About 50 pages into William Patrick’s new book “Metrofix,” I thought to myself how lucky he was to have so many of the key characters in his story still alive.
Then, after reading a few more chapters of Patrick’s work on the rebirth of downtown Schenectady over the past two decades, it also occurred to me how writing such a recent history can be tricky business. With so many people still around to share their memory of events, you’d better make sure your version of the story rings true. Fortunately, it’s clear to the reader right from the start that Patrick has done a lot of work making sure he did just that.
“Metrofix: The Combative Comeback of a Company Town” is primarily the story of how the Metroplex Development Authority, created in 1998, helped turn around the fortunes of downtown Schenectady. But it is also much more. Along with an explanation of just what a public authority is and how you might go about starting one up, the book is also a wonderful retelling of Schenectady’s long history, and offers plenty of reasons why this relatively small city on the banks of the Mohawk River is unique and so capable of rehabilitating itself.
Patrick begins his 300 pages of narrative in July of 1987 when a fire damaged a Schenectady landmark, Peggy’s Restaurant, as well as an adjacent area called Canal Square. The latter was a good idea that just didn’t pan out for a variety of reasons, but it was that 400 block of State Street, which Proctors called home, where the seeds of downtown’s rebirth took root.
As you probably know, the fire didn’t damage Proctors much at all, so the 1926 vaudeville theater is still standing at 432 State St., and that’s perhaps the primary reason why “Metrofix” is a book with a happy ending and, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, an optimistic outlook.
The arts, and in this case that means Proctors, seem to be the primary reason for downtown’s resurrection, but it wouldn’t have happened without the hard work and dedication of people. A whole bunch of them. The group was called the Schenectady Arts Council, and its leaders, Kay Rozendaal and Mardy Moore, were theater lovers. They were probably more concerned about saving a beautiful venue and increasing their chances to see wonderful live entertainment than they were about saving downtown Schenectady, but one helped bring about the other, as Patrick explains in his text.
“Art in all of its forms is crucial to a society because art is an essential ingredient in empowering our hearts,” writes Patrick. “And the arts bring people to the city — people who eat in restaurants before a show and talk about what they saw afterwards in bars and cafes. Arts venues are revitalizing engines.”
And while Proctors rightly commands much of the attention for bringing back downtown, Patrick reminds us there are many more small groups who did their part. Schenectady has two historic community theater troupes in the Schenectady Light Opera Company and the Schenectady Civic Playhouse bringing people downtown, and there’s also the Hamilton Hill Arts Center, the SUNY Schenectady Community College music program (including the Empire Jazz Orchestra) and the Union College chamber music series, all contributing to a vital and thriving arts scene.
During the summer, often a quiet time for Proctors and other entertainment venues, there’s also Music Haven in Central Park. Mona Golub has put together a series of free concerts that attract some of the best musicians in the world. It may not be downtown, but Central Park, often referred to as Schenectady’s crown jewel, is still a major attraction. And many of the people who visit there to listen to music, play tennis or just enjoy the great outdoors spend the night in downtown hotels.
And speaking of Mona Golub and the Golub family, it was Mona who was the catalyst for Patrick’s book, although her initial idea was for it to be about her father, Neil Golub, longtime Price Chopper/Market 32 chairman. It was Neil Golub and then-Union College president Roger Hull who were the two men that helped create Schenectady 2000, eventually leading to the formation of Metroplex. Neil, however, had a more expansive book idea and suggested that Patrick tell the whole story of Metroplex and Schenectady’s comeback.
Former Schenectady Mayor Al Jurczynski gets mention for his work in bringing the Guyanese community to the city during the early 2000s, and there’s also the story of Mohawk Harbor, a half-billion-dollar riverfront complex with two hotels, a casino, marina and “luxury dwellings.” Patrick also writes about the value of institutions such as Union College, SUNY Schenectady and Ellis Hospital, but also included in the comeback story is what went wrong with Schenectady.
Once known as “The City that Lights and Hauls the World,” Schenectady’s population approached 100,000 during the roaring 1920s. But with the downsizing of General Electric and the closing of the American Locomotive Company, the city’s workforce was decimated over the second half of the 20th century.
Patrick also tells us that there was plenty of crime. He recounts the brutal murders of two elderly widows in the Hamilton Hill section of the city in December of 1998; he writes about the rampant drug use in the city at that time and the violence that went along with it; and he tells the story of police corruption.
