When Bob Paley was a boy, he would stand on the back porch of his home in Rensselaer and take photographs of the city across the Hudson River. As an adult, he took pictures of Albany as a photographer for the Knickerbocker News, which was Albany’s afternoon paper for 145 years before folding in 1988. Paley took photos documenting the construction of Empire State Plaza, as well as photos of the people who lived downtown.
Now, Paley’s daughter is using his photographs to tell the story of the thousands of Italian-American immigrants who were displaced from their homes by Empire State Plaza — one of the largest urban renewal projects in U.S. history. She’s making a documentary, called “The Neighborhood That Disappeared,” that examines life in the community bulldozed to make way for the massive state office complex.
The film project began about 10 years ago, when Mary Paley discovered boxes of her father’s old photographs in the basement of her mother’s home. The photographs depicted a bygone neighborhood she found fascinating — a place where Italian immigrants sat outside on their stoops playing mandolin, fishmongers walked the streets, and small bustling businesses such as tailor shops sustained a vibrant local economy.
“My father was a good street photographer,” Paley said. “He became interested in the subjects in his photographs. He got interested in what their neighborhood was like.”
In addition to her father’s striking black-and-white photographs, “The Neighborhood That Disappeared” will feature interviews with people who once lived in the South End. Paley said that she’s interviewed more than three dozen people between the ages of 60 and 90. Many of these people have given her photographs to use in the film, some 100 years old.
Like her father, “I got interested in the subjects in the photographs,” she said. “I wanted to learn more about them. I wanted to track them.”
“The Neighborhood That Disappeared” is critical of the decision to build Empire State Plaza. “In 1962 one of the most massive urban renewal projects in American history sterilized the cultural and ethnic heart of Albany, N.Y.,” the film’s Kickstarter site proclaims. Kickstarter is a social media site that enables people to seek funding for projects such as films and albums. Paley has raised more than $7,000 so far for her film on Kickstarter.
Another large-scale urban renewal project targeted the South End neighborhood now known as the Pastures Historic District in the 1970s. The city embarked on an ambitious plan to revitalize the neighborhood, moving residents out and demolishing buildings in poor condition.
“We’re talking about 20 years of urban renewal,” Paley said. “It decimated the city’s Italian-American residents. It was particularly hard on older people. Many of the Italian-Americans who lived in that neighborhood were harmed by eminent domain.”
To Paley, the photographs that show Empire State Plaza being built are “terrifying. The architecture towers over the city.”
“The Neighborhood That Disappeared” will show what the South End was like before Empire State Plaza was built, and what it’s like today. In June, Paley will return to the South End to shoot video. She said she hopes to wrap up production this fall.
Inquiry and tribute
“Our documentary is part inquiry and part tribute,” she said. “Why did [the Italian immigrants] come here? What forces pushed them? What forces pulled them? What was it like to live here? ... We want to offer people a virtual tour of the neighborhood.”
What her research has taught her, Paley said, is that life in Albany’s South End “was a good life and the people who lived there still have a very strong sense of place. That neighborhood still resonates with people. They still feel an enormous connection to it.”
Patrick Bulgaro, a former budget director for Gov. Mario Cuomo, wrote his master’s thesis at Siena College on Italian-American immigrants living in Albany between 1880 and 1920, and is featured in Paley’s film.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the forces that drove so many of my people out of Southern Europe and to this country,” said Bulgaro, whose grandparents all came to Albany by way of Italy. “My grandmother came here with $12 in her pocket.” His maternal grandfather, he noted, was a skilled tailor.
Bulgaro has a dim view of Empire State Plaza, and former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s ambition to build it.
“Rockefeller sold out people who trusted them,” he said. As property in the South End was seized through eminent domain, “businesses began to fail. Nobody was there to patronize them. The whole pattern of life became disrupted.”
Bulgaro said that the Italian-Americans featured in Paley’s film got involved in the project “as a way to understand where they came from.”
“The Neighborhood That Disappeared” has received support from the American Italian Heritage Museum in Albany; Paley, whose maternal grandparents were Italian, serves on the organization’s board.
“This is a very important project,” said Philip DiNovo, the organization’s director. “It’s an inspirational story. These immigrants worked hard, and they lifted themselves up, and that’s sort of what America is about. This documentary is capturing a moment in time and making it available for future generations. America is shortchanged when we destroy so much of the past and don’t give it a second thought.”
Also involved in the film project are local actor John Romero, Paley’s co-director, and Tony Opalka, Albany city historian.
Like her father, Mary Paley, 61, grew up in Rensselaer. She sang in rock bands as a young woman and later taught English at Livingston Middle School in Albany. “The Neighborhood That Disappeared” is her first film. She studied audio documentary production at the University at Albany.
Bob Paley worked for the Knickerbocker News from 1947 until he died from cancer in 1974 at the age of 49, four years before construction of Empire State Plaza was completed.
Paley’s photography can be viewed on the website bobpaley.com, which Mary Paley created to pay tribute to his life and work and share with a new audience. In addition to information about “The Neighborhood That Disappeared” are pictures from Albany’s civil rights movement and the music festival in Woodstock in 1969.