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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Exploding house is sure sign of mistake

A few years ago, I read the Jonathan Franzen novel “Freedom,” a sweeping take on a dysfunctional middle-class family and America in the early years of the 21st century.
I had mixed feelings about the book, but one of its chapter titles, the passive-yet-ominous-sounding “Mistakes Were Made,” has stuck with me. These days, it’s not uncommon for me to read an article about an unfolding catastrophe, such as the violence in Iraq or the rioting in St. Louis, and nod my head and say, “Mistakes were made.” Because while there might be plenty of blame to go around, the taking of responsibility always seems to be in short supply.
The house that exploded over the weekend is another “Mistakes Were Made” situation, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Houses don’t just explode.
At least, not when things are functioning properly.
When a house blows up, it’s a sign that something has gone wrong.
That a mistake, somewhere, somehow, has been made.
Right now, Schenectady officials are trying to determine how a vacant house at 310 Paige St. came to explode Sunday afternoon. A gas leak is suspected, but there are still a lot of questions about what exactly happened.
The house is owned by the city’s Schenectady Urban Renewal Agency, and is one of hundreds of vacant properties the city has acquired with the goal of reselling or demolishing them. Building Inspector Eric Shilling has said that the house was going to be resold, and that the power had been left on so that the property could be shown to prospective buyers. One neighbor said he smelled gas in the area for several days, but did not report it to National Grid.
Which is, in hindsight, really unfortunate.
This isn’t the first time a house has exploded in Schenectady. In 2012, a house on Avenue B exploded when an electrician drilled into a wall and punctured a gas line. In 2005, a house explosion on Strong Street occurred as a result of an accidental gas line break. Is human error also to blame for the house explosion on Paige Street? Another neighbor reported seeing two people, a man and a woman, go into the house through the back door. Could trespassers or squatters have caused the explosion?
It’s too soon to answer these questions, other than to say that Mistakes Were Made.
In general, I support the city of Schenectady’s effort to take control of derelict properties and either resell them or demolish them. Vacant, rundown houses are a huge problem in upstate cities, contributing to blight, dragging down property values and sometimes becoming a hazard. So I appreciate that Schenectady is trying to do something about these properties, rather than just throwing up its hands and saying, “What can we do?”
This reaction is typical in Albany, where I live.
Whenever a building suddenly collapses, the reaction is usually something along the lines of, “Our hands are tied because we don’t own the building.” If you live in close proximity to a vacant house that’s on the verge of falling apart, as I do, this refrain can get old quickly.
Behind most of Albany’s poorly maintained vacant properties is a negligent property owner.
In Albany, buildings fall apart with alarming frequency.
On Monday, part of a vacant building on Columbia Place collapsed. Fortunately, no one was injured. In July, a vacant house on Clinton Avenue collapsed, leaving a neighboring family homeless. Residents claimed they had been trying to get the city to do something about the Clinton Avenue building for years.
The city of Schenectady owns the property on Paige Street and is thus responsible for maintaining it.
Which means that the city needs to figure out what caused the apparent gas leak and subsequent explosion and take steps to ensure that none of its other properties are at risk of blowing up.
If the city can’t ensure that the properties under its control are safe, it needs to consider whether it has acquired too many to keep up with.
One house explosion is one too many.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at

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