I started out on a hunt for information on a local building that’s undergoing demolition, and finding nothing on the Interwebs, turned to the historian’s version of carbon dating: city directories. Luckily a bunch of these are online now at Ancestry, because it’s tedious work going through them looking for addresses and business names. All I wanted to do was get some idea when this particular building, a former hotel, had started up and how late it had been there, because no one I knew could recall anything at all having been in the building in the last 25 years or more.
But of course instead I got lost in the portrait of a city that is no more, captured in the 1875 Albany City Directory.
For starters, it was a city that existed almost entirely in the area we call downtown. Smaller in population, endlessly more dense in those days before the automobile changed everything. Bounded as it still is by the Capitol to the west and the Hudson River to the east, Madison or Green to the south and perhaps Clinton Street to the north, it would appear there was hardly an empty office for dozens of square blocks. The place was absolutely full. And what businesses they were, a reminder of what our cities were like before refrigeration, rapid transportation, centralization and globalization changed everything. Downtown Albany was home to five cracker bakers, five cream of tartar dealers (an ingredient in baking powder), 12 iron founders, 12 marble workers, 20 news depots, and 25 printers. You wanted oysters? 14 oyster dealers took advantage of the overnight steamboats to New York City’s seafood markets. There were four piano manufacturers (but only two banjo makers). There were six sleigh manufacturers, six furriers, 5 leather curriers (a leather treatment method), and two places that exclusively pinked and marked fabrics. Bonnet getting dingy? There were five places to have your bonnet bleached and pressed. There was one foundry riddler, and if I knew what that was, I’d tell you, but he was presumably not in competition with the dealer in “Yankee notions.”
This isn’t to mention the notaries public and lawyers, who were legion. It’s hard to imagine how many people were packed into such a small space, how hectic and exciting the center of the city must have been. Now, after years and years of revitalization efforts, downtown is busy again, but the big towers are still riddled with vacancies, and the variety of services available to the lawyers and state workers who people the streets pretty much ranges from lunch to lunch, with one holdout jeweler and a couple of opticians thrown in for good measure. Even the variety of twenty years ago, with a bookstore or two, a semi-pro camera shop, and a couple of jewelers on Pearl Street, has been lost. Those spaces have mostly been taken over by restaurants and bars, which has improved the nightlife, but we’re still without the kind of destination retail that brings some character back to a downtown. Would even one Yankee notions dealer be too much to ask?