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August 11, 2005

The Albany Mall

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Donald Pittenger recently visited one of the true follies of mid-century American modernism, the Albany Mall, aka The Empire State Plaza. If you're in the mood for grandiose bureaucratic planning, featureless buildings, and bleak "empty spaces" decorated with bits of "modern art," then maybe a trip to Albany, NY will prove just the thing.

The Empire State's Imperial Architecture in Albany
by Donald Pittenger

Most New York City folks will be more than happy to tell you what year it was that the city Went To Hell. (I'm not a New Yorker, but I used to spend plenty of time there and can assure you with absolute certainty that the year was 1965. Or maybe 1968. Anyhow, whenever it was that the subway employees who got jobs during the Depression retired.)

This game can be played regarding the point when New York State was no longer the Empire State. And I peg it at the start of World War 2. True, California didn't overtake New York in total population until around 1961, but the war effort accelerated the shift in population, industry and influence to the west and south; after 1945, New York was running on fumes and momentum.

To glimpse New York in its days of imperial glory, dig up a copy of the old Federal Writers' Project guidebook for the state. (This was one of those Depression-era make-work projects. It employed writers and photographers and the goal was to produce a guidebook for each state and selected other areas.) The New York State book was first published in 1940 and I have a copy from the sixth (1955) printing. Besides reflecting the Depression zeigeist, cooing over unions and strikes, it reveals that even at the end of the Thirties the state swarmed with major companies and important industries, upstate as well as downstate. Nothing like the (relatively) nearly empty husk it is today.

Rockefeller, Imperator

I mentioned momentum a moment ago. There was still some of that left when I went to work for state government in Albany in the late summer of 1970. This was a couple months before Nelson A. Rockefeller's third and final re-election as governor.

(Since Rockefeller has been dead for more than a quarter-century and some younger Blowhards readers might not be familiar with him, here's a brief profile. Nelson Rockefeller was a grandson of John D. Rockefeller -- a self-made man who became one of the richest men in America. Nelson, born 1908, attended Dartmouth College and until 1958, when he was first elected governor, worked in various public roles as well as for family-owned interests. For instance, fairly fresh out of college, he worked with his father on the Rockefeller Center project in New York City. Arts-wise, he was a champion of Modernism and served the Museum of Modern Art 1932-75 in a number of capacities including trustee, treasurer, president, and board chairman.

He stepped down as governor of New York State in 1973 and became Vice President of the United States in December of 1974 after Gerald Ford succeeded Richard Nixon. Rockefeller died in 1979. Otherwise politically, he ran for President several times but never was nominated. Ideologically he was what was called a "liberal Republican", a species common up to the time of Reagan of which a few examples still exist in parts of the northeast and possibly in Oregon.)

Perhaps due to his experiences with Rockefeller Center, Rockefeller had an enthusiasm for building buildings. His governorship coincided with the great growth in higher education triggered by the baby boom. Seeing that the state's public higher education system was little more that a collection of small teachers colleges and taking a page from Clark Kerr out in California, he created a large system of state colleges capped by four State University campuses, one of which was in Albany.

Then there was the problem of Albany itself. (Much of what follows regarding history is based on the book "The Politics of Architecture: A Perspective on Nelson A. Rockefeller" by Samuel E. Bleeker, The Rutledge Press, New York, 1981.) Apparently Rockefeller discovered Albany to be a disgrace; he had to plan visits of royalty so that "The Gut," a sleazy section of bars and whorehouses near the capitol, was avoided. It just didn't measure up to what the capital of the country's largest and most influential state ought to be.

The genesis of the South Mall

Albany was suffering downtown economic malaise due in part to the opening of the State Office Campus several miles away hurting businesses dependent on lunchtime shopping. This created pressure to Do Something, as did the existence of The Gut. The political and economic details are intricate, but in a nutshell here's what happened. Rockefeller brought in a bunch of city planning and government finance experts who proposed alternative locations for a new state office complex and related infrastructure. The winning proposal was to place it immediately to the south of the capitol building, covering the gulch occupied by The Gut. Land was condemned, a spat with Mayor Erastus Corning ensued followed by making-up and some creative buy-and-lease-back financing via the mechanism of Albany County. Got that? Don't worry: this was probably understood by the same number of folks who grasped both the General Theory and Special Theory of Relativity.

Mall overview.jpg
The view from above

The project was given the working title "South Mall," which was how I knew it during my 1970-74 stay in Albany. It was dedicated (while uncompleted) in 1973 as the "Empire State Plaza" and now has the official (1978) moniker "Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza," though it's generally referred to as the Empire State Plaza on official websites and as the "Albany Mall" by the public. I still think of it as the South Mall, so I’ll tend to use that label here.

The architect was none other than Wallace K. Harrison, who had been Rockefeller's main T-square-and-triangle guy since Rockefeller Center days. According to the book cited above, Rockefeller was actively involved during the conceptual-design phase.

Because the site is part gulch and part down-slope from the plateau where the capitol building sits and because there was need for a large parking facility to serve the office workers, the South Mall was shaped as a 1/4 by 1/8 mile platform atop which were buildings. The buildings and platform-top plaza are marble-clad, but the walls of the platform are covered by large, irregular-shaped stonework. I always thought that the stonework was odd, not at all in keeping with the rest of the project. It also somehow seemed to resemble the platform of the famous Potala in Lhasa, Tibet. And (for once) it seems I was right; the book mentions that Rockefeller was indeed inspired by Tibetan monastery platforms.

