If you ever get a chance to chat with a World War II veteran or someone who lived through the Great Depression, you’ll learn far more than you could ever get from a history book.
You’ll learn about how that person’s attitudes were shaped by the events they lived through, the hardships and the joys they experienced. You’ll learn where that person started from and how they got to this place in their life. That in turn will give you insight into where we collectively started as a culture, where we’ve been and where we’re going in the future.
It has been said that preserving our historic structures, in much the same way, allows us to have a similar conversation with our past.
Take a stroll through Schenectady’s historic Stockade area and you’ll get a sense of that past. Ponder the strength and elegance and craftsmanship of each historic building that reflects the strength and elegance and skill of its builders.
Wander through the ancient cemetery behind St. George’s church and read the fading headstones. Stroll through the narrow streets, following in the footsteps of those who lived and worked and raised families two or three or four centuries earlier. Put yourself in the place of those who fought to preserve their livelihoods, and who at times suffered from the ravages of war and massacres and disease. March with the members of the Continental army and with the British troops that occupied the riverfront fortification the generation before them.
The Stockade is the seed of Schenectady’s family tree. Before General Electric and the Alco train plant and the Erie Canal and the colleges, this was Schenectady, what the Mohawks called, “Skahnéhtati.” Over the pine plains.
But the Stockade has more than just historic value. It adds economic and cultural value to the city. Historic areas traditionally bring higher property values. The people who live in them tend to have not only an interest in historic architecture, but have the means to ensure their preservation. The Stockade and other well-preserved historic areas like it leave a strong positive impression on visitors, who might come back and invest in the city themselves.
Last week, the Preservation League of New York listed the Stockade — New York’s first official historic district with more than 40 buildings built more than 200 years ago — as one of the most endangered places in the state.
That designation should serve as both a warning and an inspiration.
Find a solution
The fact that the Stockade has survived economic downturns and development pressures and the scourge of urban renewal for better than three centuries is a testament to the people who live there and work so hard to preserve it. But the area is threatened not only by development pressure, but by changing attitudes toward historic preservation, weather, and government indifference.
Officials have to do something significant and soon to protect the Stockade from being victimized by the next flood, whether that means finding a way to raise the buildings to higher ground or adapt dams on the Mohawk River to release flood waters or build a sea wall to divert the flood waters or contruct barriers to protect individual buildings.
Too much time has already passed. The Preservation League designation is a red flag that has been waving in front of the bull for years. Find the money, agree on the solutions and get moving.
But saving the Stockade is not just about funds. It’s about people.
Those who care so much about it and who have already done so much to preserve it must be encouraged to continue their efforts, not pushed aside, their contributions dismissed and forgotten. And those who feel as if they are losing their fight should remember why they got involved in the first place, their love of history and their desire to preserve it.
The Stockade is a conversation with the city’s history that must be preserved. The community needs to come together to ensure its survival.
The alternative is not doing enough now and one day looking back with regret.