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The NEW Schenectady (Part 11): The good, the bad and the ugly in Central State Street

Neighbors look out for each other amid crime, run-down buildings

Monday, September 12, 2011
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People walk along State Street in the Central State Street neighborhood.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
People walk along State Street in the Central State Street neighborhood.

— It seems like there’s always construction going on in the Central State Street neighborhood.

There are many abandoned and badly deteriorated buildings in the neighborhood, but a constant influx of new owners has kept the streets busy with contractors replacing roofs, propping up old porches and painting window sills.

There are still many vacant buildings left. And the construction has been largely fueled by investment landlords. Now, what was once a owner-occupied neighborhood has so many renters that there are entire blocks without a single owner.

But renters said they found something unusual when they moved to Central State Street. There, they said, they were treated like owners. Many renters said they were greeted by their neighbors as soon as they moved in. That tradition is usually reserved for new owners, who are seen as more likely to live in the neighborhood for years.

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 Central State 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.

Part 10: Exercises in self-reliance in Vale. Click here.

But then, in this neighborhood, renters often stay for years.

Carla Cappiello was surprised when her upstairs neighbors, also renters, came down to meet her after she moved in.

“They came down and introduced themselves,” she said, adding that they began treating each other like “real” neighbors.

“They actually went on vacation and we watched their birds for them,” she said.

She goes upstairs to borrow sugar and eggs if she runs out.

Other renters have banded together to enforce proper behavior in the neighborhood.

When two drunk men tried to push their way into a young woman’s apartment, her next-door neighbor was horrified that she didn’t have anyone to help her.

“He said, ‘We don’t put up with that around here. If anything happens, you call me immediately.’ That meant a lot,” said Michele S., who asked that her last name not be used.

Longtime tenants said they particularly look out for new renters who appear to be impoverished. Often, young mothers or young couples with their first child move into the neighborhood because they’re looking for a safer but affordable environment for their children, they said.

Neighbors have pitched in to buy them everything from diapers to food. It’s not organized — just something that tenants said they did, on their own, because it was the right thing to do.

One of the recipients, Becky Benoit, said her next-door neighbor’s help is the best thing about the neighborhood.

“They do a lot of stuff for us, if we need anything, and they won’t let us pay them back. I’ve tried,” she said.

Shifting demographics

A third of the neighborhood’s population is children, according to the 2010 Census. That’s a change from two decades ago, when the neighborhood was primarily made up of elderly residents. More than 3,000 people have left — and been replaced with new faces — in the past decade.

Among the newcomers are many Guyanese but also a small percentage of immigrants from other countries.

Madan Mohan Das arrived from Nepal, joining his daughter’s young family so that he could baby-sit during school vacations. He was pleasantly surprised by the neighborhood his daughter had chosen.

“I was impressed. When my daughter went to South Carolina to see my sons, the neighbors swept, did the trash, they did all the cleaning,” he said. “When I walk, people say good morning. It feels like home.”

Most of the new arrivals are young families. Children race on bicycles down the streets, shouting and cheering each other. A steady stream of teenagers walk up the hilly streets of the neighborhood to Central Park every day, carrying pool towels in summer and sleds in the winter.

But residents said the children are generally well behaved.

“It’s not rowdy; you don’t have teenagers throwing stuff around,” said Tracey Mlodzianowski, whose children were racing each other on bikes and scooters.

Neighborhood association President Linda Crandall, whose house is near the park, said neighbors predicted her flower gardens would be vandalized by the many teenagers walking past.

“But it’s been quite the opposite. People stop and talk and ask me about the gardens,” she said.

Watchful eyes

Still, it’s not the same as it once was. William and Jane McCarthy have lived in their Furman Street home since 1955, when the neighborhood was filled with residents who owned their houses and rarely moved away. Whole streets felt like extended families because they all knew each other so well, Jane McCarthy said.

Now, William McCarthy said, it’s hard to get to know new neighbors before they leave. “A couple months or a couple years and bing, they go,” he said.

So they’ve stepped up their efforts to be good neighbors, introducing themselves to newcomers and offering help. Both have also joined the neighborhood watch as window watchers, and they wish their able-bodied and young neighbors would join, too.

“I’m 89; you don’t want me out patrolling,” William McCarthy said. “I think it does some good, but we can’t get a good membership.”

Jane McCarthy added that although she still feels safe, the neighborhood has seen crime creep in. In the worst incident, a man was murdered two years ago in a shooting after he was apparently mistaken for someone else.

“I don’t feel uncomfortable, but we’ve had a couple drive-by shootings. There was a drug house and we did get rid of it, eventually,” McCarthy said.

Other residents said their houses have been burglarized, which has motivated some of them to talk of joining the neighborhood watch.

“You see a lot of people fighting in the street, too,” said resident Shelly Narain. “I think a neighborhood watch would be perfect. Look out for people, make sure they don’t get hurt.”

But in an indication of how difficult it is to keep newcomers informed of neighborhood programs, she had no idea that her neighbors had already created a neighborhood watch, and she didn’t know how to sign up. She’s lived in Central State Street for seven years.

Homelessness and crime

Neighbors have also been concerned by the many homeless who wander the streets, particularly along the State Street corridor. One store owner said grimly that the only way to improve business would be to get rid of the people — the homeless, the prostitutes and the drug addicts — who seem to loiter throughout the business corridor.

It has gotten so bad that several businesses have been paying private security guards for most of the past decade, citing a series of robberies, assaults on customers and parking lot fights as reason for taking on the added expense of private security.

The practice became infamous after operators of the Hess gas station unknowingly paid an on-duty police officer to guard the station. That officer resigned from the police force after being charged with receiving unlawful gratuities, a misdemeanor.

Rather than hiring more police, some neighbors see a simpler solution, one that they think could also resolve the problem of abandoned houses in the neighborhood. Drug addicts and some dealers have squatted in those vacant buildings, drawing crime to the area, while the houses themselves slowly fall apart.

“They could be utilized for something — they could make rooming available to the homeless we see here. They could do soup kitchens,” said tenant Michael Freeman.

Unlike other parts of the city, where even vacant homes have historical value, he said the city could also demolish buildings freely. The expense has generally discouraged city officials, but Freeman said they shouldn’t simply ignore the problem.

“If they want to knock ’em down, knock ’em down,” he said. “Just do something with them! Don’t let ’em rot!”

 
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