Talkin’ Albany “Progress” With Mary Paley, Filmmaker

The Neighborhood That Disappeared is a documentary every Capital Region resident should watch, sooner rather than later. As the City of Albany and state officials celebrate the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Empire State Plaza, this film is essential viewing. It depicts the forced dislocation and displacement of an entire neighborhood and ethnic conclave in Albany’s South End. Before the plaza was built as a monument to progress and the future, there existed a vibrant culture and a familial atmosphere. It was something that doesn’t really exist in Albany now.

Mary Paley is a director and producer on The Neighborhood That Disappeared. Her father, Bob Paley, was a photographer for the now-defunct Knickerbocker News and his imagery, as well as that and the narratives of former and current Albany residents comprise the crux of the film. It premiered on WMHT, the Capital Region’s PBS affiliate, last December and its message resonated with people, and drove the most successful fundraising drive in the network’s history.

Recently, Mary let me interview her about Albany’s past, The Neighborhood That Disappeared and what’s next for her.

The Neighborhood That Disappeared led to the largest amount of contributions in WMHT history. It’s received an overwhelmingly positive response from viewers. Did you expect this reaction and what do you think it is about the documentary that makes it resonate so strongly?
Twenty years of urban renewal in the South End of Albany, NY displaced a population the size of many small American cities.

In 1962, Nelson A. Rockefeller called this area a slum, and precipitously seized 98.5 acres in the heart of the city for slum clearance. Residents endured a humiliating process of drive-by evaluations. Some were unfairly remunerated.

To residents and small business owners that thrived in the Old Neighborhood, their lives were more than a compilation of data.  The South End meant home and hearth; extended family; friendships and business relationships built over a long period of time. Many of them worshiped in the neighborhood; their children were educated at the neighborhood schools. And that world which they’d built with faith and determination over several decades was upended quite suddenly. So part of the film’s appeal probably stems from a simple longing: Everyone wants to go home.

But the film was also a revelation to people who came to Albany from somewhere else after the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza had been erected. They were surprised to learn about Albany’s once thriving ethnic center, now defunct, at the heart of the city.  For half a century, its very existence and value had been swept and hidden.

How has your life changed since its release?
Since the film’s release in December, 2014, I’ve had to learn much more about the “business” of filmmaking. And it’s rocket science! I’ve really had to put on my thinking cap. Fortunately, I’m working with an excellent, experienced production team. And they always lead the way.

I know that the film wouldn’t have been possible without the participation of Albany-area residents, not just in terms of money, but photos and stories and it’s clear between the documentary and its Facebook page, there’s a lot of both. Are you still hearing and receiving things from people who maybe didn’t make the final cut or have similar stories of their own to tell?
Films under the Omikronicles and TNTD Film umbrella are grassroots projects. We are only able to realize these projects because former and current residents of Albany, NY retain a powerful sense of place. They are brilliant memory keepers, and their engaging memories are matched by their generosity.

Astoundingly, after premiering TNTD on WMHT/PBS in December, 2014, we received 800 new photos and documents, new Super 8 film and many new stories about Albany’s South End from viewers that had only learned about the film after it came to market.  Much of this new content is featured in our next film: “Echoes from the Neighborhood that Disappeared,” a companion tribute to the Albany’s Italian South End, and also an homage to my Italian American heritage.

Have you heard any sort of commentary in response to it from friends/families of Corning or Rockefeller, or anything from the people who took part in the displacement of residents and the construction of the Plaza?
“The Neighborhood That Disappeared” only reported information found in the public domain, but powerful individuals linked to the South Mall Project/ESP are still promoting the party line; namely the South End of Albany was a slum area.  These individuals have friends that have circulated some disinformation.  But try as they might, they can’t erase the past.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Plaza. There’s a photo gallery and exhibit in the Capitol honoring it and Gov. Cuomo issued a statement that acknowledged the displacement of many, but ultimately lauded it as progress and a modern marvel. It seems that in Albany at least, the prevailing sentiment doesn’t jibe with that. What are your thoughts on both the celebration and the governor’s remarks?
Well, big parties are fun—I’m in favor of them– but Albany’s big city v. small city conflict won’t be resolved by a fine celebration.  For the record, I will not be celebrating The Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza’s anniversary. Monumental architecture makes me dizzy, and I’m weary of lectures that praise famous men who weren’t all that heroic.  Mostly, I’m haunted by a description of ESP from TNTD co-writer, Pat Bulgaro: “That vast, mostly empty place was built on the broken hearts of thousands of people.”

I know the work of your father, Bob Paley, played a significant role in the creation of your film. I was recently on and was struck by his photographic skill and the piece by Robert G. Fichenberg. It gave me an insight into the Albany that existed before I was born. Growing up, how familiar were you with the work your dad was doing? How did his work influence you and your worldview?
Growing up, what I remember most about Dad was his passion for the work. He was utterly without ambition; a true artist. All those photos he took speak for his commitment to memory; not just his own memory, but Albany’s memory; the region’s memory, and the nation’s memory. Dad will always be my greatest source of my inspiration.

What is your next project?
As mentioned earlier, “Echoes from the Neighborhood that Disappeared” is closing in on a final cut and will premiere on WMHT/PBS December 1st at 7:30 pm.  Here’s a quote from the DVD jacket written by Pat Bulgaro:

“This companion documentary, Echoes from the Neighborhood that Disappeared, is a tribute to intrepid Italian immigrants, many of them impoverished, who crossed an ocean to travel to a foreign land where they built a thriving community of business owners, craftsmen, laborers and professionals centered on family life.  This companion film examines how a way of life was brought to an abrupt halt by the power of Eminent Domain and unrestrained urban renewal.  ECHOES also documents how the residents of this neighborhood struggled to maintain their identities as they lost their homes and businesses while adjusting to the turbulent forces of change spawned during the twentieth century.”

Do you plan on using Kickstarter again to fund it, or is finding funding a considerably easier task in the wake of TNTD?
Our 2013 crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter was a litmus test. When we exceeded our fundraising goal, we knew we were onto something. An unexpected outcome was that a host of people reached out to us with a need to tell their stories. In producing TNTD, we tried to include as many of these individual stories as our shoe string budget would allow.   More recently, we’ve been fortunate in making new friends, among them the folks at WMHT, who are really first-rate. They provided some of the funding for ECHOES.

For our third film we’ll be seeking support from a variety of sources.

Last question: If there’s one lesson you hope people learned from TNTD, what do you hope it was?
Always be very proud of your roots. Always remember where you came from. And continue to honor the past because as American novelist, William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

You can keep up to date with The Neighborhood That Disappeared and its follow-up on Facebook.