Everything Everybody Ever Wanted

The “arrogant wastryof Nelson Rockefeller’s Albany Mall may have produced an ugly anachronism,but it also produced unexpected results


ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER HAD COME TO TOWN TO SPEAK at State University about writing, and after the visit a friend asked if I would take Mr. Singer to the train. We had a spare hour, so I took him to The Market Place, a watering hole on Grand Street that looks up the hill at the South Mall. He ordered two fried eggs and a cup of tea, and while we talked we gazed up the hill at the performing-arts center, which is officially called The Egg, since it is shaped like half a boiled egg (from some angles it looks like an avocado) cut on the bias.

“It could look like an egg,” said Mr. Singer; “it could look like a blintz.” He concluded that the design was forced originality, and left me with two thoughts; “When a bird builds a nest he doesn’t care about material, he cares about a nest,” and “Tolstoy never made an effort to be original.”

Nelson Rockefeller, who built the Mall in the 1960s, was not Tolstoy, but he was an original in his use of money and power to feed his compulsion to be extraordinary. And so because the seat of his governorship humiliated him, because he had to drive Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands through the slumminess and decrepitude of Albany’s South End in older to reach the Executive Mansion, he undertook what is said to be the largest marble project in the history of the world (a claim I am fond of but can’t prove)—a complex of massive buildings and skyscrapers built on a platform five levels deep that, if stood on its end, would be 112 stories high, taller than the World Trade Center, in Manhattan.

The South Mall was to be, the Governor said in a fit of immodesty, “the most spectacularly beautiful seat of government in the world,” a project that could prove to be “the greatest thing that has happened to this country in one hundred years.”

“When we look at the marble-faced buildings of the Mall,” writes Carole Herselle Krinsky in Art, The Ape of Nature, “we know that we are in no ordinary part of the city, but rather in a ceremonial place. The separateness of this complex is made clearer by its elevation on a platform, which differentiates the ground level here from that of the rest of Albany. ...”

That platform was Rockefeller’s own doing, early designs having proved unacceptable to him. In an airplane with Wallace Harrison, the principal architect of the Mall (also of Rockefeller Center, in Manhattan, and adjudged by Rockefeller to be “the greatest architect in the twentieth century”), the Governor sketched on the back of an envelope a plan inspired by one of the extraordinary capitals of the world: the palace of the Dalai Lama at Lhasa, Tibet. He later told Ms. Krinsky that he had “always admired” that palace. She adds;

“He remembered that at Lhasa there was an approach across a low plain to the hilltop palace and to the cliff supporting the palace, and that one could enter that complex at the base of the cliff through a portal within a high wall.”

An early plan even situated the South Mall on a Helderberg mountain cliff, fifteen miles south of Albany. Today one enters it by car from the east, through an artificial cliff—that five-level platform, atop which sits one or two billion dollars’ (the final tally is not yet in) worth of buildings, among them a marble trapezoid, which alone cost $90 million, that Egg ($42 million), a low-slung marble structure a quarter of a mile long, four twenty-three-story matching buildings, a forty-four-story tower, which is the tallest building in New York State outside Manhattan, and more.

Wolf Von Eckardt spoke for an army of nay-sayers when he evaluated the Mali’s architecture for New York magazine and called it an “ugly anachronism—the City Beautiful’s last erection.” Assembly Minority Leader Stanley Steingut called it Rockefeller’s last erection. Rockefeller said it might be the last but it certainly was going to be a beaut.

Is it really a beaut? Scores of writers and scholars and critics have had their say about it, and the saying is far from over. The early raves for Harrison’s bold design have been buried by the tidal wave of diatribes, which seem aesthetically justified. The Mall itself is an awesome nonesuch, but the individual buildings (apart from The Egg) seem derivative, in a tradition of monumental minimalism and feckless grandiosity. The Capitol, completed in 1898, sits alongside the Mall, far more fascinating to look at and to be in, and with its own grandiose history—the most expensive building on the American continent in its day ($25 million); and just down the block stands Albany City Hall, designed by H. H. Richardson, one of the most sublime structures ever built for the aggrandizement of politicians.

The Mall’s epic blandness invites smears, the most widely seen being one by Robert Hughes, Time magazine’s art critic, who, during his 1981 Public Television series, The Shock of the New, compared the Mall to the architecture of the Italian fascists, the Nazis, and the Russian Communists. “One could see any building at Albany Mall with an eagle on top, or a swastika, or a hammer and sickle; it makes no difference to the building.” He saw it as having been designed to express the centralization of power—“an architecture of coercion.”

