Our thanks to Mark Leonard for his help with this post.
James (Jim) and Emma Leonard knew that they would have to move before the end of 1964. Yet they had hoped to spend one last Christmas in their 93 Park Avenue home. But on December 22—three days before Christmas—a McArdle & Casazza moving van arrived at their door, courtesy of the State of New York. So, while Jim was at work, Emma supervised the movers and packed up the car with kids and Christmas decorations. That day, the Leonard family became the last to leave the South Mall take area. They would celebrate the holidays in a new house on Hillcrest Avenue—with a puppy named Prince to go with the family’s big new backyard.
While this event was an important milestone toward completion of the State’s new office complex, Emma Leonard described the two-and-a-half years leading up to the day as a “nightmare.” The family’s Park Avenue home was surrounded by rubble, remnants of the former houses of friends and neighbors who had moved out earlier. Adding to the stress, the Leonard family’s Hillcrest home was unfinished. On move-in day, it lacked a front porch, working kitchen, washer-drier, and bathtub. It did, however, acquire a commemorative doorknocker, presented to the family by representatives of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.
As movers loaded the van, Dick Weber of the Knickerbocker News arrived to interview the Leonards. (A copy of Weber’s story is available on the Albany Muskrat’s blog: http://goo.gl/HHCfOt.) Emma spoke for the family. “It’s very hard for us to pull up roots,” she told Weber. “We had a lovely life here.” She had lived on Philip Street in Albany’s South End since birth. The daughter of musician Mario Michela, she manifested at an early age a vocal talent that was nurtured by the nuns at Cathedral Academy. She starred in church theatricals and became the Cathedral choir’s soprano soloist. Emma met her future husband, an Irish South Ender, at her Uncle Charles Ciaccia’s S. Pearl Street grocery store. In an appropriately Irish-Italian twist, Jim and Emma were married by Father Emmett O’Connor, pastor of St. Anthony’s Church. When Jim went off to serve in World War II, Emma remained behind on Philip Street with her mother Agatha (nicknamed Ida). After the war, they moved next door. Jim found a job with the State, and Emma retired from hers to stay home and raise the children—Michele, Mary Serena, Mark, and Anne Rita.
In 1955, the Leonards moved from Philip Street to Park Avenue, Jim joked, to “get away from the Italians” (his in-laws). But life on Park was not so different from Philip. Ida, who helped finance the new house, lived with the Leonards. And Emma’s kin—most having moved to Westmere in Guilderland—visited on weekends and sometimes stayed over during the week. As on Philip Street, the family’s new neighbors were a conglomeration of first-, second-, and third-generation Italians, Irish, and Germans, living alongside newer migrants, mainly European Jews and Southern blacks.
On Park Avenue, the children’s schools (Cathedral Academy and Cardinal McCloskey High School) were just around the block. Although their backyard was small, Lincoln Park was right across the street. During the summer, the Leonard children spent their days playing in the park. Like most of the area children, that’s where they learned how to swim. Across Orr Place was a basketball court in another park, a small grassy triangle formed by the intersection of Park, Orr, and Charles.
Even after they moved away, the Leonard family continued to return to the South End. A couple of years after the move, Michele was married in the Cathedral. Her groom was a former Park Avenue neighbor. Mary and Anne were also married in the Cathedral. Mark, now a deacon, was an altar boy and sang in the Cathedral choir. Every Sunday, the family still dressed up and drove in to attend mass. But returning was difficult—both in emotional and practical terms. Although the Cathedral remained, the Leonard family’s former neighborhood was largely demolished. A new convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph was built where their home once stood. And finding a place to park the car became more and more difficult as construction of the Empire State Plaza got underway.
Note: The photograph of Anne Leonard at the beginning of this post was taken by Bob Paley for the Knickerbocker News and is used by permission of the Times Union.