We are grateful to Grant Van Patten for sharing his memories and photographs with us and to Sinclair Broadcast Group for permission to use footage from WRGB’s 1962 documentary.
On the evening of Saturday, July 14, 1962—just days after the first South Mall demolition—WRGB TV, Channel Six, aired a half-hour documentary called The South Mall Project: Hoax or Hope? We found what we think is the only extant copy of the documentary in the papers of Grant Van Patten at University of Albany’s Special Collections department. Grant produced and directed it, and we had the good fortune to interview him at his home in Clifton Park in the summer of 2016. We enjoyed spending time with him and were sorry to learn that he died earlier this year.
Grant was a World War II veteran and early television pioneer. Upon graduating from Bethlehem High School in 1943, he enlisted in the Marine Corps as a radioman. After seeing action in the Pacific, he suffered what we today call Combat-Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He told us candidly that it took him 20 years to overcome survivor’s guilt after men from his unit were killed on Saipan. He rotated to a stateside posting, running a Marine Corps theater in Cherry Point, NC, where he met luminaries like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
After leaving the service, Grant earned a BA in Communications from Michigan State University and an MA in Television from Syracuse University. (At the time, the highly competitive Syracuse program enrolled only 20 students.) In 1950, he began an 18-year career with WRGB. He left WRGB to become Director of Educational Communications at SUNY Albany in 1968, where he remained until his retirement in 1986.
In 1962, a quote by Albany Mayor Erastus Corning inspired the WRGB documentary’s title. At a press conference called in response to news of the South Mall appropriations, the Mayor declared the redevelopment project to be “a cruel hoax on the people of Albany and a tragedy for the persons in the area.”
Although Mayor Corning’s words inspired the documentary’s title, he and other city officials refused to participate in the project. Grant told us that in filming the documentary, he met with Mayor Corning in City Hall. But when he asked whether the City had a strategy to oppose the South Mall or was simply engaging in “delaying tactics,” Mayor Corning ended the interview and threatened legal action if WRGB used any of the footage shot during that meeting.
Even area business owners were unwilling to appear on camera. When Grant walked State St. looking for interviews, all of the businesses appeared closed. Finally, a man informed him, through a crack in the door, that Mayor Corning had contacted the business owners and ordered them to lock up if anyone from WRGB approached.
On the day the documentary aired, the Knickerbocker News described it as an objective attempt to present both sides of the issue fairly. Two days later, Walter Hawver, the newspaper’s television critic, questioned whether it was possible to treat the subject evenhandedly, given that city officials refused to speak on camera. He believed the City’s refusal to participate in the documentary gave proponents of the Mall a “decisive propaganda” victory, leaving them “virtually unchallenged in their arguments that residents of the affected area were overwhelmingly in favor of the Rockefeller plan.” Yet, Hawver pointed out, shots of well-maintained homes in parts of the redevelopment area suggested that those “occupants will not vacate without a feeling of great emotional loss.”
Below, we match up the silent portions of the video with the script from Grant’s papers in order to reconstruct the documentary as closely as we can.
VIDEO: Silent film of Albany
AUDIO: This was State Street in Albany, New York, over 100 years ago. “Albany has been the capital city of New York State since 1797 and, as such, it merits the special attention of all the people of the state. Large areas of the city have deteriorated. It is essential to have a capital city in which, not only its residents, but the entire Empire State can take proper pride….” These are the words that begin Chapter 319 in the Laws of New York State 1961, enacted by the state legislature in setting up the Temporary State Commission on the Capital City, headed by Lt. Gov. Malcolm Wilson.
VIDEO: SOF WILSON (Audible.)
VIDEO: Silent Footage of report.
AUDIO: The first steps to beautify the capital were suggested on Monday, March 26th, 1962 when this commission made public its recommendation that the State acquire 98½ acres of land and property in the core of Downtown Albany. This, it said, would carry forward its plans for making Albany the most beautiful Capital City in the nation. It drew immediate reaction from the city’s democratic mayor…..Erastus Corning.
VIDEO: SOF CORNING (Audible.)
VIDEO: Silent footage, Albany
AUDIO: And thus began one of the strangest stories in the history of this great city. The controversy between the City of Albany and the State of New York over 98½ acres of real estate. THE SOUTH MALL PLAN—HOAX OR HOPE?
