This rhapsody continues for two hundred words. Suddenly, Kennedy goes journalistically deadpan. The Station, “a gift of munificence from the New York Central to Albany,” is made of pink Milford granite, by the architectural firm “organized to complete the work” of the city’s aforementioned detractor, H. H. Richardson. The station opened its doors on December 17, 1900. A Times-Union reporter remarked upon its magnificent ceiling, chandeliers, mosaic floors. The inaugural ticket transaction is described, down to the denominations of coins given in change. Of his facts, Kennedy asks: “Trivial?” and answers, “As trivial as a day in December 1968 when Union Station’s closing was only days away.” He makes the reader fall in love with the place, only to reveal that he has been eulogizing it all along.
Many of the buildings celebrated in O Albany! are gone. Their impermanence fascinates Kennedy as much as their greatness does. The John Van Schaick Lansing Pruyn branch of the Albany Public Library, where Kennedy endured the “hallowed trauma” of reading profanity in Of Mice and Men, was also leveled in 1968, by a wrecking ball. If one is alarmed, in 2012, to find that public libraries resemble homeless shelters, he will be chastened to learn that the Pruyn back in young Kennedy’s day was a haven for “winos and vagrants, crazies and shopping-bag ladies, and ordinary knights of the road of the Depression years.” Perhaps encountering books and the low life under one roof was a tonic, enabling Kennedy to write books about the low life without sentimentalizing or trivializing it.
It is especially painful to read about Albany’s lost restaurants. Keeler’s (56 State Street) satisfied the appetites of John Philip Sousa, Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, and Augustus Busch, among others. How many others?
1,500 patrons were served daily by 178 employees—48 waiters, 6 busboys on every shift, 27 cooks and assistant cooks: fry cooks, broil cooks, sauce cooks, roast cooks, fish cooks, vegetable cooks, oystermen, pantrymen, a meat butcher, a fish butcher, bread chefs, pastry chefs, topped off by the head chef, bottomed off by the potwasher and dishwasher. There were 14 dining rooms, a laundry on the third floor to handle table linen by the ton, a full-time seamstress to repair rent linen, a complete bakery, a printing plant for the daily menus and souvenir postcards, a machine shop, and a carpentry shop.
There was the Kenmore Hotel, whose famous Rain-Bo Room hosted such musicians as Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Bix Biederbecke. There were saloons and bars that only seemed innumerable, except during Prohibition, when Albany boasted speakeasies that were actually uncountable: “All you needed to create a speakeasy was two bottles and a room.” Many, of course, were anything but humble. O’Connor’s, which Kennedy identifies as the largest, boasted a massive and ornate bar that came to be preserved in a Cohoes, NY, restaurant. The more common fate of such places was to be preserved only in booze-addled memories. The same goes for the houses of ill repute described in “The Gut: Our Boulevard of Bluest Dreams,” an essay about a vice-driven neighborhood that has passed out of existence.
Because Kennedy is obsessed with change, with the passing of great eras—Ozymandias is forcefully invoked in his farewell to Union Station—the structures he describes are, in their ability to accumulate history, to become vulnerable, and to pass away, every bit as human and sympathetic as the people who inhabit this history. They also serve as an oblique warning. The completion of the imposing South Mall (now generally known as Empire State Plaza) in the 1970s, a boondoggle Kennedy describes in “Everything Everybody Ever Wanted,” leveled an entire neighborhood and transformed much of Albany’s downtown into a featureless concrete office park. The old Albany gave birth to colorful, larger-than-life men like O’Connell and Corning. The coldly functional, Modernist expanse of Empire State Plaza incubates dull bureaucrats and grim-faced clock-watchers. Though he never says it outright, Kennedy seems to believe not that a city gets the buildings it deserves, but, funny as it sounds, that buildings produce the people they deserve.