Postcards Of The Park

November 7, 2012

Trying to imagine Beaver Park 100 years ago and martinizing the South End

The day before Hurricane Sandy was supposed to hit the region, I walked across the street to Lincoln Park and took pictures of the leaves before they all fell before the threatened high winds and rain. Of course Sandy hardly bothered us in Albany, meanwhile New York City 150 miles away ended up struggling with the damage. After the Climate Change Hurricane Made Worse By The Full Moon had passed us by, most of the leaves in the park were still clinging to the trees.

The leaf colors this year have been less than spectacular, that’s because of all of the warm nights that we’ve been having. Yeah, sure, I’ve posted photos of Lincoln Park Autumn leaves other years that were much nicer than these. But hey, the park looked so nice that day and the sky looked so ominous, I just had to use a few pixels.

Lincoln Park, Late October 2012 Lincoln Park, Late October 2012

After the hurricane had missed us I went over to the park to take more photos, but this time I had with me some 100 plus year old postcards in my pocket. These were tourist souvenirs of Beaver Park, the original name of Lincoln Park, a name which reflected the Beaverkill which which still runs underneath the park. It seems the kill was buried because if was an overused depository of industrial waste, to this day it still carries raw sewage from further uptown which dumps into the Hudson River.

But I wasn’t concerned about that. I thought I’d try to figure out where the postcard photos were taken way so long ago, how had the park changed in more than 100 years? I’d been puzzling out these locations and sure enough I found them, all three of them. Yay! This one was puzzling:

First Postcard, "A Scene In Beaver Park, Albany, N.Y." (Click on photo for detail) First Postcard, "A Scene In Beaver Park, Albany, N.Y."
(Click on photo for detail)

The Wife thought it looked like water in the background, indeed this picture feels like a lakeside park. But that background is the hills of Troy on the other side of the Hudson. After walking about the park with an air of farsighted concentration, I realized there could be only one place for the photo. Sure enough I found it, but so much had changed:

The Postcard View Today The Postcard View Today

Check it out, the same walkway from before the First World War. I am willing to make a small wager that it has not been repaired the entire time, note the disintegration of the concrete, especially at right. This neglect of footpaths is typical in Lincoln Park and the South End in general, but you have to admit they made concrete to last in those days.

But you can’t see the hills of Troy anymore. The trees are all different, and the Sunshine School pretty much ruins the view. My back was almost to the fence of the tennis courts, were the courts there 100 years ago? I was standing in the same spot as a long dead and forgotten photographer, the confirmation that this is the correct spot is barely visible at the far left of both pictures, the James Hall building.

The James Hall building The James Hall building

In 1841 James Hall was appointed the first NY State Paleontologist, he lived in a small mansion facing Delaware Avenue that stood where the tennis courts are. The southwest section of the present day park was his yard, after he died in 1898 the mansion was demolished and the yard became the cornerstone of the new Beaver Park. This 1852 outbuilding was his office and workshop, there he made his groundbreaking discoveries and stored geologic specimens.

Sometime in the mid 20th Century the for the time typically squat ugly Sunshine School building was built and attached to the Hall workshop. Right now the whole structure is abandoned, supposedly it will house the Boy’s And Girl’s Club which is being evicted from another disposable mid 20th Century building a little ways up Delaware Avenue, but I see no signs of renovation activity here. I was distressed to see how the Hall workshop is being neglected, there is currently a smashed window right above the entrance.

Incidentally, both the Sunshine School and nearby Thomas O’Brien elementary school were built illegally on public park land. Someone with too much time and money could file a lawsuit and force the City to demolish both 20th Century buildings and restore the affected parkland. And that would also restore the view.

