As you drive or walk around Schenectady these days, it’s impossible to miss all the signs of progress and rebirth.
We have a new train station, a big new development on the Mohawk River waterfront and a bustling restaurant scene along lower Union Street. Lower State Street, long a blighted wasteland, is being transformed with two big multi-million-dollar mixed-use projects. Proctors is busier than ever. And we have some great craft breweries, both new ones and older. The list of exciting projects seems to go on and on.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Turn back the clock 25 or 35 years. Life in Schenectady was bleak.
Back then, it was hard not to feel like the city was in a death spiral.
Downtown was filled with empty storefronts, the streets strewn with litter. The city’s once-booming workforce was a shadow of its former self. The great American Locomotive Co. had long since ceased operations while General Electric was shedding jobs by the thousands in the 1980s and ’90s.
In time, more and more smaller businesses called it quits, too. Venerable names like the Carl Co. and Wallace Armer Hardware vanished from the landscape. Others like Goldstock’s Sporting Goods pulled up stakes and moved to the suburbs.
Fortunately, some businesses stuck it out. Places like Perreca’s Bakery, a landmark in the city’s once-thriving Little Italy neighborhood.
Despite the city’s downturn and business closures all around, Perreca’s kept baking its fabulous Italian bread, just as it had been doing since 1914. Day after day, year after year, customers by the hundreds kept pulling up in their cars to pick up their daily bread.
In the 1980s, when I was in my teens, I had the privilege of working at Perreca’s over four summers. I loved the job. It gave me an up-close glimpse into the workings of a true family business, one that treats its employees and customers, even the poorest ones, like family also.
Businesses like Perreca’s are the lifeblood of a community like Schenectady, especially when the storm clouds of a downturn loom for decades, as they did here.
Leaders like Ray Gillen, Philip Morris, Neil Golub, Roger Hull and others deserve high praise for helping to bring about the city’s revival in the past two decades.
But so too do small-business owners like longtime Perreca’s matriarch and owner Lillian Perreca Papa, who died last week at the age of 93.
Lillian and company saw to it that the bakery founded by her parents, Salvatore and Carmella Perecca, kept on going strong during the rough years for Schenectady. When other places were closing their doors or moving to greener pastures, they doubled down on Schenectady. As the years pressed on, Lillian positioned the bakery well for the future by passing on the reins to her children, Maria and Tony.
Communities benefit tremendously when the small mom-and-pop places are able to stay afloat in the lean times. They give customers a reason to keep coming back when the overall shopping options are few and far between compared with more vibrant commercial areas (the suburbs and Saratoga County, in Schenectady’s case).
During my days behind the counter at Perreca’s, I served customers from all around Schenectady County and beyond. Many customers were regulars, folks who lived or worked in the city and stopped in daily. But many others made the trip into the city just to get their fix of Perreca’s bread or famous pizza. Perreca’s became its own form of “destination shopping.”
Now that Schenectady’s fortunes are on the rebound, places like Perreca’s carry even more value in the community. They’re a direct link to the community’s forefathers, in Perreca’s case a nod to the contributions made to Schenectady by the many Italian immigrants all those years ago.
So if you’d like to get a sense of the true Schenectady of yesteryear, swing by North Jay Street and pay a visit to Perreca’s.
The coal-fired oven is original 1914 construction and the plain storefront — all about the bread — seems quaintly old-fashioned in this era of gleaming LED lights and polished metal. But it can serve as a blueprint for any city that seeks a sustainable future with a vibrant community of retailers and residents involved in each other’s lives.