Maria Gutta Franke remembers growing up in Albany’s South End.
“We were poor, but my father never owed a bill in his life,” Franke says to the camera. “We lived very well.”
Franke’s story is one of many told by Mary Paley in her new 56-minute documentary, “Echoes from the Neighborhood that Disappeared,” to be aired on WMHT-TV Tuesday night at 7:30.
A companion to her popular 2014 film, “The Neighborhood that Disappeared,” about the South End being destroyed to make way for the Empire State Plaza, Paley’s new work focuses on the Italian-American community that populated that area.
“The first film was more of an inquiry, and more about how we lost a great deal when we lost those 98 acres,” said Paley, who taught English at Philip Livingston School in Albany for 21 years.
“This film is essentially a tribute to the Italian-American community that lived there, and what it was like to grow up in that wonderful neighborhood.”
Construction of the Empire State Plaza began in 1965, three years after the state, led by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, claimed eminent domain to purchase all the property on those 98 acres. In his political maneuvering to create support for the project, Rockefeller referred to the area as a slum.
“He was a patrician, an elitist,” Paley says of Rockefeller. “I don’t think he knew the difference between a working-class neighborhood and a slum. I can’t get into his head, but I don’t think he had a warm, cozy feeling about the neighborhood. I’ve heard from people who told me that when he came to stay in the mansion he would fly a flag. Well, they tell me he didn’t fly the flag that often.”
Paley’s first film was so successful when WMHT aired it last December that the PBS affiliate got more involved with the sequel.
“It ended up being the most successful single fund-raising broadcast in our history, raising over $40,000 in its initial broadcast,” said Scott Sauer, executive vice president of external affairs and assistant general manager at the station. “We worked with Mary to guide the process to a certain degree, but it really is her film, and she did such a great job we made a financial investment in the sequel.”
Sauer said the viewer response to the film was remarkable.
“Whenever we talked to the viewers it continued to be a topic of conversation, and the film continues to resonate with them,” he said.
“She told a largely untold story and she told it in a very compelling way. I think the new film is even more emotional than the original. There are great human stories in it, and whether or not you grew up in the neighborhood you’ll find so many common elements to your own story or your parents.”
A native of Rensselaer just across the Hudson River from Albany, Paley dabbled in the music business before heading back to college to pursue a teaching career. Her father, Bob Paley, was a photographer with the Albany Knickerbocker News until his death in 1974 at the age of 49 due to leukemia.
“In 2003 I was visiting my mother and she had this large archive of photos that had been given her by Capital Newspapers after my father’s death,” remembered Paley.
“I began poring through them, digitizing them, and that led to me doing an oral history project talking to people about the South End and their memories. I began recording people telling their stories, and it was amazing how engaging they were. I thought of all of my father’s photos and it occurred to me that this might be a great idea for a film.”
Project gets going
When Philip DiNovo, director of the American Italian Heritage Association and Museum in Albany, put Paley in touch with Siena history professor Pat Bulgaro, the project really took off. William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author from Albany, and former Democratic state assemblyman Jack McEneny also urged Paley to track down Bulgaro.
“I was directed to Pat, and after I met with him we really kicked things up a notch,” said Paley. “He had written his college thesis about Italian-American immigrants in Albany with a special mention of the South End, so that’s when I started working in earnest on making this a documentary film.”
Bulgaro, who retired from state government in 1993 after a 28-year career, grew up in the South End and was happy to get on board with Paley’s project. He is listed as a co-writer with her for the first film and as historical consultant for the second.
“The story had been in my head for years, and I always felt it was a story that needed to be told,” said Bulgaro, who lives in Slingerlands. “I was impressed with Mary’s passion for the story and I was drawn to her as an artist. I knew she was extremely gifted in a number of ways, musically and in literature, and I had no doubt that she had the artistic ability to do this.”
The director of the state budget under former Governor Mario Cuomo, Bulgaro said it was very important to get an accurate history of the South End on film.
“A lot of people don’t remember what it was like before the Mall,” he said. “But I actually lived in the area and studied it. A lot of people bought into the myth that it was a slum, and that it was good to replace it with this huge, concrete, marble complex. I didn’t think of it that way.”
Neither did DiNovo, who allowed Paley to interview almost all of her subjects on the premises of the American Italian Heritage Museum at 1227 Central Ave.
“I think Rockefeller defamed the people who lived there by calling it a slum,” said DiNovo, who taught history for 35 years at SUNY Morrisville before returning to Albany.
“I grew up in Arbor Hill but I used to walk about five miles to get the pizza that was made on Phillips Street in the South End. I was very familiar with that neighborhood and its charm. It was a great neighborhood and that’s why it’s so great that Mary made this film. And, she did a fantastic job.”
Let people decide
Paley says she will let people make up their own minds about Rockefeller’s legacy.
“Our films try to measure what was lost by evoking the energy and activity of what was there before 1962,” she said. “But we let viewers decide if it was worth it to displace 9,000 residents and destroy the ethnic center of Albany to build an office complex for state workers.”
Capital Region actor John Romeo and former Schenectady County historian Don Rittner were also instrumental in helping Paley finish her project, and while she continued to rely on some of her father’s photographs for “Echoes,” she did receive quite a sizable outside contribution.
“After the first film went on the market, I got all kinds of people sending these amazing photos to our Facebook page,” she said. “We got like 800 new photos, and these weren’t personal friends. They were just people who had learned about the film and watched it, and wanted to share their own family stories.”
Don’t be surprised if Paley comes up with another film or two documenting South End history.
“There are stories about Irish-Americans in the South End that are looming large in my imagination,” she said. “There’s also the African-American story, the Jewish community. It was called a slum for 50 years, so what better way to refute that nasty slur than to make another film and share more information about what a wonderful neighborhood it actually was.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]
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