Living in Electric City is nearing a capital idea
When I came to work at the Gazette in December 1999, downtown Schenectady offered little in the way of entertainment, retail or dining options.
My overall assessment — and I don’t think it was too harsh — was that I’d be much happier living in Albany.
I liked what the city had to offer: interesting bars and restaurants, an independent movie theater, attractive parks and public spaces and great housing stock. And Albany was convenient: I had been hired to work out of a small bureau office near the Capitol, and I liked the idea of living near my work.
I still live in Albany, but the idea of living in Schenectady is no longer so easy to dismiss out of hand.
Schenectady has come a long way in the past decade.
It still has plenty of problems, as many places do, but there are reasons to be optimistic, especially about downtown.
There’s a lot more going on there, and it’s not unusual for me to drive to Schenectady on the weekend to do something fun. Of course, my tastes and interests are sometimes a little unusual. I was ecstatic when Proctors announced that it was showing the 1956 film “The Ten Commandments” on the big screen, and surprised by the small number of people in the audience.
Proctors is a big part of downtown’s revitalization.
But there’s more to downtown than Proctors.
There are good places to eat downtown, with more on the way: The restaurant Mexican Radio is set to open soon, and last week restaurateur/businessman Matt Baumgartner announced plans to open a Wolff’s Biergarten on Erie Boulevard between State Street and Interstate 890. Albany is home to the original Wolff’s Biergarten, which specializes in German food and beer and is known for providing a place to watch international soccer. Baumgartner, of course, has already played a role in Schenectady’s re-development. He is the owner of Bombers Burrito Bar on State Street.
Another positive development is the announcement that the New York City-based technology company Quirky would open an office in Schenectady to be closer to General Electric. Quirky is expected to create 180 jobs over the course of three years, which is good, but there are other reasons to be excited about the company. Such as: It’s hip and up-and-coming, and should draw bright, energetic and creative-minded professionals to the area. Not all of these people will live in Schenectady, but some of them surely will.
I tend to be skeptical when city officials point to a new business or arts organization or restaurant and present it as evidence that things are looking up.
After all, there are a lot of factors that go into making a city vibrant and livable, and it’s important to look at a city as a whole when making broad statements about its overall health. Schenectady, with its high poverty rate and high tax burden, is clearly not as healthy as it should be.
That said … things are looking up.
Quirky saw something in Schenectady, as did the owners of Mexican Radio, who also operate restaurants in Hudson and New York. The Bow Tie Cinema has come in for some criticism lately due to its sometimes uninspired movie programming, but it wasn’t too long ago that Schenectady residents wishing to see, say, “Captain America” would have to travel to the mall.
The changes in Schenectady come at a time when downtown living is becoming increasingly popular, especially among college-educated adults between the ages of 25 to 34.
Of course, this trend is not without a downside: An influx of young professionals can drive up housing costs and make downtown less affordable. And in their eagerness to attract this coveted demographic, cities are all too willing to neglect their poorer residents and neighborhoods.
Too often, cities fixate on big projects and neglect the smaller-scale amenities that really impact quality-of-life.
As an Albany resident, I’m completely indifferent to the ongoing effort to build a new convention center downtown. A new convention center will not make the city more desirable to live in, or improve the overall quality-of-life. What really makes a difference, when you live downtown, are the smaller, less-heralded developments: a coffee shop you can walk to, a diner where you can grab breakfast, a community garden where you can plant your own food.
At one time, almost all of my friends lived in Albany.
But as they’ve gotten older, they’ve spread out.
To Burnt Hills and Delmar and Watervliet and, yes, even Schenectady.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.