SCHENECTADY — The author of a new book about Schenectady’s decline and comeback found many similarities with other cities that stagnated and decayed in the last decades of the 20th century: Places whose fortunes were tied to a single company or industry all suffered when the company pulled out or the industry changed course.
But few of those former company towns have an autonomous development agency created by competing interests and given its own stream of taxpayer dollars, author William B. Patrick said.
More common in these places is the corps of hundreds of concerned residents who wouldn’t let their city die, and these volunteers were critical to Schenectady, Patrick said.
Their voices are a big part of his “Metrofix: The Combative Comeback of a Company Town.”
“I knew from the start I wanted to include that volunteer spirit,” Patrick said. “I wanted people to experience those voices.”
The book was an immersive process for Patrick, who interviewed 107 people a combined 138 times while reading a shelf full of books about urban planning to better understand what happened in Schenectady and why.
The 406-page hardcover book with a Ralph Rosenthal cover photo of one the city’s most distinctive landmarks will launch at 5 p.m. Dec. 7 in a program at the GE Proctors Theatre.
The project began four years ago as something quite different. Supermarket executive Mona Golub wanted to commission a book about her father, longtime Price Chopper/Market 32 Chairman Neil Golub, as a birthday gift to him.
But Neil Golub wanted none of that, nor the second suggestion, a history of the supermarket company. Either one, he said, could wind up being just an “ego trip.”
Instead, Golub countered, how about a book on Schenectady’s comeback?
Golub paid Patrick for his work and discussed it extensively with him while it was in progress, but he didn’t direct the writing, and he was surprised at the direction Patrick’s research and writing sometimes took.
“I think it’s in some cases a lot more on a given subject than I expected,” Golub told the Daily Gazette last week. “For example, the section on GE is very deep. He makes very clear the ups and downs, especially about GE.”
Two titans of American industry, GE and Alco, combined to cost the city roughly 40,000 jobs in just a few decades.
“That whole era was very bad for Schenectady,” Golub said.
“Company town” is in the title of the book because it’s so important to the narrative of Schenectady in the late 20th century — the company town struggled as the company left the town.
“Combative” was literally the fight to save the city and the battle among factions on how best to do that, though it became a bit of a metaphor, too, Patrick said.
“Metrofix,” of course, is a play on “Metroplex,” the development agency created and funded to promote development of the city. Neil Golub was one of the driving forces behind creation of the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority and is the only remaining original member of its board of directors.
Patrick is an adjunct professor in Fairfield University’s graduate creative writing program, and has had numerous other teaching roles and publishing credits. He lives in Schenectady with his wife, Carmel Patrick, a member of the City Council, but has been a resident of the city for just 10 years.
He had a lot to learn about the city before writing about its history.
As a child of Troy in the 1950s and 1960s, he was familiar with the trajectory many American cities followed in the mid- to late 20th century, with the gradual loss of residents, retailers and wealth.
But during the worst of it, he was off making cabinets in a Boston suburb and teaching in booming Norfolk, Virginia. So he didn’t see Troy, Albany, Amsterdam and Schenectady “going through their paroxysms” in day-to-day detail, he recalled.
“I lived through it in the sense that I came home to visit my parents and see how hollowed out downtown Troy had become,” Patrick said.
When he moved back to Troy in 1993, he saw firsthand how far his hometown had slid.
And Troy wasn’t even a company town. To its west, Schenectady was meanwhile suffering the loss of General Electric jobs that had in some cases sustained local families for generations.
Some ex-employees had to sell their homes and move away, or scale back their retirement plans. The downtown withered and residential neighborhoods suffered as slumlords filled the vacuum.
“Schenectady is completely representative of what happened” in that era, Patrick said. “Any company town that relied on a large company that laid off a lot of people — it’s a weary and disheartening process, what happened from 1970 to 2000.”
Golub made the same observation.
“You see this happening to other communities that have lost their way, forgotten what made them famous,” he said.
Golub recalls his father, William, attempting to start a revitalization movement in the late 1980s and not being able to develop enough momentum.
