A Celebration

Postcard of New York State Capitol, turn of the century. This was where many of the festivities of July 11, 1886 took place.

On Thursday, July 22nd, 1886, The City of Albany, then a burgeoning metropolis of industry and trade occupying a commanding position in Upstate New York, put on a show for its Bi-Centenary Exhibition and Celebration such as no one then living could remember. The Mayor, Hon. A. Bleecker Banks, issued a solemn Proclamation that "the observance of the day, by suitable forms of public rejoicing" was not only necessary in light of the city's historic past but also to "arouse a general determination to achieve that enlarged prosperity due to the great natural advantages of our city." A daylong parade with historically themed floats was only one of the day's highlights. There were also speeches, poems, canoe races, special presentations by various ethnic groups, and no less than two "pageants" specially written for the occasion were performed.

Sermons on the theme of Albany history were presented by clergymen from ten different faiths, from the Rev. Dr. C. H. W. Stocking's sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church to the remarks of one Rabbi Max Schlessinger, who spoke at the Beth-Emeth temple at 10 that morning to an audience that included the Mayor, most of the City Aldermen, and many Christian clergy:

You may go far and wide and not find a spot....so happily, so grandly, so beautifully situated as our dear old Albany. Enthroned on her hills, she sits the veritable Queen of the Hudson.....A mighty railroad system rushes through the whole length of our vast continent until it finds terminus in her bosom. Both railroads and canals gather up the wealth of the far west and distant Northwest, and pour it constantly into her lap....what a noble and commanding position our dear, old Albany occupies in the commercial, industrial, and agricultural system of our country and the world!

At City Hall "crowds thronged" to greet the arrival of a delegation of Caughnawaga Indians (the Indians were an hour late). Mayor Bleecker thanked the Indians for the peaceful welcome they had given Albany's European founders: "Chief, many moons ago, almost more than you can count with the beads on your wampum belt, your fathers gave a hospitable welcome and the hand of friendship to our fathers."

Meanwhile a Parade of Manufacturers wound its way around town with sections of tradespeople including "carpenters, machine woodworkers, shoe-makers, morrocco-dressers, [?!] painters, paper-hangers, cigarmakers, coopers, gas and steam-fitters, plumbers, tinsmiths, masons, tailors, stove-molders and polishers" as well as sponsored displays from local businessmen such as the "Albany pickle works", "E.N. Gardner, Oysters", and "Soll Pohly, the blind broom-maker".

In the evening a concert was presented in Capitol Park, near where the new H.H. Richardson-designed State Capitol stood half-finished (it would remain unfinished another 13 years, until Teddy Roosevelt "pronounced" it complete, before the addition of a planned central tower). The concert featured a chorus of school children singing some traditional Dutch songs, selections from Handel and Mendelssohn, and a "Bi-Centennial Hymn" composed for the occasion, before concluding with a full orchestra and chorus rendition of "'America', our grand national hymn".

Albany High School, around the turn of the century, home to students like George Hodgson and Janette Van Schaack.

At the intermission, prizes were awarded to two students, one boy and one girl, for the winning entries in the public High School essay contest on the subject of "Albany's History and Growth During Two Centuries". The Mayor congratulated the winners, George L. Hodgson and Janette Van Schaack, and their essays were reprinted in the voluminous Bicentennial commemorative program, lavishly bound and illustrated at the City's expense.

For a student of Albany history, these beautifully-written, baroquely complex, amazingly literate compositions are essential reading. They reveal much not only about actual Albany history but about how its inhabitants saw themselves and their place in the world at the height of the city's urbanism and prosperity. Both show traces of wanting to say the right thing, to absorb the dominant and accepted zeitgeist, so to speak; but both are at the same time vibrant and original. The boys' winner wrote the equivalent of 6 single-spaced pages, beginning fancifully:

"Let your imagination carry you back three hundred years and let your fancy paint the present site of Albany, as it then existed. Picture to yourself, if you can, the broad and stately Hudson, then called by the Indians in their musical tongue, the Cohotatea, rolling onward towards the sea in its serpentine course....No grand and massive capitol then loomed up from its western bank, like the castle of a giant amid the dwellings of a lilliputian city, but in its stead the council fires of many a now extinct race probably burned."

The 14-year old Hodgson of Albany public High School then goes on to trace the arrivals of Columbus and Henry Hudson, the early colonies of New Netherland and the mercantile system of the Dutch West India Company, the original town of Beverwyck, the city's incorporation under the British in 1686 and name change to Albany, the Revolution, the founding of the New York Capitol, the building of the Erie Canal, and finally the rapid growth of industry and rail transportation. He does so in a clear, enjoyable way, and closes (wisely) with a nod to the city fathers for the brilliance of the Bicentennial plans and celebrations.

