Thousands of people descended on Schenectady’s downtown neighborhoods to enjoy a cornucopia of festivals and events that are staples of the city’s late-summer offerings.
The Stockade Art Show took over Schenectady’s oldest neighborhood, with displays along South Ferry Street and Front Street, while the statute of Lawrence the Indian formed the epicenter of the show.
Zoe Oxley, a member of the art show board who helped organize the event, now in its 66th year, said this year’s show featured 80 mostly local artists and attracted hundreds of people
“We’re very pleased with the turnout today,” she said. “Because the art show has been going on so long people know about it. I think it does help that other festivals are going on today in the city.”
Oxley said the show, which specializes in fine art, attracts artists from all over the Capital Region and beyond. “And there are a lot of people who come back year after year to see their favorite artists,” she said. “Some people come because they love the Stockade, they love walking around the neighborhood.”
Kellen Riell of Rotterdam, a surrealist who won a prize as the best new exhibitor, said the Stockade Art Show was good exposure for his art. “It’s nice to come out and have people look at what you’ve been working on for so many months and years,” said Riell.
Lori Lupe Pelish of Niskayuna, who was showing mixed media pieces of felt and wood made in collaboration with her husband, said her favorite part of the Stockade Art Show is the local vibe it gives off. “I love the ease of it and being a local artist,” said Lupe Pelish, whose sister lives in the Stockade. “I love to see the local artists, reconnecting and just being a part of this whole local scene. And the Stockade is stunning,” she added.
A short distance away on North Jay Street, the Little Italy StreetFest was in full swing Saturday afternoon. Crowds thronged the street and lines of people stretched down the block waiting to get their favorite Italian dishes from the neighborhood's restaurants.
“It’s amazing,” said Jenn Rodgers of Schenectady, through a biteful of eggplant parmesan from More Perreca’s Italian Kitchen. “I want to get another one.” She and her daughter, Tori Colarusso, had plans after the eggplant parmesan to get tomato pie and a cannoli from Civitello’s Italian Pastry.
“I want to eat until I can’t eat anymore,” said Colarusso.
Kathy and Vinny Rusch of Schenectady were waiting in line at the tent set up outside of Perreca’s, also eyeing the eggplant parmesan. “I like the people and mingling with everyone,” said Kathy Rusch. “And that it supports small businesses in Schenectady.” Gordy Furlani, a regular at Cornell's, said he’s volunteered for the restaurant every year since the StreetFest started 12 years ago. “This is excellent, beautiful crowd, the best year so far,” said Furlani. “Once people see the advertisement, and they remember it from last year, and the weather is good like it is today, people come out.”
Furlani said the kitchen at Cornell's could barely keep up with the demand from the ravenous crowd. “They’re loving it, we keep running out,” he said with a laugh. “Every year it gets better and better.”
Doreen Ditoro, the chairwoman of the StreetFest this year, said the event started 12 years ago as a way to showcase recent improvements in the neighborhood, such as the arches that rise above the entrance to North Jay Street where it meets Union Street.
“We wanted to show the city where their money is going,” said Ditoro. A dozen years later and Ditoro is amazed at how the festival has grown. “People get a feeling of kinship, of closeness, and a neighborhood feel. They also get a lot of Italian culture,” she said. “Walking around there’s a lot of people I don’t recognize, and it’s wonderful!”
A short walk south to Liberty Street, the 42nd annual St. George Greek Festival was hopping with people as well. Under the big tent a group of kids from St. George Greek Orthodox Church were performing a traditional dance as the crowd watched and clapped enthusiastically along.
Georgia Tsakopiakos, who teaches dance for the church community to members ages 3-18, said she’s nearly doubled this year’s class. “Dancing, for us, it’s a huge thing in our culture,” said Tsakopiakos. We dance to get together and we love to pass what we know onto the next generation and keep our culture alive.”
She added that older generations of Greeks who attend the festival can sometimes be seen getting misty-eyed watching their successors perform. “It’s not because they’re sad, they’re happy tears,” she said. Tsakopiakos, who was born in the U.S. but grew up in Greece, said it’s important for her and her community to maintain their identity while away from their homeland.
“It’s really hard to keep your culture alive in a foreign country, and I think we do a good job of it,” she said.
Jennie Vlahakis, who oversaw food preparation for the Greek Fest, which began Friday and will end Sunday, said food is another major part of Greek heritage.
“This is our culture, we love to cook, we love to serve,” said Vlahakis. “Breaking bread is as old as time, and this is what we love to do.”
Vlahakis was bustling around the kitchen at the hellenic center on Saturday afternoon, preparing trays of pastitsio — seasoned ground beef with pasta, grated cheese and cream sauce — and youvetsi — oven-cooked lamb shanks smothered with sauce.
“We’ve spent months of preparation and a few weeks of cooking everything to perfection,” she said.
The brochure from the event included the Greek names for all the dishes on offer, complete with the phonetic pronunciation of each dish.
Vlahakis said the church community is intent on communicating their culture to the wider community as an integral part of the city’s social fabric and the overall progress Schenectady has made. “I grew up here, and we’ve seen all the positive changes in the last decade or so,” said Vlahakis. “The revitalization of downtown is very important for Schenectady, we’ve watched the change and it’s tremendous.”
Phil Shoemaker couldn’t agree more. He and his wife, Lois Shoemaker, were enjoying a platter of lamb souvlaki at the festival and he marveled at how far the city he grew up in has come. “Forty years ago this place was a toilet, and now it’s cleaned up and nice,” said Shoemaker. “I love all of this stuff.”
The Shoemakers, who had just come from the Little Italy StreetFest, said they’re also appreciative that the city now has more events to offer. “We knew that the two festivals were in close proximity, so we figured we’d make a day of it,” said Phil Shoemaker.