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The NEW Schenectady (Part 6): Neighborhood still ‘Pleasant’ for some, not others

Fastest-growing section of Schenectady has highest vacancy rate

Sunday, August 7, 2011
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Dave Singh of Schenectady, right, pitches during a cricket game in Grout Park last month. Many Guyanese have moved to the city’s Mont Pleasant neighborhood, bringing their favorite game with them.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Dave Singh of Schenectady, right, pitches during a cricket game in Grout Park last month. Many Guyanese have moved to the city’s Mont Pleasant neighborhood, bringing their favorite game with them.

— Thousands of new residents are pouring into Mont Pleasant, making it the fastest-growing neighborhood in the city.

But it’s still the emptiest Schenectady neighborhood, according to the 2010 Census.

The vast neighborhood, which stretches from the deteriorating apartments at the bottom of Crane Street to valuable single-family homes near Altamont Avenue, has a 15 percent vacancy rate.

Houses have remained vacant partly because many new residents are moving

in with friends and family. Some residents said they’d renovated their attics to add bedrooms. Others are squeezing two families into a one-floor flat.

But despite the sometimes crowded conditions, Mont Pleasant has been the most popular neighborhood to move to in the past decade, according to the census.

View maps and earlier stories in the series

To view a map of the Mont Pleasant neighborhood, click here.

To view a map of the 11 Schenectady neighborhoods, click here.

Introduction: Census data show a city growing, changing in racial makeup. Click here.

Part 1: Woodlawn, a suburb in the city, takes care of itself. Click here.

Part 2: Eastern Avenue, two neighborhoods in one. Click here.

Part 3: Hamilton Hill: Despite new homeowners, crime is up. Click here.

Part 4: The Stockade, defying all expectations. Click here.

Part 5: Bellevue not what it was, but loved as it is. Click here.

The Census found that 2,100 blacks and 1,000 “others” and Asians — believed to be mainly Guyanese — moved in.

Many new residents said they moved in from Hamilton Hill and Vale neighborhoods, searching for a safer neighborhood with affordable rent.

Although some city officials said Mont Pleasant rents were about as low as in Hamilton Hill, residents in the worst part of the neighborhood said they pay more than $700 for a three-bedroom flat — nearly twice as much as in Hamilton Hill. That’s still lower than in many other areas of the city.

Not so nice

Deanna Carden, who has five children, moved from Hamilton Hill to Mont Pleasant seven years ago in hopes of escaping crime. She could afford a slightly higher rent, and it was worth it to get out of Hamilton Hill, she said.

“Because it was just too bad over there,” she said. “It used to be nice here. It used to be real nice.”

But her new neighborhood has become just as bad as what she saw on the Hill, she said. “I’ve seen somebody get shot. I’ve seen somebody get robbed.”

The main trouble spots are in the northwestern side of Mont Pleasant, from 1st to 10th avenues. Those who live on the other side, beyond Chrisler Avenue, have been largely untouched by violence.

“We moved here because it’s quiet,” said Kathy Saddlemire, who relocated from the Vale neighborhood a year ago. “Where we were living before, there was a lot of gunshots and prostitution.”

Although she and her husband are paying more in rent to live in Mont Pleasant, they’re so pleased with the peace and quiet in their part of the neighborhood that they said they plan to stay for the rest of their lives.

But crime in northwestern Mont Pleasant has pushed some longtime renters to make an unusual decision: They’re moving back to Hamilton Hill, where they can save money.

“My rent is $440 there, that’s why,” said Star King, who is moving to the Hill with her two young children. “It was awesome here. [Now] this neighborhood is horrible.”

As the vacancy rate has risen, so has the crime rate. Law enforcement officials say that a vacant house can create a tempting opportunity for crime — it’s easier to break in, fewer people notice any thefts and, with the high price for metal, stealing copper pipes can bring in quick cash.

