State museum exhibit shows troubled start of Sheridan Hollow

Even in 1840, Albany’s Sheridan Hollow had its share of problems. The area, built over Fox Creek, “f
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Even in 1840, Albany’s Sheridan Hollow had its share of problems.

The area, built over Fox Creek, “featured steep topography, poor drainage, insufficient infrastructure, and cheaply constructed housing. It therefore only attracted residents of limited economic means,” according to an exhibit opening Sunday at the New York State Museum.

Some things haven’t changed in 160 years. Sheridan Hollow remains poor, but instead of the crowded working-class neighborhood described in the exhibit, there are an abundance of boarded-up buildings and vacant lots.

The exhibit is based on an archaeological dig done when the state built the 1,380-space Sheridan Hollow Parking Facility, which opened in 2006. State workers can drive in on Sheridan Avenue, park, and take the elevator up, exiting on on Elk Street near the Education Building and Capitol. The “twin towers” skyscraper on Washington Avenue looms over Sheridan Hollow, but the prosperity evident around the center of state government has never made its way down the hill.

The hill is too steep for roads, but there are staircases down it. One of them, at Swan Street, is referred to as “The Long Stair” in a murder mystery published in 2006 and written by Kirby White, who was a founder of the Capital District Community Loan Fund and the Albany Community Land Trust. The novel, sales of which benefit local nonprofits, is about the gap between the rich world at the top of the hill and the Hollow beneath, with real estate speculation leading to murder.

Third Ward Alderman Corey Ellis, whose district includes Sheridan Hollow, blames real, present-day speculators for some of the boarded-up buildings and empty lots that are on Sheridan Avenue in the vicinity of the garage. He favors changing the law to tax land instead of buildings, to increase the incentive to develop properties and reduce the incentive to just hold on to them in hopes of making a buck.

Ellis also said the area has basic infrastructure needs, such as assuring adequate sewage service on a section of Orange Street where he is trying to get housing built.

The area is mostly black now, and blacks have always had a presence there. But in the 1840s it was mostly Irish. Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, said his grandparents had a bakery further west, at 150 Lark St., which was also a Polish neighborhood.

The archaeologists found a gun flint and musket balls, but that didn’t indicate a crime problem because they predate the building up of the neighborhood, said Michelle Stefanik, senior exhibit planner at the museum. They were probably used for hunting in the late 18th century, she said.

“This is a beautiful marble,” Stefanik said about another artifact, a tiny painted children’s toy. It would have been cheaper than a doll, she said.

A neighboring exhibit shows Albany’s population boom in the 19th century, from 12,630 people in 1820 to 90,758 in 1880. In 1970, there were 110,000 people in the city, but since then the population has dropped below 100,000. The city government has been trying to bring in more housing, including downtown condominiums and redevelopment of the Park South section near Center Square.

Paul Stewart, manager of training and technical assistance for the Loan Fund, said the crime problem is partly a matter of perception. Sheridan Hollow is considered part of Arbor Hill, he said, and has been neglected by the government.

Immediately west of the garage is the New Jerusalem Home of the Saved and a homeless shelter, in what used to be a Roman Catholic church and school.

If you keep going west on Sheridan Avenue you run into West Hill, and will eventually find the Sheridan Preparatory Academy. That is where Kathina Thomas, the 10-year-old girl shot dead May 29 in front of her West Hill house, attended school.

Going east from the garage, Sheridan Avenue eventually runs into prosperous downtown Albany. On the way are some functioning businesses along with the abandoned buildings and vacant lots, and an Office of General Services steam boiler operation that heats and cools state facilities, using oil and natural gas. It used to use garbage, too, but stopped in the 1990s after community protests. Farther east is Theatre Row, which Stewart said Mayor Thomas Whalen had wanted to redevelop as an arts district. That never happened. The building at the corner of Sheridan and Theatre Row is vacant. So is the Fox Creek Sandwich Shop down the street.

Stewart said there needs to be housing built in the neighborhood where there are now vacant lots and vacant buildings. That would provide customers for needed businesses such as a grocery store, he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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