It’s an eye-catching image.
In the lower half, a long, single-file line of Native Americans quietly approach a tall, wooden wall and the sleepy village that lies beyond it. The gate is ajar and the guards appear to be snowmen. It is moments before the devastating attack now known as the Schenectady Massacre.
This historic scene melts into a picture from the present day: the facade of Rivers Casino & Resort at Mohawk Harbor.
“February 8 ... a date that shall live in infamy in Schenectady,” states the text at the top of the picture. “1690: The Schenectady Massacre. 2017: Rivers Casino Opens.”
The image is the work of Schenectady anti-casino activist and Stockade resident David Giacalone.
I came across it while spinning through the postcard rack at Moon & River Cafe, and was immediately drawn to its juxtaposition of images, bright colors and provocative message.
I like looking at politically themed art, and Giacalone’s collage struck me as a unique take on a matter that remains controversial. Whether the casino will help or hurt Schenectady is still very much in dispute, and while I know plenty of people who are looking forward to opening day, I know plenty who are dreading it, too.
The casino opens Feb. 8, on the 327th anniversary of the Schenectady Massacre.
A coincidence, no doubt.
But the grisly historic significance of the date has not been lost on casino opponents.
“Feb. 8, 2017, is the scheduled opening date of Schenectady’s gambling casino,” Clifton Park resident Edward F. Wagner wrote in a letter to The Gazette printed earlier this month. “I hope it is a better date than Feb. 8, 1690.” He added, “There were no defenders on the walls, and in fact the doors were open with just snowmen standing guard. Is the date an omen?”
Interested in learning more about the casino-massacre collage, I visited Giacalone at his Stockade home.
Giacalone is a prolific writer, and he blogs frequently at a website called Snowmen at the Gates. The name is a reference to the snowmen that failed to prevent the deadly attack on Schenectady and also to city leaders Giacalone believes have been derelict in their duty to look out for the city’s best interests.
“When you only have snowmen on councils and commissions, you end up getting something that could be a problem for the community,” Giacalone said. “What happens when you apply heat to snowmen? They melt — that’s why they avoid the heat.”
Giacalone told me that the picture of the attack featured in his collage comes from the North Wind Picture Archives, a collection of antique prints, woodcuts and engravings, and dates back to the 1880s. The photograph of the casino was taken by Giacalone himself, from Erie Boulevard.
“It’s an attractive piece of political art,” Giacalone says proudly. “I’ve found that you can tell a story in pictures that people don’t necessarily want to hear.”
Giacalone is a good photographer, and his pictures are featured on the website Suns Along the Mohawk.
There are photos documenting life in the Stockade and the beauty of the Mohawk River, and links to photobooks that explore a central theme, such as the Stockade in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. Other pieces are more political. One depicts people using Riverside Park and asks “Does a Bike Path Make Sense for Riverside Park?”
I don’t think the casino will result in anything as terrible as what happened during the Schenectady Massacre, when approximately 60 men, women and children were killed by an army of French-Canadian soldiers and Native Americans, who then burned the small frontier settlement to the ground.
I’ve generally taken the view that the casino probably won’t be as bad as its detractors claim it will be, or as good as its supporters claim, and I’m actually excited for it to open and to see what kind of impact it has.
And yet I see value in Giacalone’s continued activism.
It’s important to raise questions about city projects, particularly those with clear downsides, such as increased traffic congestion and problem gambling, and Giacalone is willing to do that. Some might find him aggravating, but communities benefit from citizens who take a more skeptical view of things. His collage is, if nothing else, an interesting conversation piece - a conversation piece I’m happy to have a copy of.
With the casino opening less than a month away, Giacalone is turning his attention to problem gambling, and the need to prevent people from developing a harmful addiction.
“We need to educate people, to make people more aware of the risks and bad odds,” he said.
It’s a worthy project, and one I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about.