The Potala, Tibet

Construction was a nightmare. For starters, the site was a geological mess. There was little in the way of close-to-surface rock base. Much of the area was covered by an odd, bluish glacial-deposit clay that was nearly impenetrable when dry and gelatinous when wet. This made it hard to anchor the platform and the buildings (which had ground-based foundations, the platform actually being constructed around these foundations). Adding to the engineering headache was the delicate matter of not disturbing the water table. Even before the South Mall was started, the late-Twenties skyscraper state office building (Alfred E. Smith Building) located behind the capitol had already sunk six inches since it was built, and changes in the water table might further affect it, the capitol, and other nearby buildings such as the DeWitt Clinton Hotel.

The Mall, deck view

Thanks to legal rules regarding contracting, not all contractors were top-notch (the low bidder always won). Plus there was a labor shortage -- the South Mall project was so huge that it outstripped the local construction-worker supply. Then the project (understandably) fell years behind schedule. The remedy was to throw money and manpower into it; this often resulted in workers getting in each other's way. All the while, contracts had to be re-negotiated and costs spiraled, topping out at approaching $2 billion, or around $6-9 billion in 2005 dollars -- the most expensive state construction project ever. Some corners were cut to put a brake on the cost-spiral: apparently marble-cladding was nixed for office-tower lobbies.

Construction began in 1965. By the time I arrived five years later, the 44-story office tower had been structurally completed (but not occupied until years later), and the four "agency buildings" were partly finished, as were the peripheral office buildings; the state museum/library and the performing arts/conference center had not emerged from their foundations. The platform was mostly in the form of vertical steel I-beams with cross-beams in place here and there. When I left town more than four years later the platform was still not quite completed. The project was not finished until 1979, 14 years after it started.

A word about Albany's climate

Architectural appearance traditionally has been influenced by such factors as local building materials, terrain, culture, degree of public safety, technology and climate. International Style -- Modernist -- architecture tended to hold technology as the prime consideration, terrain a somewhat distant second, and the others far to the rear; in principle, the same International Style building would be as at-home in Stockton as it would be in Stockholm. The South Mall was designed in the era when Modernism was being given a slight re-think in the guise of Brutalism -- heavy on the reinforced concrete, please (a classic example is the Boston City Hall). I'll deal with architectural style shortly, but first need to mention that climate was by no means ignored in the design of the South Mall.

Boston City Hall

In the context of the 48 contiguous United States, Albany has pretty nasty winters. In the first place, they are long. Leaves are nearly all on the ground by Halloween and don't pop out again until early May: call it seven months without leaves. November and April are transition months; some snow can be expected by mid-November and a gray-brown landscape can be depended upon. December-March are normally very cold and snowy aside from the annual "January thaw" week when drivers drop convertible tops and zoom around in 45-degree (Fahrenheit) comfort. There can be prolonged cold-snaps –- day-upon-day when the temperature never rises above freezing and, while the sky might be cloudless, its color has a sickly gray tint to it and not a comforting blue.

During my first winter in Albany (1970-71) the record for cumulative inches of snowfall (111, if I remember right) was set, and one night the temperature reached 28 below zero (Fahrenheit). I was driving around that night and my Volvo 142's handling seemed slightly off, possibly due to metal contraction in its parts. Thereafter I dreaded Albany winters, starting to steel myself in June for what was to come by November.

Okay, I grew up in Seattle, so maybe I'm a softy (out here, we see leaves more than seven months a year). Still, I didn't much mind winters in Philadelphia and New York City. And yes, it gets colder in the upper Plains states than in Albany. But Albany can get very cold (see above) and it can get more snow than the Plains because its precipitation can come from warm, moisture-heavy sources such as Florida or the Gulf of Mexico (in the form of Nor'easters) as easily as it can from comparatively dry Canada.

I mentioned that the top of the South Mall is basically a plaza. In the (few) warm months, trees leaf out and reflecting pools are filled with water. The rest of the year, the plaza is a cold, windswept, unpleasantly bleak place with few people to be seen. And where are the people? Why, they are in the base structure walking, dining or shopping on the concourse level when not in their offices or coming from or going to the parking garage levels. The concourse was a key South Mall feature.

The buildings and their architecture

The South Mall buildings were mentioned in passing above; now let's consider them in more detail.

The agency buildings and the library

Dominating the scene is the 44-story office tower (now called the Corning Tower after the then-mayor of Albany who helped arrange the project's financing). In plan view, it is two polygons superimposed, the superimposition continuing up to five or six floors from the building's top. This geometry cannot easily be described, so refer to the nearby pictures. The exterior of the tower, and those of the four shorter "agency building" towers that line the opposite side of the plaza, are characterized by vertical strakes that overwhelm horizontal-floor visual clues. The agency buildings are simpler than the tower in that they have but one polygon floor plan. They also differ in that the office floors are built out from reinforced concrete "spine" structures containing elevators and other service elements.

My understanding is that Harrison's firm designed this set of buildings.

The Concourse

Whereas these towers have sleek, "futuristic" exteriors, the interiors are not at all impressive; at least that was my feeling from a couple visits to friends back in the early ‘80s. The amount of available office space on each floor was noticeably small -- especially in the agency buildings. Plus, the odd geometry of the floor-space made it difficult to create office areas for individual employees, the square footage steadily dropping with distance from the elevators to the floor's extremity.

The Egg

On the same side of the plaza as the main tower is the "Egg," or Performing Arts Center. And it indeed looks like an egg lying on its side atop a small base, the upper part of the Egg sliced off at a curved diagonal. The Egg contains two auditoriums that face one another, the split being at the balance point on the base. In effect, the egg-shape is the outside of the curved interior seating arrangement of each auditorium -- an interesting exercise in structural minimalism.