The essay by young Janette Van Schaack, the girls' Prizewinner, is even more extraordinary. Coming in at twice the length of Hodgson's piece, it begins with a lengthy consideration of Dutch character, traditions, and colonial practices. Despite Janette's apparently Dutch extraction, the tone is far from favorable to the subjects of the House Of Orange; the tolerant Indian policy of the Dutch is dismissed as having resulted solely from economic interest:

"Notwithstanding the bigotry of the Dutch, they pursued a most kind and liberal policy toward the Indians--for policy it was, as it was dictated by self-interest. When his gains were concerned the Dutchman's intellect brightened."

The young Janette then tries to imagine what a hypothetical "Mynheer" would make of the Albany of 1886: "If our Dutch ancestors were able to reappear in the street of Albany today, what words could describe their astonishment at the changes made by the restless and abhorred Yankee!....the old-time inactivity and slowness has died a natural death; Yankee activity reigns supreme." The Dutch are further excoriated for several more pages for their "slowness" and "queer old customs and ideas" before Janette concludes on a note of triumphal optimism:

....it is to Yankee enterprise, restrained by Dutch conservatism, that this city owes its prosperity....From 1800, the history of Albany is like that of any other American city in the nineteenth century. It might be written in one word--"progress".

The Pendulum

There was no irony, no sarcasm, not even the slightest trace of subversive intent in Janette Van Schaack use of the word "progress". She, like her parents, teachers, and the civic leaders of the town, took it as axiomatic that progress was the answer to life's miseries, that it was a force for the betterment of mankind and the alleviation of suffering, and that, once begun, it would go on, inexorably, forever.

Distant View Of Albany, William Hart, 1848. The tumult of early industrialization led painters like Hart to idealize an earlier agrarian Arcadia.

It is always hard to identify the peak of anything until you are well past it. Unfortunately, the Albany that Janette and George wrote about, and presumably grew up in and spent their productive adult years, was just then at the peak of its power, prestige, and prosperity. It was not at some midpoint along an infinitely ascending line that the 1886 celebrations took place, but at the extreme end of a pendulum's orbit. Though the city would grow in absolute terms, both economically and in population, up through the 1950's, its rank among American cities was already in decline: what had been the 9th largest city in the country in 1840 was, by 1900, the 40th largest (see the Albany Demographics page for more on population trends). And Albany's urbanism--meaning its complex and thriving system of manufacturing, neighborhood retail, ethnic and trade-oriented civic organizations and clubs, and culture both high and low--was at its high-water mark as the 19th century drew to a close.

In the next 100 years the human race would invent the automobile, trench warfare, ethnic cleansing, Zyklon-B gas ovens, and ultimately, nuclear weapons capable of global annihilation. These horrifying manifestations of "progress" would be accompanied by a schizophrenic fracturing of Western culture into the jagged shards of Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Modernism, and their offshoots--while the 19th century's sunny optimism would give way to the creeping insecurities of the next century.

As this debacle took place, the civic fabric so proudly on display in Albany in July of 1886 would gradually unravel. An economic structure based on petroleum fuel, rubber tires, and concrete highways would replace the one based on railways and canals, and eradicate its attendant tendency to centralize economies in urban areas. The prevalence of the automobile would lead to the development of shopping centers and malls, which would annihilate the rich ecosystem of small independent downtown retailers; the widespread adoption of the car by those who could afford it left most city public transportation systems to become the travel mode of last resort for the poor and indigent (where they were not abolished altogether, as in the case of Albany's trolley system).

The history of Albany for the 80 years following the Bicentennial celebration exemplified all these trends. It was a slow process, mostly imperceptible. Even in periods of decline, there are certain things and areas and facets which may improve; so, for example, as Downtown Albany sank into decay and vice, a glitzy new shopping district rose up on Central Avenue, heading West towards the suburbs--only to decay itself in the 60's, as newer and cleaner shopping districts rose in nearby Colonie. The Albany Machine, corrupt as it was, provided a measure of social and civic cohesion for Albany's working class even well into the postwar period (see my Essay on Albany Politics for a history of the Democratic Machine).
But by the 1960's it was clear that Albany, like so many similar cities throughout the Northeast and Rust Belt, was deep in decline. The response to this nationwide trend was the Federal program of urban renewal, which, as Douglas Rae shows in his masterful "City: Urbanism And Its End", did little to alleviate the problems it was addressed to, and created vast new unanticipated problems of its own.

Albany actually received little Title I aid during the Great Society years. Dan O'Connell's Democratic machine resisted the program, fearing the lessening of their own power that would have come if the Feds and not themselves were handing out contracts and patronage. What Albany got instead was Nelson Rockefeller's Temple of Karnak, an enormous monument to state power, bureaucracy, and Rockefeller's own ego: the South Mall project, or as it was eventually known, Empire State Plaza.

