Marion “Mae” Carlson was once the rooming house queen of Albany. In 1960, Knickerbocker News reporter Edward Swietnicki probably overestimated by at least 100 persons the number of adults (200) and children (250) who lived in her 21 furnished rental properties, most of them converted single-family homes a couple blocks from the Capitol. At the time of the interview, Mrs. Carlson was trying to sell several buildings to avoid installing the fire escapes mandated under New York’s Multiple Residence Law. Two years later, this problem was largely resolved, when the State appropriated 16 of her properties to make way for the Empire State Plaza.
Rumored once to have been a barmaid or salesgirl—she didn’t like to talk about those days—Mae began her lodging house career as Mrs. Marion Harvey in the mid-1920s. She started off at 16 Jay Street in 1926 and, by the following year, was running two more houses on the same block. It appears that her future husband, a tile layer named Frank Carlson, was a resident of one these houses. In 1929, both Frank and Mae disappeared from the city directory for several years. By 1934, Mae was back on Jay Street, but Frank was nowhere in evidence.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the Great Depression, Mrs. Carlson’s rooming house empire grew from Jay Street to Lancaster and South Hawk streets in the 1930s. She appears quickly to have ingratiated herself with Albany’s Democratic organization and, just as quickly, to have violated election laws. As William Kennedy quipped, she “was noted for getting out the vote on Election Day—getting it out of her tenants, that is.” As part of a State anti-corruption probe in 1938, Mrs. Carlson was indicted, jointly with City employee William J. Germano, for vote buying. They were accused of offering E. Frederick Flagg $5 to vote Democratic. Legs Diamond’s defense attorney, Daniel H. Prior, represented the defendants, as well as three others accused of committing the same offense. His clients pleaded guilty and received six-month suspended sentences. (By contrast, four ex-convicts who voted illegally were sentenced to five-to-ten years hard labor at Clinton Prison.) Four years later, Mr. Prior would again defend Albany Democrats caught up in a new anti-corruption campaign.
Mrs. Carlson had her critics as well as her defenders. Although judged to have grown rich through her property acquisitions—something she denied—Mrs. Carlson skimped on safety and allowed her properties to decay. Edward Swietnicki described a thick folder of violations documented by County welfare officials and filed with the City’s Building Department. Mrs. Carlson was also typically delinquent on tax payments and water rents. The City and County may have looked the other way, but in 1957, she was fined $1,000 for failing to file federal income tax returns.
Despite her presumed wealth, Mrs. Carlson did not live like a rich woman. According to the Knickerbocker News, she preferred “to live simply as her tenants and among them” in a “modestly furnished” basement/first floor flat at 48 Lancaster Street. Sharing the apartment with her: her third husband, a grandson, and a former tenant’s daughter, Sandy, whom she’d adopted unofficially. According to the newspaper story, “Mrs. Carlson’s love of children is legend in the neighborhood.” Unlike many other landlords, she was willing to rent to large families and to welfare recipients. She was also well-known for her “charitable works and good deeds”—temporarily housing a family left homeless by fire, a husband whose wife was hospitalized with cancer.
After reading the Knickerbocker News story, Mrs. Earl Van Alstyne wrote a letter to the editor. She felt that Edward Swietnicki failed to “give Mrs. Carlson half the praise she deserves” for her hard work, piety, charity (Thanksgiving turkey for the old, Christmas gifts for the young), and attentiveness to tenants’ needs. “I am proud of my apartment and proud to have a landlady like Mae Carlson. There isn’t another landlady in the world can beat her.”
In March 1962, when asked her thoughts about the South Mall, Mrs. Carlson responded after some reflection, “I think the plan is going to make the whole place around here beautiful. What will I do when the building is torn down? I haven’t thought about it yet.” She eventually moved up a couple of blocks to another of her Lancaster Street properties, but the world she inhabited was changing. The rooming house district would be largely demolished. Plans were in the works for an “intensive upgrading” of structures adjacent to the South Mall. When Mrs. Carlson died in December 1982, gentrification was already in process. As William Kennedy wrote, “She was a rare bird . . . made rarer by the absence of rooming-house streets like Lancaster and Jay that could produce another like her.”