Planning photo, summer 1962. Photo by Bernie Kolenberg. Courtesy of John Mesick.
On March 27, 1962, the State of New York seized 98.5 acres (40 city blocks) in the heart of downtown Albany. The State’s South Mall redevelopment project would displace roughly 7,000 people, hundreds of small businesses, 3 schools, and 4 churches—all to make way for construction of a massive modernist office and cultural complex.
The Albany Times Union announces the redevelopment project. Courtesy of the Times Union.
Thousands of Albany residents were shocked to learn that they would soon lose their home or business—in some cases, both—when they read that morning’s Times Union.
Local newspaper editors immediately sent reporters out to collect man-on-the-street interviews from the South Mall area. The Albany Democratic Party organized a house-to-house canvass for the same purpose.
The goals and methods of reporters and political operatives differed dramatically. Owned by the same publisher, Albany’s two local newspapers backed the State’s South Mall plan with pro-development editorials and stories. Reporters targeted an area characterized by small businesses and transient residents, where they found support for, or at least acceptance of, the State plan. By contrast, the Democratic canvassers catalogued opposition to the South Mall among an aging population of owner-occupiers and long-term tenants living near the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Many of these residents were active in the Catholic Church and loyal to the party’s leadership.
Both sets of interviews are skewed, but together, they provide a broader picture of how residents and business owners responded to news of their imminent dispossession. Some greeted the news with optimism, others with anxiety. Overall, a sense of inevitability prevailed.
In the summer of 1962, a WRGB film crew uncovered a similar range of opinions for the television documentary The South Mall Project: Hoax or Hope? As a group, the residents and business owners interviewed welcomed economic development but worried about lost homes. They spoke to reporters despite the Democratic machine’s pressure to remain quiet. To hear what they had to say, click on the video below.
South Mall supporters used photographs such as this to make the case for redevelopment. From the NYS Archives, University at Albany.
The South Mall was unlike most other urban renewal project in the United States. It was a state-initiated plan imposed on a reluctant city with minimal input from local leaders. Albany Mayor Erastus Corning promptly denounced the South Mall plan and brought suit to prevent its implementation. Having just won a sixth term as mayor, he had a 20-year history of fighting off Republican governors’ attempts to intervene in the capital city’s affairs.
Mayor Corning’s press conference. Note how the photograph was altered for publication. Courtesy of the Times Union.
At his March 30, 1962 press conference, Mayor Corning condemned the South Mall as a “cruel hoax.” Asked his opinion of the State land seizure, he responded, “Well I think it’s a tragedy to the people living in the area. There are very, very good buildings, many people owned their own homes for many years, the relocation problem is staggering….”
Corning told the reporters he had received hundreds of letters applauding his opposition to the State plan. Business- and homeowners, Elinor and Leo Mullen, praised the mayor’s efforts to prevent seizure of their property and destruction of the tight-knit community in which they lived. She wrote, “We hope and pray that God will give you the strength to fight against this communistic method for improving the city of Albany….”
Patricia Beaupre called on the mayor to protect her family and neighbors. “What good are these monuments,” she wrote. “The people won’t be around to see them, if the houses keep being torn down…. [T]here won’t be anyplace for the people to live. Even tearing down new high schools. Please don’t let Governor Rockefeller do these cruel things to us.”
Nelson Rockefeller in the Capitol, 1962. Courtesy of the Times Union.
Nelson A. Rockefeller, scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, aspired to be the nation’s “buildingest governor.” The South Mall was his brainchild. Before taking office, Rocky had played a key role in the design and construction of Rockefeller Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. As governor, he was responsible for a dramatic expansion of the state’s highway and university systems.
Hy Rosen for the Times Union. From the NYS Library.
To the Governor and his supporters, Albany appeared blighted and in need of revitalization. For this, they blamed the city’s Democratic leadership. The chairman of the Citizens United Reform Effort (CURE), a local opposition party, described the mayor’s stand on the South Mall as “starkly political.” He accused the Democratic machine of thriving “on decay and deterioration and the miseries of the people.” Rule by favors and threats had its greatest impact on the city’s poorest residents, and as NAACP official and South Mall resident Harry Vodery pointed out, African Americans bore the brunt of both threats and decay.
South Mall boosters argued that reconstruction would beautify Albany and bolster the city’s flagging fortunes. The majority of South Mall residents appeared to agree, based on a CURE poll from the summer of 1962. Over the course of a week, 30 volunteers knocked on doors throughout the redevelopment area, asking two questions:
Of 1,386 adults polled, 956 (or 70%) answered yes to the first question. More than half (717) answered yes to the second.
And yet poll results tell only part of the story, as Hal Juhre explained in an open letter to Mayor Corning and Gov. Rockefeller: “….Many of the affected residents—60 of whom I interviewed during the recent CURE survey—are confused and concerned as to how the project will affect people. Will it enhance human welfare and dignity or lead to human misery? The most recurrent theme was ‘I’m all in favor of progress, so long as no one gets hurt.’….” Rather than wholesale clearance, Juhre proposed rehabilitation with an emphasis on housing. He pointed out that while the area had deteriorated under Democratic leadership, many of the structures were still sound.