Rockefeller would probably agree. He was a coercive sort. But he was functioning in a democracy, one he could never coerce or cajole into making him its President, and thus he was czar only of his own imagination and his localized political willpower. If, then, we consider the Mall as the consequence of one man’s political will, imposed upon our time and space in spite of its incredible cost, in spite of the arrogant wastry and duplicity that marked the manipulation of public money, in spite of the many construction scandals, underworld intrusions, and colossal thievery that went not only unpunished but uninvestigated; if we consider further the brilliant stroke by which the city’s political leaders took the Mall away from Rockefeller even before he had begun to build it: and if, most important, we consider the transubstantiation the Mall effected in Albany—turning a slug of a town into a handsome and prancing dude—then I think we may safely agree with Rockefeller that it is indeed a beaut.

Rockefeller burst his bombshell on Albany in March of 1962, when he suddenly expropriated 98.5 acres in the city center and asked the legislature for $29 million to buy the land and existing buildings. It meant destruction of 1,150 structures, most of them private dwellings, and the displacement of 3,600 households—9,000 people, 17 percent black, many Italians and Jews, many old, many poor. The loss of annual tax revenue to the city amounted to $650,000, but the potential loss of all those votes in a time of declining population was an even more serious blow to the Albany Democratic machine. The rooming-house district had done noble work for years. When Governor Thomas E. Dewey was trying to break the machine in the early 1940s, one of his investigators turned up a house where seventy-eight voters presumably lived. When the investigator found only twenty-two, the proprietor explained that the voters slept in eight-hour shifts. That still left twelve who had to sleep standing up.

Mayor Erastus Corning II called the expropriation “a ruthless takeover” and said the Mall would be a “sterile monument.” Dan O’Connell, the political boss of Albany since 1921, put the displacement of so many of his people in a literary context: “It’s a good thing Longfellow isn’t alive today,” he said. “He’d have written a poem about it.”

THE NEIGHBORHOOD THAT THE MALL DISPLACED and that O’Connell bemoaned was cut through with westering tentacles of The Gut—principally Hudson Avenue, along which you could find song, solace, and some sin in two dozen gin mills between Dove and Green streets. Some solid families still endured in the erstwhile residential neighborhood, but in declining number. And as soon as they moved out, their town houses and railroad fiats became warrens of commerce and comfort. One might describe the denizens of these furnished and unfurnished rooms as being of moderate to insufficient means, often elderly or crippled, incurably transient (usually in a downward direction), and no more questions, mister. It was the bedroom community for a generation of solitaires: family outcasts, night-shift nurses, semi-affluent winos, motherless gays, dishwashers aspiring to be short-order cooks, horseplayers doing their level best to die broke, closet hookers, and other functionaries and free-lancers of Nighttown who got around to putting their heads on their greasy pillows just as the sun was coming up. It was home to assorted burglars, flakes, flukes, runaways—rocks (a generic term by which this branch of humanity was known to the police) who in their totality cast a cold eye on tomorrow because there was never enough heat in the joint tonight. A famous line in town mentioned a single street but spoke for the whole neighborhood: “Are you married, or do you live on Jay Street?”

Three women were considered the real-estate doyennes of the neighborhood—Ma Pierce, Marne Hershberger, and Mae Carlsen. Mae was the best known. She was in her nineties—though she declined to tell her age—when we talked in her most modest basement apartment on Lancaster Street last August. She lay on her sofa, chain-smoking Camels, and recapitulated some of her early days, when she owned thirty or thirty-five houses—she couldn’t remember how many—and had maybe 300 people living in them.

She was closely allied with the city government, and often took welfare clients. Her “welfare stew,” made with chicken wings (a big bag for fifty cents), was so significant that the Welfare Department asked her to teach their clients how to make it. Mae (maiden name Quinn, Irish in all directions) was staunchly Catholic, staunchly Democratic, and was noted for getting out the vote on Election Day— getting it out of her tenants, that is.

Bob Fabbricatore, a close friend of Mae’s who was visiting her when we spoke and who is the Democratic committeeman from the Third District of the Sixth Ward, said it took him several years to earn Mae’s trust. Her tenants, he said, used to check in with her to be sure of how to vote, especially in primaries, when there was a choice of Democrats.

“Nobody got away,” said Bob. “They responded to Mae. And this went on for thirty or forty years before I got here.”

There are stories that on Election Day people picked up their voting money at Mae’s place, that they cashed their paychecks at Mae’s place, and that nobody got any money of any sort until they’d proved they’d voted—Democratic. One man told Mae he was going to vote for Dewey and Mae screamed so loudly the police came and asked what he was doing to her. Mae told me she answered: “Ask him what he just said to me.” The man explained that he’d said he was going to vote for Dewey. Mae declined to accept this explanation, and so the man was jailed. At 9:05 P.M., when the polls were closed and he no longer could vote for Dewey, Mae withdrew her complaint and let the fellow out of jail.

