Documenting Displacement and Dispossession

On the morning of March 27, 1962, the New York State Department of Public Works (DPW) filed two maps with the Albany County Clerk, thereby acquiring by right of eminent domain 98.5 acres in downtown Albany—part or all of 40 city blocks. The take maps, along with individual notices appropriation to property owners and management agreements between the State and former owners, are available to researchers—with prior approval from the County Clerk’s office. The documents are indexed by hand and organized by the owner’s last name in a 500-page bound volume.

Tax rolls for Albany City, 1962. Albany County Hall of Records.
Tax rolls for Albany City, 1962. Albany County Hall of Records.

These documents are rich sources of information about the South Mall properties ca. 1962/1963. Some of the information can be gleaned through other sources. For example, city tax rolls (available on microfilm at the Albany County Hall of Records) tell us owners’ names along with property type, construction, dimensions, and assessed value. However, tax rolls do not list property owners’ addresses, and digging up these addresses can be key in cases of corporate ownership. For example, the office of CPA Henry Ackerman at 19 Rector Street in New York City was linked to several South Mall notices of appropriation and five different corporations. But the ownership was the same—Sidney Albert & Irving Kirsch with offices on Fulton Street in Troy. (William Kennedy’s 1965 Times-Union exposé on Albany’s slums was also key to helping us identify the owners in this case.)

Memo from Daniel Button to William Kennedy, ca. 1965. William Kennedy Papers, Special Collections, U Albany.
Memo from Daniel Button to William Kennedy, ca. 1965. William Kennedy Papers, Special Collections, U Albany.

The March 1962 appropriation of the South Mall properties instantly transformed owners into caretakers. As a consequence, the New York State Department of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) negotiated hundreds of management agreements with former owners or their proxies to cover the period between State’s seizure and demolition. The agreements are standardized and rather dull, but the attached rent surveys tell us a great deal about the South Mall properties. For example, we know from surveys signed by Cora Zeh that in August 1962 Lillian Pierce’s famous hotel and rooming houses were generally in good condition but had high rates of vacancy. Some of the vacancies were likely due to news of imminent demolition; others were longer standing.

Along with condition and vacancies, these surveys quantify the number of rental units (rooms, apartments, storefronts) along with the cost of rent and other expenses to the owner or occupant. For example, we know that in October 1962, Blanche Carter Winnie’s rooming house at 24 Jay Street was fully occupied. Mrs. Winnie lived in the basement flat with her husband Arthur, a meat cutter. Her tenants lived in 9 rooms on the 3 floors above. Depending on the room, rent ranged from $4.50 to $12.00 per week and included utilities, light cleaning, and laundry.

A S. Hawk streetscape. Albany Institute.
A S. Hawk streetscape. Albany Institute.

Photographs are another source of information about these properties—and occasionally their owners and residents. Over the course of about a month in the summer of 1962, an unknown photographer documented the exteriors of 80-90% of the appropriated properties, moving down the block from one property to the next. These photographs are owned by the Albany Institute and interspersed among them are several by DPW. These images led us to the New York State Archives, where we discovered a cache of DPW negatives showing the interiors and exteriors of roughly 300 of the condemned structures. Some of these photos show lively streetscapes; others seem to be portraits of South Mall residents.

Employee at the Western House of Beef, 32 Grand Street. NYS Archives.
Employee at the Western House of Beef, 32 Grand Street. NYS Archives.

Documenting what happened to the South Mall structures is generally much easier than figuring out what happened to the people displaced by eminent domain. Most residents were tenants rather than owners, and the most transient of these—the residents of Albany’s rooming houses and cheap hotels—are not listed in the city directory. Likewise, the directory fails to document dependent children, aging parents, boarders, etc. We do not know how many individuals were displaced. However, South Mall Coordinating Committee reports at the New York State Archives document the displacement of 3,563 households.

The DHCR’s South Mall project office at 96 Hudson did collect relevant data. That office was responsible for assisting with relocation plans and reimbursing South Mall residents for moving expenses up to $300. In order to receive reimbursement, residents were required to fill out a site occupant record form. We are looking, but have yet to find, these records.

Jay Street, corner of High. NYS Archives.
Jay Street, corner of High. NYS Archives.

Due to a sensational murder in the summer of 1960, we know a bit more about Mrs. Winnie and her tenants than most. In addition to 24 Jay, she operated a second rooming house across the street, and that house was temporarily home to Frederick B. Wood. Mr. Wood was a paroled ex-convict from Elmira who killed two men soon after his release from prison and later admitted to three additional murders. A local interest story on the killings in the Knickerbocker News quoted Mrs. Winnie and her tenant Nettie Fountain; both women approved of Mr. Wood’s tidy habits and seeming devotion to his mother. Mrs. Winne commented, “You couldn’t ask for a better roomer…. I just can’t believe he did it. He seemed like such a fine man.” Soon after Mr. Wood’s arrest, Mrs. Fountain and her husband, Calvert, moved to a furnished apartment at 15 High Street, coincidentally owned by Lillian Pierce and Cora Zeh.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s