Patrick doesn’t stop there. He chose to include current events in his book, which he started working on long before the events of 2021. He not only brings up Jan. 6, 2021, the day a “bloodthirsty mob of insurrectionists would storm the Capitol,” he also tackles complex racial issues. While painting a rather negative picture of the extreme social activism demonstrated by a few local leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, he also praises the work of men such as Walter Simpkins, Will Rivas and Jamel Muhammad, as well as the efforts of women of color such as Rose Rivera and Margaret Cunningham. There are plenty more names he mentions, so there are plenty of shining lights in Patrick’s book — and so much to be proud of.
“To go from a basically bankrupt city wracked by scandals to a tourist destination in just 15 years is a remarkable achievement,” he writes. “Few cities of any size can match the speed of that recovery.”
Patrick also gives a good grade to Schenectady County for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the end of his book there is a special section in which actors in his story tell their particular experience to the reader. Karen Bradley, director of the Schenectady County Public Library, provides an interesting account of how Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman turned Bradley’s staff into an auxiliary workforce to deal with COVID, while social worker Ebony Belmar gives her version of events in the city’s school district, in particular Mont Pleasant Middle School.
A number of the city’s most prominent citizens add their own stories to those of Bradley and Belmar, and at the end of the book Patrick lists all those who helped him produce his work. There are a number of former members of the Daily Gazette staff on that list and some of their stories are included in Patrick’s text. He also praises the newspaper’s editorial page and its relentless support of Metroplex that helped bring about positive change to downtown Schenectady.
“Schenectady is truly at a precipice,” said Gazette Opinion Page Editor Art Clayman in 1998. “If it turns in one direction, it could decay beyond repair, becoming a modern ghost town survived only by decay, decline and despair. If, however, it turns in the other direction, and reinvents itself to be poised for the economic realities of the future, it could well prove to be a state and national success story on how to uplift and rebuild a community from an economic basket case into a thriving and prosperous economic engine for the entire Capital Region.”
Thanks to a large group of creative collaborators, Patrick tells us, Schenectady’s experiment in urban renewal, while not perfect, is indeed an American success story.
Excerpts from the book
F.F. Proctor, talking to the Schenectady Chamber of Commerce at the grand opening of the new Proctors Theater at 432 State St., Dec. 27, 1926:
“Schenectady has treated me well. For that reason, I have constructed here the largest, handsomest and most-costly theater that I have ever built. And it is as elaborate in its equipment and decoration as any in the big metropolitan cities.”
Neil Golub, president of the Golub Corp., talking about Schenectady 2000, the forerunner of Metroplex, back in the 1990s:
“Foremost, I think, what’s most exciting is the willingness of the people in the community to take on what seems like a massive mountain to climb, and to have committed themselves to participating in a process that we know is difficult, that we know is going to take time, but is something for which we all have some feeling in our guts, if you will, that it is something we can accomplish.”
Ray Gillen, chairman of the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority:
“When they first set it up, the Metroplex chairman was kind of seen as an official, an unelected king or something, which you can’t do because we have to go and work with all these people. We’re bringing development projects, but there’s still home rule. It’s not one person. No one can do anything alone anymore. Check the egos at the door. It’s about everyone working together.”
Philip Morris, Proctors CEO, talking about visitors feeling unsafe downtown in 2007:
“They park in the big garage and they run into the theater. That’s not what this is supposed to be about. We want people walking around, shopping, having dinner, then coming to the theater. I just wish we had people who could go out, greet our visitors, and make them feel welcome.”
Susan Savage, Democratic County legislator, referring to Schenectady County’s 13-0 vote supporting the Metroplex plan, April 4, 1998:
“We’ve tried to change this and put those ideas forward, but right now I have a proposal in front of me and I feel the choices I have to make are between doing nothing and doing something. I want to make this community better and for that reason, I will vote yes on the proposal that’s before me.”
Robert Farley, Schenectady County legislator, talking to the Gazette editorial board about his Metroplex “ideas” in 1998:
“Our entity, our proposed authority, is going to be a multi-jurisdictional authority because it will benefit all the communities in Schenectady County, not just the city of Schenectady, but the small villages of Delanson and Scotia, the towns of Duanesburg, Glenville, Niskayuna, Princetown and Rotterdam. They’ll share in it, so let’s borrow the name from Dallas and call ours the Metroplex Economic Development Authority.”
Mike Saccocio, executive director of the City Mission, referring to the positive response to the Ambassadors program:“People were so delighted that they were being greeted on the sidewalks by friendly, smiling people, and that doors were being held open for them. Then we made a capital investment: We bought umbrellas. And when it was raining, we’d run out there and put those umbrellas over people’s heads. We called it a sidewalk concierge service.”