Scene from a South Mall Bar

In July 1963—a year after South Mall demolitions beganTimes Union reporter William Kennedy stopped in Charlie Milham’s Grill, on the corner of Madison and Mosher, to hear what area residents and business owners had to say about the State’s redevelopment plan.

Corner of Madison Avenue and Green Street, ca. 1950s. Albany Institute.
The corner of Madison Avenue and Green Street, looking west toward Milham’s Grill on the right, ca. 1950s. Albany Institute.

Phil Milham, a brother of the owner, was tending bar that day. Behind him hung a sentimental tribute to Mother, placards commemorating Prohibition’s repeal, a newspaper clipping about Dan O’Connell’s 77th birthday—along with photos of the bar in its heyday, just before World War II. Back then, the tavern featured live music and dancing. The crowd was “two deep at the bar. You couldn’t get in the place.”

151 S. Pearl, where Milham's Grill moved after the South Mall.
151 S. Pearl Street today.

Milham told Kennedy about his brother’s plan to move the business to 151 S. Pearl, site of Milham’s Ready-to-Wear Women’s and Children’s Clothing. “You got an established trade, but what are you gonna do?” he explained. “You can’t turn around and fight the law. I hope it’s for the best for everybody in time. I’m a hundred per cent for improving the city…. But, where are all these people going?”

One answer came from 62-year-old Peter Vedder, who sat at one end of the bar. He had lived most of his life in Albany’s South End and was now preparing to move out of the apartment he shared with his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. “We were supposed to move last Friday,” he told Kennedy. “We got the house torn up and everything packed up. We got to go out now and move into a place on First Street that looks like a pigpen. My daughter’s been up there all week cleaning up the place. She and her husband, they didn’t get what they wanted. They looked all over, and that’s the only place they could find.”

One block down from Milham's Grill, July 1963. NYS Archives.
A block down from Milham’s Grill, these buildings were empty, boarded up, and awaiting demolition, July 1963. NYS Archives.

From across the room, near the coal stove, “a toothless old gentleman” chimed in, “You know what they should do? Build a great big house and have it all filled with beautiful women.”

His companion—a “swizzled lady with hennaed locks,” who refused to give her name—was less complacent, “Pretty soon this is going to be a ghost city…. Every time they tear down a building, they make a parking lot out of it. If money is so scarce, where are they getting all the cars to park?”

Back outside, Kennedy—who had just returned home from a 7-year stint in Puerto Rico—surveyed the new urban landscape: abandoned buildings, rubble heaps, boarded-up stores, and brand-new parking lots.

Detail from South Mall Coordinating Committee Map, July 1963. NYS Archives.
Detail from the South Mall Coordinating Committee map, July 1963. NYS Archives.

Stopping by one of the parking lots, Kennedy spoke with manager Otis H. Houting, who declared, “If they keep tearing these buildings down, and those stores, there won’t be any need to run a parking lot here.”

Asked what he thought about the South Mall, Houting replied, “Ya never can tell. They might build some buildings here in a couple of years or so. You never know what the hell they’re going to build.”

Header photo: The empty lot at the corner of Hamilton and Green streets, a few blocks away from Milham’s Grill, March 1963. Used by permission of the Times Union.

 

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. W. Houting says:

    A time of change,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know why, but that story is somehow sadder than the others I’ve read. The reporter’s subjects seem bewildered in the face of enormous change. I have a sense that the decision makers thought nothing at all of the people they were displacing. That perhaps they were nothing more to them than lint on a sleeve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. William Kennedy is a keen observer and powerful writer. Lucky for Albany, he has spent much of his career telling our stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Leah says:

    I will admit to having chuckled at the “swizzled lady with hennaed locks” – just a vivid description. That was the only chuckle. As Kathryn said, there is so much sadness and despair in these stories. There’s a feeling of giving up, a recognition that those in power are on their own course, regardless of the lives in their wake.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was around this time that scholars and social workers began studying the psychological impact of displacement. The emotional, as well as economic, impact of redevelopment is an important part of this story, as well as the national story of urban renewal.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Scott Christianson says:

    Thanks for bringing it back to life. You’re building real social history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks to you, William Kennedy, and your former colleagues at the TU and Knick News, we have a rich body of work to draw from.

      Like

  5. Gaetano Cioppa says:

    The Scene from a South Mall Bar is looking west up Madison Ave.,note the Cathedral at the top of the hill,first corner on left King’s Cafe opposite corner going west is Pierce Hotel, first corner on right Joyea Rest. and Bar opposite corner going west use to be TIC TOC Bar and Grill pre WWII and during WWII owned by my uncle even as he served in the war.I was born at 81 Madison Ave.half a block above Green St. on right hand side,looking WEST on 9/30/39.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Gaetano,

      Thanks for the correction. And I’m sorry I didn’t respond earlier. (Your message got stuck in our spam folder.)

      98 Acres in Albany

      Like

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