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Photo: Chris Shields

What’s in Store?

Arbor Hill’s V.J. Franze and Sons Market is celebrating 100 years in business, but the current owners say they have concerns for the future.

By Travis Durfee

‘They say he should write a book,” Mary Franze says, nodding across the dining room table to Sal, her husband of 57 years. Unblinkingly, Sal nods his head, too.

“Really we’ve lived through a tremendous change in the world, tremendous change,” she says. “We went to Syracuse last weekend and we were talking with our two grandsons, trying to say all the changes since we were small. It started with the ink wells in school to the ballpoint pens today.”

“From the horse and wagon, to the jet planes,” Sal chimes in.

“The horse and wagon I can’t remember, Sal,” Mary says after a pause. “I remember trolley cars in Albany.”

“Now, that was the worst ride you could ever have,” Sal says, without missing a beat, launching into another tale of Albany’s past.

Sal, 79, and Mary, who wouldn’t profess her true age but felt comfortable with 39, recently took part in the 100th anniversary celebration of their family’s store, V.J. Franze and Sons Market at 51-53 N. Swan St. in Albany. In their home in Menands, Sal and Mary discussed three generations of Franzes and a century on North Swan Street.

Emigrating from Massena on the island of Sicily in Italy around the turn of the century, Vincent James Franze, Sal’s grandfather, opened a grocery store and fruits-and-vegetables stand at 53 N. Swan St. in 1903. Vincent and Sal’s father, who quit school before his teenage years, would walk up and down the streets of Albany’s commercial district on the Hudson riverfront, peddling fruits and vegetables from a handle basket.

Photo: Chris Shields

Franze’s father also worked in a livery stable in Arbor Hill, where he was paid 25 cents a day to break the horses that were shipped into Albany from the West. For his hard work in the livery, the stable owner gave the Franzes a horse and wagon to help expand their peddling business. By 1910, Franze-delivered produce was now making it into the homes of families in Delmar and Slingerlands.

By the 1930s, Franze’s father had taken over the family business and the market was still thriving. As was North Swan Street, Franze remembers, which had become Arbor Hill’s brick-lined, multi-cultural commercial hub. Franze says he remembers almost 60 businesses operating on North Swan between Colonie and 1st streets alone. There was his uncle’s food store; the Jewish meat market on the corner of Colonie Street; Silver’s Pharmacy; Mike’s Log Cabin, the famed bar and grille; Waldenmaier’s, which only sold locally slaughtered meats; and “that paper stand owned by Joe,” whose nickname was Red—a former Marine who’d shoot off his pistol in the streets every New Year’s Eve. There were three barber shops on those three blocks, Franze remembers, “but that was when you could get a haircut for 25 cents.”

After returning from service in the Navy during Word War II, Sal Franze went off to college, got married, worked on and off for his father and eventually took over the store himself in 1957. As more and more black families had moved into Arbor Hill after WWII, Franze began to offer specialty products—like scrapple, pork rinds and hog’s heads for holiday headcheese—that weren’t found at the time in chain grocery stores.

Through word of mouth, Franze’s Market became so popular that it had to expand into the building next door. Business was doing so well at the time that Franze’s was employing anywhere from eight to 12 full-time employees. Many of the neighborhood teenagers, and all five of the Franze’s children, were offered work at the market waiting on customers and delivering orders throughout the neighborhood.

“It was good experience,” Sal says. “They’re young kids and they’re kind of bashful, but they came in, they got experience, they got to meet people, they learned how to talk to people. It helped with their education and it helped bring their personality out.”

But for all of Franze’s romanticizing about the abundance of businesses on Swan Street and how it shaped the neighborhood in which he grew up, it was a new market that led to its decline—the drug market.

It was the late 1980s and the family grocer was dealing with a new family business on the block: the Robinson brothers drug cartel. During the few hours he’d spend each morning arranging and cleaning the greens, Franze witnessed Swan Street’s thriving open-air drug market through his storefront window.

Despite multiple complaints lodged by neighborhood residents and Franze himself, the police department never seemed to get a handle on the situation. Franze laments what he sees as the Albany Police Department’s lax approach to the Swan Street’s burgeoning drug problem, going so far as to say that the department “sacrificed North Swan Street to keep the drug problem contained.”

“It made it convenient that they knew where the stuff was,” Sal says. “I’d talk to police officers and they’d tell me, ‘Sal, we could curtail this thing in a month if we got the orders.’ And they never got the orders.”

“That was really the downfall [of the neighborhood],” Sal says, pushing his chair back from the table and crossing his arms. “That was the cause of so many people giving Swan Street a black eye.”

Franze fell ill in 1992, and the market was sold a year later to Ciprian Fabian, a Dominican native who moved to Albany from Brooklyn. Fabian inherited the same market and clientele, but went into business on a very different North Swan Street.

Where Sal Franze saw a thriving commercial district in the 1950s and ’60s, Fabian’s view is urban blight. Standing in front of Franze’s Market looking south, some of the city’s finer architecture fills the horizon over the cracked sidewalks, rough streets and clusters of crumpled cigarette packs and losing lottery tickets. North Swan Street’s housing stock is practically non-existent: From 2nd to Livingston Street the rows of dilapidated, boarded-up buildings are only broken by the decay of littered, vacant lots.

Fabian was glad to hear that a story was being written about the history of his market, but he was clearly more concerned with the future.

“So what do you think, are they going to fix all this?” Fabian asks, gesturing through the window. “The city says they’re going to build some new houses here or something, but we’re still waiting.”

Despite a thin rain, a steady flow of the older shoppers and snack-seeking young adults walk through Franze’s doors Monday afternoon, many addressing Fabian by name. Fabian continues the store’s tradition of providing specialty items, like ox tail and smoked pork knuckles. Even though many such products can now be found in chain grocery stores, Fabian says he makes regular trips to New York City to pick up even niche-ier items, like bacalo, a salted fish used in a Spanish stew.

Fabian agrees with Franze’s view of the drug problem on North Swan Street, and even considered leaving the neighborhood for business ventures elsewhere. But with the arrest of the Robinson brothers a few years back, North Swan’s drug trade seems to have receded and the streets are safer.

“We get customers who come in the store that we’ve never seen and through conversation find out that they’ve lived here for 15, 20 years,” said Nicolas Mojica, Fabian’s brother-in-law, who also works at Franze’s. “They would tell us that they never came out because they didn’t feel safe. But it’s not as bad as it was. You feel safer now at least.”

Fabian concurs, saying that the police now come to visit with him and ask if any of the neighborhood kids are bothering his customers. Fabian is now hoping that the city will keep its promise to bring some kind of economic development to North Swan.

“They came down here and talked about money for fixing the storefront, but they’ve talked a lot,” he says. “I believe it when I see it.”

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