HERE FOR GOOD: Guyanese immigration has changed face of Schenectady

Left: Shazim Permaul runs along Iroquois Lake; Center: Shreya's Exclusive owner Shelly Singh in her Crane Street store; Right: A Guyanese home in Schenectady

Left: Shazim Permaul runs along Iroquois Lake; Center: Shreya's Exclusive owner Shelly Singh in her Crane Street store; Right: A Guyanese home in Schenectady

SCHENECTADY – The ethnic makeup of cities is always evolving.

Across the northern United States, cities have changed over the last 200 years, as successive waves of the Irish, Italian and eastern Europeans arrived. In the mid-20th century, millions of southern Black people moved to northern cities, seeking new opportunities. Schenectady knows all those trends.

But Schenectady is unusual in having made an intentional effort to attract a newer ethnic group — immigrants from Guyana and their Guyanese-American descendants, many of whom came to the U.S. following the South American nation’s gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1966.

Only a few dozen Guyanese families lived in Schenectady in the 1990s. But starting in 2001, then-Mayor Al Jurczynski made a concerted effort to attract Guyanese in New York City to move to Schenectady and buy and renovate homes in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. Busloads came from Queens to tour Schenectady, where real estate was cheaper, the streets less crowded, and the pace of life a little slower. Many bought into the dream.

Twenty years later, the Guyanese and their descendants have changed the face of Schenectady, bringing their customs and religion to the city’s culture, and their work ethic to its small business community.

Today, to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of this Guyanese immigration, the Gazette takes a look at the impact the Guyanese community has had on the city, in a series of articles intended to show the diverse ways they have influenced the city.




According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, about 5,600 Schenectady residents were born in Guyana as of 2019 — and that number has increased almost every year since 2010. That’s nearly 10% of the city’s population — but that is a vast underestimate, since it doesn’t include people who are culturally and ethnically Guyanese, but were born in Queens, Schenectady, or elsewhere in the United States.

An estimate made in 2019 also doesn’t account for anecdotal evidence that more people have come from Queens in the last year, with COVID concerns a fresh reason to leave the city.

“They’re a significant portion of the community today,” Mayor Gary McCarthy said. “I’m proud to have them here, and thankful for their investments.”

In this package, readers will hear the recollections of “Mayor Al” Jurczynski, who led the city from 1996 to 2003. As a history here of letters to the editors makes clear, his initiative had both critics and defenders; his successor, Brian Stratton, ended the active recruitment effort. Guyanese nevertheless continued to move here.

When the Gazette interviewed Jurczynski for a 2003 series about the then-new ethnic phenomena, the mayor said that as the grandson of Polish and French-Canadian immigrants, he could identify with the newcomers and admire what he saw as a desire to work hard, invest in their homes and help each other.

Guyanese culture is not uniform: many are of Indian ancestry, descended from settlers and indentured servants who arrived in Guyana during British rule; others are of African ancestry, the descendants of slaves brought to the Caribbean from Africa. Among those who have entered local politics, City Council President John Mootooveren is Indo-Guyanese, while Schenectady County Legislator Philip Fields is Afro-Guyanese.

Readers will also be taken inside the Guyanese Community Center in Mont Pleasant, where a former Roman Catholic Church has been turned into a Hindu temple where religious festivals like Diwali can be celebrated, along with Guyanese culture.

Readers will also meet Travis Ghirdharie, a young graduate of Schenectady High School and Cornell University who works for the Schenectady School District, trying to better the education of Guyanese and other people of color, and get them more involved in community issues. “Schenectady needs more young people of color, first-generation (college) people who have grown up here, doing this work in Schenectady,” he said.

We also profile more than a half-dozen entrepreneurs who are running auto repair shops, convenience stores, insurance agencies and other small businesses; as well, some have stayed with the kind of real estate investing that first brought the Guyanese to Schenectady, taking run-down properties, making improvements, and then selling them at a profit — the all-American practice known as “flipping real estate.”

Ethnic bias exists in the city, but the entrepreneurs, at least, think it’s been only a minor problem.

Ronnie Dhanesseur came to Schenectady in 1971, at a time when lots of people looked at him like they’d never seen a person of Indian ancestry before. He ran an auto repair shop for decades. He explained succinctly how a community of immigrants from a poor country can be so successful in the city: “What the Guyanese people do best is they work hard and pool their money to buy a house.”

Schenectady will continue to see its ethnic makeup evolve in the coming years, but the Guyanese presence looks to be permanent.




Categories: News, Schenectady County


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