The Washington Park Spirit was an alternative universe of passionate muckrakers, cool kids and hippie geniuses. Feminism, black power and the gay rights movement were blossoming when the Spirit was published from April 1971 to February 1975. The Spirit forged inner-city community by hosting forums and funding a free clinic and a historical foundation to protect architectural jewels.
The Spirit offered epics with complexity, thrills and nuance. Reporter Scott Christianson, who produced exposés of Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, had been a Knickerbocker News staff writer and went on to write for The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Washington Post. His recent death in an accidental fall at his Great Barrington, Mass., home is a reminder of the invaluable complement that alternative journalism can be to mainstream news.
Now, the Spirit’s history is newly available to everyone in the hard copies, thanks to retired Assemblyman Jack McEneny’s donation of his collection to the Albany Public Library.
“We were an alternative to Hearst and corporate-owned papers,” said Spirit editor Leonard Perlmutter, referring to the Times Union’s parent. “We believed objective truth can be found by digging deeper than newspapers” that might have worried about offending advertisers and subscribers. “We looked like hippies. But established businesses bought ads to support us. I met my wife at Sears when I was selling ads.”
Perlmutter was an Albany Law School student when he realized he never wanted to be a lawyer. Instead, he raised money from area businesses to launch the Spirit.
“The reporting had substance, so the city respected us,” said his wife, artist Jenness Cortez Perlmutter, who drew every intricate, beautiful Spirit cover.
Every other week, the staff caravaned from the Washington Avenue newsroom to a Ballston Spa printer to lay out stories on blue graph paper. After the issue was printed, reporters hit the streets to sell copies for 15 cents each.
Perlmutter wanted the Spirit to offer an alternative to mainstream newspaper writing, which he viewed as timid to the point of blandness, and larded with qualifying phrases. The Spirit’s parody issue included a “story” in that style describing Albany’s reaction to Northern Ireland violence:
“Most in Albany, although it is a heavily Irish Catholic city, are against the recent outbreak of killings, murders and general unrest. … In a poll conducted around the city, 10 people said they were against murder and unrest, five pretty much against and two weren’t exactly sure.”
A lifestyle section spoof was headlined, “Food Cans Open New World for Imaginative Housewives.”
The Spirit wasn’t always snarky. Christianson compassionately profiled a young man who committed suicide rather than fight in Vietnam or go to prison for draft evasion. Christianson described the corpse’s clothing to the last heartbreaking detail: a RESIST! button pinned to his hat. Reporter J. Flavin wrote about Albany’s first coffee house for gays, saying, “it is a safe place on 332 Hudson Avenue for a community, an alternate to parks, dark alleys and rest areas which homosexuals are subjected to by straight society.”
Christianson’s wife, anthropologist Tamar Gordon, explained how the Spirit shaped Christianson’s life.
“At the Knickerbocker News, Scott wrote solid investigative pieces and stories about prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and corrupt cops,” Gordon said. “He realized people were going to jail because of what he reported. But the system that helped create corruption and crime remained the same. At the Spirit, he could explore what was wrong with the system.”
Christianson wrote compelling Spirit stories about inmate abuse and also about how skewed sentencing is by wealth. He wrote the 1998 “With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America,” a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Book Award winner.
McEneny remembers working in City Hall in his 20s, the same age as many of the reporters. He admired the Spirit, even when he disagreed with it.
“I thought the reporters and Leonard did a great job,” McEneny said. “The Spirit usually had two reporters in City Hall. When they weren’t there, I knew they were out in the field, finding something the city may have done wrong.”
Albany Public Library reference librarian Jim Davies welcomes donations of local weeklies. Metroland, published from 1977 to 2015, produced watchdog investigations like one of Border Patrol searches aboard Amtrak. The weekly’s reporters propped their feet up while they pounded out stories to avoid the resident rodent they nicknamed Metro Mouse as he scurried across the newsroom floor.
Metroland’s office was seized by state officials for nonpayment of taxes in 2015. Before it ceased publication, the paper tweeted an offer to donate bound copies.
“I drove my car over and loaded all two dozen volumes,” Davies said.
For a fuller view of 1970s Albany, Davies suggests poring over the library’s collection of The Liberator. That weekly was published by The Brothers, a group of black activists. The Liberator’s approach often varied from the Spirit’s. Both effectively covered housing. The Spirit reported on abandoned buildings becoming dangerous lures to children or drug dealers’ bases. The Liberator focused on apartments’ frozen pipes and broken furnaces, and it reported on an awards ceremony honoring a housing official during which protesters invaded carrying jars full of live cockroaches allegedly captured in apartments.
The Spirit lasted almost four years, the Liberator a bit longer, albeit with increasingly sporadic publication.
Perlmutter blames a recession and plummeting ad sales for the Spirit’s demise. He now lives in a big, white frame Averill Park house and is director of the American Meditation Institute that he founded in 1996. Buddha’s statue surveys the vast lawn.
Yet Perlmutter believes the spirit of the Spirit still lives in news organizations where passion and storytelling are priorities. As its last editorial declared, “Newspapers die everyday but the energy behind the Spirit of our community will not be lost. There is too much work yet to be done.”