The footage below is from the summer of 1962. It shows what South Mall boosters (on the left) and opponents (on the right) wanted the public to see.
The South Pearl Street Shopping District, 1963. From the NYS Archives.
View the Visual Record: South Pearl Street Shopping District
Within the area slated for demolition, South Mall supporters found run-down rentals, broken sidewalks, and vacant storefronts. Critics pointed to churches, schools, family homes, and profitable businesses in other sections. Where and why they looked determined what they saw. The 98-acre redevelopment area encompassed several distinct neighborhoods.
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To learn more about the people who lived and worked in these lost neighborhoods, visit the Personal Stories section of this website. To see the sights, check out the Visual Record section. You can also Explore the Interactive Map, which puts displaced people and demolished structures back where they once belonged.
Rockefeller hands out souvenir bricks. Photo by Bob Paley. Courtesy of the Times Union.
The City’s effort to prevent the South Mall failed. On June 29, 1962, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court ruled in the favor of the State. Twelve days later, the first South Mall area building was demolished at a press event featuring Gov. Rockefeller behind the controls of a 60-ton crane. He ceremonially removed a bucket of bricks and then handed them out as souvenirs to the crowd of onlookers.
Francisca Abarca, with tenants Victor and Lydia Balls, stands beside the collapsed wall of 228 Hamilton Street. Courtesy of the Times Union.
The following evening, Francisca Abarca, her two children, and tenants became the first of almost 7,000 people displaced for the South Mall. Their house was next-door to the demolished structure and relied on it for support, as was true of most of the area’s many row houses. The destruction of one building endangered adjacent structures—an apt metaphor for the damage caused by displacement. Forcing area residents out of their homes and neighborhoods created social and emotional as well as economic hardship.
Displacement hit hardest elderly residents, like Fred Binseel, a retired Capitol security guard, who lived alone on a limited income. When forced to move, he was 83 years old and recently widowed. Fred never adjusted to life in his new apartment. He complained that it smelled of gas and didn’t trust the water. He suspected his new neighbors and landlord of stealing from him. The extent to which these accusations derived from actual living conditions versus emotional distress is unclear.
Lazarus Kontis in front of his shoe repair store, ca. 1950. Above the store was the apartment he shared with his family. Courtesy of Angelo Kontis.
Lazarus Kontis, a long-time Hudson Avenue business owner, experienced a similar decline after losing both home and business to the South Mall. Even after closing shop and moving into a new second-floor apartment, Lazarus kept trying to walk down the stairs to the now non-existent store below, as he had every morning for the past 53 years. This loss appears to have triggered or accelerated a decline in health. In August 1966, three years after the move, Lazarus died, institutionalized and suffering from dementia.
Psychologist Marc Fried analyzed the impact of displacement on the former residents of Boston's West End, a section similar in demographics to the South Mall redevelopment area. In 1963, Fried described being forcibly dispersed as a “highly disturbing and disruptive” experience evoking an emotional response akin to grief. “It's just like a plant,” one of his informants told him, “when you tear up the roots, it dies!” More recently, psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove diagnosed the trauma of displacement as “root shock.”
Emma Leonard and her children take one last walk around their old neighborhood. Courtesy of the Times Union.
“It's very hard for us to pull up roots. We had a lovely life here,” Emma Leonard told Dick Weber on December 22, 1964, the day she and her family became the last to move out of the South Mall redevelopment area. By that time, the Leonard family home overlooking Lincoln Park was surrounded by the rubble-strewn remnants of the Italian-Irish Catholic community into which Emma had been born, grown up, married, and become a mother. She described witnessing its destruction over the past two-and-a-half years as a “nightmare.”
To learn more about people who once lived and worked in the area demolished for the South Mall, visit the Personal Stories section of this website.
Mayor Corning and Gov. Rockefeller inspect a model of the South Mall, April 23, 1963. Courtesy of the Times Union.
Untrained as an architect, Rocky played an unusually active role in the design of the South Mall. His (literally) back-of-the envelope concept sketch, inspired by Potala Palace high above Lhasa, Tibet, would become the basis of the massive modernist office and cultural complex most commonly compared to the Brazilian capital of Brasilia. Indeed, the governor’s aesthetic stamp marked the very foundation of the South Mall, the multi-story, quarter-mile long platform connecting the Capitol to the Governor’s Mansion. This “great wall,” according to lead architect Wallace K. Harrison, was intended to “separate the Mall into a kind of community.”
On April 23, 1963, nine months after demolition began, the State’s South Mall plan was finally unveiled at a press event in the Capitol Rotunda. Reviews in the local newspapers were uniformly positive—not surprising since the newspapers’ publisher was a member of the Temporary State Commission on the Capital City. “Impressive, dramatic, marvelous, terrific, pleasing, magnificent and thrilling” were the comments recorded by one Times Union reporter. Mayor Corning enthused, “As I look at this magnificent model, I consider it the most significant day in the entire history of Albany and of the State…. I will do everything in my power to see that it becomes a reality as quickly and in as fine a fashion as is humanly possible.”
