SCHENECTADY Editor's Note: This is the third in a weekly, summer-long series of stories focusing on Schenectady's neighborhoods.
Despite an influx of immigrants who bought homes on Hamilton Hill, crime has taken a turn for the worse in a neighborhood that city officials had hoped would be stabilized by the new residents.
The 2010 Census documented a decade of immigration that had a dramatic effect on the racial makeup of the Hill, which used to be equally divided between white and black.
The number of blacks in the neighborhood has not changed, but the number of whites fell to 32 percent of the population, while the percentage of Guyanese surged.
View maps and earlier stories in the series
To view a detailed map of Hamilton Hill, 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..
With them came an increase in homeownership. A decade ago, about 86 percent of the neighborhood’s houses were rentals. Now that has dropped to 76 percent, according to city records.
Urban planners believe crime falls as home ownership rises. And the Guyanese who moved into the neighborhood said they saw crime drop for years.
Then it came back.
Muggings, which had declined in 2009, rose 40 percent last year.
Also increasing dramatically were larcenies, in which thieves steal items without the threat of force, usually items left unguarded in a car or front porch. Larcenies began increasing in 2009, climbing 56 percent over the previous year.
Now some of the new Guyanese immigrants are talking about leaving.
“I had thoughts of moving when we first moved [to Hamilton Hill], and then I changed by mind because things were going so well,” said Babitu Peru, who came here in 2000.
“Then a year ago, it went back up,” she said. “I’m thinking of moving.”
When crime dropped in the neighborhood, the police had just started using crime analysts to better determine where crimes were likely to happen. Supervisors now send out targeted patrols in response to small spikes in crime, in hopes of catching the criminals responsible before they commit a dozen more crimes, Assistant Police Chief Michael Seber said.
The new system has led to many arrests — so he was disappointed to see that crime had crept back up on Hamilton Hill.
Many factors may be in play, including an overall increase in larcenies in the city, he said.
“Maybe some [are committed by] idle juveniles who otherwise might have had a summer job,” he said.
But he said it may also reflect a feeling of safety — which could encourage residents to leave their car unlocked or their purse outside for “just a minute.”
He noted that the scariest crimes haven’t increased: murder, rape and assault have stayed nearly the same on the Hill for the last four years.
House safe, but locked
And even with the high number of thefts, many newcomers said they don’t regret moving here.
“It’s still worth it,” said Peru, who moved from an apartment in Queens. “The houses in [New York City are] way expensive. I’d probably still be renting an apartment if I’m there. A house — it makes you feel good.”
But nothing she owns is safe unless it’s behind locked doors, she said. Thieves have stolen anything she leaves outside — even flowers planted in her garden.
“They break into cars. They take the hanging baskets I used to have with flowers. And Christmas decorations they steal a lot. They take the wreaths from the doors,” she said.
Other larcenies are far more chilling.
Muggers are stealing children’s cellphones, mp3 players, jewelry and even their sneakers as they walk through the streets of their neighborhood.
Children are so often mugged that some parents now refuse to let them go outside with anything valuable — even a basic cellphone. In other neighborhoods, parents give their children a cellphone so they can call for help if they get into trouble.
On Hamilton Hill, that phone might bring them trouble.
That’s partly because there are so many children — a third of the Hill’s population is under the age of 18, according to the Census. To offer that huge group support and guidance, there are nearly a dozen nonprofits operating within a half mile of each other, all catering to the 2,000 children who live in the densely packed neighborhood.
Safety is a prime concern, to the point where several of the nonprofits built their own playgrounds to make sure children have a safe place to play.
Even if they aren’t carrying valuables, some children said they still feel safe only if they’re near a parent, or at one of the many youth programs offered by nonprofits.
“I feel safe because I don’t go far [from home],” said Shydasia Riker, 9, who rides her bike but stays within a block of her father, Ellis Riker. He hurried over to her when he saw her speaking to a reporter, and said he always keeps an eye on her.
“You know you’re safe if I’m here, right?” he asked her, adding, “It’s a crazy neighborhood. I’ll tell you, it’s a lot safer than it was — but it’s changing [for the worse] again.”
For those who have lived on Hamilton Hill for decades, the crime is deeply depressing.
“When I bought this house, Italians lived here,” said Darlene Fordham, who has lived on Summit Avenue for 30 years. “Everybody owned their own property and nobody rented to anybody they didn’t know.”
A new diversity
The Guyanese brought new international flavor to the neighborhood, which many residents said they appreciate — and hope will lead to a resurgence of the strong immigrant-based, working-class neighborhood they knew and loved.
City Councilman Joseph Allen, the only council member who lives in Hamilton Hill, spoke highly of his Guyanese neighbors because they fixed up two of the worst houses on his block. The houses are now beautiful, he said, and the street has benefitted from having two more owner-occupants who care about the neighborhood.
Neighborhood association President Fred Lee said one of his favorite things about Hamilton Hill is the diversity — and the food his neighbors share with him.
“Some of the Guyanese food, I love,” he said. “I never ate different greens before. I’ve even taken a new interest in macaroni and cheese — there’s a new flavor involved.”
And the Guyanese are so different from one another — coming from two ethnic backgrounds and three major religions — that they seem to bring far more diversity than other immigrant groups.
“In six-tenths of a square mile, you can see many religions, many cultures, many ethnic groups,” Lee said. “It’s more of an international feeling.”
The neighborhood is still anchored by strong neighbors like Lee and Fordham, who are well-known on their blocks.
But there are far fewer anchors than there were, Fordham said, and now she’s afraid to walk through the neighborhood. She, like many others interviewed for this story, said she was only staying because she could not afford to leave.
“The house won’t sell,” she said, describing how potential buyers would see the property. “They see empty houses, trash all behind the properties, drug dealing out front, people fighting all the time. Would you buy here?”
Others said Hamilton Hill was their last resort — the neighborhood they came to because they could not afford the rent anywhere else, a place they will leave as soon as they can get away.
But some of the neighborhood’s newest property owners have a decidedly different attitude.
Roy Beepat, from Guyana, moved to Strong Street five years ago. He walked in with his eyes open, he said — he had been warned that drugs were causing violence in the neighborhood.
He bought a dilapidated house near a Guyanese friend. They rehabbed the block’s worst properties and found that criminals moved on when they had no vacant houses or apartments to lurk in.
“We have literally got rid of that at this present moment,” he said. “This street is now pretty safe from Craig to Brandywine.”
He thinks the city should demolish long-vacant properties and sell the land to the adjacent homeowners. It will cost money, he said — but he argued that it would be an investment in the city’s safety and its property values.
The city should also sell other houses cheaply to those who want to buy, he said.
“I just want the whole area to be occupied,” he said. “When you make a house nice, you want to stay in it.”