Closest to the state capitol are two short buildings containing offices for legislators and key staff. At the opposite end -- actually beyond the platform itself -- is the museum/library building which serves as one end of the axis between itself and the capitol building. Along the west side is the long, low Motor Vehicles Building which serves to transition the mall to the 19th Century row-house neighborhood beyond. (Actually, the only "transition" is in terms of height, and that is only in relative terms to the towers. The building is comparatively windowless, having a wall-like character. The nearby row-houses are primarily brick or brownstone, if memory serves.) All these buildings are marble-clad and, in actuality or as a design-effect, are not very glassy as quasi-Modernist buildings go. Commentary by architect George Dudley in the Beekman book holds that the overall effect of the buildings is sculptural.

The website for a group called the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) does not evaluate the mall kindly. Comments include:

  • "This is an empty, wind swept plaza with no human scale what-so-ever.

  • "The plaza is made completely of hard surfaces, has very few places to sit, ugly architecture, and most of all, an out of scale feeling.

  • "The only use for the plaza is walking from point A to point B.

  • "There is no way you could meet anyone here because (1) it is so inhospitable, and (2) so large you wouldn’t be able to find them."

These comments strike me as being rather harsh, but not without foundation. And I should add that people do congregate on the plaza by the reflecting pools in summer to munch lunch or sun themselves. As for the architecture, I agree with Dudley that it has a sculptural quality. But I don’t find the sculpturing very interesting. The towers can be taken in at a glance, the eye passing on to other things without any real loss. (Compare the South Mall to the visual feast of Chartres Cathedral, the Louvre, or almost any Haussmann boulevard.)

Paris a la Haussmann

The Egg is more interesting than the towers, perhaps because its relationship to its background changes noticeably as one strolls towards or around it. The museum/library building has comparatively more detailing and a more complex shape, so it too cannot be immediately dismissed. The legislative office buildings and Motor Vehicles are mere backdrop. In my opinion, the only truly impressive thing about the South Mall is its size; and this is a bit hard to judge because, as the PPS critic notes, it’s hard to relate the size of things to the height of a human being –- doorways, windows and so forth are de-emphasized in the design.

The concourse and Modernist art

Once source I checked while preparing this article claimed the South Mall has 92 (count 'em) works of art. Some are abstract sculptures atop the plaza, but most are Abstract Expressionist paintings lining the walls of the concourse within the platform along with more abstract sculptures. As best I remember, most of these paintings are large and colorful. But I found the whole experience of a quarter-mile of such art dreary and sterile. Their reason for being there was the fact that Rockefeller was a big fan of that genre.

Bleeker's book says that the art was selected by a commission chaired by Harrison and that the art budget was $2.6 million ($10-12 million today). Among the artists are such usual suspects as Noguchi, Kline, Motherwell and Rothko.

Was the South Mall cost-effective?

In cost-effectiveness terms, I consider the South Mall a boondoggle of the highest magnitude. A similar amount of office space could have been built at far less cost elsewhere in the Albany area and New York taxpayers would not have been burdened with the cost of paying off the bonds used to finance it.

In the years since the South Mall was completed, other new and renovated office space has appeared in downtown Albany. Even more would likely have been built had the mall never happened. This means that the excuse that the building of the South Mall was important to downtown commerce was probably hollow.

As for eliminating The Gut, that too could have been accomplished at little cost (compared to that of the mall). Some combination of condemnations and urban renewal funding resulting in preserving viable exteriors and doing necessary interior refurbishing -- the normal urban renewal blocking-and-tackling -- would have done the trick. Of course this assumes that the Democratic Machine politicians and their cohorts would have gone along with the notion; Bleeker's book suggests that the area generated a curiously small amount of property tax revenue.

Grandiose government and grandiose architecture

The world would be immeasurably poorer aesthetically if cost-effectiveness was the sole criterion for government (or ecclesiastical or private) building projects. A certain amount of excess and grandeur is good for us, I think. Consider the Haussmann-Napoleon III rebuilding of Paris. Or the Mall in Washington, D.C. (in the broad, not necessarily the detailed, sense). Or St. Petersburg along the River Neva. Or classical Rome and Athens' Acropolis. Or Parliament in London or almost any major European cathedral.

The South Mall was initiated in an era when government was more widely respected than now, thanks perhaps to its popular (if not economic) success during the Depression and its more obvious success in managing our World War 2 effort. Remember that the mid-Sixties was the period when Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society programs, the final flowering of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. In those days it was widely accepted that a well-intentioned government could accomplish great things. Nelson Rockefeller believed in an activist government. He probably believed that public housing and creation or expansion of public colleges and universities, while incurring short-term costs, would assure New York's role as the Empire State: these were considered investments in the state's future.

Rockefeller also probably believed that buildings had a psychological function -- to inspire people to aspire. His family's Rockefeller Center accomplished that to some extent, and it certainly had a long-term positive economic impact on midtown Manhattan. He also had a hand in the United Nations complex (as did his man Harrison), its apparent success further reinforcing his beliefs.

And he believed in Planning (capital-P). I worked in what was then the state-level planning agency. But that's a subject for another time.

Therefore, given the historical precedent of large building projects along with the Sixties zeitgeist, the South Mall was a reasonable kind of project, provided it wouldn't cost too much. In other words, it sorta made sense at the time.

Where it didn't make sense was its site and its conception. My perspective, 40 years later, is that Rockefeller and his planners COULD instead have created something following the axis of Central Avenue, heading northwest from the capitol and the Smith building. Much of this area was and is undistinguished low-rise commercial with a smattering of preservable buildings such as the public library building on Washington Street. This area lies on the plateau where much of Albany, aside from near the Hudson River and its tributary streams, is located; it is much less costly to build here than on the actual South Mall site.

A planner of today might consider a mix of vistas and government-built building and sites for privately-financed high-rise buildings that would compensate the city for condemnation of tax-generating properties. True, this solution would not have been as grand or flashy as the South Mall, but it could have been made pretty impressive architecturally and it would have enhanced the city in ways different than the grandiose sterility of the mall.

