ALBANY — Like any street that runs the length of a city, Pearl Street has always contained multitudes.

In its early history, the north-south thoroughfare featured some of the city’s most opulent homes, from Cherry Hill at its south end to the long-gone Vanderheyden Palace on the north side. It also was Albany’s doorway, a humming commercial corridor with vibrant mom-and-pop shops, grand department stores, and everything in between.

But now when Boa David, an employee at a South Pearl Street barbershop and nearby resident, looks around, specifically at the south end of Pearl, he doesn’t like what he sees.

“It’s dead,” he said as he contemplated what its future might hold. He wants the street to come “alive” again, even if it means bringing back the parade of elephants, an attraction whenever the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town.

Boa David, left, and Yusuf Burgess, at Hair We R’ barbershop on South Pearl Street in Albany, said they see stark differences between the north and south halves of the street.

Boa David, left, and Yusuf Burgess, at Hair We R’ barbershop on South Pearl Street in Albany, said they see stark differences between the north and south halves of the street.

Lori Van Buren/Times Union

Anyone traversing Pearl Street can see what David is talking about. In recent decades, South Pearl Street has become home to several vacant lots, ramshackle buildings, light foot traffic, and persistent loitering by some of the clients helped at the Capital City Rescue Mission.

That scene suddenly changes when you pass the South Mall Arterial and approach North Pearl. It’s as though someone turned on the lights and drew back the curtain revealing Albany’s version of Emerald City. 

On any given day, David will look just a couple of blocks down from the barbershop to North Pearl and see a bustling street — people running in and out of banks, restaurants, offices and more.

“It’s not equal,” he said about downtown Albany’s main artery.

While Pearl Street’s southern portion grapples with the generational impacts of disinvestment and the reconstruction of Albany’s new state government center, other stretches are seeing large-scale real estate development, the return of cultural centers, nightspots, and more. 

All of which leaves residents, elected officials, business leaders and urban planners with one key question: What needs to happen to make every block of Pearl Street thrive?

Two Sides of Pearl Street

About this series

An organism is only as strong as its weakest link, which is why Pearl Street and the city as a whole could suffer if steps aren’t taken to further invest in it. This is the first in a series of stories exploring the street’s glory days as a commercial district, the forces that devastated the corridor — especially, South Pearl Street — and how the present-day community is trying to nourish it.

Pearl Street in photos: How a bustling cityscape struggles to thrive after decades of rallying

Coming soon: Migration patterns played a significant role in defining communities along Pearl Street. 

A peek at the bustling Pearl Street corridor in 1960. Pictured is the intersection between Steuben Street and North Pearl.

A peek at the bustling Pearl Street corridor in 1960. Pictured is the intersection between Steuben Street and North Pearl.

Provided by Albany Institute of History and Art

Urban renewal upended the street

For years, Pearl Street throbbed with life and action. It was where people went to spend their money and time.

Mary Ellen O’Connor, a lifelong neighbor of Pearl Street, remembers the street’s hustle and flair in the 1950s: The vegetable man’s cart laden with beefsteak tomatoes and corn. The egg man dropping off a fresh dozen at her family’s doorstep. The horse and wagon from Freihofer’s bakery clickity-clacking down the road with the best chocolate chip cookies around.

When her grandmother gave her 50 cents as a kid, O’Connor walked from one shop to the next picking up candy, cream puffs, flowers and thread. During the holidays, she splurged on films at the theaters. 

The whole street was “alive” then, she said. However, looking at what South Pearl Street has become, she, like David, is saddened. “There’s no life; there’s no vitality,” O’Connor somberly said.

Anthony Opalka, a city historian, and David Lewis, an associate professor at the University at Albany’s geography and planning department, attributed much of the drastic changes to a painful exodus by businesses after urban renewal plans upended the street.

Those renewal efforts tore up the fabric of some urban neighborhoods one wrecking ball at a time in the 1960s, making way for the construction of the Empire State Plaza, also known as the South Mall. Roughly 3,500 families and hundreds of small businesses were expelled by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s grand idea to transform what O’Connor said some labeled a “slum.”

Urban planning that was intended to improve the city instead isolated the South End neighborhood, for which South Pearl Street serves as the main commercial corridor.

“This sort of destroys the South End and tears it up and cuts it off from the community in many ways,” Lewis said.

It came after decades of disinvestment inflicted by discriminatory redlining practices based on class, ethnicity and race, dating from the late 1930s, Lewis said, in which certain areas in the city deemed too “hazardous” for investment by financial, real estate and government officials were shown in red on maps. Stretches of Pearl Street were in redlined areas or adjacent to them.

O’Connor’s grandfather owned a plumbing shop on Division Street and South Pearl. It was swept away as collateral damage amid the South Mall arterial’s construction. 

“That was a sad, sad, sad day for us when Rockefeller announced the South Mall,” O’Connor said, noting that her grandfather had to move his shop into his garage. 

According to Albany County, plans for the Empire Plaza and South Mall arterial were conceived out of then-Gov. Rockefeller’s embarrassment over the South End when a princess from the Netherlands visited in 1959. He and Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd thought the dilapidated buildings weren’t suitable for New York’s capital and moved to “revitalize” the neighborhood.