“He said before he died, ‘Neil, I really hope you’ll carry this on.’ “
Neil Golub was one of the founders of Schenectady 2000, which in the 1990s was able to raise interest and attract committed people to the cause.
“What’s interesting about Schenectady is the number of people that participated in its rebirth,” he said.
“They really enlivened a community spirit that we hadn’t seen before,” Golub said. “That’s what was unique about it, the number of people and the number of levels.”
The next step, in 1998, was to create Metroplex, which takes a fixed portion of sales tax revenue for development in Schenectady and parts of its suburbs.
The act of creation was vastly more complicated and delicate than the previous sentence might imply. The enabling legislation went through 71 revisions as competing local interests were balanced and support was built at the state level.
Many of the numerous and competing economic development agencies within the county were gradually eliminated, placing most economic promotion within the purview of one agency: Metroplex.
That idea of ceding local control or legislative control to an autonomous agency can be daunting for local politicians, Patrick said.
But there is some unity of leadership and action now. Schenectady County government has swung to heavily Democratic control since the late 1990s. Ray Gillen is the county’s commissioner of economic development and planning, as well as being the public face and behind-the-scenes chairman of Metroplex.
In 23 years, Metroplex has incentivized or given non-monetary assistance to hundreds of projects that have brought in thousands of jobs and millions in property tax revenue, and in some cases altered the cityscape.
“I think up until COVID hit, there was six or seven years when the city was really firing on all cylinders,” Patrick said. “The fact that the downtown was revitalized to a certain extent … we have that in common with other cities, but they don’t have a Metroplex Authority.”
Patrick said Golub was part of the book project but did not control its direction or content — he questioned the inclusion of certain aspects and corrected some factual details, but never crossed anything out.
“It started out to be Neil’s book but very quickly it became my book, too,” Patrick said.
When Golub spoke with The Gazette last week — as in other unrelated conversations over the past several years — he did not discuss the many things he has done for the community himself or with his partner in life and philanthropy, his late wife Jane. He framed his contributions to the city’s revitalization in the context of using money and influence to open the door for other people to make a difference.
Patrick had a similar impression of Golub: A man who is not shy about sharing his opinions but doesn’t do it to promote himself.
“He’s pretty self-effacing, actually. We’ve become close in the four years,” Patrick said.
“At the same time, it’s hard to write a book with someone looking over your shoulder.”
Patrick said Golub was surprised to see so much attention in the book devoted to the impact one company — General Electric — has had on its former company town.
Golub said he learned things he hadn’t known as he read through the drafts. The GE mythology, he said, is too much about Thomas Edison stepping off the train in the 1880s to create the company in Schenectady and bring good things to life.
Edison came back to the city perhaps a half-dozen times in the remaining 40-plus years of his life, Golub said, and GE’s later decisions undid much of what it initially accomplished for its onetime hometown.
The instances of corruption or malfeasance that Patrick touches upon are less obvious candidates for inclusion in the book than GE job cuts: The corrupt police officers; the development czar whose decisions in retrospect are questionable; the school district administration silent amid a teenage suicide cluster and a bombing campaign by its maintenance manager.
These things degraded the desirability and livability of the city, Patrick maintains, small pieces of the larger question of whether and how far Schenectady could propel its comeback.
But Golub initially questioned why these episodes were included.
“Neil’s a philanthropic promoter of the city, like Ray is, and they don’t want to hear negative things about Schenectady,” Patrick said. “[Golub] objected to a number of things as we went along.”
The problem is that Golub was reading one chapter at a time, as it was written, Patrick said. So he wasn’t seeing how the parts made up the whole of the book.
“It’s like seeing one corner of a mosaic,” Patrick said.
The dark parts of the mosaic made more sense once the entire mosaic was in view.
Patrick said he wouldn’t look for problems as he researched the book but also would not whitewash those he found.
The inclusion of these small, detrimental episodes amid the broad-stroke problems of a company town is the flip side of what could be seen as the overarching theme of “Metrofix”: The small efforts by many average people on the ground are collectively as important to revitalizing a city as the leadership of the few charismatic or powerful or wealthy people out front.