All things considered, if I had been Rockefeller and if I knew what we now think we know now about urban environments, what SHOULD have been done was to simply clean out The Gut and then deal with downtown office space needs on an ad hoc basis -- no single mega-project.

Others will surely disagree. Please comment.

A final assessment

As things turned out, Rockefeller's "investments" in terms of colleges, universities, public housing, South Malls -- the whole package -- seems to have done NOTHING in terms of New York retaining its Empire State status. In the 1970s, the decade the South Mall was completed, state population fell from 18.2 million to 17.6 million. The 1990 and 2000 censuses had its population at 18.0 million and 19.0 million respectively. The most recent Census Bureau estimate (2004) is 19.2 million. True, the state has grown since 1980, but California should be double New York's population in the near future, Texas is now number-two in population and Florida is set to overtake New York for the third-place slot in perhaps five years.

It's true that long-term trends have been those of relatively slow population growth in the northeastern quadrant of the country and faster growth elsewhere, so some of New York State's relative decline was inevitable. One might possibly argue that Rockefeller's projects actually kept things from getting worse. I'm inclined to disagree: the loss of 600,000 people between the 1970 and 1980 censuses is a powerful indicator of the short-term damage caused in part by his policies. (And even if there was a serious census undercount in 1980, as some claim, the picture would still have been one of stagnation, as the 1990 census underlines.) Until someone can convince me otherwise, New York State's "investments" along with a lot of other over-spending ran it into the sewer. What a terrible waste.

Here's the official visit-it website for the Empire State Plaza. The writer calls the Plaza "one of the most spectacular capital centers in the country." Here's a page (with many photos) about the plaza by the terrific Mary Ann Sullivan.

Many thanks to Donald Pittenger for filing this report.



posted by Michael at August 11, 2005


People in most of the country have long since learned that social and economic problems cannot be remedied by huge infusions of taxpayer money. Quite the opposite, in fact; it's becoming increasingly apparent that lower taxes and less-intrusive government are the keys to development.
Unfortunately, the old tax-and-spend beliefs remain alive and well in New York, both state and city.

Posted by: Peter on August 11, 2005 08:13 PM

I love Empire Plaza! I must visit. Thanks for the photo essay. I propose: not human scale -- trans-human scale. Aspire to something bigger than our petty egos. Think of the pyramids!

Posted by: tim on August 11, 2005 09:41 PM

Thanks Donald for such a fascinating post! I haven't had time so far to give it the attention it deserves, but I'd like to make a few comments on what I've skimmed so far.

- - - - - - - - - - -

What year did NYC "really" start going down hill?

Interesting question! Of course the common wisdom (which I, more or less, agree with) is that NYC suffered three major blows: the Great Depression, WWII and the post-war emergence of car suburbs (and the sunbelt) [and the urban renewal bulldozer approach to dealing with it].

But I think your question is more along the lines of, "When did people start saying (or at least thinking), 'Uh oh! This is really serious!' "

My sense as a teenager at the time was that NYC really began to "go downhill" shortly after the 1964-1965 World's Fair (as the World's Fair created a superficial and temporary respite from the City's actually longstanding deterioriation).

Some milestones of the deterioration:

1) Johnny Carson jokes about "Fun City" and muggings. (I could be wrong about this, but I don't think people in the 1950s even used the word "mugging." In my memory at least it was a new word that came along roughly about the same time as "mini-skirt.")

Johnny Carson's actual exit for L.A. (forget the exact year) was, I believe, a very big blow psychologically. And although the blow was more psychological than real, it was also representative of a vast exodus of both average New Yorkers and NY celebrities (like Barbra Streisand [late 1960s], Neil Simon [early 1970s] -- and even, to a degree, Jane Jacobs [late 1960s]. ("Will the last one out, turn out the lights?")

2) The closings of "Freedomland" (a larger, but not as well thought out, version of Disneyland) and the closing of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. (Plus the increasingly run down appearance of Times Square -- which didn't appear so much as dangerous, but just very down at the heels and beat up.)

I forget the years, but both amusement parks attributed their troubles (incorrectly, in my opinion) to the competition from the World's Fair.


When I started going to CCNY in 1970, I'd take the D train at W. 4th St. and I began noticing this strange grafitti: "Taki 183." Apparently this was the beginning of the modern-day graffiti fad which became really big and bold by about 1974.

3) the 1974(?) oil embargo.

If I recall correctly, the City never really bounced back with the same vitality after the embargo was over.

Two recollections (admittedly of very minor true importance) from that period:

a) If I remember correctly, just before the oil embargo Rockefeller Center really went all out with its Christmas lights one year. Not only was the main tree lit up spectacularly, but the trees in the newly created plazas along Sixth Ave. were also spectacularly lit (in maybe blue or green lights?).

During the energy crunch, I think they substituted reflective pieces of plastic for a good number of the bulbs on the main tree and did away with much of the illumination of the rest of the trees.

I think it was many, many years before Rockefeller Center went back to its old "spectacular" self. And, although this may be false nostalgia, I really don't think they've ever really equalled their pre-embargo decorations.

b) I remember being really disappointed that about half the ceiling lights in the spectacular lobbies of the newly built WTC were left dark during the energy crunch. Of course this was quite sensible as the space was hardly used, but it was disappointing to realize that unless, perhaps, you were there when they first opened the lobbies up [the first few weeks they were open?; the first few months when they were open?], you never really got to see the lobbies as Yamaguchi intended them to be seen.

When these lights were finally lit up again after the oil crunch passed, the lights had been changed from incadescents (?) to an ugly kind of flourescent.

If I'm even remembering these things correctly, these are obviously still very, minor, minor "signs" of NYC's deterioration. But this is what comes to mind nevertheless.


To me this was the most obvious sign of NYC's decay, and it has always had a prominent place in my memories.

