When General Electric icons Willis R. Whitney and William D. Coolidge offered up an idea, people in this part of the world usually listened.
On May 20, 1946, the City Council of Schenectady was presented with a petition by its citizens calling for the Second Ward Park to be renamed Steinmetz Park, after the world-famous General Electric scientist Charles Proteus Steinmetz. There were two pieces of paper making up the petition, with Whitney’s name topping one list and Coolidge’s the other.
“There were a lot of GE people, scientists up there giving us a hand cleaning up the place,” said former Mayor Frank Duci, who grew up in the Goose Hill section of Schenectady and at the time was a 25-year-old U.S. Navy veteran returning from World War II. “Those two guys [Whitney and Coolidge] were great scientists, and they thought it would be a nice tribute to Steinmetz. I think everybody thought it’d be a good idea.”
Whitney, Coolidge and particularly Steinmetz, whose civic contributions rivaled his scientific ones, would all be happy with what’s been going on recently at the park. Nestled in the city’s northern section along a high ridge of ground that runs north and south, the 44-acre Steinmetz Park is undergoing a $600,000 face-lift. A new pavilion and a renovated bathhouse with a working kitchen, bathrooms and a meeting room should all be ready soon for general use by the public.
Eying a happy place
“There was a lot of happiness that used to occur up there in that park, and still can,” said Camille Sasinowski, president of the Goose Hill Neighborhood Association and a lifelong resident of that section of Schenectady. “We feel great about the things happening up there. It’s very nice, but what we need is more eyes on the place. We need more involvement and that will mean less vandalism.”
Vandalism and neglect have long been two big issues that have plagued Steinmetz Park, but concerned neighbors have occasionally formed together to keep the area a popular spot for people looking to reconnect with nature inside the city limits. A pond that used to serve as a swimming hole is arguably the park’s main attraction, but there is also a small playground, a basketball court, a community garden created just last year and a handful of walking trails in the park’s wooded areas.
It was back in the 1920s when Schenectady’s Northside residents, many of them Italian-Americans, began clamoring for a park in that area known as Rosa Woods. In 1926, the city’s Park Board urged the City Council to acquire lands for a park. It finally happened in 1931, when officials purchased around 30 acres in the area. Then, in April of 1935, the City Council authorized the creation of the Second Ward Park for $27,000, WPA workers constructed a wall of fieldstone around the pond, and 11 years later the somewhat generic name was changed to Steinmetz Park behind the efforts of Whitney and Coolidge and many others.
“When I was a teenager we would go swimming in the lake, and the water was clear and beautiful,” remembered Duci. “The city was involved in some small way, and there were no lifeguards but a lot of people went swimming anyway. There was a baseball field up there; we played bocci ball. It was quite an active spot.”
Gioia Ottaviano grew up on Avenue B in Goose Hill. While a student at Buffalo State Teachers College, she spent her summers back home as an assistant park director at Steinmetz Park.
“We had swim meets, we had track meets, there was a lot of activity up there at the park,” said Ottaviano, who graduated from college in 1946 and spent much of her adult life as a librarian in the Schenectady school system. “It was a low-key job. We had a few rascals, but there was never really a problem. It was a great place.”
A few tragedies
Ottaviano, who turns 90 in January, remembers three deaths from drowning in the pond, which was referred to both as Steinmetz Pond and Steinmetz Lake. One of them, she said, was the result of a skater going through the ice, but the other two were swimming accidents. The most recent one came in 1982, when Duci was in his first term as mayor.
“That was truly a sad day,” said Duci, still a bit effected by the death. “It had been a great swimming hole before, and nothing bad had happened there for a long time. But it got to the point where we had to start worrying about the kids swimming there. There was talk about getting lifeguards and building a fence around the place, but finally that was all dropped and there was no more swimming.”
According to Sasinowski, recreational swimming won’t be returning to Steinmetz Pond anytime in the near future, in part because of the long grass that has encircled the shoreline.
“We’d have to dig to China to get out all the phragmites,” she said. “We’re working on getting people involved and getting rid of them, but it’s a matter of affordability. I’d love to see swimming lessons being given there once again like the old days, and have lifeguards, but the reality of the situation is that it’s probably not going to happen, at least not anytime soon.”
Seeking more funds
Fishing, however, is allowed.
“We had a catch-and-release program just a few years ago, and it’s amazing how many children are still fishing there,” said Sasinowski. “I still go for walks up there and see them fishing. I’d also love to see solar lights around the pond eventually and other things that would encourage its use. We need more money. I know our $600,000 is drying up pretty quickly, but hopefully we can get more grant money.”
The Goose Hill Neighborhood Association is also trying to raise money for the park through a recycling program. All bottles and cans donated to the Creating Change Redemption Center LLC on Route 50 in Glenville can go to a fund for Steinmetz Park.
While city engineer Chris Wallin confirmed that swimming in the pond is not an option yet and probably won’t be for quite some time, he says there is plenty for residents to be happy about. He sees the meeting room becoming a community center throughout the year, and the park is expecting to have more summer events in 2014, such as the Boys and Girls Club lunch programs.
“People are going to be able to use the pavilion, and during events the rest rooms will be open,” said Wallin,” who added that a $50,000 grant from Schenectady County helped pay for the improvements. “We’ve added some parking, some sidewalk curbing, and we’ve done a lot of landscaping. It really is a beautiful park, and hopefully it will become a real meeting place for the community.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.