Once a month, a group of Hamilton Hill residents get together to talk strategy.
They talk about ways to transform their neighborhood from one of Schenectady’s poorest and most crime-ridden into a place where their kids can feel safe, families can be proud to live and businesses can thrive.
The embattled neighborhood has seen successes here and there, like weekend cleanup projects that spruce up the neighborhood block by block. But the longtime lack of a big picture strategy or an organization to advocate on its behalf has left the neighborhood rudderless and adrift.
“You can continue to do nothing, leave the community alone, just let it run,” said Hector Ramirez, a management consultant who spoke to the group Saturday at the Church of God on State Street. “This is pretty typical in inner-city, underprivileged communities that are experiencing social decay like this area here. But the problem is there is usually a long tradition of learned helplessness — ‘I need someone else to do something for me.’ But we’re not born to be helpless; we have to be trained to be helpless.”
Ramirez was there to talk options — specifically, options to stir economic development that has long bypassed Hamilton Hill. The neighborhood should consider setting up a business improvement district or community development corporation, he said.
A BID typically has businesses within a defined area pay an additional tax that goes toward improvement projects within the district. This model has worked particularly well in the city’s Upper Union Street neighborhood, where a BID has worked with the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority to fund repaving, new facades, sidewalks, curbs, lighting and landscaping.
“This allows you to capture certain types of specialized government funding and subsidies,” said Ramirez. “It also allows the businesses a powerful seat at the political table because you have one common voice. When you have 20 voices coming at you at once, it’s very easy for political discussions to break down. When you are represented under one voice, it is very, very powerful.”
City Councilwoman Marion Porterfield pointed out the neighborhood is trying to reinstate a similar-minded entity.
“Years ago, we had our own 501(c)3,” she said. “We knew it as the Hamilton Hill Improvement Corp. There is now an effort to reinstate that, because it’s a lot easier to reinstate one of these things than it is to create a whole new one.”
The Rev. Carlos Caraballo, founder of the Better Life Empowerment Center, has helped organize many of these monthly meetings in Hamilton Hill. He has been meeting with county leaders over the past few months to garner support for an entity — they’re not sure what form it might take yet — that would spur development along the neighborhood’s business corridors, primarily Albany and State streets.
So far, they have met with Metroplex, the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. and the Chamber of Schenectady County.
“They’re supportive of what we’re trying to do,” Caraballo said after Saturday’s meeting.
Ramirez suggested the community focus its efforts on the parts of Hamilton Hill closest to downtown, like Veeder Avenue and State Street where it meets Nott Terrace. The idea, he said, is to catch the attention of the county agencies that pour money into downtown revitalization.
“They will take you more seriously because they will be able to see what you’re doing,” he said. “The first rule of grass roots is sustainability. You’ve got to sustain your momentum. You’ve got to hold it. This is about small battles, not some massive scale of a thing. These are block-by-block by-block efforts.”