Obviously, during the garbage strike itself, the streets were piled high with plastic bagged garbage. But the most striking thing to me is that once the strike was over, the City's streets never, ever seemed to returned to their previous degree of cleanliness [admittedly not very high to begin with]. It has always seemed to me that, ever since the garbage strike was over, the streets of NYC have always looked liked the first or second day of the actual garbage strike itself.

Now part of this may be "coincidence" as somewhere along the line the city forbade apartment house incineration of garbage which had reduced much of the City's smelly "wet" garbage to ash (and air pollution). Also, it wasn't until about this time that TAKE OUT fast food franchises like MacDonald's began making inroads into Manhattan (replacing eat-in "fast food" like Chock Full 'O Nuts, the Automats, etc.).

Also, maybe the City never again gave the Sanitation Department the same kind of budget (relative to other agencies) that it once had. And I think the City also, some where along the line, relaxed its regulations regarding private garbage collection (allowing restuaranst to leave their dumpsters out all night for night-time, instead of daytime, collection by private carters).

But in any case, I think one of the most distinctive changes between NYC then and now is the dirtiness of the streets. In the pre-Sanitation Strike days I don't think you'd ever see on the street the kind of wet food type garbage and dumpsters that you do today -- especially on "fancy" streets like Fifth Ave. In the "old" days, dirty streets meant cigarette butts, cigarette packages, match books and flying newspapers, instead!


Outside of the "winos" and "bums" panhandling along the Bowery, homelessness seemed rather rare in NYC (or so it seemed to me) before about 1976 -- most particularly on "fancy" streets. Then, all of a sudden, you started to notice the non-wino homeless, many of them noticeably mentally ill.

Again, I could be wrong about this, but my recollection of that time is that if I saw someone sleeping on the streets who didn't look like a conventinal wino I would call the cops -- thinking that the person might have suffered a heart attack or something. (I distinctly remember actually doing this once, but I don't remember the year. The guy sleeping in a long planter across the street just seemed to "regular" to be a "wino.")


As far as I can recall this phenomenon really began in earnest in 1977. I happened to be working in a subway storefront with a clear view of the turnstiles to the Times Sq. shuttle and I found it amazing to watch as the phenemon began to "mushroom." When I first began working there in the spring of 1977(?), there was hardly any turnstile jumping. But by the time I left the job in the fall of 1977, it was epidemic.

7) Jimmy Carter's visit to Charlotte St.

I think even many New Yorkers were unaware of just how seriously things had declined until Pres. Carter was photographed amidst the deserted apartment house neighborhoods and rubble of the "South" Bronx.

8) The Fiscal Crisis

This was perhaps the nadir of New York's decline.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 11, 2005 09:51 PM

"... if I had been Rockefeller and if I knew what we now think we know now about urban environments, what SHOULD have been done was to simply clean out The Gut and then deal with downtown office space needs on an ad hoc basis -- no single mega-project."

Excellent insight and excellent post.

Posted by: David Sucher on August 11, 2005 10:17 PM

One of the best tellings of the NYC fiscal crisis is by William Simon, the guy who told the city to "drop dead", in the Post's famous phrase.

I missed all the fun of the Travis Bickle years, but I do remember when Mayor Dinkins decided to save money by turning off every other street light. Not only did muggings skyrocket - predictable enough, really - but the disused lights were torn apart by people stealing the copper wire for black market resale.

It's almost hard to remember the pre-Giuliani days when everyone thought that kind of thing was permanent.

Anyway, I kinda like the Empire State Plaza, but then I also like Sixth Avenue, so what do I know?

BTW, I don't know what "trans-human" means, but I've noticed that some ideas don't even need to be explained for you to know they're bad. Call it a hunch.

Posted by: Brian on August 11, 2005 10:21 PM

Benjamin -- One of these days you ought to stop restraining yourself and really let it rip when commenting!! :)

Actually, you provided us with a pretty comprehensive picture of The Great Seventies Meltdown. For instance, I had forgotten about Christmas lights; back in 1973-74 "they" made you feel almost unpatriotic to have lights on your tree at home what with collective extra wattage they soaked up -- I recall my boss fuming about that restriction.

On a less serious note: From what I've read, New Yorkers have ALWAYS thought the place had started to Go To Hell at some point in their lifetime. It's a generational thing, apparently. For example, I happen to peg the Golden Age as taking place in the 20s and 30s, though others would have placed it in the 1890s. But I wasn't even born until the last few months of the 30s and didn't lay eyes on the town until 1956 and didn't spend serious time there until 1962.

But, like you, I find a qualitative difference between Fifties New York and what emerged in the Sixties. It did get grittier (and became a mess by 1975). And it felt less safe. I remember walking through the southern part of Central Park with a girlfriend in summer twilight in '62, and not dreaming of doing so a few years later.

And what I mentioned about subway employees retiring is not an original thought; I picked it up from in-laws from my first marriage (to a Bay Ridge - Fort Hamilton area gal). Back in the Depression a lot a really capable people took government jobs they otherwise wouldn't have considered, and they stayed on until they got their 30 years in. Their replacements simply didn't have the same stuff and this was evident in how public services were run and in how well infrastructure was maintained.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 11, 2005 11:14 PM

If we're talking about the subway, on which I'm fairly knowledgeable, the decline started back in the 1950's with the advent of "deferred maintenance," continued at a relatively slow pace through the 1960's, and really got bad in the early 1970's with the advent of graffiti and crime. The nadir, quite possibly, was the "Beame Shuffle" of the mid-1970's, when then-Mayor Abraham Beame legally skimmed off federal funding meant for construction of the desparately needed Second Avenue Subway in order to avoid a FIVE CENT fare increase (which happened anyway soon after).
Conditions in the subway started to pick up in the mid-1980's with the gradual eradication of graffiti. Crime rates began dropping a few years later and today have fallen to levels not seen in decades. Unfortunately, the subway's infrastructure remains something out of a natural history museum, with the critically important signalling system largely unchanged in the subway's 100-year history. Running speeds remain below those of almost every other American mass transit system. A modern computer-controlled signalling and operating system is slowly being implemented, starting with the L train, but will take decades to implement systemwide - by which time it will surely be obsolete.

