SCHENECTADY As a city, Schenectady is a far different place than what it was a decade ago.
For the first time since 1960, the population is growing again, although slowly. The storefronts that were shuttered downtown are now vibrant, and there are so many children that the school district must keep adding buildings and the city has started to pay park attendants to run programs in the summer.
The racial makeup of the city is changing, too, with immigrants and blacks leading the population growth.
In 2000, whites made up nearly 77 percent of the city’s population. Now, they are 61 percent of the whole, while blacks, Asians and those who identified themselves as “some other race” have added thousands of new residents to the city.
In raw numbers, the city has only added about 4,000 more residents. But Schenectady is a city of neighborhoods, and 2010 U.S. Census data illuminate far larger changes on the neighborhood level.
There are many more children now in areas that for decades had only a few children. There are occupied houses on streets that once were mostly vacant. The changing demographics could shift everything from priorities for park improvements to road repairs.
For the next 11 weeks, The Daily Gazette will highlight one neighborhood each Monday, explaining the changes in the past decade as well as the problems facing the neighborhood now and its greatest strengths.
The first neighborhood profile will be Woodlawn, in Monday’s Gazette.
But first, the citywide numbers.
The city gained more than 4,000 blacks, 1,000 Asians and 3,000 “other” — a category likely to reflect the Guyanese population.
Those numbers came as something of a blow to Guyanese leaders, who had hoped the census would prove that 10,000 Guyanese live here. Now, it looks like there are fewer than 5,000 here, even if they assume some of the African-Americans and Asians counted are actually Guyanese.
“We were thinking 7,000 to 10,000,” said Schenectady County Legislator Philip Fields, a Guyanese advocate.
Fields said it’s now far more likely that the city’s efforts to bring Guyanese here at the start of the decade led to many Guyanese buying houses in the suburbs.
“They could be spread out in the county. I know a lot of them live in Rotterdam and Niskayuna,” he said.
The census isn’t conclusive — it did not ask whether residents were from the non-Spanish-speaking parts of South America. Instead, it asked residents to choose among white, African-American, Native American, Hawaiian Islander, Asian and “some other race.”
Since Guyanese are descended primarily from Africans and Indians, some of them may have chosen those categories. But a neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis of the census results showed that the big increases in “other” are in the neighborhoods that have seen an influx of Guyanese, including Hamilton Hill, where the percentage of blacks did not change, while the number of “other” doubled.
Fields said the evidence indicated that many Guyanese reported themselves as “some other race.”
“Truly, ‘some other race’ could be a lot of Guyanese,” he said. “Look at Central State. That makes sense to me — there’s a lot more Guyanese living in Central State. Lots of Guyanese.”
In the Central State Street neighborhood, “other” rose from 4 percent to 14 percent of the population, while the percentage of blacks did not change.
The neighborhood analysis also gave black leaders far more information about the 4,000 blacks who have moved to Schenectady.
They’re particularly pleased by how blacks have spread out in the city.
The influx did not center in Hamilton Hill, which has historically been the biggest enclave of blacks in the city. It’s also the poorest neighborhood, with deteriorating housing and a significant percentage of the city’s most violent crime.
Instead of locating there, many of the city’s new black residents settled in the city’s richest neighborhoods, particularly Woodlawn and the Stockade.
In Woodlawn, there were just 850 blacks in 2000. Now they make up 15 percent of the population, an increase of 400 people.
In the Stockade, 100 new black residents moved in — a 60 percent increase in blacks in the predominantly white neighborhood. The number of blacks doubled in the Union Street neighborhood as well, an area with both wealthy and working-class sections.
The Bellevue neighborhood also saw a large increase, with 560 blacks moving in. They now make up 9 percent of the neighborhood’s population, up from 4 percent in the 2000 census.
In every neighborhood except Hamilton Hill, the percentage of blacks grew in the past 10 years.
That indicates not only the growth of the middle class but a significant increase in working-class blacks, city officials said.
“Which is wonderful. It’s a total value to the city,” said Director of Development Richard Purga. “Everybody benefits from that.”
University at Albany sociology professor Samantha Friedman said a minority middle class is critically important as living proof that it’s possible to be successful in a mostly white city.
“From a social perspective, the entrance of the black middle class would mean a gain in role models to the less privileged blacks living in the area. Having access to such role models could facilitate better academic achievement on the part of those poorer folks already living in the community,” she said.
The Rev. Ted Ward, NAACP chapter president, was particularly heartened by the increase of blacks in Woodlawn, where there are very few apartments. Most residents must have the wherewithal to buy a house if they want to live in the suburb-like neighborhood, with its wide lawns and garages.
“It’s a very well-to-do neighborhood,” Ward said. “You might have more middle-class or high-middle-class African-Americans moving over into that area.”
The NAACP has also seen many middle-class blacks joining the chapter, which Ward said would build the group into a more effective advocate for the many minorities still living in poverty here.
“We’re hoping we have more people with experience in education, in the political arena, experience in social issues, have experience they can bring into the NAACP, that we can make more of an impact,” he said.
It’s an exciting time for the city, Purga said.
Until now, the city has not grown in population since 1960. City officials studied the census in previous decades to learn which neighborhoods were losing the most people, leaving behind empty buildings to slowly fall apart.
They watched the vacancy rate climb — to the point where analyst Margaret Irwin included warnings in the city’s comprehensive plan. Many neighborhoods’ vacancy rates were far higher than they would be in a healthy housing market, she said.
But with more people moving in, that situation has improved.
The overall vacancy rate in 2000 was 13.2 percent, or 4,007 units. In 2010, the vacancy rate fell to 11.5 percent, or 3,462 units.
The rental vacancy rate, a key rate to the health of the economy, fell to 8.4 percent. In 2000, it was 9.3 percent.
The vacancy rate fell partly because the city and developers demolished buildings, removing more than 100 units. Another 400 units were filled by new renters and owners, according to the census.
But in an indication that the economy is still suffering, the census found that more people are living together now, squeezing into friends’ and family members’ homes. That’s how the city’s population could grow by 4,000 yet fill only another 400 units, said Census Bureau spokeswoman Malkia D. McLeod.