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.
I tell this story because of the New York Times article about the struggles of Union College to attract students:
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?