Postcard "Beaver Park, Albany N.Y." (click on picture for detail) Postcard "Beaver Park, Albany N.Y." (click on picture for detail)

This one should have been easy, there’s only one place this postcard photo could have been taken. Sure enough, this is the corner of Eagle Street and Morton Avenue down the hill from the last postcard:

Eagle Street At Morton Avenue Today Eagle Street At Morton Avenue Today

I took my photo standing on the sidewalk. The postcard photographer stood at the third floor or roof of either the original 90 Morton Avenue or 86 Morton apartment buildings behind me. I didn’t try to get into one of the buildings, I can only imagine how the postcard man pushed his way into one of these residences with his load of photography equipment and set up his shot at some window, while the family stood by solemnly impressed by the sudden appearance of all that advanced technology in their home.

Initially I was thrown off by the disappearance of the very prominent and apparently brand new storm drain in the foreground of the postcard. I mean, for a while I couldn’t imagine that anyone would remove a storm drain, especially a street corner on a hill. But sure enough, look at the the curve of the road in my photo, plus that is definitely the eastern end of the low lying playing fields, the bowl.

All of the houses visible on the other side of the park in the postcard were demolished in the late 1960s. Then governor Nelson Rockefeller, so the story goes, wanted to impress a certain Princess Beatrice of Belgium who on a visit was less than impressed with the tatty appearance of Albany. So Rocky (with the willing compliance of Albany mayor Erastus Corning III) leveled some 96 acres of South End neighborhoods and planted the State Plaza.

Today the white marble building housing the State museum and library looms over the scene, this is where the current State Paleontologist, Dr. Ed Landing, has his offices and presides over the fabulous State fossil and mineral collection. I wish I could say that he lives in the Hall workshop (or the tennis courts) in Lincoln Park, but no, he and his lovely wife own a very nice house located uptown. Sad to say, the signs indicate that Dr. Landing’s venerable job may very well be eliminated when he retires, and no doubt the State fossil collection will be privatized and scattered.

Postcard "A View In Beaver Park, Albany, N.Y." (click on picture for details) Postcard "A View In Beaver Park, Albany, N.Y."
(click on picture for details)

This postcard is of a spot very familiar to me because it is visible from the front porch of my house. If you are standing today on ML King Boulevard (South Swan Street in the park) facing this scene, then the ML King monument is to your left. I would guess that this wide pavement originally served as a main entrance to the upper part of Beaver Park.

This photo was impossible for me to take. For starters, it appears that the postcard photographer used a wide angle lens, perhaps a “panoramic” camera. My little toy camera couldn’t match that. And it appears that the photo was taken from a high platform set up on the sidewalk across the street. Wasn’t gonna do that.

The Old Entrance To The Park Today The Old Entrance To The Park Today

This was the best I could do, but you can see that it’s the same scene. The paved entrance is wider and appears to have moved to the left. The paths leading into the park from the entrance have also shifted. Some of the network of footpaths visible in the postcard were removed, those that remain are also probably the original concrete, which also is slowly breaking up.

I was amazed to discover that the exotic looking droopy tree, very prominent in the postcard, is still alive and healthy! I forget what these are called, there’s several in both Lincoln and Washington Parks. In my photo you can see it at right, not so prominent anymore. Here’s a close up:

The Exotic Droopy Tree Today The Exotic Droopy Tree Today

I’m delighted that this old thing is still living, I’m beginning to think it deserves special attention. I’m not sure what exactly, or why it should be honored. After all, it probably survived intact because it stopped standing out as other nearby trees matured. All I can say is that I have more fondness and respect for venerable urban trees like this than I have for most people.

These three postcards are actually not rare, they often show up in the Albany bins of postcard dealers at old book and ephemera shows. Beaver Park was officially opened in July, 1900, this progressive project was hailed as the first public playground in the City. Judging from the number of postcards in circulation and the comments written on many, in the first two decades of the 20th Century Beaver Park was very much a must-see tourist hotspot.

Beaver Park was cobbled together from various land tracts, the western part between Delaware Avenue and ML King Boulevard was the first part. Leading the effort to create the park was the Mother’s Club, which had acquired the Hall property and ceded it to the City. The Mother’s Club is still with us, today they call themselves the Women’s Club of Albany.

