From early times to now, Schenectady welcomes immigrants
SCHENECTADY Schenectady’s Dutch settlers weren’t interested in establishing an exclusive community.
The city’s first inhabitants were traders and were more focused on finding others to exchange goods with than worrying about foreign influences. The Dutch were more prone to tolerance than their English counterparts in New England, where settlements were often founded by religious refugees and remained largely homogeneous.
“The Dutch were traders,” said Don Rittner, the Schenectady County historian. “They wanted friends. They wanted treaties.”
By the 18th century, the Dutch legacy had entrenched itself in Schenectady and the settlement became a haven for people of varying descent. Scots, Germans, English and Native Americans inhabited the Stockade.
Even when the Dutch abandoned their stake in Schenectady, the city retained its pluralistic nature. And that same spirit has carried through the city’s 350-year existence — from its first European settlers to the steady influx of Italians during the early 20th century to the arrival of Guyanese over the past decade.
“The Dutch laid that foundation for anybody to come here and work,” Rittner said.
That foundation helped Schenectady’s population grow rapidly with its industrial growth during the late 19th century and then explode when the city’s industry boomed during the mid-20th century.
Rittner said the Erie Canal was the first big draw to the city, pulling large populations of Irish and German immigrants to work on its construction. But it was the rise of the city’s two largest companies — General Electric Corp. and American Locomotive — that would leave an indelible mark.
General Electric’s Schenectady plant employed more than 40,000 workers at its peak during World War II. Though smaller than its industrial counterpart, American Locomotive employed more than 15,000 people at its height.
“These industries needed people and Schenectady was already tolerant of ethnicity,” Rittner said. “It was a no-brainer.”
The lure of jobs and the city’s reputation for innovation brought a massive influx of immigrants. Rittner said the Italian and Polish populations coming to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century migrated to the places where they were all but assured employment.
“The city developed a reputation in the late 19th century as a place to go if you’re smart, innovative and if you want to create,” Rittner said. “It was like a big magnet.”
Ralph and Rose Civitello were among the Italian immigrants that settled the city in the early 20th century. Though they came to the city separately, they met in Schenectady’s bustling Italian enclaves and later married.
Ralph Civitello was 16 when he arrived in the city with a handful of his 21 siblings. After toiling for about five years, opportunity manifested itself for him in the form of a small bakery in what became Schenectady’s Little Italy on North Jay Street.
Civitello’s became one of nearly two dozen Italian-owned business in that area and an anchor for the culture. Roie Angerami, his granddaughter, remembers the heyday of the city’s tight-knit Italian communities during the 1950s.
“It was all Italian,” she recalled. “All our friends were Italian.”
But tolerance for immigrants only went so far. Angerami said city officials back then weren’t keen on hiring the immigrants for municipal jobs and barred them from social organizations such as the Mohawk Golf Club.
“Really they didn’t want to help them in any way,” she said.
Still, there were plenty of opportunities for immigrants. The seemingly endless pool of jobs led to a massive expansion of the city.
Neighborhoods like Hamilton Hill, Mont Pleasant and Bellevue sprouted, each largely populated by immigrant communities. The feverish pace of development made Schenectady among the fastest growing metropolises in the nation.
“It was a real melting-pot, working-class, blue-collar city because of General Electric,” said former Mayor Al Jurczynski, whose grandparents both immigrated to the city. “Boy, once it started humming, entire neighborhoods were going up in no time.”
The pace wouldn’t last forever. Industry waned during the later 20th century and the city began hemorrhaging jobs.
The immigrant communities were abandoned by second and third generation descendants, many of whom moved to the suburban communities outside the city. The relative dearth of inhabitants led to absentee landlords and a steep rise in derelict properties by the 1990s.
Jurczynski, who was elected mayor in 1996, saw an old solution to the city’s issue with its deteriorating neighborhoods. After taking office, he started an aggressive campaign to bring a new flood of immigrants to revitalize the once-vibrant neighborhoods.
“My argument was always what Schenectady needs is new blood,” he recalled.
Jurczynski targeted the Guyanese and aggressively lobbied them to settle largely vacant swaths of the city. He was encouraged by the culture’s ethic and desire to own property.
And it worked. The influx of Guyanese into the city contributed to its first population increase in roughly five decades.
“I saw something positive,” he said of the effort. “They looked at these homes not as a detriment but like they could build their future on these homes.”