In the city of my birth

I was born at St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady, New York on February 1, 1957. There I spent my infancy and early childhood. When I was about six years old my parents moved our family from Schenectady to Endwell, New York, about 140 miles away. That was 1963, some 41 years ago. It has been that long since I have been in Schenectady. Today I am finally back.

Memories of a six-year-old child are typically poor. Mine are no exception. I did not expect to remember much all these years later. Schenectady, and the Village of Scotia just across the Mohawk River, is mostly alien to me. I expected Schenectady to be more like Binghamton, the city near Endwell where I spent my formative years. But it is not quite as hilly as Binghamton. In many ways it is like the Endicott (near Endwell) and the communities surrounding it. It is an area that has long been in decline.

There are lots of communities like this all over the Northeast and the Midwest. If they haven’t been quite abandoned, they’ve suffered from a lot of benign neglect. Many residents have been forced to move elsewhere in search of work. The industries that powered these cities (General Electric, in Schenectady’s case) have largely left for somewhere else. The results are cities with rows of houses, many of them boarded up or in need of serious repair. Many commercial areas are rife with empty buildings.

Most of these houses have wonderful potential. They are large houses with big front porches. They were designed to allow neighbor to meet neighbor. And they still do this. On some porches we saw whole families pass a pleasant evening. These houses were built before garages became popular. Those that have them have a garage in the back of the property in a building actually separate from the house. It saddens me that these once vibrant neighborhoods have been so neglected while new neighborhoods are created elsewhere. It is such a waste. These houses in Schenectady could be probably be refurbished at a fraction of the cost it would take to put up new houses in new developments. Why can’t Fannie Mae or HUD refurbish these neighborhoods a block at a time? Once refurbished, I believe these houses would draw back a vibrant middle class. Then these cities could become reinvigorated. Instead cities like Schenectady are allowed to rot.

The house where I grew up in Village of Scotia (123 North Holmes Street) is still there. Looking at it with middle aged eyes I can make a vague recollection of the time I spent there. I knew approximately where it was on the block. Our old house is actually in pretty good shape for a house on this block. But the house right next to it is in terrible disrepair, as are many on the block. Yet much of Scotia is still charming and does not suffer from Schenectady’s blight. On a block about 25% of the houses seem to be in disrepair or boarded up. Nonetheless the community still has a fairly solid feel to it. Businesses on Mohawk Avenue seem to be working hard to be trendy. Collins Park along the bank of the Mohawk River looked very inviting. They have a few upscale restaurants. The local cinema still is in business. Even parts of downtown Schenectady look like some form of urban renewal is underway. But walk a few blocks in any direction and neighborhoods become ugly and depressing.

Everything seems so compact in Schenectady and Scotia. Everything is close together. The streets are narrow. The houses are close to each other. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where my family worshipped is but a short walk. I don’t know if my father ever walked to his job at the General Electric plant along the banks of the Mohawk River. It didn’t seem to be very far away. I could jog there in fifteen minutes or less without even breaking a sweat.

This is just a surface impression. We are only here for only one night on our way to Montreal to start a week of vacation in Canada. I would need a week or more to get some idea of the true character of the city. There is little in the way of new development, so I suspect it is much as I left it 41 years ago.

Still, there is something about Scotia that still appeals to me. It appealed to my wife too, who admired the tightly knit neighborhoods. I hope that a renaissance happens to my birth city and cities like it. But there is a lot to fix up. The sidewalks on my old block in Scotia, for example, are crumbling and in pieces. I guess there simply isn’t the tax base to fix them up.

Here’s hoping for some urban renewal.

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