Posted by: Peter on August 11, 2005 11:57 PM

I thought the real decline of NYC was kicked off by the mayorship of John Lindsay ('66--73, if I remember right). Somewhere I blogged (and actually linked to a source) that during his reign crime and welfare roles both tripled.

With my impeccable sense of timing, I was in NYC (at NYU film school) the summer of the garbage strike -- mountains of garbage, all up and down the block. And that was the days before the pooper scooper law, so you can imagine the smell -- it was a very hot and steamy summer. And I moved to Manhattan in 1978. In my first couple of years here, I was mugged twice, pickpocketed twice, and attacked once. The whole place felt like "Blade Runner" -- like it was falling apart, but (from the point of view of an arty kid anyway) still had a few last grimy drops of glamor and juice to be enjoyed. Money and working people were fleeing the place. The punk scene, which I dabbled on the sidelights of, was all about dancing on the abyss, enjoying the moments before the Final Collapse.

But as a small kid I traveled to NYC often with my parents, who were from the area. As I remember our trips into the city, it was like going into the movie of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Women wore hats, men wore suits, and there were Checker cabs everywhere. A very, very different place by the time I was in my 20s ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 12, 2005 12:18 AM

i grew up in albany, and i can always remember the surreal otherworldy flavor of the mall area. in some ways it resembled a city built for aliens. there are few playgrounds and other child-friendly amenities, but in general, it is characterized by baking concrete and stone during much of the summer so we would hang out in parks.

Posted by: razib on August 12, 2005 02:30 AM

"Back in the Depression a lot a really capable people took government jobs they otherwise wouldn't have considered, and they stayed on until they got their 30 years in. Their replacements simply didn't have the same stuff and this was evident in how public services were run and in how well infrastructure was maintained."

There was an article about the subway in City Journal last spring, and the real difference between the subway early on and then later on, is that the subway was once privatized. They made it public and ever since then it's been downhill.

"The dysfunctional state of the MTA grows out of decades of municipal wrongheadedness. In 1904, when Gotham’s first subway opened for business, the fare was one nickel—a market price set by city leaders and private investors so that subway operators could make an operational profit every year. In 1948—after two wars, the Great Depression, and triple-digit inflation—the fare was still one nickel. Successive city politicians, convinced that mass transit was a human right, not a private good to be traded in the marketplace, had transformed the nickel fare from a measure of economic value to a symbol of Gotham’s status as savior of the poor. New York’s pioneering, for-profit subway builders and operators could no longer make an operating profit, the public sector stepped in, and the subway system’s woes became permanent."

How to Save the Subways-- Before It's Too Late. If you read it, you'll find the worst is yet to come for the NY subway. The infrastructure is still decaying and you just have to read it to believe it. It needs tens and tens of billions of dollars. They should privatize it and to hell with the damn union.

Posted by: lindenen on August 12, 2005 02:49 AM

What a wonderful read. Thanks very much for the enlightenment. If I may add the following observations:

While you spend most of your time focusing on New York, it seems as though the Northeast as a whole (including Montreal) was going through a generalised process of decay. Jane Jacobs touches on this in her latest work, noting that between the depression and the war effort, there was a roughly 15 year period in which almost no capital was available for improving the urban landscape on a day-to-day, small investments in piecemeal fashion (you know, the way cities are really built). By the time the tap was turned on again, the paradigm had shifted and money (both public and private) flooded into a select few places (Moses' housing projects, the South Mall, the WTC, corporate fast-food) in a very traumatic fashion.

I found the observation that ALL New York state has decayed, and is a nearly empty husk. While the Albany example is special because it's the capital, and most of the comments deal with the City, I'd be interested to hear more about the decline of other parts of New York State. The benefactors of these changing economic tides (California, Texas, Florida) seem to have thrived inside and outside of the cities, largely due to auto-based development. But it seems as though Upstate could have profited from these trends, too. Why didn't they?

A similar process happened in Canada as well, though our economy didn't make it all the way to Vancouver, but migrated from Montreal to Toronto. There are many analyses that explore this, but in some ways it chalks up to the same drying up of small-scale investment followed by a flood of poorly managed large-scale (private and public) investment. Throw in issues of language, politics, and the inability of Montreal's elite to adapt to a north-south axis in the economy after having triumphed at building the east-west axis, and it is really only now that Montreal is beginning to recover. Vancouver, meanwhile, remains a (very picturesque, affluent, and attractive) regional resource-extraction and goods distribution centre, commanding nothing of the economic and cultural marshaling forces that Los Angeles does. Why Toronto? Ah, the eternal, anguished question that the other 25 million Canadians (who don't live in Toronto) ask themselves every day.

And on a final note- thanks for documenting these processes in such tactile and qualitative ways. It's nice to know that these transitions can be understood by other means than rigorous quantitative analysis and can benefit from wise observations of the world around us. Reading about these processes in such rich, descriptive terms (in addition to being a whole lot more fun than typical 'objective' fact-based analysis) makes historical review of policy, culture, and economy a far more lived-in experience. Thanks.

Enjoying as always,


Posted by: Desmond Bliek on August 12, 2005 10:52 AM

Ah, The 60's - When the future seemed bright.

Posted by: laxpat on August 12, 2005 11:23 AM

A "great man" builds himself a monument - an inhuman monument - and then scores of thousands are condemned to spend their working lives inhabiting it.

