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The John A. Howe Library

PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

Albany History, Semester 1

Walking tours treat the preservation-minded to a picture of the past in the city’s oldest areas

By Miriam Axel-Lute

 

Q: How many white people does it take to feel safe on foot in the South End?

A: Well, 50 seems to work.

This was not, of course, the point of Historic Albany Foundation’s second Walkabout Wednesday tour.

After a few years’ lapse, the historic preservation organization has restarted its series of neighborhood walking tours to meet an increasing hunger by its supporters and the general public for information on the history and the stories of the city’s neighborhoods. Christiana Limniatis, communications coordinator for HAF, explains: “We want to educate people: Here are the great stories behind all the buildings and [that’s] why we’re working to save them.” The response has been tremendous, with HAF planning to add more tours and tour guides next year to accommodate the demand.

Nonetheless, the, shall we say, striking demographic contrasts of the May 23 event quietly told its own, very current story about the divided state of the city’s neighborhoods and its public.

The crowd, having left the introductory slideshow that was held in the stately surroundings of the Schuyler Mansion, huddled close as it gathered at the corner of Catherine and Clinton streets to listen to encyclopedic tour guide Tony Opalka’s discussion of Howe Library. Men placed protective hands on the shoulders of the women with them and feet shuffled nervously when cars playing loud music drowned out the explanation of Flemish-bond brick patterns.

There’s comfort in numbers, though. Besides, as anyone who has been to a protest with an unexpectedly large turnout knows, it’s awfully hard to keep a gaggle of 50-plus people on a narrow sidewalk. So, before long, the group had stretched its wings and poured into the streets, strolling comfortably, arguing about urban renewal, and more than once actually blocking traffic. If we had been dressed like anarchists or looked more like the residents of the neighborhood we were touring, we almost certainly would have garnered a police escort within 10 minutes.

But as it was, we moved unhindered and unharassed down Schuyler Street, across Franklin, up Fourth Avenue and back on Clinton Street. We learned to recognize cornices from the 1870s, and contrast them with the simpler row houses of the 1830s. We heard about the architects and the origins of many churches (mostly German originally), noted the Syrian arch on PS 1, peered down to see where the north-south streets take a sudden bend west at the old city line, and were taken in by a historical-looking bakery sign painted on the side of a building that was apparently the creation of the Ironweed set design team. “Tony knows all those little tiny things that get forgotten over the years,” says Limniatis.

Of course we were still a sight with our expensive cameras and genteel interest and enthusiasm. It’s just not an area that people in blazers and khakis (let alone polished wooden walking sticks) usually stroll before heading off to dinner and drinks on State Street. People who stepped apart or hung back from the crowd found themselves routinely answering questions from curious kids and passersby. “Took y’all all this time to come down here?” one little girl said to me, and I’m still pondering the many things she could have meant, as well as what she might have wanted to learn from or contribute to a tour of her neighborhood.

Several people on the tour had grown up in the area and long since moved away, and they reminisced fascinatingly about the location of shops and restaurants and their grandparents’ first jobs. In fact, nostalgia seemed to be the name of the game on both tours, even for those who didn’t have any actual memories of the areas. The first Walkabout of the year, the Pastures tour on April 18, was punctuated with tongue clucking about unsightly satellite dishes and mournful exclamations like “couldn’t you just cry” about missing buildings and ugly modern edifices interrupting the row houses. (The shadowy mass of 787 dominating the neighborhood to the east, however, got little mention. Perhaps the amount of destruction wrought by the highway was a little too overwhelming to entertain on a pleasant evening’s walk.)

The irony about this melancholy, in the case of the Pastures tour at least, was that we were walking through a remarkable success story from the standpoint of historic preservation. As Opalka’s slideshow had shown us, in the ’70s, the blocks we were walking (South Ferry to Green to Madison, back on Franklin) were nearly all vacant, boarded, and crumbling. Most of the homes we were seeing would have fallen to the wrecking ball if it weren’t for the silver lining that more demolition of downtown residential neighborhoods wasn’t politically palatable right after the building of the Empire State Plaza. And so urban-renewal funds were actually turned to renovation, enough to leave us today with a functioning and attractive, if imperfect, neighborhood.

(Someone did make an announcement right before the South End tour dispersed, suggesting everyone check out the new neighborhood plan for the area, and as practically the first mention of the neighborhood as a still-living entity, it felt both refreshing and shocking, like we’d fast-forwarded through 50 years.)

The how and why of organizing to retain the urban fabric, build healthy neighborhoods, or adapt the best of historic architecture to the needs of the current day and current residents were not directly on the agenda either time, however. Despite the barrage of facts they were drinking in, many in the crowd seemed to have come for emotional reasons, as to a lyrical documentary film. They were communing with a past when buildings were beautiful and durable and immigrants looked like their grandparents.

HAF hopes that these old stories will inspire people to connect with their work now. “It’s hard to fight for something,” without knowing about it, notes Limniatis. There are many ways to know and care about a neighborhood, of course, as illustrated by the local resident at the gas station who bent one South End tour participant’s ear about wanting the group’s help to save “those buildings, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven I can see from here.”

For those who want to know more about where their city came from, Walkabout Wednesdays are the place to be. For those who want to also learn about where it is, I recommend walking on the fringes.

The next Walkabout Wednesday will be held on June 20, 5:30–7 PM, touring the Mansion Neighborhood. Meet at the Mansion Hill Inn, 115 Philip St., Albany. $10, $5 HAF members. Reservations required. View the whole schedule at www.historic- albany.org/walkabout.html.


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