SCHENECTADY — The canal system running through the heart of upstate New York is being given a central role in the region’s revitalization.
State and local officials gathered with leaders of the arts community Wednesday a stone’s throw from the Erie Canal, at Schenectady County Community College, for a forum on the canal's impact on arts and culture, and the ways arts and culture drive revitalization.
Brian Stratton, director of the New York State Canal Corp. and former mayor of Schenectady, welcomed the speakers and audience to his hometown, which he said is an ideal example of a community reconnecting to its waterfront to drive revitalization.
The obvious example is the $480 million Mohawk Harbor development, the primary tenant of which, Rivers Casino & Resort, has a performing arts partnership with Proctors, an anchor of the downtown business district. The effort to connect the rest of the city with Mohawk Harbor and the riverfront -- including through footpaths and trolley service -- is just as important.
“Schenectady today is fast becoming a vibrant canal community and a shining example of a sustainable city,” Stratton said. “And its transformation, particularly that which has happened since 2011, is nothing short of amazing.
“Today, we are going to talk about arts, culture and water connections and how they are helping to build more sustainable communities.”
Current Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said the ingredients of a sustainable community — where people want to live, work and play — include a thriving arts community and cultural opportunities along the water.
He noted that more than 500 housing units have been built or are being constructed in and around downtown Schenectady, not far from the Wednesday afternoon forum at SCCC.
“Schenectady is really on the forefront of that formula; we’re just so fortunate.”
New York Secretary of State Rossano Rosado noted that one of her functions — the Department of State has possibly the broadest array of responsibilities of any state agency — is traveling the state and helping to promote its development.
“To me, that’s the special part of my job. I get to be an ambassador for all of New York,” she said.
Three of the tools her agency has are waterfront, downtown and brownfield development programs, each of which is at play in Schenectady. Just last year, the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program provided $500,000 to plan and design a 1,000-foot dock at Mohawk Harbor, as well as routes to connect it to downtown.
“Community planning cannot happen in a vacuum; nor can waterfront revitalization … many communities are linking their waterfronts to their downtowns so there is a seamless transition from one to the other -- the amenities and attractions of both reinforcing one another in a synergistic cycle of revitalization,” Rosado said. “That’s the challenge, and the opportunity, of waterfront redevelopment.”
Upstate New York communities that fell on hard times as they lost manufacturing jobs that had sustained them for generations are being called “legacy cities,” rather than “rust belt cities,” Rosado said, so as to emphasize the potential inherent in their history, rather than the challenges.
The largest of the legacy/rust belt cities, Buffalo, has made huge progress toward revitalizing its downtown by incorporating its waterfront into the plan, she said.
“We see Schenectady as the next great success story in waterfront and downtown revitalization," she added.
It’s also worth noting that not all of Buffalo or Schenectady or any of the other canal towns have benefited equally from revitalization efforts.
“Socioeconomic equity is a vital part of the planning process,” Rosado said.
The title of Wednesday’s forum was “Arts, Culture and Communities on the Canal,” and the speakers who hailed from the arts world made the point that culture is a key part of revitalization.
David Alan Miller, music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, fostered one of the most literal connections of canal and culture when the orchestra staged Water Music NY, consisting of a series of performances on barges at seven ports of call in July 2017: Albany, Rotterdam Junction, Amsterdam, Little Falls, Baldwinsville, Brockport and Lockport.
Still effusive over the experience 10 months later, Miller recalled hatching the idea 20 years ago and shelving it as unaffordable. With support from the state and the communities along the way, it became possible in 2017 and drew thousands at each stop.
“The initial idea was Huck Finn meets Fitzcarraldo, chomping on my wheat frond as we floated down the Erie Canal. It didn’t quite turn out that way,” he said with a laugh.
“What was the learning? What did we take away? It’s not only that we can but that we must — as arts groups, as art creators — create projects which celebrate our sense of place in the world -- our shared history, our heritage, our communities our uniqueness, our geography.”
This summer, ASO will have a single concert on the waterfront: in Troy on June 3.
But Water Music NY attendance probably would grow from 23,000 in 2017 to hundreds of thousands within a few years, if funded consistently, said Mara Manus, executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts.
“I think we can’t underestimate the power of public art — public and free art,” she said, explaining that cost and access are the biggest barriers to participation in and enjoyment of arts. “Audiences will really grow, especially when we can seed things over time, and I hope that we can dream big together.”
The Corning Museum of Glass will mount a roving cultural history exhibit on the canal waters this summer with its GlassBarge, a floating glass-blowing studio. With nearly $500,000 in state support, it will navigate the state’s inland waters from Manhattan to Buffalo and then down through Seneca Lake back to Corning, the onetime canal town that became home to Corning Glass in 1868.
“Our effort this summer is really to shine a spotlight and show all those canal stories as we go through the canal system,” said Rob Cassetti, a development leader at the Museum of Glass. “And so many of them are attached to remarkable economic social activity.”
Susan Friedlander, executive director of the Arkell Museum and Canajoharie Library, noted that many museum visitors are people stopping in during long-distance travel on the nearby Erie Canal or the bike path that parallels the canal.
SCCC President Steady Moono said arts and culture can be directly linked to economic revitalization.
“Many upstate communities are catering to the arts, providing artists with affordable living space in downtowns, which then weaves art into the very fabric of what we call ‘community,’” he said.
“An artsy community is a hip community. And once a community becomes hip, you have turned the corner of revitalization and you will only grow. … We are seeing that here.”
PAST AND FUTURE
Schenectady City Historian Chris Leonard noted that Schenectady was a city essentially born of the Mohawk River and later the Erie Canal: Native Americans chose the area because of the abundance of fish and animals in and around the water and the fertile soil on its shores. European colonists chose the area because the river provided east-west transportation. Later, the canal — which many Shenectadians initially opposed on concerns that proved unfounded — helped the area grow.
“In most documentations, Schenectady is referred to as a canal town,” Leonard noted.
Decades ago, railroads and highways rendered the canal system largely obsolete for its original purpose: long-distance transport of people and cargo. In 2017, it generated $2 million in revenue and incurred $93 million in operating and maintenance expenses. But Stratton said the canal's direct economic impact is calculated at $400 million in tourism spending, and its overall impact is around $6.3 billion from such diverse sources as recreational boating, agricultural irrigation and hyrdoelectric power.
Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen, who as the county’s economic development leader is trying to get more development closer to the water, said the growth of the city more than a century ago cut the people off from the river.
“In places like Schenectady, they filled in the canal and created Erie Boulevard,” he said. “Where I grew up in Niskayuna, they built the biggest landfill in town on the river. They built the industry on the river. … They moved the community away from the waterfront. And that is all changing, fortunately, thanks to some very enlightened state policies.”
He noted Mohawk Harbor has created a gleaming new waterfront community on a site that housed a crumbling former locomotive factory for a generation, and he said a $26 million waterfront housing proposal is slated to replace an auto scrapyard along the bike path in Niskayuna.
“We’re doing all we can to reconnect to the water,” Gillen said. “This is just the start of many, many efforts that are underway to connect our community back to the river.”
Kristin Diotte, who recently became Schenectady’s director of development, said she comes from a waterfront community — Waterford — and it’s exciting to see more waterfront activity here.
“It’s really a fascinating time to be in Schenectady, considering the momentum that’s been growing in the last decade,” she said. “This kind of transformation doesn’t happen by coincidence ... Public spaces have power. They shape the quality and experience that we have, and it’s what makes cities come alive.”