Don't call it Crane Street.
Call it Engine Hill.
That's how a group of merchants are hoping people will someday refer to the Schenectady corridor where their shops and restaurants are located. Bringing about this change won't be easy, but they're optimistic.
It's easy to look at Crane Street and see a gritty, downbeat street where vacant storefronts, graffiti and litter are perpetual problems.
But a closer look reveals a street with a diverse mix of mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, where entrepreneurs have set up shop and are making a go of it.
It's this version of the street that the merchants group, called Mont Pleasant Merchants, wants to cultivate and build upon, transforming a street often portrayed as troubled into a stable, safe and attractive place.
Their motto: "Making crane Street a better place to shop, enjoy and do business."
"There are a lot of good things happening," Pastor James Bookhout, who serves as president of Mont Pleasant Merchants, told me. "Morale is rising in this area. It's a slow-going process, because there's been a lot of disappointment in the past."
Bookhout's ministry, Bridge Christian Church, is located in a complex of buildings on Crane Street.
One of those buildings has a plaque affixed to it commemorating the site as "Engine Hill," where the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad Company operated the first steam-propelled railroad transportation service in America. According to the marker, the DeWitt Clinton Engine, with three passenger cars, "was used on the initial trip between the cities of Schenectady and Albany" on Aug. 9, 1831.
It's this history -- rich, interesting, little-known -- that the Mont Pleasant Merchants are looking to draw upon in their effort to rebrand and remake Crane Street.
Their model is Schenectady's upper Union Street, where an attractive mix of shops and restaurants draw shoppers from all over.
"This is going to take time," James Flacke, executive director of the Schenectady non-profit organization Better Neighborhoods Incorporated told me. "Our goal is 10 years from now."
"We'd like to see a better place to shop, a safer place," Bookhout said. "We're trying to change the perception of what people think Crane Street is. We want to get the merchants involved. We want to get the city to help with quality of life."
A challenging project, to be sure.
But one with real potential.
Among other things, the Mont Pleasant Merchants want to see sidewalk enhancements, better lighting and facade improvements. They'd also like a more consistent police presence, to deter crime and nuisances such as loitering, littering and speeding cars.
"We're trying to figure out how to get rid of this permanent criminal element," Flacke said. "We all have to do this. It's not going to fix itself."
Over the past two or three decades, Crane Street has suffered from neglect and disinvestment as businesses have pulled out, sometimes for greener pastures, and blight has taken root.
But it's still a lively place, where you'll find small markets, a thrift store called Bit's N Pieces II, a daycare and an eclectic array of cheap eateries with yummy food.
On Friday I stopped at Mami's Restaurant, which specializes in Spanish cuisine, and picked up a hefty serving of pork, cabbage and rice and beans. It made for an excellent lunch at a decent price (just $9), but it wasn't the only place to get good, affordable food. My other options included a Chinese restaurant, a pizzeria, a Caribbean food restaurant and a fish fry.
"The story of the merchants group is the American dream," said Flacke, who has been assisting the Mont Pleasant Merchants group through BNI. "A lot of immigrants have opened stores here."
Mont Pleasant Merchants formed about five years ago, but has become more active in the past two years.
The group has applied for funding for a paid coordinator from the Thriving Neighborhoods Challenge, a contest, sponsored by The Schenectady Foundation, that will fund neighborhood improvement projects deemed most worthwhile.
This paid coordinator would serve as a liaison between the merchants group and other entities, such as city officials, and advocate for Crane Street's needs. One of their tasks would to establish an official Business Improvement District focused on the street.
"We feel this is a path to constructive and sustainable change," Flacke said. "It's a great opportunity to bring about change, when change is already happening."
Flacke is right.
Crane Street has seen better days, but that doesn't mean we should give up on it.
It's a place where people live and work, and with the proper amount of investment and attention it could become something special.
Certainly, I'm eager to return for another good lunch.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]