Mae’s style was singular: she was a workhorse and a loner (“I don’t go out and I don’t neighbor”) who used to fix her own roofs and would get up at 2 A.M. in midwinter to bank the fires in her dozen or so rooming houses, carrying the coal herself, trusting no one else to do it because they never did it right and the fire would go out.

The Welfare Department frequently called Mae when it had an emergency and needed a place to put people. Albany Police Chief William Fitzpatrick called her one day in the 1930s and asked if she would take in a fourteen-yearold boy who had run away from a home for boys in Massachusetts. Mae not only took him in, she raised him, and he called her Mother for the rest of her life. She took into her home, by her own rough count, fourteen or sixteen people over the years, and some were still with her when we spoke. She also took in a blind man’s seeing-eve dog when the man was hospitalized, and when one elderly woman was so sick in Mae’s house that she couldn’t stand the smell of cooking, Mae went next door and cooked.

She was a rare bird—she died last December at (maybe) ninety-six, worth more than half a million dollars—made rarer today by the absence of rooming-house streets like Jay and Lancaster that could produce another like her. When Rockefeller expropriated his midtown acres, Mae yielded up sixteen of her houses, and not with any bitterness.

“They wanted it,” she said, “and I knew they weren’t going to hurt the place any. I guess they got it going”—she meant the Mall. “I never went down to see what it looks like.” It is half a block from her house.

In the heyday of Mae’s area, there was an element to the neighborhood that was not terribly egregious but exceedingly well perceived: the scatter of scarlet houses, two to four girls, all white, to a house—white prostitution’s last wide-open era in Albany. Women of a slightly different order were also available in some of the neighborhood’s gin mills, their presence even advertised in the Saturdaymorning newspaper as part of the honky-tonk scene. They were called B-girls, and they kept you company at the bar as long as you kept their glasses filled with seventy-fivecent whiskey, which, if you made the deflating mistake of tasting it, you would discover was cold tea or watery sarsaparilla. One of the neighborhood madams kept a pornographic lending library—$5 a week to borrow a book. And upstairs at the One-Two-Three Club, if you knew the right people, you could see private strippers go all the way and then a little bit further. This was not advertised, for stripping within city limits was not permitted—a genuflection, I always thought, to the Albany Catholic diocese, which disapproved of sex. However, across the Albany city line, in the town of Colonie, morally overseen by the same Catholic Albany County district attorney who oversaw city morals, you could see strippers every night at the Hawaiian Club, on Central Avenue, because Colonie was run by Protestant Republican politicians, and everybody knows how casual they are about godless sex. It was a matter of connections, and at Bob Parr’s Klub Eagle, across from the DeWitt Clinton Hotel, you could connect twenty-four hours a day, and just what is it you need this afternoon, sir?

Jack (Legs) Diamond, a friend of Bob Parr’s, was killed in this neighborhood. He was shot through the brain on December 18, 1931, upstairs in Laura Woods’s roominghouse at 67 Dove Street, an event commemorated by a plaque placed there by the Historic Albany Foundation, a development Jack would have liked.

While I was writing a novel about Jack, Fred Fontaine, a caseworker at the Albany County Department of Social Services, told me he had Diamond’s widow as a client. This was a surprise, since the widow, Alice Kenny, had been murdered in Brooklyn in 1933.

Fontaine introduced me not to Alice but to a woman named Lil Pfaffenbach, who was sixty-one and dying in Albany Medical Center of five or six kinds of disease. We got on well, and she asked if I was married-life in the old girl yet. I bought her a pink negligee as a favor to Jack— even though I wasn’t sure how well she had known him— because she said she didn’t have anything to make her look good for visitors.

She changed her stories about where and when she met Jack and where they had lived, and she’d never heard of Alice, which made everything suspect, because Alice was almost as much of a celebrity as Jack. But I came to believe Lil knew something about him, had probably, as an uninquisitive teenager, been kept by him. She perked up when I asked if she had ever heard him mention a writer named Rabelais. “Oh, he was nuts about Rabba-lee,” she said immediately, accenting the first syllable. It was bad literary pronunciation, but a correct historical response to the question; for it is a little known fact that Diamond mystified his friends by giving them copies of Gargantua and Pant-agruel. So I believed Lil had something to tell me about him, which she did, and when she left the hospital I visited her a few times in her hovel on Hamilton Street.

