Picture this: A place for artists and entrepreneurs on Hamilton Hill, where creative people develop innovative projects and products in the heart of one of Schenectady's poorest communities.
It might sound like a pie-in-the-sky dream, but this "Makers' Space," as it's known, is well on its way to becoming a reality.
It will be part of the Hillside View affordable housing development, and will have a 6,000-square-foot footprint in what was once the gymnasium of the Boys & Girls Club on Craig Street.
The space already has a resident: the grassroots organization Operation Railbridge.
If you haven't heard of Operation Railbridge, you're probably not alone.
The group has quietly been developing an innovative large-scale art project in the same vein as Breathing Lights, one that seeks to transform the Electric City's nine railway underpasses into dynamic, visually interesting spaces that capture the public's imagination.
I wrote about Operation Railbridge — OpRail for short — two years ago, when the project was very much in its infancy.
I liked the idea, but was curious to see where it would go.
Getting a big, volunteer-driven art project off the group isn't easy, and I wouldn't have been shocked if OpRail had fizzled.
But it hasn't.
When I checked in with Kristin Diotte, the Schenectady-based architect who founded Operation Railbridge, I was pleased to learn that there has been progress — that, much like the Makers' Space, OpRail is also well on its way to becoming a reality.
Last month, the City Council passed a resolution expressing support for Operation Railbridge, and the group has also received a small seed grant from the Schenectady Foundation to fund research and design.
An artist's rendering provides a good sense of what OpRail is all about.
Pictured: Union Street underpass. (Photo: Patrick Harris Jr.)
The image depicts the Union Street underpass, but not the gloomy, forbidding industrial space that now exists. Instead, it shows a brightly lit passageway, illuminated by LED lighting and used by a mix of pedestrians and bicyclists.
The installation will also have a sound component, translating the acoustic vibrations caused by trains rumbling overhead into a "visible dance of light."
The idea is to make the underpasses more attractive and interesting, and to encourage people to visit them, walk under them and learn about Schenectady's industrial history.
Right now, these underpasses are barriers that divide downtown neighborhoods and strike many pedestrians as creepy and unsafe, especially at night. But Diotte believes this can change, and that the underpasses can become true public spaces.
OpRail is an exciting project that could help put Schenectady on the map artistically, and the Makers' Space will give the organization both space and presence.
The Makers' Space also has the potential to change Schenectady for the better, by providing a space for creative people to gather, work and share ideas.
Kristen Holler, a Schenectady resident overseeing the project, told me that these projects could range from simple crafts to creative technology, and that reaching people who have talent in these areas, but hadn't necessarily considered them a viable career path, is one of the goals of the Makers' Space.
"This is about teaching people how to go from concept to product," Holler said. "It's about allowing people in the community to actively participate in doing something, building something, having a finished product, whether it's clothing or a well-lit underpass."
Holler serves as executive director for the Albany Barn, a creative-arts incubator and community arts center in Albany's Arbor Hill neighborhood. The Makers' Space is an Albany Barn project, and it's great to see a group with a successful track record launch a similar initiative here in Schenectady.
"We consider the Barn something that can be replicated in other cities," Holler said. "This is an exciting way to branch out."
I sometimes hear people say that Schenectady doesn't have the same level of artistic energy as other Capital Region cities, such as Albany and Troy.
This isn't true — at least, I don't think it is — and both Operation Railbridge and the Makers' Space are an opportunity to prove such naysayers wrong.
Schenectady has a lot of artistic energy — and these projects will help harness it, promote it and share it with the rest of the Capital Region.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.