LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY (the width of a planet for you, Bob; a mere continent for me), in the heart of the Empire State, there lived a little king. On one particularly warm and sunny spring day, the little king received a beautiful princess, visiting from a distant land, and as they rode together in an open carriage to his palace, the princess noted the general disrepair of the streets and buildings thereabouts. Then the little king became ashamed and vowed to build something monumental in its place, something befitting the grandeur of his kingliness, something visiting dignitaries would find much pleasure in – something, in short, which would make the little king look big. Well, at least a little bigger. Thus began one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in the history of the kingdom.
The year was 1959, the town was Albany, and the little king was Nelson A. Rockefeller, newly-elected Governor of New York State. Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands was on a diplomatic visit to honor the Dutch heritage of the city and to meet the new governor, and their ride took them through an area known as the Center Square district on their way to the Governor’s Mansion in the south end of the city. The urban renewal project which resulted from that ride would be called the Empire State Plaza (the “South Mall” to locals), and it would eventually disrupt thousands of lives, destroy the heart of the city, cost a king’s ransom, and haunt Rocky for years to come. But what is that to a king?
In 1962, the State Legislature appropriated the funds for the project, and city crews began demolishing all of the homes and businesses in a forty-block area between Eagle and Swan Streets, a total of 95 acres of land. William Kennedy wrote in O Albany! that clearing these neighborhoods caused the “destruction of 1150 structures, most of them private dwellings, and the displacement of 3600 households – over 9000 people; many black, many Italians and Jews, many old, many poor.” After almost two years of demolition and clearing, construction finally began in 1964.
Although we had moved out of that neighborhood before the destruction got underway, I can still remember coming home from the Air Force as a young man and looking out over the desolate landscape that was once a vibrant community, a melting pot in the best American sense, now reduced to a collage of fading memories: Nino, fresh off the boat from Italy, patiently repeating the choicest swear words we could come up with to prepare him for life in America; gathering around a Latvian feast with Marty and his family, their homeland stolen first by the Germans and then by the Russians; or days spent teasing the beautiful young Sofia, whose family had escaped the Hungarian Uprising, and who from then on would occupy the American dreams of many a young Elm Street boy.
Then there was Mrs. Matzen, a salty old German woman who had worked all her adult life as a nurse, saved enough money to buy a home on Elm Street, and then spent years renovating it by herself on weekends. Though the house was a gleaming jewel by the time it was finished, she herself was nearly crippled by arthritis in the process, and for her effort she was given a modest check by the State and ordered to move out. Not surprisingly, she refused. The Albany police arrived one dismal day and whisked her away to an undisclosed location, and, in my mind, sealed the Rockefeller legacy forever. ‘Let them eat concrete’, shouted the little king.
Within in a few years we would become card-carrying counter-cultural crusaders, tilting at the windmills of the “military-industrial complex”, inspired in part by the wanton sacrifice of our beloved city neighborhood on the altar of a billionaire’s ego. There was some justice to be had though, for those who were willing to wait; Rocky would one day die of a heart attack in the arms of his intern in an office in Manhattan; a fitting end for someone who wreaked so much havoc with his erections.
I imagine we are not unlike millions whose cities were destroyed by the ravages of war: there comes a day of reckoning when you realize you must make peace with the past, or remain at war with it for the rest of your life. Perhaps that’s why we live in two of the most beautiful cities in the world, as a form of compensation for the destruction of our roots. As for the gleaming monolith which replaced them, it has since become a big tourist attraction, I understand; but sadly, few who stroll beside those marble-clad pools and fountains will ever know about the miracle that was Elm Street in the 1950s, and that, my friend, is a cryin’ damn shame.