The following is an excerpt from the biography ``Mayor Erastus Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma'' (Washington Park Press, 1997, 538 pages, $36) by Times Union staff writer Paul Grondahl.
More than any other accomplishment, Erastus Corning 2nd wanted to be remembered in the collective memory of Albany and in history books across the land for his longevity: The Longest-Tenured Mayor Of Any City In America. Corning enjoyed wearing that designation on his sleeve as a kind of walking epitaph in his final years, and hardly a mention was made of the mayor in the media without that lengthy modifier.
When one reviews the corpus of Mayor Corning's record, it is difficult to find a pulse. No theme emerges from his long reign except for stability, a numb sameness year after year that ultimately amounted to stagnation and decline. Corning was not a master builder for Albany as, say, Robert Moses was for New York City; the great public works projects in Albany must be credited largely to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
Corning was not an inspirational or charismatic leader in the mold of President John F. Kennedy, either. Nor was the mayor a dramatic shaper of sweeping governmental changes in his Albany kingdom the way President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal were for the nation. Unlike most memorable elected officials, national and otherwise, Mayor Corning failed to outline and promote his own vision for a brighter tomorrow. The unspoken subtext of Mayor Corning's game plan, if ever there was one, revealed an implicit view that Albany was a city whose best days were behind it, rather than ahead of it.
Corning, in keeping with O'Connell's political philosophy, ruled a backwards-looking administration that ran and won on the old verities of the Democratic machine: low taxes, marginal services, patronage rewards for loyalty to the Party, punishments for anyone who challenged the machine's manifesto.
During what should have been the glory days for Mayor Corning, the late 1950s and early 1960s -- a prosperous postwar era when other cities were tapping into a torrent of federal aid for urban renewal with the giddiness of children opening presents on Christmas morning -- there was nothing under the tree for Albany.
No money for downtown revitalization. No funds for public housing projects. Nothing for much needed infrastructure improvements. It was a well-known political decision that Dan O'Connell would not accept urban renewal money from Washington, since he did not want to be beholden to anyone, not even the federal government. Period. End of discussion. It was an issue of refusing to relinquish an ounce of control. Albany was O'Connell and Corning's turf and nobody from outside was going to put conditions on how jobs were filled there, what contractors received bids, where and when the renovations could be made.
This hard-line position of isolationism on the part of the machine was a curse economically -- but a strange blessing unintentionally in architectural terms. While downtown went to seed and plans for large-scale construction and improvements came to a virtual standstill in Albany without federal money, pockets of the city's historic housing stock escaped the wrecking ball. That doesn't account for the loss of some historic structures amid the decrepit rowhouses destroyed to make room for the South Mall, however, an architectural devastation of which Corning was a prime player.
Corning wasn't particularly proud to have accounted for the irony that Albany's old buildings were saved because the machine was too hardheaded and hungry for total control to accept urban renewal money. It was the same mindset that blocked major retailers, such as Sears and Macy's, which initially wanted to build their department stores downtown. Sears and Macy's encountered so much interference from Corning and the machine that they opted instead to open in a suburban mall, Colonie Center.
A major paranoia on the part of O'Connell and Corning was fear of any challenge to their autonomy, be it the federal government, corporations or the state. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's obsession to immortalize himself across Albany's skyline and his display of dazzling construction projects forced Corning and his cronies to come up with a few building initiatives to tout as their own.
One such public relations ploy in the 1960s was Corning's downtown parking garage that the mayor said would utilize the natural slope between North Pearl Street and Broadway. Heralded as an antidote to Albany's chronic parking shortages, the mayor promised several levels of covered parking with space for 7,000 cars that would solve the parking crunch and lure shoppers to struggling downtown merchants. Corning talked up the $40 million mega-garage for months and got a lot of press and mileage from municipal leaders. ``The garage will bring downtown back -- and bring it back with bells on,'' Corning promised.
Some years later, the mayor dropped the plan without explanation. The garage became a mirage. There was no bell ringing, only a hollow sound and a sour taste left in the mouth. There were other will-o-the-wisp projects from Corning. Who can forget his plan for a moving sidewalk that would shuttle a flood of shoppers to stores up and down State Street? The mayor's celebrated ``people mover'' turned out to be a fiction, too.
