From Clean Streets to Mean Streets and Back
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Some heartening news recently appeared in my email inbox, under the banner “Union College Finally Admits Where It Is.” It was a New York Times article my dad had stumbled upon, about how Union College was standing up for and helping to reinvigorate its host city of Schenectady, reversing a former stance of embarrassment and shielding prospective students and families from it when providing campus orientations.
The story had personal relevance, as Schenectady was the place of my birth back in 1964 and home until I was 12. I’d been saddened by its decline over the years and recent Moody’s Investors Service evaluations giving it the lowest bond rating among cities in New York State.
Indeed, on my last pass-throughs over a decade ago to attend family events, I was shocked to see a once-bustling downtown that had been thick with popular restaurants, shops and theaters mostly vacant, desolate and dead. Touring the neighborhoods I had known, I saw once ornately detailed Victorian-style homes now in disrepair, shady characters on street corners and litter everywhere. Front doors that might have stood wide open all day when I was a kid were now double locked and secured with iron bars. I was afraid to step out of the car, much less stop.
It was a difficult homecoming to be sure, destroying all the fond and too numerous memories I had collected in my mental archives: Skating on Iroquois Lake, visiting the zoo animals and clambering on an old fire engine at Central Park. Sledding on “Devil’s Hill”, a popular and steep embankment adjacent to the park that only the bravest of us kids dared to challenge. Swatting tennis balls on the courts at Schenectady High School. Helping build sets, acting in plays and trying on costumes at the Schenectady Civic Playhouse, with which our family was very actively involved. Playing kickball on the playground at my school, Elias B. Howe Elementary, on Baker Avenue. Buying jawbreakers, packs of Topps baseball cards and squares of Bazooka gum after school from nearby Salamack’s on Eastern Parkway (across the street was Friendly’s, where I took a first crush for Fribbles). Watching the mixer machine thrash paint cans back and forth at Stoddard’s. Picking out a new pair of Buster Brown shoes, munching on free pretzel sticks and riding the rocking horse at Bernie's Buster Brown Family Shoe Store. Learning to swim at the YMCA on State Street. The annual Festival of Nations celebration at the Schenectady Museum. Spaghetti and meatballs at Luigi’s in the Stockade area. Playing phonograph records on the floor of Dr. Oshetski’s (our family dentist) office on Union Avenue, steps from the apartment in which we first lived after I came into this world at Ellis Hospital and was baptized at St. John’s Roman Catholic Church.
Then there were the times I accompanied my dad through the impressive River Road entryway to the General Electric complex where he worked as a creative director promoting turbine engines among other company products. The site had accommodated over 43,000 employees (my dad's dad and my dad's brother among them) at its peak. Like a steel factory or mill in other cities built on industry, GE was the life sustainer and chief source of city revenue.
The way I have heard it told, the city’s downturn began when its governing body decided to put the burden of tax revenue on the corporate giant… and GE was not having it. The company razed 80% of its buildings there and relocated a majority of its people, many to Fairfield, CT, which coincidentally is where I have called home for the past 14 years. As the decline was beginning, my dad relocated us downstate to Scarsdale, NY, taking a job with the International Paper Company, another corporate giant that would itself later undergo significant restructuring and relocation of its people.
Now there are some things to be hopeful about with regard to my old hometown, where Thomas Alva Edison introduced the world to electric light. The historic Proctors Theater has been renovated; a six-screen movie theater, restaurants and hotels opened; and GE has sparked a renewable-energy plant. Union College has been right there pitching in by restoring decaying housing, establishing new dorms, creating new athletic fields, initiating community social programs and helping revitalize retail.
These efforts are no doubt giving high school seniors and their parents reassurance that Union College is a smart choice… and that Schenectady is on its way back to its once-admired stance as a center for industriousness, new ideas and salt-of-the-earth values. I think it may be time for another visit.