential areas of the City, although the a representative of the Central Avenue Merchants Association was included.  As we might say today, “lily white”. 

jan 24 1961

Another group of 25 local business and professional men formed the Council of Community Relations to study, on an informal basis,  racial concerns connected  with Albany’s urban renewal plans. The group was established directly as a result  of the meeting at the Unitarian Church earlier in the month.  Yet again, none of the members were from the areas which would be directly affected.

Meanwhile the State Housing Commissioner, while speaking to the  Capital Area Council of Churches was urging its members to  sponsor middle income housing  for seniors.  He indicated there was $960 million available for state loans for private builders for such projects  He recommended they take there message City Hall and suggested that  if  “apathy” continued, many upstate cities “would die”.

The plot had begun to thicken.

Albany’s South Mall Part 1 Let the games begin!

The building of the Empire State Plaza, or the South Mall as  the locals know it,  was the product of a perfect storm.  The storm ripped through almost 100 acres of the urban core of the city, closed at least 250  businesses (and ended up being the death knell for about another 200) , as well displacingin  excess of 9,000 people.  Many of those businesses and people moved out of  Albany and never looked back.

The groundwork for the storm had its roots in the development of the national highway system in the 1950’s under President Eisenhower,  and the national, state and local movements  to provide adequate postwar housing, while eliminating urban decay and blight. The mantra was “urban renewal”.

Highway building took its toll. In 1960, the New York Central Rail Road informed the City that it would shut Union Station and move the station out of Albany to Rensselaer.  It could no longer support the large building as passenger rail use declined;it was a fiscal drag.  Mayor Corning fought that decision throughout 1960, but lost the battle.   Additionally,  there were unique local  concerns about the housing stock and urban decay.   A shanty town built from WW Ii army surplus pre-fab materials  had existed in St. Mary’s Park on Washington Ave.  until 1953.  Initially supported by the  State, Governor Harriman withdrew financial support and  evicted the tenants. It fell to the City to resolve the problem.

1953 Albany Knick News

st mary's evictions

st mary's aprk 1953

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A large arterial highway system, supported mostly with federal funds, was already in the works.  It would end up cutting off the  City from the river.  The city had been created and fed by the life blood of the Hudson for 350 years.

New “Projects” bad been completed in North Albany. more were planned and several large high rise  buildings were  under construction in the  South End “Gut” on Green Street.  But that would not solve the  growing demand for middle class housing.  In 1950, the City’s population had reached a high water mark of about 137,000.  By 1960, it had dropped to about 128.000, due in large part  to a lack of housing stock for the middle class.

January 1960  Albany Knickerbocker News

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Downtown merchants were losing business to new shopping plazas  springing up closer to the suburbs as people moved to the fringes of the city.  Delaware Plaza  in Delmar was established in 1955, Latham Circle in 1957, Westgate Shopping Plaza on Central Avenue in 1958 and Stuyvesant Plaza on Western Ave. in 1959. 

The Legend

Urban legend has it that Nelson Rockefeller was embarrassed by Albany.  In September, 1959, Princess Beatrix, the then 21 year  old heir to the Dutch throne,  came to visit Albany and participate  in the 350th  Hudson-Champlain Celebration,   a gala event celebrating the discovery of the New Netherlands (New York State) and most particularly Albany.  I remember it well. I went to the the large parade with my grandmother.  We stood in the same spot on State St, just above Broadway, where she had watched the 300th celebration 50 years before  with her older brothers.  I was 8, the same age she had been  in 1909.

Legend goes on to say that as Rocky was sitting with an  young attractive Princess in a convertible as it toured the City, he became increasingly upset by the condition of the downtown areas of Albany. (But many people forget that Erastus Corning was also in that convertible, sitting next to the Princess  as it made the tour.) According to urban myth, Rocky has neber really look at the city before and he was seeing through her eyes.  Not a modern city nor even a quaint old charming town, like those in Holland, but an old tired city, riddled with decay, built haphazardly in a crazy quilt.