Her apartment was a damp basement in a house ripe for condemnation on a street begging for demolition. The neighborhood was rot city, full of derelicts and wipeouts. Lil had a Latin houseboy who stayed with her on and off, and she was visited while I was there by a woman bloated in odd places, a grotesque junkie from across the street who came in to eat some of Lil’s sugar with a teaspoon. I think Lil had operated secretly, for a time, as a low-level madam while on welfare. She volunteered that she could have been a superior madam if she’d only put her mind to it. People had robbed her while she was in the hospital, but she didn’t have much worth stealing and Freddy Fontaine kept the checks coming, so life went on until one day it didn’t.

BACKWARD GO WE NOW FOR A BIT TO ROCKEFELler’s expropriation in 1962, which was swiftly followed by a lawsuit to stop it, brought by the City of Albany. The suit failed, and land acquisition by the state continued. The problem facing Rockefeller was the financing of his project.

The constitutional procedure was to go through the legislature for approval and then put the matter to the voters as a bond issue. But no one in his right mind believed that New Yorkers would ever subsidize a pipe dream like this in, of all places, the slums of Albany. Momentum slackened, things were taking longer than expected, and costs were going up. Originally, the Mall was foreseen as a touryear project costing $250 million. By 1964, the state Office of General Services estimated the cost at $400 million. Five months later, the estimate was $480 million. How was Rockefeller ever going to finance this monster?

Mayor Corning had an idea. With his municipal magic set, the Mayor conjured a new version of a plan he had offered to Governor Dewey in 1946, when Dewey was trying to finance a campus office-building complex in the West End of the city. Dewey, who had tried to break the O’Connell machine in the early 1940s, viewed the offer as political leprosy and spurned it. Nelson Rockefeller didn’t spurn it. But neither did he understand it when the Mayor proposed it to him, according to Samuel E. Bleecker, in his book The Politics of Architecture.

The Mayor, writes Bleecker, “ebullient that he had devised the bootstrap means” through which the Mall could be built, outlined the plan to Rockefeller. “Rockefeller did not respond to what had been suggested and, in his characteristic manner,” says Bleecker, “politely ushered the mayor to the door, patted him on the back, and thanked him for his interest.”

A month went by, says Bleecker, and Corning, hearing no word from the Governor, became convinced that Rockefeller hadn’t grasped the idea. So he met with him a second time. Bleecker writes: “ ‘Oh, is that what you meant,’ Corning reported the Governor as saying.” Corning said that Rockefeller then “went after the scheme like a trout for a fly.”

In Rockefeller’s own version, he comes off as being more alacritous: “This was a magnificent concept. I mean, this was new, it was fresh. I went for it right away.”

What the Mayor proposed was that the state transfer to Albany County the ownership of the Mall property it had acquired. The county would sell bonds to finance the Mali’s construction. The state would build the Mall as agent for the county. Under a lease-purchase arrangement that would continue until December 31, 2004, the state would buy the land back from the county. Normally, a county could not incur a debt as large as the sale of the bonds represented. What Corning knew was that it was all legal if the bonds financed self-supporting projects. The leasepurchase arrangement called for the state to pay the county rent on the Mall equal to the county’s cost of meeting interest and principal payments on the bonds. The state would make payments to both the city and the county, in lieu of taxes, on the confiscated real estate.

The money to be paid to the county between the signing of the agreement, which took place on May 11, 1965, and the agreement’s termination date in 2004 would amount to as much as $35 million. Also, the state would have to pay at least $44.2 million more in interest than it would have paid had the project been approved in a voter referendum. But with a voter referendum there would almost certainly have been no Mall, and so the interest represents reality, and the savings through the referendum an unlikely hypothesis.

Mall construction moved ahead, much to the disapproval of State Comptroller Arthur Levitt, who found the whole plan “a circumvention of normal constitutional procedures.” He pointed out in 1971 that the Office of General Services estimated the total cost of the Mall at $850 million. Levitt wrote: “This estimate does not include the cost of the state’s share of new arterials and related streets running through or connecting with the Mall. In our opinion, the total Mall costs, including the cost of arterials and financing charges, will be well in excess of $1.5 billion.”

(Last year, the OGS estimated the total cost at $1.9 billion, and construction costs alone at $1.7 billion.)

The Mall financing scheme was extraordinarily complex, and negotiations dragged on and on during 1964 as Albany’s brain trust fought for the most lucrative provisions possible. Albany County Treasurer Eugene Devine represented the city leadership, and William L. Pfeiffer, then president of Albany Savings Bank, represented Rockefeller.

Devine told a story (to somebody I can’t mention) that illustrated Rockefeller’s frustration. After Devine and Pfeiffer met with the Governor in the executive chamber, Rockefeller asked Devine to stay on, poured him a drink, and took him to a window that looked out on the site of the stalled construction, much of it still raw earth. “Gene,” says the Governor in this story, as he puts his arm on Devine’s shoulder and gestures toward the Mall, “I want you to tell my friend Erastus he’s got to help me fill that goddamn hole.”

