Lauren Nassef

In 1985, The New York Times reported a story about a shoeshine man who defaced eight modern paintings in the underground concourse of the Empire State Plaza, New York State’s Modernist-tangoes-with-Brutalist government complex in the heart of Albany.

In 2010, the Albany Times-Union reported teenage arrests related to graffiti at the Empire State Plaza. And again, in 2018, the Times-Union reported four people charged with tagging The Egg, the Harrison & Abramovitz–designed performing arts center that juts out of the plaza like a sawed-off spaceship, frozen in concrete, more pan than egg.

What begs abuse, Empire State? The answer manifests not only in the hardscape spaces that invite unwanted improvisation and interaction, but also in the narratives embedded in the landscape—in the place that was lost to create the Empire State Plaza.

Modern Plans, Modern Government

Popular history states that former New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, embarrassed by the drab conditions of the area when Dutch royalty visited in 1959, envisioned the Empire State Plaza (also referred to as the South Mall) as an antidote to the messiness of the fine-grained urban fabric of Albany’s South End, an old part of one of the oldest cities in America.

Rockefeller’s government, a bygone form of progressive Republicanism that advocated for education, arts, and health, was busy building a new organizational infrastructure to accommodate the growing state. New York State, not the federal government, would drive this urban renewal plan. (The financing of Empire State Plaza was administered through a complex series of bond sales from Albany County to New York State, orchestrated by Albany mayor Erastus Corning.)

An avid art collector—his mother, Abigail Aldrich Rockefeller, was the leading force behind the creation of the Museum of Modern Art—Rockefeller projected a program of bold Modernism expressed through aesthetics and architecture: a modern plan made for a modern government, and vice versa.

Rockefeller tapped architect Wallace Harrison to oversee and lead design and construction, an association that dated back to Harrison’s work on New York City’s Rockefeller Center as a member of Associated Architects for Rockefeller’s father, John D. “Jr.” But to create the South Mall meant to clear out parts of the South End, a diverse neighborhood of African Americans, Italians, Jews, Irish, and others. An economically forlorn pocket of the neighborhood, known as “The Gut,” was targeted; the area was dismissed as a slum, but according to State University of New York Albany historian David Hochfelder, “[it] was never a Skid Row, but had a number of rooming houses that served seniors living on fixed incomes.”

During the demolition and construction of the South Mall, an era that spanned from 1962–1978, the South End neighborhood lost well over 1,100 buildings, and more than 300 businesses, to demolition. Between 7,000 and 9,000 people—upwards of 5% of the city’s population—were displaced.

“The entire plan was touted as ‘the city was dying’ and needed revitalization,” says Tony Opalka, Albany city historian. “The loss of population and tax base was huge after the demolition. But the real impact of the Mall was its scale in what was, what still is, a smallsize city.”

“Empire State Plaza obliterated the streetscape,” says Hochfelder. Yet the architectural loss—a Greenwich Village-esque eclecticism mixing colonial and 18th-century urban American styles—was overshadowed by the human toll.

Barry Levine is a retired postal manager who grew up in the South End. His father owned a bar, Dinty’s Tavern. “The Egg sits right on top of where the bar building was,” he says. “People fought the plans as best they could—they hated it—but there was nothing they could do.” Forced out, Levine says, “Dinty’s moved from the corner of Hudson and High uptown before its former building was demolished, and most of his customers moved with him.”

Biff Pock runs the Blue Note Record Shop on Central Avenue, a short walk from where Dinty’s relocated. His father opened the shop in 1948. Though removed from the South End, Pock says once construction was complete on the Mall, the store never fully recovered its business, even factoring in changes in consumption. “We had lots of customers that would walk over or take the bus,” Pock says. “Once the Mall started being built, foot traffic declined. If even a tenth of the people forced from their homes were our customers, it’s still a huge loss. There used to be so much life in the city.”

For retired geologist Angelo Kontis’s family, Albany’s urban renewal was like an incision in their story. Kontis’s father owned his own home and business, a shoe repair shop, in the South End. He refused to sell to New York State. “It was the last home standing on the block,” Kontis says.

Eventually, the home was acquired via eminent domain and demolished. Kontis’s father’s health began to decline during this period and though the family was compensated, the effect was lasting. “I can’t prove it, but I associate [my father’s decline] with his world [being] taken out from under him,” Kontis says. His father ended up in the Hudson River State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

98 Acres

These human stories form the core of 98 Acres, a history project started by Hochfelder and historians Ann Pfau and Stacy Sewell. Its name is a reference to the size of the 40-block area that was demolished.

“We came across an archive of photographs [documenting the area] for appraisal purposes,” Hochfelder says, “and realized we needed to bring these photographs out of the archives and into the world.”

98 Acres’ website vivifies the urban renewal period in Albany in visceral and exacting detail—culled from historic images, news clippings, government documents, oral histories, and storytelling. “We started an effort to catalog the images and use the visual record to tell the social history of what happened,” Hochfelder says.

The website counters the dominant narrative of Rockefeller’s rationale for renewal: slum clearance. As the photographs show, the “slums” to be eradicated were often solid structures representing deep social and familial networks. The group is working on a book to complement the website and has already begun cataloging the stories of other regional places affected by urban renewal. As Hochfedler says, though, “Albany’s story is both representative and unique. Hundreds of communities have similar stories. But in Albany, this was a state-funded project with a clear goal—and it got built.”

Layers of History

That fact that the Empire State Plaza was built—when so many urban renewal projects did not—is monumental unto itself. Can its place in Albany be recontextualized? Should it?

Nearly 11,000 state workers traverse and work within it every workday. At least two generations of Albanians have come of age with the Empire State Plaza enmeshed in the core of the city. Even its attractiveness as a canvas for vandals evokes some of the playfulness of Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompeia, São Paulo’s factory-transformed-into-community-center, a sort of Modernism made soft.

The architectural and planning prescriptions that form the Empire State Plaza’s identity (it is a mix of International, Brutalist, and Modernist stylings, panned by many critics when it was first conceived and built) offer one of the few complexes in the United States that exist on such a grand scale. The Brutalist-style Cultural Education Center and Legislative Office Building hark back to an age of efficacious governance—despite the fact that many saw the building of the plaza as an overreach.

“The interest in Brutalism is, in part, spurred by its association with an era of progressive civic building,” says Erica Avrami, an assistant professor of historic preservation at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “These structures hark back to a unique moment of collective action in civic design and construction. While our generation is reckoning with how these large-scale urban projects disrupted communities and built environments, there is nonetheless some nostalgia for the political agency and civic vision that enabled their realization.”

Within the Empire State Plaza’s 98 acres and the surrounding extant blocks of historic Albany, layers of American urban planning history splay out like a text, fitting for a place that European colonists settled in 1614. To those of a certain mindset, the starkness within the Empire State Plaza nonetheless reveals an authenticity of architectural thought in a way that faux-traditional new development likely never will.

For some though, like Hochfelder, the aesthetic effect of the Empire State Plaza has always been inauthentic. “Albany is a 19th-century city, with Empire State Plaza grafted on,” he says.