Look at any of the major city-changing efforts over the past 25 years, and there’s Barbara Blanchard.
She helped found ReTree Schenectady to reforest the city’s streets and parks when the city could no longer afford to do it.
She organized the Livable City series, a years-long educational event that shaped the planning of downtown redevelopment.
She ran the Schenectady Heritage Foundation during some of the city’s most critical years, when important and visually stunning historic buildings were in danger of demolition.
And even as she was suffering the ravages of a progressive neurological disease, she ran the Greenmarket farmers market for its first two years, guaranteeing its success.
“I really think she changed the face of Schenectady,” said Gloria Kishton, who took over as chairwoman of the Heritage Foundation when Blanchard stepped down to become a member of the City Council.
Blanchard, 66, will take her seat Monday at 7 p.m. for the last council meeting of her term and accept an honorary resolution from the council for her many contributions to the city.
City officials and community activists said they would be hard-pressed to name anyone who has contributed more to the city in the past two decades.
“She’s just been instrumental at getting things off the ground, just providing a steady hand and leadership,” said Betsy Henry, who worked with Blanchard on the Greenmarket.
Monday will be the first time Blanchard has been in the council chambers since she suffered a severe stroke in August 2012. It badly damaged her ability to speak, and she has been largely out of the public eye.
Henry and others said she is deeply missed.
“I’ve considered Barb to be a role model for me,” Henry said. “She’s a shining example of what an individual can do.”
Saving the city
Of all her accomplishments, Blanchard is most proud of her work on the Livable Cities series and the Greenmarket, she said last week in an interview at her home. Because of her speech limitations, the interview was facilitated by her husband.
She is only able to say one or two words at a time, but she was clear, alert and able to make herself understood with her husband’s help.
The Livable Cities series was her life’s work for a half-decade. In 1999, she described it as learning “how to save a city” and did not mince words about the importance of it.
“Schenectady is at a crossroads in our history. Decisions made this year will be with us for the rest of our lives,” she said then.
The Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority was just starting, and its decisions on what projects to encourage could have turned downtown into a sea of parking lots, with suburban-type stores set far from the sidewalk. Blanchard wanted an informed group of planners who would encourage development that would make Schenectady thrive.
She organized walking tours, bus trips, panel debates and speakers to describe exactly how to make Schenectady a pedestrian-friendly, neighborly, vibrant city.
“That [series] really brought all those concepts to the attention of the public,” Kishton said.
And Blanchard didn’t stop with education. She took politicians on personal tours of the city to explain her point of view, persuaded them to come to other cities to see how they were redeveloping and then got them to put her ideas into law.
“What started out as design guidelines was eventually adopted into law — retail on first floor, office above, for example,” Kishton said. “But yet we’re not doing all that all the time.”
Blanchard argued against plans that ignored the laws — until her stroke. Now she’s frustrated to have to watch from the sidelines.
She is still angry about the Clinton’s Ditch historic replica of the oldest surviving firehouse in the city. When it was built, just after her stroke, it did not match the original in design or color. By the time she had recovered enough to see it, it was too late to push for changes.
Power of persuasion
Blanchard was generally able to persuade people, Kishton recalled.
“She would take the person there and show them. And it worked. It really worked to sway people,” Kishton said.
Throughout her adult life, Blanchard picked issues she felt needed immediate attention and helped organize a group to create a long-term solution to those problems.
Her ability to organize was so well-known that when a resident complained to the city in 1991 about a need to plant more trees, city officials recommended calling Blanchard. City officials knew her because she was spearheading the movement to make her neighborhood, the Union Triangle, a historic district.
While juggling that lobbying effort, she eagerly joined the burgeoning tree group, which became ReTree Schenectady.
“The city had stopped planting trees in the ’80s, so a lot of trees were being taken down and none were being replaced,” said Henry, who now leads ReTree Schenectady, which plants dozens of trees every year.
Blanchard organized an annual tree-planting workshop in Central Park, where residents learned how to care for their new trees, Henry said.
Once the effort was underway, Blanchard went to the city to ask for funding. Soon the city and the state Department of Environmental Conservation were paying for all of the trees.
Then Blanchard moved on to lead the city’s Heritage Foundation, where she worked to preserve historic buildings and started the Livable Cities series.
It was a busy time. She also joined the effort to protect Vale Cemetery, worked on the Historic District Commission and became a board member for Schenectady public access television.
On to City Hall
She won election to the City Council easily in 2005, beating seven candidates in one of the city’s more competitive races. She beat the runner-up by more than 1,200 votes.
Other politicians thought they were getting a political novice.
“She had a group of people that were not in organizational politics but really idealistic people that are into the environment, the local food movement,” said county Legislator and former mayor Karen Johnson.
Blanchard was mentored by Judge Romolo Versaci, who volunteered his legal services to help nonprofit organizations get established, and Blanchard worked closely with him on many occasions. So she took her seat as a politically astute resident who also had a great deal of experience persuading people.
To some Democrats’ surprise, she and other council members created a voting bloc that, for a short time, controlled the council. That bloc shot down some purchases of gas-guzzling police SUVs, which she opposed on environmental grounds while others in her bloc sought to save money.
She also pushed for creation of the Energy Advisory Board in the hopes that it could help the council consider the carbon footprint of every piece of legislation.
“It’s more than saving money, but we will save money,” she said in 2007.
On other occasions, she used her position to try to bring her message of environmentalism to more people. At one point, she ran a series of recycling demonstrations at the end of each council meeting.
Newer council members also began to turn to her for political advice. Councilman Vince Riggi said Blanchard would explain to him how to get legislation passed — or stopped — and where to get the information he needed.
“She gave me political advice even when we were on different sides,” he said.
Work left to do
But during her fourth year on the council, she was stricken by a progressive neurological disease. Over the course of the next three years, she went from a walker to a wheelchair. In her last months on the council, she struggled to use her iPad, which she used to read city documents.
Yet she was undeterred. She ran the board of the Greenmarket for its first two years, starting in 2008.
That’s “a tough time for any organization,” said Henry, who was also on the Greenmarket board. “None of us had ever run a market before, so we were really flying by the seat of our pants.”
Blanchard took charge. She also did all of the publicity and spoke with every prospective vendor.
“She was the public face of the market,” Henry said.
It was a huge success. The farmers market brought hundreds of people downtown every Sunday, and now the entire downtown is open and prospering.
But when she could have moved on to her next passion, the stroke hit. She was incapacitated for months, and now she hopes someone will finish the tasks she left undone.
She still wants the city to switch to smaller cars, away from the gas-guzzling police cruisers and SUVs, she said. And she’s still hoping others — such as the newly-formed Schenectady Recycles — will continue her recycling message.
She can’t take up those battles anymore.
“She gave everything for Schenectady,” Riggi said. “I can clearly say, if I were to look up ‘community activist’ in the dictionary, it would be a picture of Barbara Blanchard.”