But in the view of Dan O’Connell, the political boss, the stalemate was firm. Let grass grow in the streets, he said. An ultimatum came from the Governor through Pfeiffer, and Corning, during an interview I had with him in his office, recalled conveying its import to O’Connell as he sat on the sofa in the same office. O’Connell considered the situation, said the Mayor, then decided the appropriate response to Mr. Pfeiffer was to “tell him to go screw himself.”

Samuel Bleecker says in his book that Albany threatened to sabotage the deal unless the state substantially upped the benefits to the city. Rockefeller was outraged, says Bleecker, and wrote a public letter threatening to consider the deal dead if Albany didn’t ratify the agreement already reached. He says this move spurred Corning (“shamefaced and defeated”) to action within a week.

Four more months of negotiations followed, but finally the deal was concluded. History indicates that the Mayor was neither as shamed nor as defeated as Bleecker suggests. Coming’s public response after the signing was that the Mall was now “a magnificent and breathtaking reality,” and, furthermore, “the greatest single governmental complex history has ever known.”

Good fortune started to dog the Mayor under the new arrangement. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that his insurance company, Albany Associates, plus two Albany banks with which he was closely associated, stood to profit from Mall-related boons. The insurance company wrote two $5 million policies on one of its clients, which had a $12.8 million contract to do plumbing and heating work on the Mall. As much as a billion was perhaps about to pass through the National Commercial Bank and Trust Company, which was named as depository of cash from Mall bond sales. Corning was a director of the bank. In the State Bank of Albany, in which Corning admitted that he and his mother were shareholders and his mother had a “substantial” account, two Mall-related accounts were opened by the state.

A Wall Street Journal reporter, Richard Stone, asked the Mayor why the National Commercial Bank had been chosen as depository, and the Mayor answered testily: “I haven’t the slightest idea.” As to the notion that Corning sought to steer funds to the State Bank, the Mayor said it was “absolutely untrue in every single possible way.”

The Mayor’s leverage with the state legislature also took an upward turn after the city became the landlord of the Mall—most notably after March of 1971, when Albany suddenly and mysteriously canceled the sale of $70 million in Mall bonds, thus stalling payment by the state for the ongoing construction. The Mayor, County Attorney John Clyne, and other officials refused to give any explanation for the cancellation.

The explanation lay in the city’s quest to gain state help in solving local problems, particularly ones related to a loathsome new state law that abolished the Mayor’s power to appoint the city school board and made it an elected board, which meant his potential loss of control over the $17 million school budget. This was not the only issue. One official in the Office of General Services told me that the city had come in with “a laundry list” of grievances, from which it wanted the kind of relief only the state could provide.

When that relief wasn’t forthcoming, the county canceled the bond sale. Two months later, a case of strangebedfellowism surfaced in the state senate. Majority Leader Earl Brydges, the state’s third most powerful Republican, clandestinely introduced into the Senate Rules Committee—and without the knowledge of Albany’s maverick Republican senator, Walter Langley, a political enemy of the Mayor’s—a bill that would have repealed Albany’s elected-school-board law and given control back to Corning.

This curious maneuver—a top Republican bypassing a fellow Republican to create secretly a law benefiting the Albany Democrats—could hardly have happened without pressure from the Governor. And, in fact, Langley accused Rockefeller and Brydges of yielding to “crude political blackmail” by Corning and O’Connell. The school bill eventually passed the Senate, despite Langley’s protests, but was killed in the Assembly after another Albany Republican, Fred Field, spoke against it. The law remained in effect: Albany’s school boanl is still elected, but without any depreciation in its loyalty to the wishes of the Mayor.

Five months after Albany County canceled the sale of the Mall bonds, it just as mysteriously re-offered them for sale. The delay cost state taxpayers an additional $6 million in interest payments.

The hole in the ground remained formidable for years. It looked like a deserted World’s Fair project when the workday ended, lights erratically blinking in the middle floors of the tower building, which was not yet marbled or topped out, lights twinkling on a dozen motionless cranes that looked like surreal giraffes on watch over this vast pit with its piles and piles of sand, its dozens of pools of stagnant water, its colorful cartilage thrusting upward—red I-beams, gray reinforcing rods, yellow columns.

Some 1,500 to 2,500 men were at work in the pit at various stages of its development, employed by sixty-three prime contractors and 200 subcontractors. A reporter for the Albany Knickerbocker News-Union Star, Scott Christianson, turned his attention to all their goings-on and showed that the place was chockablock with thievery, noshows, ridiculous featherbedding, gambling, and a rather spectacular record of arson.