VIDEO: VTR OPENING DUB Silent footage of Albany
AUDIO: There seems to be little disagreement among city and state officials about something having to be done with downtown Albany. Nearly 16% of its stores are vacant….there is too little parking area…too many deteriorating buildings….and an alarming exodus of both customers and residents heading for the suburbs. In fact, the first action to improve the city in general and the downtown area in particular came from the businessmen themselves, with a financial assist from the City. They organized the Downtown Albany Development Committee Incorporated, and placed at its head, Thomas Wheeler, President of W. M. Whitney Company.
VIDEO: SOF MR. WHEELER (Audible.)
VIDEO: Sil Footage 2 reports
AUDIO: Thus, nine months before the State’s Temporary Commission was formed, the Downtown Albany Merchants group was already at work. Later, when the State’s Commission did begin on the project, they also hired professional city planners who eventually came up with the present South Mall Plan.
Not shown on recording.
VIDEO: LIVE SHOT ON MAP IN STUDIO
AUDIO: This plan meant that by the law of eminent domain, the State would acquire this oddly shaped plot of land of almost 100 acres. The main section, that part to be used for State government buildings, would be this rectangular area running from State Street next to the Capital Building, all the way over to Lincoln Park. It covers most of the area between Swan and Eagle Streets. Starting at Eagle, it proceeds in an irregular pattern almost down to Broadway. Included in this section are portions of Madison, Green, Dallius, Hudson, Grand, Mosher, and small connecting streets.
VIDEO: Silent footage Mall area from rooftops
AUDIO: This area includes sixty-eight hundred residents and over three hundred fifty businesses…..most of them small independent operators. In the words of State planners…..”this area would be large enough to build a magnificent Capital City complex, consisting of modern attractive state office buildings, extensive parking facilities, and traffic arteries free of congestion. It will transform the heart of Albany from a deteriorated sector into a beautiful seat of government, worthy of the community’s heritages of history.” In addition to its beautification aspects, the State planners feel that it would solve once and for all the problem of having various State offices scattered all over the City. At present, State offices occupy or rent in 19 different locations in the area at an annual cost to the taxpayers of 4½ million dollars. When the State made its plans public, the verbal fireworks began.
VIDEO: SOF CORNING (Audible.)
VIDEO: LIVE STUDIO CAMERA and Silent film of Court House
AUDIO: The Mayor also said that he didn’t feel the plan had been designed for the benefit of the people of Albany, but instead for the self-glorification of the author. We assume here he meant Governor Rockefeller. The Mayor then took immediate legal steps to prevent the State from proceeding with the plan. From Supreme Court Justice Lawrence H. Cooke, the Mayor asked for and received a temporary stay suspending the State’s action until the courts could hear arguments from both sides. Subsequently, after a delay of two months, which State officials say cost the taxpayers two thousand dollars per day, the Appellate Division ruled that the State could continue with its plans. A spokesman for the State said that demolition of some of the buildings would start immediately. Mayor Corning has stated that he will appeal to a higher court. In a moment we’ll look more closely at the area and meet some of the people affected.
5:57: Commercial, not shown on recording.
VIDEO: Silent footage of Relocation Office
AUDIO: While the Temporary Stay issued by Judge Cooke was in effect, the courts allowed the State to open an office located in the Mall area itself. This was to help answer the inevitable flood of questions which must follow the announcement of a plan the magnitude of this one. The office also served as headquarters for the survey teams which checked over every piece of property to determine just what the State had purchased. In charge of this office affecting the lives of 6800 residents and 350 businesses is William F. Meyers, Assistant Commissioner of Housing for New York State.
VIDEO: SOF MEYERS (B roll length 4:30) (Audible.)
VIDEO: Silent film Western Beef
AUDIO: Everyone involved seems interested in the reaction of Mall residents and businesses.
VIDEO: SOF Western Beef (B roll length :10) (Audible.)
(According to Mr. Van Patten’s papers, the man being interviewed from Western Beef was Harry Sivalian.)
VIDEO: Silent footage man talking
AUDIO: Another resident felt that the Democrats had avoided him in a survey they had made.
VIDEO: SOF MAN ON THE STREET (Audible.)
(Mr. Van Patten’s notes identified one of the men interviewed as Lou Russo, and the last woman on her front steps as a Mrs. Mahoney.)
VIDEO: Silent footage of the area
AUDIO: AUDIO TAPE PLAYED HERE
ANNCR ON CUE: And why was Mayor Corning fighting so hard to keep the State from going ahead with its plan?
One of those groups making a more comprehensive survey was the Citizens United Reform Effort…CURE…..headed by Gren Rand.
VIDEO: SOF GREN RAND (Audible.)
