Op-ed column: Hope along the Mohawk
“I’ve never seen this many people in Amsterdam before,” my son said after viewing the throngs of people on Main Street during Amsterdam’s recent Spring Fling. He was born in 1980, after Amsterdam’s population had already declined considerably and after urban renewal had demolished most of Amsterdam’s downtown, so it’s not surprising that he had never seen so many people together at one time in the city.
The Spring Fling, which comprised a motorcycle show, a classic car cruise in, live music, 80 vendors as well as other events, combined with the Wrestling Hall of Fame’s 10th annual induction and the Historic Amsterdam League’s tour of historic buildings, was a great success.
Seeing so many people in downtown Amsterdam delighted not only young people who had never seen such a sight, but also older people, who can remember when downtown was always crowded, especially on Friday nights. The event created a rare sense of community, bringing together people of all ages, ethnicities and political views. Even people who had pooh-poohed the idea of a Spring Fling were present and appeared to be enjoying themselves.
One has to go back to the two polka fests held in the late 1970s or early ’80s to find a similar sized crowd. Since then, the city has hosted Latin fests and Italian fests, which were well organized and which many people enjoyed. Unlike the Spring Fling, however, they only celebrated part of Amsterdam and not the whole.
The Spring Fling was important also because it refocused attention on downtown. While Amsterdam’s downtown struggles, it is not dead. In fact, it is poised for revival. That revival is connected to Amsterdam’s waterfront development, which, when complete, will make it the most extensive and beautiful in the Mohawk River Valley.
Amsterdam’s downtown has to overcome many problems, however, if it is to take off again. These problems include storefronts used for storage rather than retail, landlords who charge too much rent for the locale, and a former professional building sitting empty while retail space is occupied by professional offices. If downtown is to take off, it needs more small niche businesses that attract not only people in town, but also people from out of town, including tourists, boaters who tie up at the Riverfront Park and the cyclists who get off the bike path just across the river.
Until then, however, the Spring Fling demonstrates that Amsterdam’s downtown is a great venue for special events and should be utilized more often, including allowing a limited number of vendors to set up every weekend.
The Spring Fling drove home to me the importance of volunteerism. Sponsored by the Amsterdam Neighborhood Association, it could not have taken place without the dozens of volunteers who helped out. The historic Amsterdam tour and the Wrestling Hall of Fame induction also relied heavily on volunteers. Many of us feel we have done our part for the community by paying our taxes. Thankfully, not everyone feels that way.
While volunteers did the bulk of the work to make the Spring Fling happen, it would not have happened without Mayor Ann Thane’s vision. While a mayor needs to keep taxes down and must have the ability to administer a city, it has become clearer to me over the years that a mayor must be more than that. A mayor must inspire, must create a vision or dream of what a city should look like, and make it possible for people to see and to follow that vision.
When I think of a mayor like that, I am reminded of George Lunn, who became mayor of Schenectady in 1912. His vision for Schenectady was considered revolutionary at the time. He wanted children in school, not in the factories. He wanted them to be immunized. He wanted a park within walking distance of every child in Schenectady. He believed in urban planning. Most of what he dreamed of became true, and is now considered commonplace, not revolutionary.
Lunn, even though a Christian Socialist, went on to become lieutenant governor and a congressman. His legacy is still such that a century later, Mayor Brian Stratton acknowledged Lunn’s foresight in Schenectady’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan.
On May 21, 1995, I wrote an election-year piece for The Sunday Gazette. Its title was “Amsterdam needs a mayor and a plan.” The piece primarily argued that Amsterdam needed a mayor like the kind I mentioned above. Fifteen years later, I think Amsterdam has that kind of mayor.
In the end, however, no one person can create a successful event. It took the cooperation and unity of city government, business, non-profits and volunteers to pull off the Spring Fling.
When everyone works together, then everyone has fun together. That’s the primary lesson learned from Amsterdam’s first, but hopefully not last, Spring Fling.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section