Thievery, for instance, meant the disappearance of half a million dollars’ worth of steel rods, $78,000 worth of plywood, unmeasurable amounts of marble. A dozen bookies had special turf they worked within the Mall site, and their annual take was estimated in the millions. Four men from various labor unions were assigned to monitor a single heater switch in the Justice building, their only function to flip it off if the heater acted up. Their pay ranged from $25 to $35 an hour. If you multiply that, you discover that the taxpayers paid $4,000 to $5,000 a week to monitor that switch.

State officials told Christianson that there had been seventeen fires at the Mall, and gave him dates. The dates were all wrong; he found out that there had been sixty fires, some clearly labeled arson by fire investigators— one in a tower building, for instance, causing $2.4 million in damage and setting construction back by months. Christianson’s sources suggested motives for the fires: to cover up thefts, to prolong construction, to take vengeance for labor trouble. In eight years, he discovered, there had been no arrests for arson, theft, or gambling.

Senator Brvdges’s response to Christianson’s articles was, “I have not heard these things,” and he told a television interviewer, “If you hear of anything, let me know.”

It was a grab-bag society at the Mall, unfettered by state or city law enforcement. The government’s blindfold was Rockefeller’s way of freeing contractors and labor unions of cumbersome moral and legal obligations, and getting on with the task at hand.

Scott Christianson was offered jobs by several contractors, and by a detective agency working the Mall, in obvious efforts to divert him from his investigations. He was also bugged, burgled, tax-audited, and followed; a car tried to run his car off a bridge, and a woman he didn’t know approached him with sexual overtures, which he evaluated as an effort at scandalous entrapment, though he says he could never prove it.

None of these efforts worked, and Christianson kept writing. But the writing produced only a public awareness, no change. Grand juries investigated the allegations without returning a single indictment, district attorneys snubbed the crime wave, and the Mayor and the Governor pointed to each other as jurisdictionally responsible. The fires and thievery continued uninterrupted, the Mall proving to be one of the most perfectly designed perpetualopportunity machines in the history of boondogglery.

A PART FROM WILLING THE MALL ON ALBANY, Governor Rockefeller willed into existence in the 1960s the State University of New York at Albany, which now brings 16,000 students to the city annually. He imposed a residential-commercial-hotel project, created by his Urban Development Corporation, on the downtown site of Albany’s old Ten Eyck Hotel. The Albany Hilton (cost: $30 million) opened there last year with 392 rooms, a sleek disco called Cahoots, and a restaurant called Truffles, bringing a cosmopolitan chic and a dining elegance (Luxembourg china, tuxedoed waiters) that overnight returned the lush look of money to downtown.

In 1978, State University refurbished and occupied as its central administrative offices the former Delaware and Hudson Railroad building, then in severe decline. It is a majestic structure that is a copy of the Clothmakers Guild Hall in Ypres, Belgium. It was designed by the Albany architect Marcus T. Reynolds, and brought about by Albany Republican boss Billy Barnes in conjunction with the I) & H. Barnes built his own lavish offices in the southern segment of the building, and made it the home of his Albany Evening Journal. It was a gift of beauty to the city and, when completed, in 1916, gave great impetus to cleaning up Albany’s abominable waterfront.

Further yet under Rockefeller, the state acquired from the Penn Central Railroad the grand corpus of Union Station, where the last train passed through on December 29, 1968. After its closing, the building was scavenged quickly for its copper roofing; and from consequent leaks, decay sprouted. The station sat there in a deepening gray funk, turning into a target for the wrecker’s ball, until Governor Hugh Carey, at a cost of $1 million, tidied it up in 1980 to preserve it for a new era. A high-rise office and hotel project, with the station as a centerpiece, almost became real last year, but faltered. Yet the area seems destined for glory eventually—waterfront living, a heady adjunct to Downtown, being a possibility in the next decade.

All these developments, though they occurred in isolation, have added cumulatively to the city-center renaissance initiated by the Mall. Washington Avenue, then North Pearl Street, then the Plaza area, began to blossom with new banks, restaurants, shops. The Rosenblatt brothers, Sam and Fred, zapped up a modest skyscraper, the Twin Towers, at Swan and Washington, shaming the Mall’s builders in terms of speed, economy, and efficient use of space. The wise guys in town snapped up houses on the streets bordering the Mall site—Jay, Lancaster, Chestnut, Madison, and the rest.

And on Hamilton Street, where Lil lived, the row of old dogs was marked for extinction by developer Joseph Gerrity, who planned to build new residential and commercial projects, including a high-rise hotel. Neighbors who wanted to preserve the traditional qualities of the row-house neighborhood feared this as they also feared a proposed McDonald’s hamburger parlor with golden arches. In the summer of 1973, demolition began on the south side of Hamilton between Swan and Dove, and several old houses were bulldozed away.