House In My Neighborhood Moved From The Park House In My Neighborhood Moved From The Park

The house in the photo above was originally located in the present day park along Morton Avenue between South Swan Street and Oneida Terrace. It was one of several houses along there, probably moved in the last few years of the 19th Century. This was told to me by one of the now deceased elderly residents of my neighborhood (born 1909) who in turn heard about it from her elders who watched the move.

The original plans called for expanding Beaver Park further down Morton Avenue. However, less than one block away at Hawk Street there was a crowded community called Martinville, which is usually identified as an “Irish shanty town.” The lack of surviving detail about the community, which was inhabited for at least 50 years, gives me the impression that polite people considered it a visible embarrassment that needed to be obliterated and forgotten.

Suicide Hill By S. Hawk Street, Former Site Of Martinville Suicide Hill By S. Hawk Street, Former Site Of Martinville

I look at Suicide Hill (ominously named by kids sledding in winter snow) and can hardly imagine what it looked like around 1900. The slopes must have been covered with shacks spewing smoke, dogs constantly barking and above it all the mangled shouts of lower class Irish brogue. The community and its inhabitants must have offended the much more refined residents that had moved into the fine upper middle class houses on upper Morton Avenue that had been built around 1880.

The agreed upon civic solution to Martinville was Urban Removal (“urban renewal”) the recurring notion that if you tear down the buildings then the undesirables who live in the buildings magically go away. In 1910 Martinville was “demolished” to make way for the new addition to the park. There does not seem to have been much concern for the suddenly homeless residents or for their dwellings.

Former Site Of Martinville Former Site Of Martinville

I wonder how the poor Irish families reacted to the notice of eviction from their slum. Was there violence, did they rise up in rebellion? Of course they would have been too poor and too uneducated to use legal channels, and probably no one with means intervened on their behalf. I would speculate that none of the Irish families had title to the land, this would have made the 1910 eviction order simple to carry out.

No doubt most of the evicted Irish probably settled nearby in the South End, where else would they have gone? Yet by the 1930s the Irish of the South End managed to take political control of the entire City via the ballot box. I wonder how much the memory of the demolition of Martinville kept the old time Irish politically united for most of the rest of the 20th Century. In any case there were no more mass evictions for “urban renewal” in the South End until Rockefeller built the State Plaza starting in the late 1960s.

Martin Gestures Toward The Ghost Slum Of  Martinville Martin Gestures Toward The Ghost Slum Of Martinville

So Beaver Park was first built from a spirit of benevolence with the highest motives, to beautify a prominent part of the City of Albany and provide a safe place for children to play. But then the desire to expand the park was reason enough to apply the strongest kind of power politics to a nearby community of Irish undesirables. I would not be surprised to discover that one of the driving motives behind the creation of the park was to provide a compelling excuse to obliterate Martinville.

I look at the lovely grassy slopes of Lincoln Park that were once covered with “Irish shanties” and I can’t help but think of all the South End empty lots where buildings once stood. You see, whenever our City of Albany officials tear down another venerable South End building, often in the middle of the night like thieves, the site of the disappeared building is carefully graded and often planted with grass. Indeed our City government has been trying to Martinize the entire South End for decades.

Would I rather have a slum “shanty town” in my neighborhood instead of a public park? Of course not, I’m grateful that we have our park, but consider this. If our civic leaders had not demolished Martinville in 1910 and planted grass on the site, what would my neighborhood be like in 2012, better or worse? Try as I might I can’t even begin to imagine.

Lincoln Park, Autumn 2012 Lincoln Park, Autumn 2012

I’m writing this paragraph the day after Election Day, yesterday our tottering empire dodged a fatal bullet. Somehow a pair of vicious yahoos hellbent on martinizing the entire United States was prevented from seizing power. I’m not completely sure why the barbarians were turned back at the gates but okay I’m relieved. Now that the big bullet has missed us we Americans can go back to dodging all the little ones.


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