Meanwhile, Rockefeller dealt in fact, not only promising major economic development projects for Albany, but delivering on those promises. In fact, many political observers make the case that Rockefeller could claim far more concrete accomplishments for Albany in 14 years from the Governor's Mansion than Mayor Corning did during 42 years in City Hall.
For example, Rockefeller transformed the city's economy and the face of its architecture with his construction in the 1960s of the new campus for the University at Albany. Replacing an archaic and tiny downtown campus for the original State College for Teachers, Rockefeller chose a striking modernistic design by Edward Durrell Stone that has gained national attention. The State University of New York at Albany brings more than 16,000 students, renowned researchers, international academic conferences and tens of millions of dollars in economic benefit to the city each year. Corning had almost nothing to do with the university construction, since he had no leverage with which to coerce Rockefeller to kowtow to him.
If Corning couldn't have total control, he often withheld cooperation. In the 1970s, completion of the city's only major hotel downtown, The Albany Hilton -- now the Albany Omni, improved from its struggling days -- got its genesis from the governor because of his desire to provide his guests acceptable accommodations. For his part, Corning did push for demolition of the old Ten Eyck Hotel to make room for the new Hilton, got his close friend the developer Lew Swyer involved and convinced Rockefeller to include office and retail space along North Pearl Street as part of the design. In the end, though, it was the governor and not the mayor who made the Hilton fly, with funding from the state Urban Development Corporation.
There were so many promises left unfulfilled on the part of the mayor. Corning's architectural obsession was the hulking shell of the derelict Union Station, where the last train stopped on Dec. 29, 1968, leaving the structure abandoned, and slowly deteriorating into a huge eyesore for downtown Albany. Corning's attachment to its grand edifice was partly due to his sincere interest in preserving the city's historic architecture, but he also had an emotional connection since it had been part of the New York Central Railroad, founded by Corning's great-grandfather.
Corning had the will to save Union Station, but not the means. Rockefeller stepped in and acquired the sagging structure with state money, but it sat forlorn for more than a decade, a magnet for ambitious ideas that never came to pass. Finally, after decades of failed attempts, Mayor Corning helped piece together the details that brought about the rebirth of Union Station, adaptively re-used as banking headquarters for Norstar (later acquired by Fleet). Although he worked energetically to save Union Station, Corning did not live to see the civic celebration surrounding the re-dedication of the graceful old depot as banking offices.
And then, of course, there was the South Mall, which brought an entirely new level of combat and collaboration between Rockefeller and Corning. From the University at Albany to the South Mall is not even an exhaustive list of what Rockefeller brought to Albany by wedding great personal wealth and ambition to the public works of state government.
Corning possessed a similar kind of utter power, albeit on a smaller scale, but he used it to hold down and control the city in order to maintain its small-town, parochial sense of itself that gave the machine its authority. Think of what Albany might have looked like in 1997 without Rockefeller -- a scary thought. ``Governor Rockefeller was the best mayor Albany ever had,'' Albany County GOP chief Joseph C. Frangella quipped. Many who had watched the city declining in the shadow of the machine's lust for retaining power weren't laughing.
Aside from faulting Corning for a lackluster record in the realm of large public works projects, when it came to the small matters of municipal government, such as city parks, his efforts were deficient, too. Partly because of a brainwashed and co-opted citizenry, enfeebled by the patron psychology that eroded any impulse toward protest, and an acquiescent press, Mayor Corning's demagoguery was accepted as gospel. For decades, the mayor took every public opportunity to expound upon how fortunate the city was to be graced with such lovely parks and the recreational opportunities they offered.
As an example, Corning used such superlatives when he held a news conference and ribbon-cutting commemorating a new park in 1965 on South Allen Street a few blocks from St. Peter's Hospital and New Scotland Avenue. That ``park'' is a pathetic little patch cut out of a swampy gully that floods so badly each spring it is unusable for months. It consists of a couple of swings and a few rusty pieces of playground equipment, a site so unappealing that it is rarely used.
It wasn't until 1968, after swallowing Corning's park praises blithely for decades, that The Knickerbocker News conducted a thorough investigation of Albany's park facilities and found that an oversight agency, The Council of Community Services, concluded that Albany was deficient by 35 acres in its parks and recreational land and failed to meet that group's minimal standards. Corning countered by dusting off his old plan to create a nature preserve and park along the Normanskill Creek between New Scotland Avenue and Delaware Avenue bridge. Although the mayor promised it for more than 30 years, that Normanskill project never came to fruition. Another mirage.
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