SCHENECTADY Tell a Stratford Road family that they live in the Union Street neighborhood and they will politely explain that you’re lost.
They are not in a Union-anything neighborhood. They are in the GE Realty Plot.
A few blocks away, a similar conversation could lead to the proud declaration that Gillespie Street isn’t in the Union Street neighborhood either. It’s Union Triangle.
And the vast collection of residents who make up half of what the city considers Union Street have named themselves after their zip code: the 12309 neighborhood.
View maps and earlier stories in the series
To view a map of the 11 Schenectady neighborhoods, click here.
To view a map of the Union Street neighborhood, 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.
Part 8: Northside a fixer-upper. Click here.
No one claims to be in the Union Street neighborhood. The boundaries were drawn by the city, but unlike every other neighborhood, this one never coalesced into a single community.
Instead, residents are passionately supportive and defensive of their segment of the vast neighborhood.
The few residents left without a special name have been creating their own. There’s the Boulevards, for the area bounded by two boulevard streets. Those adjacent to Central Park named themselves the Central Park Estates. Residents of three streets put their names together to form the Maryland Oxford Brierwood Neighborhood Association.
Even the commercial corridor has formed its own group: the Upper Union Street Business Improvement District was created a decade ago. It was a decision that most business owners there credit with vastly improving their part of the neighborhood.
It wasn’t easy — creating the BID took several years.
But now, at the end of its first decade, the BID has successfully lobbied for a three-year streetscape project; added festivals and events so popular that the Strawberry Festival twice sold out of berries before lunchtime; and branded itself, with banners and promotions, as the area’s upscale business district.
One owner said the secret to the BID’s success was to build upon the atmosphere of a small-town community. That draws in locals — which she said are far more consistent customers than the once-a-year visitors who might come to Schenectady for a special event.
“Our customers, they bank here, they dry clean here, they bring their dogs here. There’s loyalty,” said Maya McNulty, owner of Candyland Activity and Enrichment Center.
“Whereas Saratoga is commercial, Troy has the Victorian Stroll. Those cities pull in a whole bunch of people, where Upper Union Street pulls in a community. We’re neighborly, and people like that.”
Upper Union was always neighborly. As Michael Mastroiami puts it, store owners have always been willing to stay open a few minutes later when customers call to say they’re running late.
“It’s the classic old-time neighborhood,” he said.
But things are changing.
Gloria Herman, who moved here from Colombia 23 years ago, can remember when it felt like she was the only Spanish-speaker in the area. Now, she runs a real estate business in the BID and began publishing a Hispanic magazine, “Hola,” this year. In it, she’s trying to help newer immigrants find bilingual doctors and other services.
There has been a slight uptick in minorities in the entire neighborhood — just 548 people, out of a total population of 7,000, according to the 2010 Census.
The population is also aging, but has not begun to turn over the way other neighborhoods have. That means that, in many ways, it still looks the same as it has for decades.
The biggest changes have occurred in the Union Triangle area, near Union College. There, longtime families sold to landlords, who chopped up large houses into group homes for college students.
In 1992, the City Council named Union Triangle a historic district, in an effort to get owners to better preserve and maintain their homes, according to Gazette coverage. But the Triangle has not yet become the sanctuary of restored homes that the Stockade became over the past 60 years.
Some residents in the Triangle have faked historic renovations, installing fiberglass porch beams and painting them to appear wooden, or replacing slate shingles with non-slate lookalikes.
Code enforcers have, at times, cited owners for violations of the historic district rules. But enforcement has been spotty, and some houses have suffered from decades of student renters.
Several unofficial fraternities rent houses in the neighborhood, and a number of single-family houses are now rented to college students by the room.
Neighbors complained about loud parties until the college opened a new dormitory in 2006 in what was once the Ramada Inn. That siphoned away about a third of the students renting in the neighborhood and led to some landlords renting to year-round tenants.
Neighbors say drug addicts and dealers moved in, bringing crime with them.
Now, they say they prefer the college students. Only about 300 live off-campus any longer.
“They can be obnoxious, particularly when they’re drunk, but I know my enemy and I know they’re safe,” said longtime resident Christina Brady. “I’d rather have noisy college students than a bunch of lowlifes. I don’t want crackheads on my street.”
She said she appreciates Union College’s landscaping and maintenance — and wishes it could be extended to the rental houses near her.
“I just would ask that people keep their property nicer — litter, lawns, paint,” she said. “I feel like planting trees on other people’s property.”
Another resident in the Triangle, Carol Caruso, said she also isn’t bothered by the college students — but she wishes they could be replaced by owner-occupants. She never gets to know the renters, she said, because they move in and out so quickly.
In other parts of the neighborhood, there are far fewer tenants — particularly in the GE Realty Plot, a collection of historic mansions nestled amid trees and streams.
The Plot and the 12309 neighborhood are so peaceful and have so few problems that some residents call the area Pleasantville.
The biggest complaint many residents had was the deterioration of the sidewalks — which they said was far better than worrying about rampant crime or crumbling houses.
“We’ve very fortunate,” said GE Realty Plot Neighborhood Association president Tina Versaci. “I’ve listened to the problems [at Schenectady United Neighborhoods meetings] and walked out of the room feeling very lucky.”
Bart Chabot, a resident of the 12309 area, put it more bluntly: “We’ve had comforts other places haven’t,” he said.
Resident Roy Neville said part of the comfort is in the way the neighborhood was built. Houses are surrounded by much larger lawns in Union than in other areas.
“There’s space between people’s property,” Neville said. “It’s pretty, and it’s comfortable. We’re proud of it.”
Some residents said it may be that sense of pride — or simply the peer pressure of everyone around them — that leads most residents to maintain their property.
But others argued that because houses in the Union area cost more than the typical Schenectady house, the owners are more wealthy and thus able to afford to make repairs.
“People here will spend money on their own property. If it needs painting, they’ll paint,” Chabot said. “The median plants, all of the flowers that are grown in the part, this is all done by the community.”
The Rose Garden at the Union neighborhood’s entrance to Central Park is maintained and paid for completely by volunteers. They took over in 1995, when the city could not afford to care for the garden. It now has a new entrance, a new fountain, and last year was ranked the third-best public rose garden in the country.
The comforts of home
But what brought one family to the neighborhood was the sidewalks.
Laurie Bacheldor moved from Colonie a year ago, giving up a large home in the suburbs for a smaller home with roughly the same taxes in the city. She and her husband moved because they missed having a neighborhood, she said.
Within a month, neighbors threw a block party and introduced each other so they could get to know the new family, she said.
“We really wanted sidewalks,” she said. “That’s a big piece of a community. The city has to understand that this is important.”
In Colonie, she had no sidewalks — and neighbors tended to drive home and stay there, rather than walking to parks or friends’ houses.
Now she can walk to Central Park, “which we love. I walk there an hour a day, nearly every day,” she said.
Some of her acquaintances in Colonie were surprised by her decision.
“People are like, ‘Well, in Colonie there’s no crime.’ That’s not true. My next-door neighbor was broken into, twice,” she said.
She was also warned about high Schenectady taxes. “Well, for us, we paid high taxes in Colonie. Now it’s similar taxes but a smaller house and yard — but I’m getting city services that I never had.”
But none of that mattered as much as having a neighborhood. And on that, she’s completely satisfied. “From the moment we moved in,” she said, “We felt a sense of community.”