What is one to say?

There are no words for the trauma to our very soul that such a space inflicts. There is only one solution: tear it down!

Posted by: ricpic on August 12, 2005 11:47 AM

Michael: According to that Simon book I plugged, it was Mayor Lindsay who signed the lavish union contracts whose outrageous cost led to the fiscal crunch six or seven years later.

Poor old Abe Beam had to deal with the results and take all the blame while Linday was off in sunny Hollywood playing himself.

Posted by: Brian on August 12, 2005 12:19 PM

Re: Toronto. Would it be true to say that Toronto is the only* large city in northeastern North America to improve its standing (relative to all North America) over the last 50 years? If so, why? We tend to regard the long-term hollowing out of northeastern United States cities as an act of God, but was it really?

*The other examples that come to my uninformed mind are Boston, Ottawa, and Quebec City. The latter two grew fat on government revenues, so they don't really count. Is Boston really a success, or is it just an urban version of the Byzantine Empire -- eking out a new Silver Age every few dynasties, but clearly headed downward in the long term?

Posted by: Chris Burd on August 12, 2005 12:34 PM

Chris: Wasn't Toronto's growth mostly a byproduct of Montreal's decline?

As I understand it, Montreal used to be the financial and cultural center of Canada, but the late-sixties rumblings of Quebec separatists - including the odd bombing and assassination - chased everyone away, most of them resettling in Toronto.

Posted by: Brian on August 12, 2005 01:22 PM

Brian: What you say is true, but I think Montreal bottomed out some time ago, but Toronto (the Greater Toronto Area anyway) is still surging ahead. Notably, it hasn't seen the same industrial hollowing-out that Montreal and the U.S. northeast has.

Posted by: Chris Burd on August 12, 2005 02:39 PM


Good point regarding Toronto being the only eastern NA city whose fortunes were on the upswing post-WWII. Interestingly, the feel of the suburban landscape there reminds me very much of my hometown, Calgary.


The root causes of Toronto's growth and Montreal's concomitant decline has itsis far more complicated than the issues around Quebec nationalism. In fact, Toronto was ascending relative to Montreal as early as the end of the 19th century. While the political and economic uncertainty caused by nationalism certainly contributed (as did a rather frenzied 'siege' mentality adopted by many anglo-Quebeckers in response to French-first linguistic and educational policies) to some degree, I think it's fair to say that Montreal was Canada's capital as a province of the British empire, while Toronto is Canada's capital as a province of the American empire. Damaris Rose and Annick Germain explore this in more detail in one of their book "Montréal : the quest for a metropolis"; Their analysis comes to the above conclusion based on where American corporations placed their branch offices, trade figures along the North-South axis, etc... Qualitatively, Montreal grew content with having built western Canada (there's the East-West axis) through its banks, manufactures, and railway companies, and ceased to respond to changing times. Toronto's establishment in a more accessible location, coupled with more open-ness to trade in a North-South direction placed it very well for the 20th century.

So when you throw in the fact that Montreal had decayed far more than Toronto (more, older building stock) as well as the political and linguistic tensions, it made it very hard for Montreal to compete. This is especially true when Montreal (Quebec) lost its comparative attractiveness as a destination for immigrants, who in a snowball effect over the past 50 years, have done wonders for Toronto's economy and culture.

And for anyone who's looking, Montreal's definitely turned a corner in the past few years, coming very much back to life.

Posted by: Desmond Bliek on August 12, 2005 03:29 PM

A small note to the last comment by D.Bilek (I'm saving the big juicy D.Pittenger post for later enjoyment):
Montreal did come to life in the last few years and has been one of my favorite vacation destinations. I can't say I know all the factors, but here's one (I think I've mentioned it once here before): an acquaintance, a PR officer for one of Montreal municipalities, told me the city experiences sharp increase in Franco-immigrants, from France as well as from former colonies. The reasons for latter are obvious, for the former, though, more interesting: she said the majority of Frenchmen are would-be enterpreneurs, people who can't start their business in France due to endless red tape.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 12, 2005 04:53 PM

If you think the Mall is bleak--try the SUNY Albany campus. There are no people except in summer. In other seasons they are crawling through the tunnels designed to facilitate the removal of garbage, and smell like garbage. But smelling garbage beats freezing your tail off.

I attended during the fun-filled years of 1969-1970.
It always seemed such a long walk to anywhere on that bleak platform.

Posted by: Miriam on August 12, 2005 09:15 PM

Miriam -- Thanks for bringing up SUNYA. When I started to write the article I was planing to include it too, and even downloaded a few pix to illustrate points I was going to make.

As it happened, the mall post got so large I had to leave out SUNYA. I agree it's pretty awful, and I might write about it later.

Do you remember the outside door handles? Seems to me they were simply vertically-mounted 1/2 inch (approximately) square cross-sectioned steel bars that were painted white like the rest of the exterior surfaces. The edges were fairly sharp and it hurt to pull doors open. This might have matched Edward Durrell Stone's architectural scheme but it was pretty rotten ergonomics, say I. I haven't been there since 1974, and perhaps they re-did the door handles. Anyone know?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 12, 2005 09:54 PM

Desmond -
Regarding the rest of New York State, Albany's actually in better shape than Rochester and most definitely Buffalo. Some smaller Upstate cities are also in tough shape. NYC is a hard place to characterize; in many respects it's growing by leaps and bounds, but unemployment remains consistently high. The NYC suburbs are probably in the best shape of any locations in the state.

Posted by: Peter on August 12, 2005 11:01 PM

"Most New York City folks will be more than happy to tell you what year it was that the city Went To Hell."

Donald -- Your posts are the "petite Madelines" of the internet! (Sigh, now if only I had the writing talent of a Proust!)

