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Big changes take shape in tiny Schenectady neighborhood

Big changes take shape in tiny Schenectady neighborhood

New mural, paving buoy local spirits
Big changes take shape in tiny Schenectady neighborhood
Paul Casillo and Marilyn Cardinal pose in front of a mural on East Front Street.
Photographer: Pete DeMola/Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — Things are happening in the city's East Front Street neighborhood. 

Residents got a double-jolt of activity last week with a celebration touting the partial completion of a mural commemorating the neighborhood’s working-class history. 

And East Front Street street is freshly paved.

They may not be extravagant touches, but for residents of this tiny six-street neighborhood tucked between the Stockade and Mohawk Harbor riverside development, the improvements are indicative of positive moment. 

“It’s about time,” said Sadie Danahy as she surveyed the fresh asphalt. “I probably won’t be repairing my car as much.”

As part of the “Reawakening East Front Street” project, a local artist is painting a mural on a railroad bridge. 

“It’s nice to see people care about the neighborhood,” said Danahy, who lives across the street. “It’s nice to learn about the history of the neighborhood.”

Front Street resident Shaun Cole gazed at the bright blue wall while strolling past.

“It brightens the community,” he said. “I’m glad they’re doing it, and it’s good to see it coming to fruition.”

Dignities gathered on a crisp fall afternoon Friday to formally celebrate the new mural, but were delayed by 35 minutes as paving crews tamped down the fresh coats of pavements. 

The mural joins new decorative banners, street signs and trash cans made possible by the “Thriving Neighborhoods Challenge,” a citywide initiative that allows residents to envision and execute projects to improve their neighborhoods.

The effort is funded by the city and the Schenectady Foundation, and organizers this year are again offering $250,000 for the second round of projects.

Applications were due Oct. 25.

Twelve projects were awarded funding last year out of nearly 50 applicants, including “Reawakening.”

Immigrants originally flocked to the neighborhood to work at the American Locomotive Co., known as “Alco,” which also manufactured tanks. 

No other neighborhood in the United States did more to support the World War II effort than East Front Street, said Ray Gillen, chairman of the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority.

“I look at what happened at the Alco site as really historic,” Gillen said.

The heavy artillery built in Schenectady made it to Africa to take on German Gen. Edwin Rommel and his Nazi forces.

“He stared at 1,000 M7 tank killers that Alco made,” Gillen said.

The mural is half completed.

“We ran out of weather,” East Front Neighborhood Association President Mary Ann Ruscitto said.

The completed portion depicts a locomotive and commemorates the neighborhood as a magnet for immigrants from Italy and Poland.

“A neighborhood established in the 1800s by immigrants who came to build the railroad,” reads the text.

The second phase will pay homage to the community’s home as a boxing hotbed and home to local legends like Tony Barone and Joe “Pep” Casillo, who mentored and trained generations of athletes.

Barone’s daughter, Debbie Barone-Tanski, said she appreciated the East Front Neighborhood Association working with the city and the Schenectady Foundation to honor her father, a well-known amateur boxer who nearly went pro and trained youngsters at nearby Riverside Park.

“He would be honored but he was kind of a low-key guy,” she said. 

Marilyn Cardinal and Paul Casillo recalled their father Joe Casillo as a down-to-earth guy who took wayward neighborhood kids under his wing and showed them the ropes.

“This is a wonderful tribute,” Cardinal said. 

Casillo was unaware of his father’s deep imprint on the neighborhood until he was older.

At his funeral, waves of people approached him.

“I was going the wrong way until I met your father, and he put me on the right path,” they told him. 

Additional neighborhood fixtures will be painted by the artist, who prefers to remain anonymous, including the former Mastrianni’s Bakery on Mohawk Avenue and Perreca’s, which was previously located on John Street before relocating to its present location on North Jay Street.

The Downtown Revitalization Initiative is poised to further connect riverfront developments to downtown, and East Front Street will likely benefit, Gillen said. 

“The East Front Street neighborhood is a critical part of connecting the harbor to downtown,” he said.

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