SCHENECTADY Editor's Note: This is the second in a weekly, summer-long series of stories focusing on Schenectady's neighborhoods.
For many, Eastern Avenue is the “good” neighborhood — not the best in the city, but far from the worst.
Residents there say they can afford to buy a bigger house here, or rent a better apartment, or open a larger storefront than they could in the nearby downtown or Union neighborhoods.
“To get this kind of square footage, I couldn’t afford it anywhere else,” said one business owner, who asked not to be named.
Another owner was more blunt.
“I bought here because it’s cheap,” said Kenneth Franklin, who bought a house off lower Eastern Avenue in 2008.
View maps, series introduction and Part 1: Woodlawn
To view a detailed map of the Eastern Avenue neighborhood, click here.
To view a map of the 11 Schenectady neighborhoods, click here.
Introduction: Census data show a city growing, changing in racial makeup. Click here.
Part 1: Woodlawn, a suburb in the city, takes care of itself. Click here.
He lives amid houses in slight disrepair — lived in, but with peeling paint or broken steps. It was a trade-off for him — he got the house, but not the perfect, manicured-lawn neighborhood.
“I took advantage of the opportunity of the house,” he said.
Yet a few blocks away, in what the city considers to be the same neighborhood, manicured perfection is exactly what exists.
Eastern is evolving into two very distinct places. On upper Eastern, near McClellan Street, the side streets are mostly single-family homes. There, residents say they love their tree-lined, quiet streets and beautiful old homes — houses that cost twice as much as the ones on Franklin’s street.
Cross an invisible line on Eastern near the Eastern Avenue Deli and the houses are mostly rentals. That’s where Franklin lives, and where many houses are run down, rented out to a revolving door of tenants who don’t care for the property as much as an owner-occupant would.
Homeowners blame the tenants for a host of quality-of-life problems, from littering to noise.
“My biggest complaint is the noise and litter on Eastern Avenue. The noise in the summer after 11 o’clock at night and the lit-
ter is extreme,” said homeowner Barb McEvoy, who lives in the neighborhood’s one-block historic district on Morris Avenue. It’s the smallest historic district in the city.
McEvoy and other members of the Eastern Avenue Neighborhood Association hold a litter cleanup day every year, in which they walk down the lower Eastern side streets and collect trash. This year, they filled 15 bags. Three days later, their work had been erased by new litter, said Robert Harvey, association president.
The business owner who stays because he can afford a larger storefront here says he only hates the neighborhood when he watches residents casually drop their trash on his lawn as they walk down the sidewalk.
“I really think the density of housing has a lot to do with it,” he said. “They need to get rid of the multifamily housing, really cut back on it. There are way too many people here.”
According to the 2010 Census, that density is dropping, but there’s still 3,073 people in an area that is roughly three blocks wide and 1.1 miles long.
The population fell by about 500 residents in the past decade. As in the rest of the city, there are many more minorities here now than in 2000. The number of white residents has also fallen dramatically, dropping by a third. Only two other neighborhoods saw a larger drop in white residents.
The census also found that 15 percent of the small neighborhood’s housing is vacant. That’s double the vacancy rate in many other city neighborhoods and far above the 5 percent rate considered “healthy,” according to city consultant Margaret Irwin.
The rate is highest in the lower half of the neighborhood. In many of the side streets off lower Eastern Avenue, houses are sitting vacant. Some landlords say they can’t even get renters to take apartments there.
“One woman called me and said, which Eastern? Eastern ‘Ave’ or Eastern Parkway?” one landlord said. “I told her Eastern ‘Ave’ and she said, ‘Oh. That’s kind of a bad area, isn’t it?’ ”
At times, it has been.
From 2007 to 2008, police raided dozens of houses, mainly on Prospect Street and Windsor Terrace, and found cocaine, narcotics and other drugs. The empty apartments on those streets had become “drug storefronts,” police said.
Residents say the raids chased most of the drug dealers away.
In a series of interviews, they consistently said they are not afraid for their safety now.
“I feel safe. I like to walk, and it’s a nice, pretty area to walk,” said McEvoy.
A business owner added, “It’s still a good place for me to stay. It’s not like I’m going to be knifed.”
At the Eastern Avenue Deli, owner Mohammed Aldhela was one of many who said the main problem in the neighborhood is not dangerous criminals, but merely rude behavior.
“Big problem [is] the kids here hanging outside,” he said. “They start arguing, they start fighting and something happens.”
‘Pros and cons’
But he doesn’t want to leave. The neighborhood is small enough to be an enclave in which everyone knows everyone else.
“I like nice neighborhood. Everybody know everyone, everybody ask about everyone. I been here 11 years, I know everybody,” he said. “All the kids, I know since they were 5 or 6. They listen to me.”
He shoos them away when they loiter for too long. And despite a fatal shooting two years ago, he feels safe enough that he sometimes brings his young son to work with him. On a recent morning, customers smiled at his son, who played with an umbrella in the doorway as they bought chips and soda. They carefully stepped around him as he twirled and danced.
Children finding unusual places to play is not unusual in Eastern. Nearly a third of the residents in the neighborhood are children, according to the census, and they are everywhere.
The neighborhood has no real park, but it runs next to Vale Cemetery, giving children several dead-end streets to turn into soccer fields and volleyball courts.
One enterprising group of children has created a hybrid of kickball and football, in which the team must successfully pass the football while the opposing team kicks the kickball. A child is ruled out only if the other team manages to catch both the football and the kickball.
The game is played at the edge of the street, next to the fence that blocks off the cemetery. So few cars drive down the street that the game is almost never interrupted.
But older children have peeled back the wire fence to squeeze into Vale Cemetery. And although it’s not clear who did the deed, a group of teenagers targeted a house in the neighborhood, shooting out windows with a BB gun while hiding in the cemetery.
“Vale has its pros and cons,” said longtime resident Patricia Yager. She and many others have decided that the best solution is to rebuild Landon Terrace Park, which is in disrepair.
“I think that would be a good thing. There really is a need,” she said.
The neighborhood association is raising money to fix up the park.
But the security cameras that have been installed in Vale have also helped, Yager said. Vale Cemetery Board of Trustees President Bernie McEvoy found that vandalism in the cemetery — graffiti and toppled stones — dropped to nearly nothing after the cameras went up.
Yager loves the neighborhood despite its changes. Children and tenants come and go, but they won’t affect what she sees as Eastern’s best quality: its location.
“We find it convenient to shopping, to Upper Union, it’s between the two hospitals, it’s easy to get downtown,” she said. “We’ve lived out in the country, and frankly it’s a lot of driving just to get some milk. I figure when the kids take the car away, we can get a Segway to get to the market.”
Many others said the walkable, near-to-everything neighborhood was why they chose to live there.
“It’s close to the hospital, close to my doctor’s office,” said new tenant Terri Kobryn. “Price Chopper is right there. The library is right down here. And we can actually walk. Days that I’m feeling good, like today, I can take a walk to where I need to go.”
But she and others said their choice was also driven by the fact that Eastern is affordable, unlike the wealthier Union neighborhood, just two blocks away.
“The house we wanted, that we could afford, was here,” Harvey, the neighborhood association president, said simply.