- - - - - - - - -

Looking at it from what I understand to be a Jane Jacobs perspective, I think much of the criticism directed at Albany Mall misses the point -- and, as a result, most suggested alternatives are really not all that much better.

The problem with the Albany Mall was not just its gargantuan, but sterile, aesthetics, it was also its bad urban economics. The construction of a large, essentially "permanent" office complex destroyed the opportunity of Albany's downtown of undergoing what might, for lack of a better term, be called "SoHo-ization" -- where people find economic new uses for old buildings and thereby generate new local profitable economic activities to boot.

As many people have already pointed out, decline for Albany (and much of the northeast) was inevitable with the opening up (through water projects, roads, air conditioning, etc.) of the west and the south. What the Albany Mall did, and what other "artificial" urban renewal projects would also do (even small scaled ones) is foreclose the kind of economic trial and error whereby people invent new uses for "obsolete" or "outmoded" spaces.

- - - - - -

I'd hope you will consider some day discussing some of your themes (decline of New York State and the northeast) using your background in demography.

It seems to me that most discussions about cities that I've seen could sorely use such info.

For instance in discussions I've seen about the recent "renaissance" of various NYC neighborhoods, I think it would be very useful to know how the median salary of these areas stacks up against those in the suburbs, both now and in the past. (In other words, neighborhood "x" in 1930 was fifth on the list and today it is 35th.)

It also seems to me that many conversations focus too much on isolated housing prices (look prices have gone up "X" dollars) without comparing the rise in prices to 1) inflation, 2) investment in stocks, and 3) to rising prices elsewhere in the region and the nation.

Even if you don't have the opportunity to write such a piece, I hope you might suggest where a layperson who is interested in this approach might put their toe in the water using a university library.

One other interesting approach that I've seen various newspaper reporters use is moving company "statistics." (For instance Allied Van Lines had "x" moves from New York to California, but only "y" moves from California to New York.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 12, 2005 11:55 PM

Mr. Pittenger:

Collectively, it strikes me your posts are a sort of history of the decline-and-fall of the pre-1960s world. The passing, as it were, of our mutual childhood. It gives them a slightly melancholy air. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the course of the past quarter-century...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 13, 2005 01:09 AM


The 50s and 60s turn up in a lot of what I've written so far because (1) I paid more attention to the arts at the time -- later, career pressures diverted me until recently -- and (2) I think it's important to get personal observations on the record before my generation becomes enfeebled and dies off.

This second point is particularly important because, pre-Internet, the "narrative" of the era had been supplied by folks who are more or less committed to Modernism and its successors. The 2Blowhards blog, among other things, has served as a corrective to the Modernist view and I'm simply doing my small bit in that effort.

Your question is really a good topic for a couple postings -- I'll let you and Michael haggle over your finder's fee. But here are a few quick points: (1) like other cultural observers I regret the loss of "middle-brow" culture, pre-1965; (2) aside from early rock 'n' roll, pop music in the 50s really sucked; (3) most post-1070 pop music sucks too, but for different reasons; (4) painting is showing signs of returning to pre-Modernist roots, a good thing; (5) to perhaps a lesser degree, so is non-starchitect architecture; and (6) I think the all-round high-point for the U.S. arts-wise was in the interwar era, though I always have high hopes for the future.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 13, 2005 12:34 PM

Benjamin -- Many reporters tend not to be comfortable with numbers. Unless they specialize, they are also ignorant of the ins and outs of data series from different sources -- I suppose that's why graduate schools exist.

The result is that all sorts of money-related stories don't place dollars in an inflation-related context. Economists used the terms "real dollars" and "nominal dollars" to refer to, respectively, inflation-corrected dollars and dollars as they are at a given time. But these labels can confuse the layman, and aren't often (ever?) seen in the popular press. Examples of data disconnected from inflation include movie box office records and the price of a gallon of gasoline.

As for demographic data, once one drops from large, permanent areas such as states or (aside from Virginia) counties, it often requires a lot of work to assemble a time-series from census to census. Besides geographical problems, you can get definitional changes or else data subjects appearing and disappearing over time. And until maybe 10-12 years ago, it was tedious to get large data sets into computers (CDs and DVDs plus Internet downloading are the salvation). Even today, we're talking research projects rather than a bit of deskwork by a reporter. (All those fancy maps and related stuff the NY Times and other large papers published when the 2000 Census data were released were the result of considerable staff effort. With increasing computer power and better software, it will be easier after the 2010 count.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 14, 2005 12:20 AM

According to my father, New York City went down the tubes once bars stopped routinely offering buy-backs. This would be around the late 60s and early 70s. Of course some city bars still have buy-backs today. But my old man says twenty-five or thirty years ago EVERY bar had buy-backs. Also you didn't have to wait until your fourth or fifth beer before you earned your buy-back. Two and sometimes just one round was all it took. And according to my uncle, you could drive your convertible and park it without locking it right in front of the McCann's on Lexington Avenue across from Grand Central. You'd go inside and they'd have shot glasses lined up in a row above the line-up of liquor bottles. The shot glasses indicated the price of liquor served, with the prices runing form the cheapest brand on the left to the most expensive on the right. My uncle would point to the far left and order Four Roses for a quarter. He then buy a round for all his friends. New York was never again as friendly. More proof--so to speak--was the Kitty Genevose murder. New Yorkers were never so innocent again.

Posted by: Mark Mocarski on August 15, 2005 03:43 PM

What are buy-backs?

Posted by: Chris Burd on August 15, 2005 06:30 PM

I went to the GUT in 1977 and fucked a black whore, it was my first fuck, i'm lucky i wasn't killed by the bad people who lived there. a guy from my college, junior college of albany brought me there, and knew the score.

Posted by: DrillDo on August 19, 2005 01:54 PM

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