Jane Kamos, an independent candidate for alderman, found out that the city had issued even more demolition permits to Gerrity and that contracts had been signed to knock down houses on the north side. She called a press conference, and a number of activists joined the fight and picketed in front of the buildings to be razed.

The house at 315 Hamilton—five doors from where Lil had lived, and one of a long line of abandoned buildings— became headquarters for the protest. One night, the pickets camped inside 315, anticipating the bulldozers’ arrival on a nighttime foray. Jane Ramos and the strikers took their case to the Mayor, and he surprised them by rescinding the permits.

The Hudson/Park (named for two streets, not for a park) Neighborhood Association was formed. Gregg Bell, a neighborhood activist, recalls running its early meetings; Ramos chose him to do so because he was the only person in the group with a necktie. He became Hudson/Park’s first president. The Historic Albany Foundation was formed the following year, 1974, and it joined the fight to preserve the old houses. Gerrity yielded and rehabilitated the buildings, turning the block into Robinson Square, now the quintessentially gentrificated section of the city. Ramos, preservationist without honor in her ward, lost her fight to be an alderman and left town soon afterward.

Today, Robinson (Ramos?) Square is a row of chic boutiques in the basements and on the first floors of the long line of reconstituted buildings, which are generally 100 percent occupied; there is a long waiting list for the apartment space upstairs. Harriet Langley ran the Pappagallo store at 307 Hamilton. While she prospered from her business connection to the street’s revival, she found the new commerciality along Hamilton, Lark, and other streets so unsettling that she moved to Delmar, a suburb, in search of trees and birds. Harriet and her late husband, Walter, the state senator, had lived in the neighborhood since 1964, a time when the middle and upper-middle classes had not yet rediscovered it. But when the Mall’s influence began to be felt, Harriet Langley, unlike most people in the city, saw the influx of money as a form of decline, an elite form of blockbusting. “What happened to the elderly people living in a room somewhere on these streets?” she wondered.

Many longtime residents asked the same question, but little was done until five residents of the neighborhood formed Albany Area Housing Opportunities, a non-profit corporation aimed at making housing available to lowincome people. AAHO had no money, but it sought and got donations from neighborhood churches, enough for a down payment on the purchase of 142 Lancaster Street. The owner agreed to hold a fifteen-year mortgage at 15 percent. AAHO persuaded the city’s Urban Renewal Agency to commit $105,000 in loans and grants to renovate the old structure, and won a rent subsidy from the Albany Housing Authority.

The result last summer was that seven families who would have been evicted were only temporarily displaced by the renovation. They returned to the building six months later, at the same rent, and now have a say in how the building is managed. Among the tenants, two are elderly, one is a blind woman, one a heart-attack victim. The effect is the anomalous preservation of a bit of living history, and a symbolic resistance to the gentrification of Lancaster Street. AAHO hopes to take on a second house.

Regardless of what such efforts as these achieve, the escalation of the value of buildings everywhere in Center Square and Hudson/Park is unstoppable. Lark Street has developed into a not-quite-yet-a-miracle mile, and the boutique saturation index is about to go off the graph. You can buy a plant, or some Indian beads, or a kiddie book; you can hear jazz or rock or get your hair healed; you can buy a Hawaiian pineapple or a Puerto Rican avocado at George Contompasis’s fruit market; get well fed at the chic Beverwyck, which is new, or at Farnham’s Larkin, which dates to my childhood. Washington Park is only over the block, and the Mall, with all its culture and wide-open marble spaces, is down the street. People walk to church the way they did fifty years ago, before the Mall was built; and married people live on Jay Street.

Life is so nifty that the Center Square Neighborhood Association, which monitors many of these blocks, now finds itself with a vanishing membership for want of a “unifying problem” to keep folks interested. Most of the association’s wars have been won—saving Washington Park from disfiguration by a superhighway, closing rowdy bars, diminishing the number of burglaries and muggings.

During a segment of TV’s Hour Magazine in March of 1982, Gary Collins, the host, was interviewing the author of a book on where people are choosing to live these days and why certain cities attract certain people—accessibility to culture and nature, for instance, or a low crime rate: in short, a high quality of life. The author said, Now, you take Albany, New York, and Collins said, No, you take Albany, New York, which got him a laugh—for that is the classic response when Albany’s name comes up: one of the ten bottom places of the earth, right? Wrong, said the author, and he began to explain Albany’s virtues.

THAT ALBANY TURNAROUND-FROM BEING AN OBject of ridicule to being a city of quality—is a phenomenon attributable in large measure to one man: New York State’s all-time master builder, Nelson Rockefeller. And how are we to assess that?