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As the legend continues, when he did look , he found the Governor’s Mansion  smack dab in the middle of a heavily populated area, the oldest and most run down section of the city, dominated by Jewish and Italian first and second generation immigrant populations.  Just a stone’s throw  from the Mansion was the Lyon’s Block,- a large open air public market. In 1959, the Market was crammed, especially on Saturdays, with people selling everything and anything; new and used clothing, food, plants, second hand  items,  and live chickens and rabbits.  Just below the Market were butcher  and poultry shops.  Today we would see a diverse, alive and thriving, albeit somewhat shabby community, maybe even with a certain European charm.  But 50  years ago it was seen as no better than a slum.

The Lyons Market in the 1930’s- by the late 1950’s it was more crowded and shabbier.

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If Rocky had managed to position himself for a presidential or vice presidential nomination at the 1960 Republication  Convention,  what followed over the next 14 years would never have happened.  But he was not successful.  So he  returned to Albany and looked around again, and didn’t like what he saw.  But it’s clear that Rocky wasn’t the only person who had plans for the City. Merchants were clamoring for changes.  Mayor Corning had concerns about an over crowded city, losing population to the suburbs.  Albany was crumbling on his watch. 

Events  were set in motion. almost taking on a life of their own,  unfolding at some points  with a mind numbing slowness and at others with a dizzying rapidity.

Early January 1961

The first mention of improvements to Albany  appeared in  the  Jan. 4, 1961 Albany Knickerbocker News (KN).  (All citations are from the  KN unless identified otherwise.)  Rockefeller gives  a speech to  to the Legislature  in which he talked about a “new Albany” with a convention center , an arterial (highway) and multiple dwelling housing. He requests that the Legislature  create a Temporary State Commission  on the Capitol City (TSCC).  For most Albanians, I’m guessing it was a non  news event.   The same paper  has screaming headlines about tense foreign relations with Cuba and excitement about  the impending inauguration of JFK.  People had other things on their mind.  On the previous day  (January 3) the paper has lead with the story that the “State” was taking the Albany  Country Club by eminent domain to build a new State University at Albany.   That might have been a warning, a foreshadowing of things to come,  but would have been quite difficult to connect the dots at point and for months to come. Hindsight is 20/20.

jan 3 1961

Rocky’s request to the State Legislature  Jan 4, 1961

jan 4 1961 rocky

When Mayor Corning was asked for comment on the Governor’s proposal there was a surprise.  He produced a report prepared by consultants two year prior that called for a series of improvements throughout  Albany, concentrating on the downtown areas.  The report had not previously been made public, nor had the cost of the consultant  been separately identified in the city budget.

One of the  planning documents was labeled “Urban Renewal Report”.  It called for redevelopment of 10 areas, comprising 320 acres and about 6,300 families, as well as another 7 areas of 255 acres with 6,100 families where housing required substantial “rehabilitation action”

jan 4 1961

On the same day (Jan 4), the paper also reports  that Albany has received  a $161,000 federal loan for slum clearance in North  Albany.

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The next day, Jan. 5, whenjan 5 1961 2 the Mayor was queried about his failure to release the planning report to  the public, he answered that he didn’t consider it an official city document.

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The details of the plan were released on the same day:

North Albany was targeted for demolition of   a large number of structures, including residential housing , and that area was proposed for  commercial and light industrial redevelopment.

  • South Arbor Hill,   with a 20 acre area of rugged terrain covered with “blighted residential structures, ” was targeted for commercial and industrial development, a “cooperative apartment site” and enlargement of the Dudley Park area. Clearing of  25 to 45 acres for a new elementary school, of street parking, shopping area and residential housing was proposed.

Central Avenue was slated for structure rehabiliation and clearance of a block near Lark for parking.

