On the morning of July 11, 1962—after months of delay due to the City’s lawsuit—the State of New York began demolishing South Mall properties posthaste. The first demolition was a press event. To the applause of several hundred onlookers—including neighborhood residents, like Mrs. Scanese (pictured above)—Gov. Nelson Rockefeller operated the controls of a 60-ton crane. He maneuvered the crane to the top edge of the structure and scooped up a clam bucket full of bricks and roofing. After lowering the load to the ground, he commented, “I didn’t want to kill anybody.” Grinning broadly, Rocky handed control of the crane back to its operator and began shaking hands and signing autographs.
The first South Mall property demolished, 224-226 Hamilton Street, was a long-vacant commercial and residential structure owned by Isadore Jaffe. It was one of 65 vacant and dilapidated buildings slotted for immediate demolition. The house next door, 228 Hamilton, was occupied. It was home to Francisca Abarca and her children, Anthony and Anna, as well as to their tenants, Victor and Lydia Balls. This house would, nevertheless, become the second South Mall property demolished—much to the State’s embarrassment.
On the evening of July 12, as Mrs. Abarca settled down to watch television, she heard a loud crack—moments later, she noticed a large hole in her living room wall. All the residents escaped quickly and without injury, but they must have lost much of their personal property. The following day, 228 Hamilton was torn down.
The NYS Department of Housing and Community Renewal (the agency responsible for managing South Mall properties and relocating area residents) acted quickly, hoping to avoid lawsuits and deflect criticism. For almost a week, the Abarca family stayed at the DeWitt Clinton Hotel and took their meals at Alfonso’s Restaurant—all at State expense. Meanwhile, DHCR officials arranged to move the family’s possessions into a new apartment at 40 S. Hawk, on the corner of Jay. But there was a cost for this care. On July 19, the Abarcas–presumably under some pressure–agreed to sign an affidavit to the effect that they were uninjured, their personal property was intact, and they would “make no claim against the State.” (To sweeten the deal, DHCR threw in an extra rent-free month.) Mrs. Abarca, nevertheless, consulted with her lawyer soon after.
Publicly, DHCR officials denied responsibility for the accident. James Pergolizzi, for example, told the Knickerbocker News that Mrs. Abarca “told me two months ago this was a good building and she was mad because we condemned it. Guess she’s changed her mind now.” Nevertheless, soon after this incident, State policy and practice changed with regard to demolishing structures adjacent to occupied housing.
Although she must have been angry, Mrs. Abarca agreed to participate in a September 1962 ceremony marking presentation of the first payments to South Mall property owners. During the ceremony at 96 Hudson Ave, the DHCR’s South Mall Office, Rocky did his best to charm, addressing Mrs. Abarca in her native Spanish. Mrs. Abarca, nevertheless, informed State officials that she intended to return with her family to Puerto Rico once she received her settlement check.
Note: We recently learned more about Mrs. Abarca.