Only a mother, and an uncommonly saintly mother at that, could love Nelson Rockefeller unequivocally. He was loathed by the political left and the political right; he was a Vietnam War hawk, a militant missile-gap and bomb-shelter cold warrior; he was cold-blooded in the exercise of power, as demonstrated in the Attica prison revolt. His contempt for the law and the state constitution when they stood in the way of his plans was never more visible than in the history of the Mall.

And so on.

You can make up your own diatribe against the man—thousands have—but it will only roll off him. His money armor-plated his ego against assault while he was alive, just as it shields him from gratitude now that he is dead. How could any sensible person thank Rockefeller for what he did? Would we thank Cheops for his pyramid (which took only fourteen acres)? Yet consider what Cheops did for Egyptian tourism.

In Albany, the statistics are formidable. Half a million people pass annually through the museum in the trapezoidal cultural center; 405,000 used the facilities of the convention center in the Mall in 1981—proms, graduations, trade shows mainly; but that is changing now with the presence of the Hilton, and the figure is going up. Upwards of 60,000 people came to the Youth Theater’s productions in The Egg, and another 60,000 came to see the national dance and drama touring companies that performed there. Also, 98,757 visitors took the guided tour of the Capitol and the Mall, and another 50,000 or so guided themselves through the same marbled halls. Some 40,000 people annually jam together around the reflecting pool for Fourth of July fireworks.

One of the early criticisms of the Mall was that after the state workers went home from their offices the place would turn into a tomb. Corning had lobbied for and won a convention center that was not in the original plans, as a way of enhancing the traffic; and it is wildly successful. Coming’s role as an adversarial godfather of the Mall ended oddly last March, when Governor Mario Cuomo signed into law legislation naming Rockefeller’s forty-four-story tower after the Mayor, who was very ill. And so the most visible element of Rockefeller’s erection will henceforth be known as Coming’s Tower.

But the Mall will still be Rockefeller’s; it was his vision that it would be a great success, and he said so repeatedly to his critics. Because he was right, Albany enthusiasts are forced to speak ambiloquently about the man, who has confused us all. Consider, for instance, how he confused Corning, who was invited to be present when the Mall agreement between city and state was announced by the Governor. Rockefeller, Corning told me, wasn’t sure what he should reveal about Coming’s role in inventing the financial arrangements, the implication being that the Governor would like to take credit for it himself, at least for that moment. He asked the Mayor what he should say about this.

“I told him,” said Corning, “that I’ve always made it a practice to tell the truth whenever I can.”

Rockefeller said all right, and when he met the press he credited Corning with the plan. Then he inscribed to him a large photo of himself superimposed on the Mall. In the inscription he credited Coming’s contribution to making the Mail possible—except that he wrote it “South Maul.” This pleased the Mayor so much that he took the photo to his summer place in Maine, tacked it on the wall of his outhouse, and had a photo taken of himself seated therein, admiring the Maul photo. But after many solitary moments of admiration, he decided that it was too rare an item to stay where it was, and so he brought it back to City Hall and filed it in his desk drawer, from which he extracted it to prove to me that he was telling the truth.

At this revelation, we must take our leave of the curious South Mall, and of the curiouser Nelson Rockefeller, that pharaonic redeemer who, four months after he witnessed the Mali’s name being changed from the Empire State Plaza to the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza (that was October 6, 1978), fell out of life’s lovely waterbed and died, with as much flash, fanfare, ambiguity, deception, and aftershock as he had lived, leaving a legacy that makes him both truly remarkable and rewardingly kickable. We wore out several pairs of shoes kicking Richard Nixon around, but with Rockefeller our shoes will last longer, for we cannot help but pause in our footworks to gape at the wonder of all that marble, and to revel in the way the city’s old corpus is sitting up and sipping whiskey—because of Rockefeller. In the spring of last year, at ten o’clock one evening, there were no parking spaces on State Street below Eagle, or on North Pearl Street and Broadway north of State, or even on Washington Avenue near the Capitol. Cars were double-parked and people were in line to get into Cahoots; others were walking the streets, barhopping under new streetlamps, enticed by the proliferation of lively pubs downtown. On April 15, 1982, to counter the woes of paying income tax, the downtown pub and restaurant owners opened their bars and poured free drinks—“anything you want”—for an hour, a moment of magnanimity that created a crush like nothing seen downtown in two decades.

All this pleasure, all this sensuality, all this money growing out of the Mall, is the basis for a morality play without any morals; and who better to comment upon it than H.L. Mencken, who, in 1922, in his “On Being an American,” not only foresaw it all but dictated the logical response to it:

“And here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throatslittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.”

Yes. Oh, yes.

And so to bed.