On March 30, 1962, the Times Union editorial board urged readers, who harbored “doubts” about the wisdom of the State of New York’s plan to seize and redevelop the South Mall area, to “drive slowly—or walk—up and down these once proud streets. Then decide for yourself.” The implication, of course, was that anyone who viewed the area firsthand would favor the State’s plan.
This editorial was, in part, a response to Mayor Erastus Corning’s opposition to the South Mall. Corning reacted immediately to the State’s seizure with a scathing public letter, asserting that the State was violating the “human rights” of the families who would be displaced. He complained about the size of the appropriation, accusing the State of planning to build a “sprawling colossus.” The State’s actions were “completely unnecessary and inhumane,” he charged. “It is what might be expected in a dictatorship—not here.” Corning and the Democratic Party would continue to oppose the State throughout the summer, until late August, when the City lost its court case challenging the seizure.
Beginning on the day the State announced its plan and continuing for the next several months, both the Times Union and Knickerbocker News published stories, editorials, and, perhaps most importantly, photographs designed to build the case for redevelopment. (Gene Robb, the publisher of both papers, was a member of the Temporary Commission on the Capital City and an enthusiastic supporter of the South Mall project.) Some of these photographs came directly from the State and focused on the most blighted sections of the redevelopment area. The implicit argument was that the area was on an irreversible course of decline and could not be rehabilitated—only wholesale demolition could excise the blight.
On March 28, two days after the South Mall redevelopment plan was made public, the Times Union published five State photographs depicting the area as “one of misery, of decadence, of dismal alleyways filled with garbage,… of buildings filled with nothing but despair…. These are camera truths, needing no further explanations, for the story of each is here to see.” The following day, the Knickerbocker News ran a similar piece, also based on State photographs.
Staff and consultants of the Temporary Commission (particularly Executive Secretary William McGlone) gave several public presentations to community groups around the city starting in the fall of 1961. But the effort ramped up after the spring of 1962. The following images and text were part of a slide show presentation used to argue that the South Mall area was in desperate need of redevelopment.
After the design of the new state office complex was made public in the spring of 1963, the slide presentation came to include artist renderings of the proposed South Mall. These images drew a sharp contrast between the old, blighted city and the modern State capitol complex. Again, the following text and images are drawn from the Temporary Commission slide show.
Juxtaposed, the State’s photographs and architectural renderings tell only part of the story. The paintings provided an idealized vision of a future South Mall, a social hub and cultural center as well as a workplace. The photographs, by contrast, depicted a depopulated and deteriorating downtown.
We don’t know how many readers took the Times Union up on its challenge to tour the redevelopment area—nor do we know how audiences responded to the State’s slide show. However, we suspect that some might have reached a different conclusion than the one promoted by the State in collaboration with the local press. Walking or driving through the area, persons undecided about the South Mall certainly would have seen crumbling factories, dilapidated housing, and debris-strewn lots. But they also would have passed by churches, small businesses, family homes, and the city’s central market.
To sell the South Mall, the State and its supporters pursued a strategy familiar to proponents of urban renewal around the country, most famously New York City’s Robert Moses and his Committee on Slum Clearance. They selected photographs to emphasize the deterioration and disorganization of areas to be demolished and produced drawings to promote an idealized vision of the new.