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The NEW Schenectady (Part 4): The Stockade, defying all expectations

Statistics conceal close-knit neighborhood

Sunday, July 24, 2011
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Lawrence the Indian is a constant in the Stockade neighborhood of Schenectady, which was among the many city neighborhoods that saw change over the past decade, as reflected in the 2010 U.S. Census.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Lawrence the Indian is a constant in the Stockade neighborhood of Schenectady, which was among the many city neighborhoods that saw change over the past decade, as reflected in the 2010 U.S. Census.

— As far as statistics go, the Stockade neighborhood has broken all of the rules.

The Stockade Historic District has the oldest housing stock in the city — usually an indication of deterioration.

And the Stockade has the highest percentage of rentals in the city, even higher than Hamilton Hill. Urban planners say that if renters make up a majority of a neighborhood, crime is likely to rise while property values fall as landlords postpone aesthetic improvements and basic maintenance.

Moreover, the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the Stockade is widening, with many very wealthy new residents moving in over the past decade, according to the latest U.S. Census results. Such a disparity often creates resentment, undermining relationships between neighbors.

View maps and earlier stories in the series

To view a map of the Stockade, 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.

Part 2: Eastern Avenue, two neighborhoods in one. Click here.

Part 3: Hamilton Hill: Despite new homeowners, crime is up here.

But that’s hardly true in the Stockade, where residents have lovingly restored their centuries-old homes and proudly display them to tourists. And despite the significant income disparity, tenants and homeowners describe a level of neighborliness they say they’ve never experienced anywhere else.

“There’s no community like this,” said Mary Jane McFall, who moved away four years ago but still comes back every Thursday to socialize at the Moon and River Cafe. “If it were up to me, I’d never have moved.”

Residents don’t just play Scrabble together at a cafe.

A group banded together to help sell Arthur’s Market, a corner store. Others have worked actively to get criminal tenants evicted, not only giving witness statements to police but repeatedly calling the landlord until he or she took action.

The same level of energy helped neighbors recover from vandalism earlier this year. After more than a dozen houses were hit with graffiti, several neighbors volunteered to help scrub or paint walls.

It’s a way of life that nearly every resident comes to embrace.

“Residents can move out, residents can move in, it’s still the same. No matter who you are when you come in, you become part of this,” said Markie Fisher. “It’s ‘love thy neighbor.’ ”

Community bonds

It can be a little overwhelming at first.

When Sev Moro bid on a house, he met the neighbors before he even submitted his bid.

“At first, I thought they were a little nosy,” he admitted, explaining that he was taken aback to have so many people come up to him as he toured the house and grounds.

At least three people bid on the house. After they all left, the neighbors told the real estate agent that they wanted Moro. Of course, they didn’t have any real say — but the agent told him their opinion had weight.

“They selected me,” Moro said.

No one is quite sure how such a powerful sense of neighborhood developed.

“I really can’t explain it,” said Stephen Boese, recording secretary for the neighborhood association’s board of directors. “I’ve lived in a lot of neighborhoods. This is the only time I’ve lived in a neighborhood that functions as a real neighborhood.”

Perhaps it’s the many organized events — garden tours, house tours, history tours, an art show, the Christmas tree lighting and the annual summer picnic sponsored by the active Neighborhood Watch group.

Or maybe it’s the lighthearted celebrations: llamas pulling Santa’s sleigh and pink plastic flamingos stealthily placed around the statue of Lawrence the Indian for Valentine’s Day.

“There’s a lot of community events. It’s very easy to meet people because you can just start working on an event,” said Gloria Kishton, a longtime resident who is also the chairwoman of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation. “You can go to a social event and there’s a person you know is getting supplemental income, and they’re talking to a millionaire. I don’t think that happens many other places.”

The neighborliness may also be partly a function of geography, suggested resident Joseph Fava, who sold houses in the Stockade for many years.

The neighborhood is bounded on two sides by the Mohawk River. On the other two sides, the boundaries are nearly as impassable: Erie Boulevard and State Street.

“I think that has a lot to do with it,” Fava said.

Heavy traffic makes it difficult to cross both streets. The city is embarking upon a multimillion-dollar project that should make Erie Boulevard more pedestrian-friendly, but no such changes are in the works for lower State Street.

The narrow, old streets in the Stockade itself were built before cars, creating a constant parking problem. So it’s not always simple to get in a car and drive away.

The boundaries to some extent encourage Stockade residents to stay within their neighborhood, to the point where the local cafe sells limited grocery items.

Walkable neighborhood

Walkability is so important that more than a dozen residents said the only thing they’d change in the neighborhood would be to fix the uneven, broken sidewalks.

“We need to walk. In this neighborhood, there’s a lot of trade-offs: if you think you’re going to have your car in front of your house, you’re dreaming,” said resident Catherine deSalle. “It’s a walkable neighborhood. You’re going to interact. That’s how I met half the people I know.”

But Kishton and others said the historic value of the Stockade’s buildings also build community by giving residents a greater sense of purpose. Letting a house deteriorate is not simply a matter of laziness or spending money on other priorities first, it’s also damaging a historic treasure that cannot be replaced.

“They start to appreciate it,” Kishton said. “Each building is unique. That has the tendency to make people feel special. You’re not necessarily going to have a white box inside.”

Whatever the reason, neighbors agreed that the Stockade’s strength is its community.

That’s not to say they always get along. This isn’t Lake Wobegon.

Last year, the prospect of a dock in Riverside Park in the Stockade sparked a neighborhood-wide controversy.

They held two competing votes on the issue, which produced different results.

Then they argued about what the results meant.

It took so long that the city had to get an extension on a grant for the dock and eventually gave up on the idea.

Now, some neighbors are bickering over Arthur’s Market, a corner store that has gone through three owners since the original Arthur died.

The latest owner, an immigrant who didn’t even know the name of the neighborhood when he filed paperwork to reopen the store, faced significant criticism from some neighbors who said they wanted it run by a resident. They speculated that someone who lived in the Stockade would be more dedicated to the job.

That smacked of racism, however unintentional, and now other neighbors have declared that they will support the store as long as it offers items they want to buy, regardless of who owns it.

less diversity

Some Stockade residents are particularly sensitive to accusations of racism because the neighborhood, along with Bellevue, is the whitest in the city. And that trend has continued. In the past decade, more whites moved in than all other races combined.

The neighborhood also continued to attract very few families with children. Only 8 percent of the population is under the age of 18, according to the Census. That’s just 173 children.

But the few families in the neighborhood don’t feel isolated.

“It has everything that a person needs,” said Tom Hodgkins, who has two young sons who love to play in the park and watch the boats on the river.

“It is more of an older population, [but] it has the best quality of life in the Capital District.”

 
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