Corning once said the South Mall would be the “greatest single governmental office complex history has ever known.” But O’Connor and others believe he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Arterial isolates South Pearl

Historians, planners and Pearl Street residents all have said the arterial physically divided the two ends of the street, breaking its walkability and cutting off South End residents from vital resources in other parts of the city.

Because of the way the monolithic arterial divided the street, people in the neighborhood today have conflicting opinions of what marks the true demarcation line between North and South Pearl streets. 

Geographically, State Street is the partition between North and South Pearl, according to the city grid and street signs. However, psychologically and culturally, some believe South Pearl begins elsewhere — after Morton Avenue or Madison Avenue. Or at Market Street, in the shadow of the arterial, where there is a dramatic shift from North Pearl’s corporate banks, restaurants and the county arena to South Pearl’s small businesses, community organizations and residential buildings.

Many businesses fled the area or closed their doors when the arterial was erected, either because they lost customers over the lack of walkability or they were forced out to make way for the structure, according to Opalka and Lewis. 

“By the late ’60s and into the early ’70s, those buildings were virtually abandoned,” Opalka said. 

While those were left to deteriorate, malls, including Colonie Center and Crossgates, were built in the suburbs. The indoor and consolidated shopping experience coaxed city residents out to the suburbs. The area’s residential demographics also continued to shift as Pearl Street’s vacant buildings were left deserted or became residential properties.

“In the South End, planning has really failed,” Lewis said.  

In time, human services organizations such as the Capital City Rescue Mission, took residence in the few commercial spaces on South Pearl while the local government concentrated its efforts on bringing the commuting business class to North Pearl because of its proximity and connection to the Empire State Plaza, Lewis explained. 

The intersection of State Street and North Pearl Street, left, and South Pearl Street, right, on Monday, March 14, 2022, in Albany.

The intersection of State Street and North Pearl Street, left, and South Pearl Street, right, on Monday, March 14, 2022, in Albany.

Lori Van Buren/Times Union

During the ’70s and ’80s, the federal government and municipalities started incentivizing investors to renovate historic buildings by enacting the National Historic Preservation Act, which helped turn around larger buildings on North Pearl Street.

Opalka agreed, noting the buildings on South Pearl were smaller and didn’t have the same “historical forces” as those on North Pearl Street.

He said it “absolutely” led to a lack of investment in the South End. However, Opalka emphasized it’s important to note Pearl’s north and south poles have always been different communities. 

And the different levels of investment led to “really disproportionate outcomes,” Lewis noted.

Georgette Steffens, executive director of the Downtown Albany Business Improvement District (BID), said the difference in investment has to do with scalability. Whereas the northern end of the street has millions of square feet in commercial space, South Pearl Street has more multi-story brownstones that attract smaller-scale projects.

The Times Union requested interviews with Mayor Kathy Sheehan to discuss different investments along Pearl Street but she declined to speak on the matter. 

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy said there has been “quite a bit of investment in Pearl Street over the years,” including the county-owned MVP Arena as well as plans for a food distribution hub that will bring fresh produce and healthy foods to South Pearl.

“We are working to attract more businesses downtown and create a vibrant environment where people enjoy a grocery store in their neighborhood, dining outside for lunch or dinner and world-class entertainment,” he said. 

Investing in people

Travon Jackson is working hard to spearhead endeavors that will uplift the South Pearl Street community, but he has been frustrated by lopsided investment along the corridor’s two ends. 

As president of Bluelight Development Group, a nonprofit facilitating investment in the Capital Region, he sees more housing credits and investment being leveraged on North Pearl, which perplexes him because South Pearl has always been the street’s true residential neighborhood.

And as director of the African American Cultural Center located on South Pearl, he views his surrounding street line as a neighborhood whose remaining historic building facades hint at what once was and what could still be — if ways can be found to lure investors to fill vacant properties.

“I think when you walk along Pearl, from north to south, you can read the desires of men and women (who came) before us by looking at the buildings. And I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve always romanticized and viewed our downtown strip as a bustling commercial corridor full of entertainment and nightlife,” he said.

He thinks that the approach for investment on Pearl Street has been flawed in some ways, not designed for what people living there need, like a grocery store. 

Each block of Pearl Street is challenged with combating urban stigmas to attract long-term residents and build the infrastructure needed to accommodate them, he explained. It’s a multipronged issue that he and others won’t stop chipping away at.  

“It’s really an investment in quality of life. It’s also an investment in the people in the neighborhood, the human element,” he said.  “That’s a big part of the work, seeing people as people (rather than a return on investment).”

What do you wonder?

Two Sides of Pearl Street

Two Sides of Pearl Street Project benefits from a unique collaboration between the Times Union and Albany Public Library. This partnership, supported by the nonprofit Library Futures with assistance from Hearken and made possible by support from the Google News Initiative, aims to amplify the voices of community members in shaping and telling these stories. 

What do you want to know about about Pearl Street’s past, present and future? Submit your questions through this form or at an Albany Public Library branch.

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