  • Sheridan Hollow reflected the “blighting influence” of low topography; 85 % of housing units are substandard.  A combination of rehab and redevelopment was required,  with cleared areas for targeted for medium density residential units or commercial use.  Clearing  the blighted residential section would make way for  general business development, off street parking and a proposed Eagle Street Viaduct for  a connection  with Clinton Avenue.
  • Lincoln  Park had 25% of  substandard structures; “spot clearance”  for off street parking and some re-use was recommended. The area around the Governor’s Mansion  was recommended for have spot clearance for apartment development to return it to its once “fashionable position”.
  • In the South End of 65 acre area, only 6% of units were substandard.  The proposal was  complete rebuilding of neighborhood, additional public housing, a shopping center, an elementary school and widening of South Pearl St.. Row type housing to counterbalance the high density high raise . under construction was suggested. A pedestrian bridge to connect the South End and Lincoln Park was recommended – over Schuyler High and around the Schuyler Mansion and Howe Library.
  • Capitol Hill and the Central Business District are “badly blighted and severely overcrowded” Over 50^ of structures were substandard.  The northern area was targeted  for office buildings, with the addition of another elementary school (already being planned) and high income housing.
  • Finally,  the there would be an area  carved from Capital Hill,  the Business District and Arbor Hill for a new combined railway/bus station, office buildings ,  with enlargement of the business area and high rise  apartments with a river view.

The accompanying article identifies the findings from the study commissioned by the Mayor.  Albany was a “rental town” with 62% of units occupied by tenants and and 18% of units tabulated in study were found to be substandard.  The results of the survey were  a mixed bag, with a substantial increase in demolitions  in previous 7 years  (1950-57), as well as an increase  of about 2.700 in dwelling units during that time period.  Of those, about 500 resulted from conversions – addition of basement apartments, upper flower subdivisions, etc.   The report said that these conversions resulted in overcrowded schools, insufficient parking, and other factors that lead to blight and  ultimately “slums”.

 

January 5, 1961

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The City had little or no enforced zoning laws, almost no housing code enforcement (since there was no code0  and you could get a building permit by scribbling a plan on a cocktail napkin.  (My grandfather  did it.) Consequently, the consultant report called for new zoning requirements.  But the comprehensive zoning  plan in Albany was not put in place until 1968.  One could speculate that it took this long to get  a zoning law passed by the Common Council. Or one could speculate that a zoning law was finally put into place after the demolition of huge swathes of commercial and residential structures  for the South Mall, so they would not have to be “grandfathered”  under a new zoning law.

January 5, 1961

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The handwriting was on the wall, but as I said before, no one was connecting the dots. How could they?  What was going to happen was unthinkable.   The Albany Knickerbocker News Editorial staff was focused on the here and now.  In its January 5 editorial, it reminded the Governor of his promise to the Mayor  to provide for the development of shopping and restaurant areas and other commercial areas surrounding the new University. As we all know, that never happened.  And so the stage is set.. for the next scenes.

January 5, 1961

jan 5 1961

And things were going to be moving fast.  Rocky was a man of action.. tremendous energy.. and he was used to having things his own way.. NOW.  On January 3rd, the State seized the land.. now it could move forward.. post haste. But first he requested more money for the  State Campus.   It may have been the Harriman State Office Building Campus, but Rocky would put his little stamp on it. Rockefeller was, not unlike many in government that time, obsessed with the prospect of nuclear attack, especially with the recent takeover of Cuba by Castro, with the help of his Communist friends. So Rocky decided to create an “alternate seat of government”, by providing office facilities at the campus for Civil Defense, the State Police and the State Office of Military and Naval Affairs at the State Campus site.  He characterized this request as Capital District economic stimulus.

He also requested funding repay the Governmental Emergency Fund for the cost of the Albany Country Club land to be used to construct the new State University.  My husband’s father worked for the NYS State Comptroller’s office at that time and throughout the 1960’s. He would say that was Rocky’s  approach, ask for a relatively small amount of funds to start a project rapidly – to get  the shovels in the ground.  He understood that once the project was started, even if the Legislature balked, it would ultimately approve more money for a project already in the works.

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