These 1963 architectural renderings by Marcel Mutin helped promote the South Mall, particularly when juxtaposed to State photographs of the most rundown sections of the area to be demolished.
To see more South Mall design drawings and other planning documents, visit the Visual Record section of this website.
Outside of Albany, reviews of the $250 million (estimated) capitol complex were considerably less kind. Mostly notably, an unsigned critique in the influential journal Progressive Architecture dismissed the South Mall design as “an exercise in architectural pop art.” The reviewer blamed the governor and his enablers for its faults. Despite pushback from Rockefeller supporters, the journal’s editor stood by the critique, especially criticism of the governor’s role in the design process. “Quite a few architects are disturbed by this approach to planning,” he said. “Albany deserves the best, and I don’t think it is getting the best.”
Despite criticism, the South Mall project moved inexorably forward. By the end of 1963, the State had displaced the majority of area residents, and demolition was more than halfway complete.
To speed up the process of rehousing displaced residents, the State set up a relocation office in the Hudson Avenue Shopping District. Courtesy of the Times Union.
Demolition created a citywide shortage of cheap apartments and furnished rooms. Complicating matters was an informal but well-enforced system of residential segregation, which prevented African Americans from moving into most sections of the city. (It was not until 1968 that the Fair Housing Act prohibited discrimination in housing sales and rentals.) Combined with segregation, displacement meant increased racial concentration as well as overcrowding in those areas of the city that welcomed black homeowners and tenants.
In the fall of 1963, Times Union reporter Dick Weber described how racial discrimination affected rehousing of displaced black families: “The South Mall Relocation Office has helped find new places for several hundred South Mall residents, white and Negro. When a landlord says, ‘Don’t send any Negroes,’ the Mall office crosses the property off the list of available apartments. It has had to cross off quite a few properties.”
Steelworker and community leader Arthur Mitchell, second from right, at a Kingsmen Club award ceremony, 1963. Courtesy of the Times Union.
Weber featured the story of Arthur and Yvonne Mitchell, middle-class homeowners with plenty of money for a down payment. Because of their race, the Mitchells struggled to find a new home in the majority-white neighborhoods of west Albany. Arthur allowed the reporter to listen in on a call with his realtor:
As their white neighbors moved out, the Mitchells were stuck in place. Over the course of time, they found themselves surrounded by empty houses on which, Weber wrote, “vandals have put the seal of vacancy—smashed windows.”
Based on information collected by Times Union reporter William Kennedy, this October 1965 map uses stars to designate the homes of black families living outside of Albany’s Arbor Hill and South End neighborhoods. Courtesy of the Times Union.
Arthur and Yvonne Mitchell weathered over a year of insults and refusals before they found a new home on Victor Street. They were one of a group of roughly 82 middle-income black families living outside of Albany’s increasingly crowded and dilapidated ghettoes. Black families with fewer economic and social resources were barred from most areas of the city. Taking advantage of their plight, unscrupulous landlords rented displaced families overpriced and substandard housing units.
Ada Skinner (far right) with her sisters and daughter, ca. 1940. All three sisters owned rooming houses on the same block of Jay Street. Courtesy of Tonia Skinner Hannemann.
Rooming house owners, a mostly white and unmarried, divorced, or widowed group of women, faced different hardships. Because the assessed value of South Mall properties was lower than the cost of similar structures in other parts of the city, many of these women struggled to make ends meet. Starting over in her early 60s, Ada Skinner, for example, was able to afford only one house for the amount she received for two in the South Mall area. In addition to economic stress, she suffered from the loss of community. Before the South Mall, her siblings and closest friends were also her neighbors.
Unidentified rooming house tenant. Like him, most roomers were elderly, single, and on a limited budget. From the NYS Archives.
The destruction of Albany’s Rooming House District created problems not only for owners but also their tenants. Numbering close to one thousand, this group of renters could afford little more than the $4-10 per week they typically paid for a place to sleep and wash up. Local social service agencies, particularly the Tuberculosis Association, predicted an increase in homelessness and a decline in public health, unless this lost housing were replaced. But neither local nor state authorities made plans to accommodate the city’s displaced roomers.
The view from the air, 1965. Courtesy of the Times Union.
Although the South Mall area had been emptied of all residents and most buildings by the end of 1964, the City and State were still wrangling over the terms of a financing agreement to underwrite construction. As city and state officials traded accusations, locals greeted the delay with frustration and dark humor.
Times Union columnist John Maguire captured this sentiment: “The way things have been going lately around Albany, it begins to look as if the South Mall may never be finished or at best may be delayed a long time. I think we ought to start thinking about what to do with all that open space. Someone here in the office said it looks like good soil for planting celery, but 98 acres set to celery seems a bit much. Someone else said it’s terraced so it would make good rice paddies, and another man said why not let Ag-and-Markets use it for an experiment farm where they could grow okra and raise alpaca…. Another original thinker said it would make a good arena for teenage rumbles, because there’s a lot of bricks handy … and no windows to break. There were two votes for a new municipal golf course, two for a ski slope and one for flooding it and having ice skating.”
For the next several months, Albany residents lived with this uncertainty. Would the State rebuild? Or would the South Mall remain a massive hole in the heart of the city?