SCHENECTADY Residents of the city’s smallest neighborhood don’t think anyone’s coming to fix up their troubled home. So they’re doing it themselves.
There’s the man who takes in the homeless and tries to counsel them himself, trying in some cases to break their drug addictions.
There’s the woman who moved to Vale four years ago, watched disconnected children turn into juvenile delinquents in their teens and felt called to open a church for them.
One man watches for store close-outs and after-holiday deals all year long, buying and stockpiling presents that Santa gives out at Christmas.
Others buy school supplies, which they give out to students just before the first day of school.
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 Vale 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.
Part 9: Union Street encompasses variety of areas. Click here.
“To let the kids know we’re for them and to promote education,” said resident Sonja Moses, who also just started a teen ministry out of her house.
“After we moved here, I saw the need for a church to help, especially with the kids in the neighborhood,” she said. “To intervene with all the crime going on. I’m trying to let the kids know there is a better way of handling things. There’s more to life than what you see. To let them know God has different plans for their lives.”
She named her church the Victory House of Praise; it’s on Victory Avenue. It’s simply advertised with a hand-made sign outside the house.
The neighborhood has been rocked by high-profile crimes for decades. Last year, young men who grew up in Vale built a sniper nest in their parents’ attic and organized an ambush to kill another young man. When police came to their door in search of the killers, one of the teenagers shot two police officers before dropping his gun.
This summer, a man from Albany was shot and killed by police in Vale after he pointed a gun at them.
But residents in Vale weren’t shaken. Their main reaction was to criticize the police for what they said was their bad aim, because officers accidentally shot a porch and a car as well as the man.
Residents said violent crime hasn’t gotten worse — it’s just stayed bad.
“That’s been going on forever,” said David Madison, who has lived in the neighborhood for 34 years. “The difference is now you’re looking at 14-, 16-year-olds rather than 32-year-olds.”
He isn’t bothered by the crime.
“You need to make the best of the neighborhood you live in,” he said. “This is where we could afford to live.”
He raised seven children here. Now he fills his basement with storage bins of toys to give to children at a Christmas party he organizes in the street.
He grills hot dogs and hands out hot cocoa no matter how cold it is on the appointed day.
“Even when it’s sleeting out, we get 30 to 40 kids,” he said.
Up to 90 children show up when the weather is good, he added.
He’s particularly proud that the party is completely funded by volunteers from Vale.
“This is just a Vale thing. Our thing,” he said.
Wary of interventions
When outsiders try to help the neighborhood, it can rub residents the wrong way.
“There’s always sort of the sense that there’s something wrong with ‘that’ neighborhood, let’s go fix it,” he said. “My feeling was, let’s find out what’s right in the neighborhood. If you can just get people out of their doors and just talking and finding out what they have in common.”
Some residents aren’t simply uncomfortable when outsiders come to help Vale. They’re openly dismissive, saying nothing the government does seems to make a difference.
Their case in point: the widely publicized $6 million effort to fix Vale’s deteriorating housing.
Schenectady only had to put in $80,000. Most of the money came from state and federal sources. But the $6 million didn’t go far.
Only 20 houses were rehabilitated, and all were rented out, rather than being first marketed to owner-occupants.
That left the neighborhood without any of the increase in stability that owners bring. And the cost — $300,000 per house — was widely seen as a mistake, particularly given that the average house in Vale sold for less than a third of that amount.
Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen, whose agency put in $1.4 million to repave just six blocks of Vale during the project, said the expense was “excessive” considering how little was done. Gillen was not running Metroplex at the time.
But he said the city did well to get so much state and federal funding and noted that “aggressive bidding” might have reduced the total price per house.
Residents said the project should have been stretched much farther so that more of the neighborhood’s housing could be repaired.
Lynn Keller’s family has lived between two boarded-up houses all year.
“It feels a little trashy,” she said. “I’d like to see windows.”
Resident Paul Oliver is so disgusted by the three dilapidated houses he’s lived in that he’s moving out of the city this month.
In one of his apartments, he came home to find the sewer pipe had backed up into the basement.
When he lived in a house surrounded by abandoned houses, he went on vacation and returned to find roaches had spread to his building.
And then there was the house without water.
After moving in, he discovered that the landlord had built his own water line — using a hidden hose that ran to another house he owned.
“Come to find out, there was no water main at the front of the house,” he said. “Business is business, and owning real estate is a business. Get rid of these slumlords!”
Oliver should know — he runs a property maintenance company for distant landlords. Those landlords, he said, are the responsible ones. The rest should be kicked out of the city, he said.
Vale not only has poorly maintained houses but also has one of the city’s highest proportions of vacant housing. More than 18 percent of the housing units in the neighborhood are vacant, according to the 2010 Census.
Plenty of kids, crime
There’s also a far higher proportion of children in Vale than in many other neighborhoods. More than 35 percent of the population is children.
The only official park is Vale Park, down the hill at the far end of the neighborhood. But the neighborhood abuts Vale Cemetery, and many children play there.
They’re not the only ones who enjoy living next to an expanse of wilderness in the middle of the city.
“We love the fact that we’re up against Vale Cemetery, so we have a big backyard,” Madison said.
But one 10-year-old bluntly said that he couldn’t enjoy the neighborhood because it was “full of crackheads.”
Children rarely play ball on the street, even though their neighborhood has several dead-end streets that get little traffic.
“I don’t feel like it’s that safe,” said Shireen Torres, 15. “So I do my best to stay inside.”
Ariante Carter, 11, said her parents won’t let her ride her bike unless they’re outside watching her.
But they both enjoy the neighborhood from the safety of their front porches.
“I like how it’s not boring. People are outside having a good time,” Torres said, gesturing to the many gatherings on other front porches near her.
That makes Vale feel like a community, she said.
Others said the sense of community is what brought them to Vale — and convinced them to stay.
“We all come from different parts of the state,” said resident Robert Munnings, who moved to Vale eight years ago. “A lot of us came here because we wanted something better. I came from downstate. I see the difference here. What I like about Schenectady is they’re still trying.”