The break-ins have become such a problem that many rehabbers switched to using plastic pipes. Mohabir Satrem, one of several Guyanese immigrant rehabbers, gave up on copper after his houses were burglarized repeatedly.

“People are getting robbed left, right and center,” he said. “Get all the crackheads out and all the prostitutes out. That needs to be fixed.”

But he has no regrets about investing in the neighborhood, where he lives.

“It’s laid back, it’s nice. You don’t have the hustle and bustle of New York City,” he said.

Doubling Up

Other Guyanese residents offered the same comparison — after living in New York City, they said, burglaries and a few gunfights were nothing.

“See, in the Bronx at night, when you try to sleep, all you hear is pop, pop,” said Permaul Armogan, making the sound of gunfire. “It’s beautiful here. Wonderful view. It’s attractive.”

He lives with his wife and his parents — one of many double families documented in the census. But they’re not living together to save money. It’s a way of life.

“I’m happy being close with family,” he said.

The influx of immigrants has reminded longtime residents of the way things used to be, when Italian immigrants filled the neighborhood.

“There’s people moving in!” James Donahue said.

The house next door to his was left abandoned for three years, until he called the bank to report that a flood in the basement had buckled the floor.

“A Guyanese guy bought it. He turned it into a palace,” Donahue said. “He was going to give it to his daughter as a wedding present. She came up to see it and refused it. When they told me that, I went, ‘What?!’ Can you believe it?”

The man sold the house.

“We had a stretch of three or four years with the houses on either side of us empty,” Donahue said. “It was quiet. Very quiet.”

He liked it. But he also welcomed his new Guyanese neighbors, even though he left for vacation once and came back to find the neighbors had blacktopped their entire front lawns.

“That was a little weird,” he conceded, adding quickly, “We didn’t care. They’re not used to the culture much.”

He watched in fascination as they grew “2-foot-long beans and really leafy vegetables” in their backyard gardens.

“Virtually no corn or cucumbers,” he said in surprise. “But they’re very nice. They shared their food. I thought it was interesting.”

‘Little Guyana’

But some Guyanese haven’t felt welcomed.

They’ve gotten code enforcement citations for blacktopping their lawns, to the utter disbelief of some residents, who asked the code enforcers whether the city thought it owned their lawn.

They’ve also gotten citations for the same sorts of violations that other property owners get: peeling paint, broken steps, house numbers that are not readable from the street.

After spending a year rehabbing an abandoned house, getting a citation for a minor matter seems rude, said Sharmilla Pesaud. Instead of praising her for rebuilding a house, she said, the city’s only comment about her massive renovations project was to tape a piece of paper to her door critiquing a small patch of peeling paint on her garage.

“We know it has to be fixed,” she said. “But it’s like disrespect. We move here and we try to make it like a home.”

Still, she likes the idea of code enforcers asking residents to fix up their homes. “I see some places worse than our place and if they’re doing it to everyone it will improve the city,” she said.

She just wishes they’d spoken to her, face to face, instead of leaving a letter taped to her door. “They couldn’t ask?” she said.

It’s a culture gap that city officials are trying to address — code enforcers are now being trained to offer better customer service.

With the Guyanese came new businesses on Crane Street, including a Guyanese grocery store with tropical fruits and vegetables. Residents said that doesn’t compare with the Grand Union that used to be on the once-bustling street, and the handful of new stores don’t make up for a business corridor that used to have everything one could need.

But it’s a start, they said.

Guyanese Hindus have filled an old church as well, turning St. Thomas Catholic Church into a Hindu Temple. And they brought cricket, which is now played on nearly every field in the city’s parks. The demand is so high that the city is planning to build four cricket fields at Grout Park in Mont Pleasant, where many teams already host daylong competitions on Sundays.

There are so many Guyanese in Mont Pleasant now that it feels like a Little Guyana enclave, Satrem said.

“It feels like Guyana, similar to Queens,” Satrem said. “It’s not a bad city.”

 
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