The NEW Schenectady (Part 1): Woodlawn, a suburb in the city, takes care of itself

Monday, July 4, 2011
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Houses on Clayton Road in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Schenectady have more of a suburban feel.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Houses on Clayton Road in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Schenectady have more of a suburban feel.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a weekly series of stories focusing on Schenectady's neighborhoods.

Woodlawn’s 2010 census results are offering the city hope for a prosperous future.

Woodlawn is becoming far more diverse, with its black population increasing by 46 percent in the past 10 years. The number of Guyanese skyrocketed as well.

But it’s not just the racial makeup of the neighborhood that’s intriguing city officials. It’s the fact that minorities are moving to a neighborhood that is predominantly made up of single-family homes, with far fewer apartments than the rest of the city’s neighborhoods.

The neighborhood was annexed by Schenectady in 1923. Until then, it was a suburb — with wide lawns, no sidewalks and plenty of space between neighbors. It still looks suburban, and since it has so few apartments, most of the newcomers to Woodlawn had to buy a house.

View maps, series introduction

To view a detailed map of the Woodlawn neighborhood, click here.

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

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

That indicates the growth of a minority middle class.

“I think it’s wonderful. That’s how America was built,” said resident and neighborhood barber Lou Grasso. “To live here, you’re gonna have to be able to afford it. We do have apartments here, and they’re not cheap. So you’re getting a lot of middle-class people here.”

There are also lots of children, especially for an area in which both recreational areas have been largely ignored by the city.

Schenectady shut down the Woodlawn Pool in 2004, leaving antiquated playground equipment and one basketball court in the neighborhood’s only park. By this summer, the park was largely overgrown.

The only remnant of the area’s Pine Bush ecology is also in Woodlawn, but the preserve has been nearly destroyed by invasive plants. Its one remaining sand bank has been mined and, more recently, badly eroded by ATV riders. Much of the rest was plowed over to build houses after World War II.

It’s a loss that longtime residents deeply regret.

“We used to play on that sand bank,” said John King, who lives in the neighborhood’s senior housing complex. “My friends and I used to catch frogs and cut off their legs and cook them on a couple sticks.”

Little city investment

Now there aren’t many public places for the 1,845 children in the neighborhood to play. To put the number of children in perspective, it’s nearly as many as live on Hamilton Hill, where there are programs for youth on nearly every street, as well as a park with a free summer lunch and camp program. There are 1,960 children on the Hill.

But in Woodlawn, nearly every child has a large yard in which to play. Many residents have erected elaborate playgrounds in their backyards, going far beyond the traditional swings and slide. Now there are rock walls and climbing ropes.

Woodlawn mirrors the rest of the city in one respect: The number of white people fell substantially, from 7,700 to 6,600 from 2000 to 2010, according to the census. More than 600 minorities moved in, but that wasn’t enough to fill all the empty houses in the neighborhood of just more than 9,000 people.

According to the census, 247 houses and apartments were vacant in Woodlawn last year, far higher than it was in past decades. But the 6 percent vacancy rate was far lower than in other parts of Schenectady, and residents pointed to just a handful of houses that are true eyesores.

Still, the empty houses rankle.

Grasso wants the city to demolish three dilapidated and abandoned houses.

“It takes down that little section of the neighborhood. It makes neighbors think, ‘Well, why should I take care of my house?’ ” he said.

It’s just one symptom of what some residents say is the biggest problem in Woodlawn: the city’s lack of investment.

Most of Woodlawn is made up of “dirt roads” — roads covered with a light coating of asphalt but built without the thick, long-lasting base used in most of the city. That means they break down faster, forming potholes and cracks. For decades, poor drainage also undermined the roads. Although the city engineer said that problem has been resolved, he said rebuilding the roads with proper bases would be too expensive for the city.

City officials only agreed to repave one of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares, Kings Road, after residents took matters in their own hands and posted signs asking trucks to slow down to save the road from further deterioration.

Self-sufficiency

Residents have raised private funds for their park, too, where they say city officials won’t even pick up the trash or mow the grass regularly.

“I don’t see the city doing a lot up here,” said Terry VanValkenburgh, who runs Griswold Funeral Home. “I think sometimes the city forgets. They’re always talking about other areas as the gateway to the city. But we are a gateway, too.”

State Street, a major thoroughfare to the commercial sections of the city, runs through the center of Woodlawn.

Resident Spero Zoulas was more charitable than VanValkenburgh as he described the city’s actions.

“I think over the years it’s been a little forgotten in terms of the city taking care of things like the park,” he said. “There isn’t as much need here.”

After all, residents pretty much take care of themselves. When they see a problem in the neighborhood, they fix it, usually without any city support.

One resident, Jessica Bonjukian, who has a full-time day job at Homeland Security in Albany, decided last year to open a part-time dance club for teens at night because there was so little for them to do.

Children from around the city flocked to the club, causing some Woodlawn residents to complain that they didn’t feel comfortable seeing teens walking past their houses at midnight on weekends. They predicted the teens would vandalize their homes.

The response from other residents? One member of the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association immediately began lobbying for free transportation for the children, suggesting that the association pay for a bus or taxi to make stops at the club on weekends. That proposal is still under discussion.

Community ties

But perhaps the biggest neighborhood effort has been at the park. Twice now, residents have organized a group to improve the park, raising money and, most recently, working on plans to turn a closed pool building into an open-air pavilion. Thirty-one people showed up for one cleanup day in May.

“I definitely think there’s a pretty good sense of community,” Zoulas said. “That was from just one afternoon of going down a side road and handing out flyers. I feel very fortunate to be in this community.”

It’s not the sort of neighborhood that would be expected to foster strong bonds between residents. It is the most suburban-looking area of the city. There are few sidewalks, the houses are set apart on wide lots and there aren’t many places for residents to gather. Yet they work together.

“That’s the way it’s always been in Woodlawn. The neighborhood sticks together,” VanValkenburgh said. He speculated that the perceived isolation from the rest of the city created close bonds.

“It’s sort of like a little community up here,” he said.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Woodlawn was considered the boonies.

VanValkenburgh’s grandfather was denied a loan to open his funeral home in 1933 because bankers said he’d never succeed so far from the city, VanValkenburgh said.

He opened it anyway. Three generations later, it’s still going strong.

 

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