The colossal failure of the Plaza, both architecturally and in terms of urban planning, and vast waste of resources that went into its construction, I take up in another essay on this site. What is important here is the effect it had on the city. The South Mall construction cleared 98 acres of dense mixed-use urban cityscape, and displaced over seven thousand Albany residents, replacing them with what amounts to a tangle of elevated highways, a vast rectangular elevated marble slab, and five monolithic office buildings. It cut off the Mansion neighborhood from downtown, presented the Center Square neighborhood with a sheer wall of marble impossible for pedestrians to pass, and stuck a six-lane elevated roadway into the middle of what might otherwise have become Albany's most valuable and centrally located real estate. In return, the city got a modest trickle of tourist money, a slight bump in real estate values in the adjoining areas, and a modern art collection few people ever see (it's located in the "concourse", or, more prosaically, the basement).

From a civic standpoint the Plaza became a visual metaphor for Albany's increasingly obvious status as a Ward of the State--the state being, in this case, New York State, which unlike the city, gets to actually use the buildings. The state government, and the state University at Albany, have become (along with the quasi-governmental agency of Albany Medical), by far, the city's biggest employers. The displaced residents of the former neighborhood mostly moved to ghettos like Arbor Hill and the Pastures, where they and their descendants now depend on the largesse of the very bureaucracy whose buildings caused their eviction.

Albany skyline, 1911. Empire State Plaza would be built to the left (South) of the Capitol. The church steeples and the City and State government centers dominated the horizon.

The Present

Like the Albany of the Bicentennial celebration, present-day Albany also has an official history. It takes up one small page of the City web site, which otherwise is a sprawling, byzantine virtual counterpart, with hundreds of sites on various agencies, offices, and programs, to the sprawling, byzantine labyrinth that is the City and County government. The 2004 history of Albany is not quite as compendious as the program from the 1886 celebration; while the latter runs upward of 500 pages, the official "City History" web page, a product of a less literate age, barely runs 500 words. It gives a brief account of the Dutch period and the Revolution, culminating with the founding of the State Capitol in 1797. And then....nothing. Or practically nothing. The next two hundred years are dispatched in four short sentences. A few Presidential names are dropped, as is a mention of Dan O'Connell and the Machine, and then we get this unconvincing conclusion: "In the year 2000, the city is undergoing a dramatic revitalization and remains a center of government and culture in upstate New York."

But perhaps there is more than simple illiteracy behind the paltriness of Albany's current official history. For even the brightest-eyed and most bushy-tailed young hack turning out PR pablum for City Hall would be hard-put to write a properly boosterish history for the last 100 years of decline. Even the use of the word "revitalization"--a revitalization which, it hardly needs saying, is largely imaginary outside political rhetoric--is a surprising admission that the city's vitality is in fact not what it once was. It is much more fun--and better politics--to look at the past when it makes the present look good in comparison (as was the case, for instance, when Janette and George wrote their essays) than when it makes us wonder where we have gone wrong.

In fact, despite the City's weak effort, Albany as a whole remains deeply interested in its own rich history. The visitor's center at Quackenbush Square provides an excellent starting place for historical study, with excellent exhibits, multimedia, and a helpful staff. The universities are rich with sources and primary document collections; the Mumford Center at the University at Albany is one of the nation's premier urban sociology programs. And, perhaps most of all, the Historic Albany Foundation has for ten years now conducted a citywide building rehabilitation and preservation campaign of epic proportions, providing would-be renovators with consulting, authentic materials, contractor referrals, and free research into the title and origins of their buildings. The Foundation also provides tasteful plaques, bearing the original year of construction and information about the original dwellers, which adorn almost all the buildings in the Downtown and Center Square areas and a good many in the Mansion and Arbor Hill neighborhoods as well.

In fact Albany's history has become one of its few remaining useful resources. The trend in neighborhood "revitalization" proposals is to include a museum of some kind, the latest instance being the "Living History" museum of Dutch culture proposed for the Pastures neighborhood, the bombed-out beyond-ghetto north of Madison Ave near the waterfront and the highway. Tourist money is one of the few sources of Albany's income that does not have to do with state or medical bureaucracy.

But no matter how much we study the Colonial period, or the Revolution, or the Iroquois, as fascinating as these subjects may be, we won't gain insight into what Albany is now. To do that, and even, perhaps, to change it, requires looking at the epoch from 1875 to 1930, the golden age of urbanism--to rediscover what we have lost, to understand what we have allowed to grow in its place, and to begin summoning the will to create something new.


This essay is not a look at Albany's history--but a look at how Albany perceives its history. If you actually wanted to study Albany history I suggest you take a look at some of my sources, particularly the Colonial Albany Social History project, the writings of William Kennedy, and, of course, the 1886 Bicentennial Commemorative Program.

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