Every Day an Earthquake

Monday, November 25, 1963, a day of mourning after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, provided a brief respite from the noise and dirt of demolition. “No clouds of dust, no crashing sounds rose from the South Mall demolition area,” Dick Weber observed in the Knickerbocker News. The following day, demolition resumed. And conditions only got worse once the State completed demolition of the South Mall redevelopment area and began construction of the Empire State Plaza.

Ragweed at the corner of S. Swan St. and Madison Ave., Aug. 1965 NYS Archives.

Residents across the city experienced these disruptions, but they were worse in neighborhoods adjacent to the construction site. Complaints first began to pile up during ragweed season in the summer of 1965, just before construction began. Persons living in the recently completed Executive House co-op on South Swan St., just south of the job site, were particularly hard hit. What is now a manicured park was then a field of weeds. In response, state officials vowed to take steps to eradicate the ragweed in order to prevent recurrence of the same complaints. Yet by the end of June 1966, the South Mall site again had a “flourishing” ragweed population. To make matters worse, the site had become a haven for illegal garbage dumping. (The city did not yet have a municipal trash collection service.)

By the fall 1965, noise was the biggest complaint of the people living near the construction site. In response, Executive House residents wrote Office of General Services (OGS) Commissioner Cortlandt V. R. Schuyler that the “noisy construction work, including infernal noise of steam hammers, pile driving, and carting away of excavated dirt from the site by heavy trucks” lasted from 6:30am to 1:30am, leaving a scant five hours for sleep. They asked the State to confine work to 14 hours per day. Schuyler replied that they were mistaken—the two-shift workday began at 8:00am and ended at 12:30am. Further, he insisted, “any reduction in our presently established work schedules would cause serious disruptions and delays throughout the entire construction program.” He hoped that they would take comfort in knowing that the pile driving for the nearby Office (now Corning) Tower would be completed in two to three weeks.

Part of the three million cubic yards excavated for construction of the Empire State Plaza. NYS Archives.

Winter brought a welcome lull in South Mall construction activity, but with the return of spring, the noise resumed. Louise Marks, an Executive House resident, wrote Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller in May 1966 that she looked forward to the “completion of the architectural masterpiece that will be the South Mall,” if for nothing else than the renewed “peace and quiet, for which I pray…. I am referring of course to the pile driving which keeps us awake” until midnight during the weekdays. “For the first time in my life, I dread the summer when we’ll be opening the windows and the nightly BLAAAAM-SHHHHHH BLAAAAAM-SHHHHHH BLAAAAM-SHHHHH gets even louder (if that is possible).”

Vibrations from the constant pile driving caused structural damage to nearby buildings. In April 1967, South Mall work crews resumed pile driving with the return of warmer weather, and within days cracks began to appear in the walls of the new Cathedral Academy on Park Ave. The general manager of the DeWitt Clinton Hotel reported cracks in many guest rooms. By mid-June, the State had received about forty similar complaints, as shown by the form replies sent out by State Architect Charles Kawecki and retained in the OGS complaints file at the State Archives. One resident, Mrs. Philip Van Orden of 261 State St., received a note from OGS Commissioner Schuyler, assuring her that he would personally look into the damage to her ceiling. No doubt, the fact that her husband played tennis with Schuyler helps explain this unusual response.

1953 US Geological Survey topographical map showing Dutch Hollow. South Swan St. (just to the west of School 25) dead-ended at the edge of the ravine.

Construction nuisances extended beyond the neighborhoods surrounding the South Mall work site. Between 1965 and 1969, workers excavated about three million cubic yards of dirt and clay from the site. A dump truck carried between ten to fifteen cubic yards, thus the removal of all the excavated material required between 200,000 and 300,000 truck trips. Residents living along the route from the site to the dumping grounds endured dirt and dust in dry weather and mud in wet. The trucks ran down South Swan St., past Morton Ave. and Catherine St., all the way to a deep ravine called Dutch Hollow. The trucks then dumped excavated material directly into the ravine.

Aerial view of Cardinal McCloskey High School, showing upper Dutch Hollow in foreground, Nov. 1966. The end of S. Swan St. is at the upper right, just to the right and below the school. Used by permission of the Times Union.
Dump trucks entering and leaving the South Mall job site amidst pile drivers. NYS Archives.

In August 1966, twenty-six households on South Swan St. below Morton Ave. wrote state officials to complain about the heavy volume of dump trucks—100 per hour at times—passing their homes. They claimed that the constant truck traffic had changed “a neighborhood of home owners of long standing,” who were proud of their “fine lawns, flowers and the general appearance” of their property, into “a slum area.”  They further attributed “broken water lines and cracked fuel oil tanks” to the truck traffic.

