Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Rust Belt Chic: Schenectady

Technically, Erie (PA) is my hometown. Pittsburgh is my favorite American city. But the part of the Rust Belt I know best is Upstate New York, Schenectady to be more specific. I spent most of my childhood in the small hamlet of Charlton, which was (probably still is) a bedroom community to the Electric City.

My father was an engineer at GE, which is where he also worked in Erie. The trip home for Thanksgiving along the New York State Thruway was a lesson in economic transformation. The decline was obvious even from the seat of a speeding station wagon. But I had little sense of the woes in Schenectady. I fondly remember researching school projects at the public library, watching a variety of world class entertainment at the Proctors Theater, and going to hockey games at Union College. I never felt a sense of danger walking the streets of downtown.

For many years, Union College tried to conceal this crippled manufacturing city — for better or worse, its college town — from high school seniors.

The strangely candid Encyclopedia of Union College History, published in 2003, confessed that “even today, the College directs prospective students and their parents” along an “an indirect, scenic route that avoids the quicker but meaner streets of the aging industrial center.”

Still, there was no hiding the obvious. In a recent survey that Union College conducted of high school applicants who were admitted but chose to go elsewhere, the No. 1 reason they cited was Schenectady. But now the college is trying a new pitch, which is, in short: Come See Schenectady.

Related to yesterday's post about place mesofacts, Schenectady's bad reputation is hard to shake. My family left the area in the mid-80s. Once again, my father was able to stay one step ahead of economic collapse and I completed high school at a rural/suburban union school southeast of Burlington, Vermont. I never experienced the depths of the urban blight back in the Capital District. But I never felt a yearn to return, either.

Reading about Union College's embrace of its Rust Belt environs is exciting:

Changing perceptions is slow work. In a survey by The Princeton Review, Union College placed second in the nation for “strained town-gown relations.” But during freshman orientation last fall, the college offered its first urban experience as an alternative to the usual camping retreat, and 35 students signed up to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and the Boys and Girls Club.

A group of 16 students who are part of an independent study project led by an economics professor, Harold Fried, plan to open a combined boutique and coffeehouse downtown this year. A student group called the Union-Schenectady Alliance is planning its third annual “Show Me Schenectady” day, which in the past has successfully enticed students off campus with $5 worth of coupons redeemable at downtown businesses.

I want to see firsthand what is going on in the city of my youth. The sense I get from the article is one of remaking perceived liabilities into assets. It's an experiment and reminds me of Pittsburgh. Erie might consider a field trip to gather a few redevelopment ideas. I suspect we are witnessing a Rust Belt trend (e.g. Clark University and Worcester). This kind of college experience is relatively unique. Anyone know of a few studies that research this kind of urban economic redevelopment?


Janko said...

I made the trip to Schenectady in the summer of 2009. Thought downtown was very lively on a weekday compared to many other downtowns I know. The museum on the history of the city was closed, but walking around there was some good public transportation, flowers in hanging baskets, and generally people all about.

And the red pepper sandwich in Preccia's in their Italian neighborhood was right on. The neighborhood around Union College was very well tended as well.

I'd be proud to say I was from Schenectady if I was.

JRoth said...

I don't know about studies, but CMU has been running a waffle shop/"reality show" in a storefront in East Liberty for the past 2-3 years. It's open late nights, sells waffles, and has cameras - I think they interview diners? Anyway, they clearly picked the space because of the redevelopment of East Liberty.

John Morris said...

I think this will be a real trend. First of all, colleges no longer have the money to fully make up for weak locations. A lot of the stadium, sports and facilities mania of the past was about replacing urban life.

Second, you have a lot of kids who want real, sincere experiences that are not removed from the world.

So far, you already see that for profit schools are often urban or online, so the school doesn't have to pay for things a decent city gives for free.

Right now, Point Park is far ahead in buildig synergies between Pittsburgh and the school. Partly, this because it's not big enough to take over the city like Pitt and CMU. A small to medium sized school right at Pittsburgh's scale.

Jim Russell said...

Second, you have a lot of kids who want real, sincere experiences that are not removed from the world.

I think this is key. This aesthetic could be a boon to Rust Belt communities. This is the heyday for Rust Belt Chic. Once people start coming in numbers for the experience, the hipsters will have moved on to someplace else.