VIDEO: LIVE ON CAMERA TALENT
AUDIO: The CURE Party also questioned nearly 400 businessmen in the City of Albany by means of a questionnaire that required no signature when returned. After a 70% return, CURE reported the results were just about 20 to 1 in favor of the State’s Mall plan. A house-to-house canvass of the Mall area was made by the Democratic leaders in the various wards. The results of their survey have not been made public.
VIDEO: Silent footage of Rocky in the Mall.
AUDIO: A prominent Republican also took the time to make his own sidewalk survey in the Mall area. For the most part the Governor has avoided direct verbal controversy with the opposition.
VIDEO: Silent footage of area
AUDIO: We took our cameras into the proposed Mall area to get a closer look at the buildings. The section is liberally sprinkled with buildings in various states of deterioration, ranging from sub-standard to outright slums. We found many that were fire hazards, rat infested, and filled with debris….some within a stone’s throw of the capital building. There are 170 of these slated for immediate demolition because of their condition.
VIDEO: Silent footage good homes
AUDIO: In other areas of the Mall we found many average and above-average buildings that have been carefully maintained inside and out by owners who feel a deep sense of pride in their property. Under the State’s plan, most of these would probably be torn down also.
VIDEO: (No video mentioned in script, but footage is of Sheridan Hollow.)
AUDIO: On June 28th, the City Planners announced their plan for Albany……a 65 million dollar project to cover a 12-year period. This plan differs in many respects from the State’s Mall plan. In the City’s plan, the area to be used for the new State Office buildings would be in this section known as the Sheridan Hollow area….north of the present Capital building. However, State engineers who made test borings here last year say that Sheridan Hollow is impractical for construction because of underground streams and shifting subsoil.
Not shown on recording.
VIDEO: LIVE ON CAMERA
AUDIO: While some observers feel that the final product may be a compromise between the State’s South Mall and the City’s North Hollow plans, most feel that this will not be the case. A good deal of criticism has been leveled at the State’s plan by Mayor Corning. He claims that the State’s plan does not include detailed or practical plans for adequate housing for the current residents of the South Mall area. He feels that the problems of relocating these people have not been taken into serious consideration. The State has replied that it is fully cognizant of the problem and will see that these people are properly relocated….and they’d like to see the City cooperate in this phase of relocation.
VIDEO: Silent footage of Campus
AUDIO: The Mayor has implied that the South Mall is just another whim of the current administration. He points to the State Campus site as an example. He said that at its inception, this was supposed to be a magnificent State Capital site. Now, after a cost of 58 million dollars, the State is changing its mind again. The State is quick to point out that the Campus Site has not measured up to expectations architecturally. However, it claims that it is trying to halt the exodus from the city by moving the buildings from the campus site back downtown. Otherwise, it might very well continue on at the present campus location.
VIDEO: Silent footage country club
AUDIO: Other opponents point to the State’s acquisition of the Albany Country Club property, claiming that this, too, will not be needed. The State points out here that the Country Club property was purchased to house the new State University Campus, and there have been no changes in those plans to date and the Mall project will have no effect on this property. The University expects to have a capacity of about 10,000 students by 1970, and work is already underway toward construction of the college.
VIDEO: Silent footage waterfront
AUDIO: The waterfront, too, has entered into the State’s plans tying in with the Mall project. But many residents are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the whole thing. They feel the State has not given enough detail on any of its plans and they don’t feel as though they should speak out in favor of a plan they know so little about. Some merchants feel that the office buildings might be good for the noon hour shopper, but would cause a ghost town after 5:00 PM when the workers go home. They would like to see more and better housing units put into this area that would mean not only more people shopping in downtown Albany, but more people living nearer to downtown. All agree that much of the housing in the Mall area should be improved.
But most surprising of all was a dissenting vote from within the Democratic Party itself.
George W. Harder, an Albany attorney, is creating a rare occurrence by insisting on a primary vote, the first major one in the Democratic Party in over 30 years. One of his main issues….the South Mall.
VIDEO: SOF HARDER (Audible.)
VIDEO: Silent footage of the area
AUDIO: Before the project flows smoothly or perhaps dies, there will be many more flare-ups. In the meantime, life goes on….a bit uncertain perhaps, but nevertheless undaunted on the outside. Delivery trucks come and go…men repair the streets….even buildings continue to be touched up here and there. The big question in each household seems to be, not if, but when, and then comes the biggest one of all………”Where do we go?” That question and many of the others remain unanswered at the moment. Even if the Mall plan is carried through to completion, some will say it will take 20 years. Therefore it seems safe to say that in some homes another generation may grow up, move away of their own accord before their families will have to be relocated. All they can do now is wait and see.