June 6, 2014

The hero Schenectady deserves, but not the one it needs right now

When I first arrived in New York, driving a car crammed with everything I owned, I knew very little about the Albany area. I knew for instance that there was a city nearby called Troy but I had only been there once, briefly, before signing an apartment lease near downtown. It wasn’t until I started work at my current job and told people where I lived that I learned Troy had a reputation for being kind of a dump. But when I added that I lived downtown, the negativity was usually tempered: “Oh, that’s a good area,” or, “I hear downtown Troy is coming back.”

It was only 2011 but a lot of downtown Troy’s biggest draws, like the Lucas Confectionery Wine Bar, Bombers Burritos, Dante’s Frozen Yogurt, and a bunch of other shops and restaurants didn’t exist yet. Dinosaur Barbeque had only just opened. The Frear Building, Proctor’s Theater, Trojan Hotel, Chasan Building, Dauchy Building, River Triangle Building, and the old Nellick’s furniture store were all empty - some had been empty since the 1970s. All have since been renovated or are in the process of being renovated. In the month since we left, Troy has welcomed a microbrewery, a deli, and there are plans in the works for at least two more restaurants.

I’m very happy to see Troy on the rebound. While I bitched a lot about suburbanites coming into town and taking all the parking spots, it was genuinely nice to go for a walk during the farmers market or Troy Night Out and see the streets full of people, people enjoying the city, my city.

Through local sites like All Over Albany I quickly learned that there is sort of a constant pissing contest between Albany and Troy about which is the “better city,” (culminating in the tongue-in-cheek “Troy > Albany Tour” in 2012). And then there’s Schenectady.

Outside of what’s playing at Proctor’s Theater downtown, Schenectady didn’t seem to get a lot of attention in the local culture sites and that’s really too bad because it has a lot going for it. It has a nice downtown area that is not as far along as Troy in terms of “reawakening” but it’s certainly on the right path. Architecturally I’d say it also lags a bit behind Troy but I would still put it on par with Albany, and that’s not in any way an insult. It has a fantastic city park, called Central Park (Wikipedia says it’s an Olmstead park but I have not seen anything else to confirm that), the aforementioned Proctor’s for Broadway productions and something else few cities have these days in their downtowns - a movie theater showing first-run movies.

Schenectady also grapples with a lot of bad things - high crime, burdensome taxes, and a monumentally staggering poverty rate, but these again are not unknown in Troy or Albany. When I tell people I live in Schenectady I get either a blank stare or a look of revulsion. Even when I explain where my neighborhood is, that it’s quiet and safe and pretty suburban, the reaction is still tepid: “Ah, well okay then.” There is no, “I hear Schenectady is coming back,” or, “Hey, that’s a nice area, your neighborhood.” For whatever reason the city has a bad rap compared with its two siblings, and I think that’s unfair.

What this city needs is a booster, someone like Duncan Crary in Troy or Maeve McEneny in Albany, someone ubiquitous both online and around the city to refute the claims that their town is a dump and to do so with passion and excitement. I’d nominate myself were it not for my penchant for being an anti-social recluse. It has its problems but Schenectady deserves more than just scorn and indifference. People talk about Rust Belt cities in the past tense - Detroit was, Youngstown was, Cleveland was - but they’re all still here, people still live in them, people still love them. Schenectady didn’t end when the factories closed down. It’s sick but it’s not dead. It never was and never will be a Chicago or a Miami or a Las Vegas but it’s not hard to get a cup of coffee at one of the cafes and take a walk down the pedestrian-only section of Jay Street and stop in some of the bookstores and boutiques and gaze up at the gold-topped cupola of city hall and think, “This is a nice place.” 

I’m sure just about every maligned city has people who try and get others to open their eyes and see the good as well as the bad. Some will see only what they want to see - they’ll point at burned-out houses and boarded-up storefronts and draw their own conclusions from there. But others will see the businesses and restaurants that are still there, the people who frequent them as they go about their lives, their joys and tragedies and the other minutiae as they go through life in cities that everyone else seems to have passed off as dead and defeated. Schenectady is alive and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. If you don’t believe me come see it for yourself.  

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