Schenectady’s next vital step is to improve its neighborhoods
Twenty years ago, Neil Golub and I, aided greatly by area businessmen and women, created Schenectady 2000. Five years ago, then-mayor Brian Stratton, aided by community groups throughout the city, developed a plan for the city labeled Schenectady 2020.
Schenectady 2000 had largely accomplished many of its goals during the first five years of its existence, including, importantly, the creation of Metroplex. Unfortunately, Schenectady 2020 has, as is the case with most comprehensive plans, largely sat on bookshelves gathering dust.
The goals of the two efforts were and are similar — the revitalization of Schenectady. Schenectady 2000 sought to improve access points to the city, develop connections between the city’s many attractive sites, make downtown vibrant once more, and give residents hope that Schenectady’s future was bright. For Schenectady 2020, the focus is on neighborhoods.
The most visible sign of Schenectady’s rebirth, of course, is downtown. After a bruising fight to create a funding vehicle for Schenectady 2000’s plans, Metroplex came into existence. In recent years, thanks to the leadership of Ray Gillen and the Metroplex board, many of those plans have been implemented, and downtown is a dramatically different — and better — place.
Sure, critics can quibble about the lack of retail. And some of us keep waiting for a new train station and the second track to Albany, which is (finally) scheduled and which will bring more people to the city. However, no one can reasonably argue that Schenectady is not a far better place than it was in 1993.
More important result
There was, however, another — and, I would argue, a far more important — result than physical structures that came out of Schenectady 2000: A belief that we, the residents of this city, can make things better.
Now is the time to bring back the optimism that came out of Schenectady 2000. Despite the success of downtown, that optimism has faded, in large part because the city’s neighborhoods have been neglected.
For those of us involved in Schenectady 2000, the intention was to begin with downtown, not to end with its revitalization. Our intention was always to turn our attention to our neighborhoods as soon as possible. Indeed, as the legislation creating Metroplex provides, funds can be used for parking or pocket parks in the corridors to the city, so derelict buildings in some neighborhoods can be torn down.
Of course, focusing on the corridors alone will not solve our neighborhood problems. What will? People.
By enlisting the residents of Schenectady in quality-of-life issues like cleanups and bridge paintings, as the hundreds of volunteers (including all Union College first-year students) did during the 1990s, we can turn this city’s neighborhoods into a source of pride once more.
Let’s not reinvent any wheels, though; instead, let’s use the Schenectady 2020 plan, and all the work that went into it, as the basis for neighborhood revitalization by the people who live here.
Government has its role to play. It can do the code enforcement referenced in the Schenectady 2020 plan. It can, as Vince Riggi has urged, work with the police department on issues like graffiti, litter, and loud music. It can, as the 2020 plan suggests, actively work with neighborhood groups. And it can use the resource of the Schenectady County Jail inmates to supplement the efforts of residents (inmates who might both welcome the opportunity to get outside and who would, in a small way, be helping a community they had harmed).
In the final analysis, though, we should not rely on government, especially not a government that is facing financial disaster as a result of poor past decisions. We should, we must, rely on ourselves.
Let’s take the Schenectady 2020 plan off the shelves, dust it off, apply its name to a new volunteer effort to improve our neighborhoods, and embrace the challenges we face. Let’s make Schenectady 2020 more than a plan on paper, so that, by 2020, we will have neighborhoods of which we can all be proud.
Having lived in several different parts of the country, but having now lived in Schenectady longer than I have lived anywhere else, I believe we have incredible assets, assets that far exceed those found in most cities. Our physical assets — the Stockade, Proctors, City Hall, Central Park, the Mohawk River, the GE Realty Plot and Union College, among others — are great, if not stunning. So, too, is the diversity of our neighborhoods and our people.
With revitalized neighborhoods that capture the flavor of our city, we will highlight that diversity and bring back the charm that once graced Schenectady. Without a real focus on our neighborhoods, though, we run the risk of jeopardizing the good work that Schenectady 2000 spawned and Metroplex is implementing. As exciting as the developments downtown are, we must recognize they cannot be sustained if surrounding neighborhoods are allowed to crumble.
Schenectady 2000 worked because we were able to enlist the support of hundreds of volunteers. It is time again to turn to our people, since they are our greatest resource. By substituting Schenectady 2020 for Schenectady 2000, by implementing ideas spelled out in the 2020 plan, and by putting people to work, we can do for neighborhoods what we did for downtown.
Together, we can make a difference; together, and with the proper leadership, we can bring back our neighborhoods. It is time, it is way past time, to begin doing so in a coordinated, focused way.
Roger Hull lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.