You can take the girl out of the south end...
But you can't take the south end out of the girl
By P. Steadman
I was born in 1947 and was raised in a three-story brick house in the middle of the block at 60 Bassett Street in the South End of Albany, New York. My parents married in 1940 and rented the top floor, adjusting to married life and preparing for the birth of my brother in 1942. For the next five years their marriage was interrupted by World War II. When their husbands went to fight in the war, many young wives and their babies were left behind feeling abandoned and lonely. I have a black-and-white photograph of my brother in a baby carriage surrounded by smiling women: my mother; her mother; two aunts, one from each side of the family; and a neighbor (pictured right).
For those five years, women left on their own with children to raise had only the support of one another and their families. There were no governmental support groups, no WIC programs, and no walk-in clinics. The neighborhoods were self-contained with various grocers, bakeries, and butchers. Milk was delivered to homes. The neighborhoods were a mix of Germans, Irish, Italians and Jews. Different religions and community celebrations brought neighbors together to support their fellow neighbors.
I remember events as a child as big events not in the tiny details those adults remember things in days gone by. I went to elementary school at School # 1 across the street from where I lived. My first small lesson in freedom was being able to walk to school on my own. Eventually, by the age of eight, I was able to walk from my home to my dentist’s office on Madison Avenue and Pearl Street. Little did I know back then that I walked through a neighborhood called the “red light district.” All I knew was that nice ladies hung out their windows on the upper floors of their homes yelling, “Hi, honey,” at me and waving. Many decades later, I would read stories about Nebraska Brace being a teenager and growing up with those nice ladies.
The 1960’s decade brought many changes to the South End. It actually started when I was around 10 or 11. My two best friends, Beverly and Mary Ann, who lived across the street from me, moved away, leaving me alone with no friends to play with or go to school with. It was the beginning of gentrification of our neighborhood when street after street of homes, businesses and lives where torn down.
No, it wasn’t the 90-Acre Project that later became the Empire State Plaza. It was acres of concrete surrounded by high wire fencing and the eventual building of Griffin Elementary School on Pearl Street. It was blight, not just on the neighborhood and how bleak it looked every day but on the happy memories I had and on the people I knew.
A dark memory that has lived with me all these years is also a mystery. I might have been about thirteen when one hot night I was awakened by voices in the distance. Our bedrooms were on the second floor in the back of the house. I could see my mother standing in the dark at the window looking out at the street. I went to her to find out what was going on, only to find police cars, flashing lights, and an ambulance in front of our house. I was told to go to bed. In the morning, the only evidence of what had happened the night before was a white painted outline of a body at the curb in front of our house. As a kid, I didn’t read the newspapers or sit and watch the local news on TV. All I can recall, most likely told to me by my mother, was that during the night there was a knife fight in front of School # 1 and the victim staggered across the street and collapsed in front of our house. I was under the impression that he was probably a couple of years older than me, a teenager. To this day, I have never heard had happened, who the victim was, whether they caught the attacker, and who the attacker was. I think of the days afterward when my mother would try to scrub the outline away, only to have time eventually erode it away. At different times, I’ve thought of this unknown kid and how a cruel world I didn’t know about was showing up on my door step. The South End was on the verge of a new existence, and it was getting darker and darker.
I graduated from Philip Schuyler High School at 17 and a month later at 18, I got my first job as a telephone operator with the New York Telephone Company on State Street.
As one of the new employees, I got dumped on with crazy hours, split shifts, and long weeks, while workers with seniority were given the best hours, weekends free, and first pick of holiday schedules. I would walk to work, and if I came home after dark, I would ride the bus home and walk two blocks to our house.
Another story of my blissful ignorance was about a next-door neighbor, Willie. I didn’t know anything about him, but he was probably around my parent’s age, 50-ish, very tall, and very black. He disappeared from the neighborhood for awhile, and with the transient changes in neighbors, people were less congenial. I came home late one night to find my mother and Willie outside laughing and talking. After saying our goodnights and going inside, my mother shared what they were talking about. That period when Willie disappeared was because of a fight he was in. He had had his neck cut from ear to ear, and he was recovering in the hospital. The conversation that night between the two of them was about me and how worried my mother was for my safety coming home at different hours. Willie assured her not to worry, because he was keeping an eye on me. Bless me, God sent me my own personal Guardian Angel: Willie. Life goes on; people pass in and out of our lives, sometimes with little notice. I don’t know what became of Willie, but like many neighbors who had already left the South End, within the next two years we also left.
Earliest records I found at the New York State Library was the arrival from Germany in 1834 my great great grandfather settled in the South End of Albany, family name Schwab. The next generation my great grandparents arrived from Germany in 1883, family name Schilling. One son born in 1883 to the Schwab family would marry in 1905 the daughter born in 1884 to the Schilling family therefore establishing another generation of my mother’s family to the South End. The families lived at different times on Broad Street, Tenuis, Fourth Avenue, Morton Avenue, Odell Street and Catherine Street.
In March 1888 was the great Blizzard in Albany. Each generation persevered, Civil War, two World Wars, and the migration of ethnic influences, closure of churches, synagogues and schools.
I would not be the person I am today without the influences of growing up in the South End.