HERE FOR GOOD: Revisiting Schenectady’s recruitment of Guyanese-Americans 20 years later

Former Schenectady Mayor Al Jurscznski, center, with Tiffany Bishunath, left, Dylan Bishunath, Frederick and wife Uma Bishunath at Tiffany's West Indian Restaurant on State Street recently.

Former Schenectady Mayor Al Jurscznski, center, with Tiffany Bishunath, left, Dylan Bishunath, Frederick and wife Uma Bishunath at Tiffany's West Indian Restaurant on State Street recently.

If they aren’t already, Guyanese-Americans are widely considered Schenectady’s largest ethnic group, says former Mayor Al Jurczynski, who’s credited with the city’s recruitment of them from the commercial and residential Richmond Hill section of Queens in 2002.

They were drawn, in part, by property-investment opportunities. At the time, Schenectady offered rundown homes for as cheap as $1 to people who could prove they had the wherewithal to bring them back to life while adhering to code restrictions, then-city development director Jay Sherman said.

But the population growth is not something that can be confirmed with certainty. The U.S. Census Bureau, citing delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic, has said it will deliver redistricting data to all states by Sept. 30.

As of 2019, the Guyanese represent nearly half of the city’s foreign-born population, a count of 5,588 of the city’s more than 11,000 residents born in other countries, according to data from the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, which cites 5-year estimates from the American Community Survey, a demographics study of the Census Bureau.

But these are inexact counts that come with a margin of error, according to the commission.

With the exception of 2012, Schenectady’s Guyana-born population has had a year-over-year increase every year since 2010, when  2,605 city residents were born in Guyana.




In 2000, there were 508 Guyana born residents in Schenectady, according to the study.

“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.

“I think you’ll find that most of them are happy with Schenectady,” the sitting mayor said. “And so, we continue to see investments that they’re making that people are still looking, who may happen to reside in the New York City area looking at Schenectady as possible investment opportunities or homeownership opportunities. I’m, again, thankful for their participation. We look to work with them, as we do for everybody, to try and show the value and the opportunity that exists within the real estate that Schenectady has.”

Guyana-born lawyer Kawal Totaram, who practices in Queens, remembers helping real estate clients of Guyanese descent with closings in Schenectady as far back as 1997.

At that time, their presence in the city was scattered and limited, he said.

Totaram, who was among a delegation from Queens who met with then-Mayor Jurczynski nearly 20 years ago, said he wasn’t acutely familiar with Schenectady in the late 1990s. He said he sent his secretary to Schenectady to handle the closings.

But he said she told him that more and more Guyanese people were moving to the struggling city that headquarters General Electric.

“Then a friend of mine told me that we should go up and see what’s going on here,” Totaram said. “So I thought it best that we should make some connection there. I said let’s call the mayor and the City Council and see what’s going on there.”

He found a captive audience in Jurczynski. Totaram and other Guyanese from Queens told the Schenectady mayor of their desire for investment opportunities.

“I feel our influence was, in some way, instrumental in getting the people there, and I’m glad to see the community has settled down and acquired a lot of property,” said Totaram.

Jurczynski explained that he was open to any group that would have helped Schenectady rebound. He said he was after “an infusion of new blood.”

Now 64, and removed from politics after serving as mayor from 1996 to 2003, Jurczynski said he was at first intrigued by the thought of trying to encourage Hasidic Jews to relocate to Schenectady.

“They tend to stick together, form their own community and they will go in and pretty much make a community of their ethnic group,” said Jurczynski, who didn’t succeed in that goal.

By early 2002, a Guyanese man, Deryck Singh, told the mayor that the small but growing Guyanese population was looking for a house of worship. Specifically, he wanted a building to convert to a Hindu Temple.

Jurczynski said he advised Singh to contact the Catholic Church, because he knew that it was consolidating parishes due to a decline in parishioners.

A few months later, Singh came back and said Jurczynski’s advice worked. They were able to purchase a building that would become the Schenectady Hindu Temple on Pleasant Street.

Jurczynski then asked for a meeting at the temple. About 30 Guyanese people showed.

“You have to understand,” Jurczynski said. “Back then, nobody knew where Guyana was, or how to pronounce it. They didn’t know the difference between Ghana [in West Africa] and Guyana [in South America].”

Jurczynski said his impression of the group was they were industrious and hardworking.

“One guy stood up and said, ‘We believe in helping each other. We don’t believe in public assistance,’ ” said Jurczynski, who was encouraged and pleased.

Within months, word started to spread.

With a large Guyanese population also in Toronto, Schenectady was starting to be viewed as a midway point between Queens and Toronto, the former mayor said.

Jurczynski recalled that the contingent from Queens arrived in a limo.

“They invited me to go down to New York City to see what they had done in Richmond Hill,” a rundown neighborhood of boarded buildings and graffiti, Jurczynski said.

“They started fixing up these buildings and the property values skyrocketed over time,” Jurczynski said.

The former mayor continued to introduce busloads of Guyanese to local officials from the chamber of commerce, Union College, Schenectady County Community College, and business and homeowners, almost like a marketing program.

“It was very grueling,” Jurczynski said. “Every Saturday, for five or six hours, I’d be giving them the bus tour…

“I’d show them every neighborhood. I’d tell them, ‘We’re going to show you the best of Schenectady, and we’re going to show you the worst. We’re not going to hide anything.'”

Jurczynski didn’t seek reelection in 2003, as he went to work for then-Gov. George Pataki.

But the seeds were planted for the Guyanese community to grow, and Jurczynski said it’s his proudest accomplishment as a politician, which includes his 12 years on the City Council.

“It was something that you might say I was lucky,” Jurczynski said. “But had I not seized on the opportunity, chances are it probably never would have happened. In my 20 years in elected office, it was by far the one initiative that I’m more proud of than anything.”

Sherman, the development director at the time, echoed the sentiment.

“When we started talking to them,” Sherman said, “the things that they valued – education and hard work and so on – I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, these are exactly the same values that I was brought up with, with my family and friends.’ It seemed like it might be a very comfortable transition.”

In terms of pushback, Jurczynski recalled that only a councilor or two might have voiced skepticism.

Sherman said he heard complaints from a small segment of Schenectady’s Black community that felt that the city was being more accommodating to the Guyanese. Sherman said this was not the case.

Sherman stressed that the cheap, rundown properties were available to anyone. But interest from residents at the time was almost non-existent.

“We were an equal opportunity employer as far as having people come in and improve their neighborhood and their home and so on,” he said, “and we are happy to see that happen.”

As a second-generation American – grandmother from Russia, grandfather from Austria – Sherman said the story of the Guyanese improving neighborhoods here isn’t much different than other immigrants, the exception, of course, being the city’s coordinated marketing effort. Jurczynski said he also recalled telling the Guyanese 20 or so years ago that they could make an impact politically, hard as that was to believe at the time.

He recalled telling the group that many of them had funny-sounding last names.

But that was OK, the Polish Jurczynski said, because at one point, he too, had a name that might have sounded funny to city inhabitants.

To that point, only a smattering of Guyanese are represented in elected offices in and around Schenectady. In Schenectady, John Mootooveren is city council president and Samanta Mykoo is city clerk.

Other Guyanese officials include county Legislator Philip Fields, and in neighboring Glenville, Sid Ramotar is running for town board after previously serving as a board member.




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