Professor works to save history of downtown Albany
By Connor Murphy
April 1, 2015
It’s a noble work in progress.
So says University at Albany Professor David Hochfelder of the “98 Acres in Albany” project, a documentary focused on the seizure and destruction of downtown Albany neighborhoods to make way for the construction of the Empire State Plaza.
“The people who were displaced by this project had very little say in their fate,” Hochfelder said. “A major part of our project is to give them that voice.”
The project, which has been comprised of a blog and a Twitter feed since late 2014, relies heavily uses archival footage and photographs captured during the destruction that were taken on the eve of the neighborhood’s destruction.
“A project like this involved big personalities,” Hochfelder said. “You’ve got a four-term governor of New York State who was the grandson of a man who was once the wealthiest man alive at one point, Nelson Rockefeller. There’s Erastus Corning, who was the figurehead of a 70-year democratic machine. You’ve got these high-level movers and shakers making decisions, but these decisions affect the lives of ordinary people.”
Hochfelder said the project has run into some difficulties.
“It’s been both easy and hard in this sense,” he said.
“It’s been hard in the sense that these events took place 50 years ago, so a lot of the people who remember [that community] were quite young then…and the people who were adults that owned a home or business are probably no longer with us unfortunately.”
But a Facebook group, “Albany…the way it was,” has been vital in recovering the anecdotal histories of past residents of the vanished community, he said.
“There’s been a lot of great discussion on that group, with some ranging from ‘Oh yeah my Nana used to live there,’ all the way to debates about the nature of the photographs and how intrusive the state had been in sending photographers into peoples’ homes.”
Hochfelder said he plans to expand the project website and eventually publish a book of photo essays. The three historians working on the community history would also contribute to the typical scholarly journals or on any subject associated with urban renewal, as Hochfelder believes the research they’re doing could not only be a reminder of how authority figures can affect thousands of people, but also how those thousands of people can experience history without a say in the matter.
Hochfelder’s interest in the topic was first piqued when he saw a Kickstarter campaign for the film “The Neighborhood that Disappeared.”
The film, which first aired on local PBS affiliate WMHT in December, covered the displacement of the Italian-American neighborhood in downtown Albany when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller set in motion one of the biggest urban renewal projects in American history. Hochfelder explained that he and his colleagues helped compile research materials for the film, which eventually led to their own vision for recreating the whole neighborhood, Italian-Americans included.
When asked why this project should be important to urban residents, Hochfelder paused for a moment after a nonchalant laugh.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “History isn’t just what important people do. History is what ordinary people go through.”
Hochfelder also believes that every Great Dane should know the history of what happened in Albany.
“This campus is a product of Nelson Rockefeller’s vision for what the state of New York should be like. The Empire State Plaza was part of that same vision. So every time you walk around campus, you can see the similarities,” he said.
Above all else, Hochfelder and his team are dedicated to a vision that he hopes will remind an audience of how history is made and experienced in a particular time and place.
To receive updates on this project, you can visit their blog at 98acresinalbany.wordpress.com or follow them on twitter @98AcresinAlbany.