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The NEW Schenectady (Part 8): Northside a fixer-upper

Signs of progress emerge in affordable but neglected section

Monday, August 22, 2011
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Children play on Van Vranken Avenue near Seneca Street in Schenectady's Northside neighborhood last week.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Children play on Van Vranken Avenue near Seneca Street in Schenectady's Northside neighborhood last week.

— The Italian community in the Northside neighborhood of Schenectady is being replaced by a new set of immigrants, mostly from Latin America.

Unlike other parts of the city, where most immigrants are now from Guyana, Northside is attracting residents from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and many other countries. There are more than 1,000 new Hispanic residents in the neighborhood, according to the 2010 Census.

They are buying homes that once housed generations of Italians and opening businesses in buildings that once sold Italian groceries on Van Vranken Avenue.

It is a slow growth, and the neighborhood has not yet overcome decades of decay. Many family-owned houses were sold to landlords when the next generation wasn’t willing to move back home, and those properties are now showing the wear of constant rentals.

View maps and earlier stories in the series

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

To view a map of Northside, 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.

Part 6: Neighborhood still ‘Pleasant’ for some, not others. Click here.

Part 7: New look, new residents make downtown vibrant. Click here.

But little by little, new owners are buying houses and moving in.

Renters are still in the majority, making up 56 percent of the neighborhood. However, after decades of slow decline, the percentage of owner-occupants has started to climb, rising 1 percent in the latest Census figures.

“A nice Hispanic family moved in next door, and look how nice-nice it is now,” said Lynn Ragozzino, who has lived in her family’s house on Foster Avenue for 50 years and remembers when every house around her was owned by its occupants. She was delighted to have new owners move in next door.

Most of the homes near Ragozzino are rented, and those houses contrast badly with the well-maintained buildings of owner-occupants. Ragozzino spat an insult in Italian as she pointed to food scattered on the sidewalk, peeling paint on a porch and litter on nearby lawns.

“I have to live next to this?” she said.

The tenants who live near her seem to have no sense of community, she said. She was stunned when they did not offer to shovel their elderly neighbor’s sidewalk in the winter.

“These people here, healthy people, they don’t do nothing,” she said. “I help the senior citizens. They don’t even do their own walk. How’s the senior citizen to get anywhere? I have to do their walk to get to hers!”

Low pride, low price

It’s that lack of community involvement that seems to offend her most.

Many other residents said they welcome newcomers — but only those who want to join the neighborhood rather than simply living there.

“Look, if you’re on Goose Hill, you’re proud to be on Goose Hill,” said Maria Scorza, referring to an old name for the neighborhood.

But some tenants, particularly those living in municipal housing at Yates Village, said they only came here because it was a cheap place to live.

“I don’t like my neighborhood. It was the only thing that was open,” said Christiana Samuria, who moved to the neighborhood three years ago because she needed an affordable apartment for herself and her two children.

Tiffany Burke, who moved to Yates last year after becoming pregnant, said she would leave the housing project if she could afford anyplace else.

“Drug dealing, fighting, it’s too much,” she said. “I stay in the house to avoid everything.”

But, she added, outside of Yates Village, the neighborhood does have one good trait.

“It’s clean over here,” she said.

Indeed, in Northside, many residents still sweep their sidewalk and pick up litter in the street near their house. Perhaps that’s why they are so frustrated when their neighbors casually toss garbage on the ground.

Jess Petrequin, owner of the Goose Hill Barber Shop, picks up a video camera to record passers-by who don’t pick up after their dogs outside his store.

He also films street fights, young children wandering unsupervised and police arrests. Then he puts the footage on public access television.

He’s not doing it to shame people into behaving better.

“I don’t think they give a damn about what they’re doing,” he said. “That’s my way of letting people see the problems going on around Schenectady.”

Business opportunities

Petrequin, from Scotia, came to the neighborhood for much the same reason as many of the immigrants: cheap property.

Real estate prices plummeted in Northside in recent decades. While that led to a growth in absentee landlords, in the past few years, it has also encouraged new business owners in the neighborhood’s commercial corridor, Van Vranken Avenue.

The once-dying corridor is now filled with stores, and when one closes, another quickly replaces it. The Metroplex Development Authority recently started encouraging businesses by providing matching funds for facade improvements.

For many new store owners on the street, including Petrequin, the real estate prices made small business ownership possible.

“It’s just given me a really great opportunity to exist when I don’t have the means of affording other locations,” Petrequin said.

Mohammed Hussaaiin, from Yemen, opened his own convenience store in March.

He chose Van Vranken Avenue because of the low rent for a storefront.

“It was something I could afford, to make a living,” he said, adding that he likes Northside.

“So nice. People’s nice. You get to know your neighbors,” he said.

But at Cousins Deli, owner Frank Then said he was barely breaking even. Then, from the Dominican Republic, opened the deli three years ago.

“We come in [to Schenectady] this way and we see the store and we buy it,” he said, explaining in broken English that it was the first affordable storefront he saw.

From the perspective of the few businesses that stayed open through Northside’s economic decline, things are far better now.

A decade ago, it wasn’t clear that Northside would ever recover.

“Basically, you had a neighborhood on the skids,” said Electric City Comics manager Jevon Kasitch. “It really bottomed out in the late 1990s. You had all these rental properties. There were drug houses. For lack of a better word, scum. Unpleasant people who did bad things.”

Then people started to buy the houses and live in them, he said.

“I’ve talked to people from Albany who basically felt the houses here were very affordable,” he said.

Some of the children who grew up in the neighborhood during its decline have also returned home and opened businesses.

Jack Felthousen opened Green Wave: Lawn & Landscape in what once was his mother’s bar on Van Vranken Avenue. He lives upstairs, as his grandparents did when he was a child.

Just down the street, Nicholas Falvo has become the fourth generation of his family to run Schenectady Auto Service.

Kids left on their own

But there are also many children in the neighborhood — making up 27 percent of the population, according to the Census.

Neighborhood groups have worked to fix up Steinmetz Park, which once had a bustling bath house and supervised swimming in the pond.

Many residents wish the pond could become a swimming hole again, but the city has no plans to do that.

The rest of the park is slated to get a $400,000 upgrade soon, through a state grant won by city and county.

The city also recently put in new playground equipment in the small Carrie Street Park, along with a pavilion, drinking water and a vegetable garden.

Unfortunately, with increased usage came increased mischief. The city installed security cameras and lights to discourage misbehavior, but residents say unsupervised children throw rocks, climb the park fence to leap onto roofs and telephone poles and break into vacant houses.

Some residents say the only solution is for the city to hire park attendants and provide programs for teenagers.

They argue that there are simply too many children — 2,271, according to the Census — to leave alone.

And although many residents say parents should be supervising their children, the reality of it is that most children are left alone at the parks. A survey of the neighborhood’s parks found many children but only one parent — and she didn’t live in the Northside. She had driven to the park with her son.

The rest, all under the age of 10, had walked to the parks alone.

Crowds of unsupervised children can encourage misbehavior, but some residents said they’re just concerned that children will get hurt.

“Too many kids are wandering around the street,” said Petrequin, the barber shop owner. “Practically every day I can see kids that are 4 years old crossing the street by themselves. They’re too young to be doing that.”

 
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comments

August 22, 2011
12:29 p.m.
socalbob says...

i don't think they will be enjoying the northside winters.

September 17, 2011
10:51 a.m.
ajdjr73 says...

SOCALBOB: enjoying the winters or not enjoying them, is all a matter of one's mindset and/or attitude. One can strive to enjoy life, no matter what it brings ;-)

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