Area residents also alerted the press. Joseph Adams told Times Union reporter Shirley Armstrong that “those trucks roar through here—sometimes 10 or 12 of them, bumper to bumper—like an invading army convoy. You’d think this was war.”

Joseph Adams unclogs a storm sewer. Used by permission of the Times Union.

The newspaper coverage, and in particular, the photographs that accompanied the stories, swayed public opinion to the point that state officials agreed to tour the area in person. Although these officials promised to take action to alleviate the situation, they also warned area residents that in the case of a construction project as large as the South Mall, “some of the discomfort and some of the inconveniences are unavoidable.”

Anne Wilson of S. Swan St. battles the constant dirt. Used by permission of the Times Union.

South Mall work crews also transported excavated soil and other construction debris to another site, the city dump on McCarty Ave. The trucks took Slingerland St. south to Second Ave., thence to Frisbie Ave. to reach the dump. Like their South Swan St. compatriots, residents along this route soon complained to the State about dust, noise, and structural damage to their homes. One unidentified resident took direct action in December 1966, blocking Slingerland St. near Second Ave. with an old car. According to the Knickerbocker News, the police soon showed up to tow the car, but nearby residents watched the spectacle with “much bellowing and cheering.”

From 1967 to 1969, persons living along the route to the city dump repeatedly complained about the parade of dirt-laden dump trucks. A May 1967 petition from O’Connell St. residents, “middle class voters [who] take as much pride in their homes as you do in yours,” asked Mayor Erastus Corning to intercede with the State on their behalf. In August 1968, thirty Moore St. homeowners wrote Schuyler and Corning that the area just north of their homes (at the southern end of what had been Dutch Hollow) had become an illicit dumping ground for household trash. They asked the State to put up a fence and a “No Dumping” sign. Schuyler replied that the issue rested with the City and the Roman Catholic Diocese, because the site was landfill upon which the relocated Cardinal McCloskey High School would be built.

The last wave of complaints about the dirt and dust came in late winter 1969. On February 28, Times Union reporter Mary Lee Dunn interviewed William Sausbier of 262 Second Ave. about the excessive mud coating his street.  The following day, the newspaper decried state officials’ “apparent apathy” and called for “prompt action” to solve the problem. On March 9, the newspaper printed a letter from George N. Smith responding to Dunn’s article and the paper’s editorial: 

Mrs. George Smith of 227 S. Swan St. struggles to keep her backyard patio clean. Used by permission of the TImes Union.

We, too, would like to register our 500th complaint about the situation on South Swan Street, south of Morton Avenue. Yes, the trucks still rumble, as they have been since September of 1965. The dust, dirt and mud still fly…. Nowhere in Albany has any neighborhood suffered as much as we as a result of the construction of Little Rockefeller Center.

Sausbier, Smith, and their neighbors probably took little solace in the fact that by early 1969 nearly all the excavation work was complete. Nor do we know what they thought of Mayor Corning’s remarks to a businessmen’s group on St. Patrick’s Day, 1969. Corning argued that although South Mall construction was a continuing nuisance to area residents, the city benefitted from the conversion of the McCarty Ave. dump into a park and sports fields. He further noted that the cost of the South Mall currently stood at $600 million, or $5,000 for each resident of the city, and would likely increase. “But don’t worry,” he commented, “as Albanians, we get a percentage of every dollar.” It’s unlikely that any of this money found its way directly into the pockets of affected residents to compensate them for years of lost sleep, incessant housecleaning, and damage to their homes.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Cynthia Houting Campbell says:

    Thank you for your report on the construction horrors endured by the residents of my old family neighborhoods.You have brought to light some of what was imposed on the residents of the South Mall Project!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joan G. Colavecchio says:

    All this incredible mess…. Rockerfeller’s ‘sandbox’…..and what for??…The ‘grandest feature it seems(according to the creators) is a giant eyesore of an egg??? How elegant……you can find better examples in a henhouse…..:(

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kendra Smith-Howard says:

    You know you’re writing environmental history, right?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. TONIA HANNEMANN says:

    I just read the most recent update about Every Day an Earthquake. Sadly, many of us did not have an opportunity to be “bothered” by the daily earthquake. My mother’s two rooming houses were simply taken. The amount Momma was given for the 2 houses was not enough to purchase one rooming house out the affected area. On Jay Street, we had mostly male renters. Momma made their beds, dusted their dressers, washed their towels, and cleaned their bathrooms including the toilets. I was allowed to dust the several flights of stairs and shovel our sidewalk in the winter.
    My mother simply could not make two ends to meet. I have no doubt that our two homes with rooms for rent that were demolished precipitated an early death for my mother at age 62. I would have given anything for the daily racket if we could have stayed on Jay Street.

    Liked by 1 person

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