SCHENECTADY — It was the last day of the year, and all was quiet in the ordinarily bustling food pantry on Albany Street.
Rev. Phil Grigsby had just sat down with a cup of coffee when someone banged on the door.
He got up, went over to the lobby and returned.
“Someone asking to use the phone,” Grigsby shrugged.
A small request. But it’s also indicative of the role Schenectady Community Ministries has occupied in the past five decades, three of them under Grigsby’s leadership.
A refuge, a harbor — the epicenter of social outreach in a low-income community, a vital resource for the underserved.
Grigsby is fond of recalling the Schenectady Gazette’s above-the-fold headline the day after he arrived in the Electric City:
“GE lays off 4,000,” Grigsby recalled. “That was dramatic.”
That was 33 years ago, and portended what the Yale Divinity School graduate and Peace Corps volunteer was up against as he prepared to take the reins at Schenectady Inner City Ministry:
A shrinking city reeling from disinvestment, white flight to the suburbs and a hollowed-out downtown.
With the outflow, those who couldn’t make it in the prevailing economy, primarily welfare recipients and the elderly, were left behind.
“With the demographic shift, there was a real loss of civic associations,” Grigsby said.
The religious community wasn’t immune: Some churches slashed their hours. Others shut down entirely, while some debarked for the suburbs.
The loss of wealth and diminished downtown and neighborhoods resulted in more people in need.
The tenure of Grigsby’s work has spanned some of the most challenging years in Schenectady’s history, said the Rev. Peter J. B. Carman, SICM’s president.
“While the city faced increasing poverty, and sometimes painful gaps in understanding, Rev. Grigsby led congregations in responding ecumenically to the increasing need and challenges,” he said.
Despite those challenges, Grigsby was clear-eyed.
While some hoped for an unknown miracle intervention — a reversal of GE policies, another deus ex machina — the western New York native immediately got to work, leading teams of volunteers and laypeople to launch a number of programs to fill the void, many of which remain vibrant today.
“Change is inevitable, but transformation is optional,” Grigsby said. “It forces you to be more creative and figure out what else can be done.”
Grigsby, 72, retired from his position as executive director of the nonprofit, which was rebranded as Schenectady Community Ministries, Dec. 31.
During the past three decades of his leadership, the ministry's work expanded substantially, and Grigsby leaves behind a rich legacy of programs, including the food pantry, summer meal programs and Project SAFE, a community effort to push back against underage street-level prostitution.
“The streets were, in a way, stronger,” Grigsby said, recalling the mid-1980s. “There was more businesses, but more illegal activity in terms of prostitution.”
Ground zero was the Landmark Tavern.
With state funding, SICM pulled together a coalition of city agencies, law enforcement and the court system that managed to put a dent in the practice.
“It was the first ‘blue and gray’ coalition working together, cops and the state, and that’s what made it work,” Grigsby said.
That effort eventually blossomed into SAFE House, a home for young people trying to escape exploitation -- runaways and throwaways.
Other programming includes Community Land Trust and Bethesda House, the State Street shelter born after deinstitutionalization released people with mental health issues and disabilities from state-run facilities into the community.
For the nonprofit, adaptability and flexibility is key.
SICM has generally responded to community concerns as they arise, and has served as an incubator, building coalitions and giving fledgling programming stability before handing them over to other agencies.
The only exception has been the long-running food pantry -- first launched by First United Methodist -- which serves an average of 75 families each week.
“That we do a food pantry is necessary but unavoidable,” Grigsby said.
Addressing hunger is among one of his proudest accomplishments, and the nonprofit has also led coalitions to restore the school lunch program, initiate school breakfast, expand the food pantry and initiate the Summer Food Service with mobile meals.
Attitudes toward school nutrition have shifted over time.
“In fairness, at that time the idea of food and education were separate,” Grigsby said. “They did not connect, as they do now, that food is part of education.”
During his tenure, the nonprofit also launched community gardens and built a playground at Jerry Burrell Park as part of Project SKIP, a campaign Grigsby counted as among the most unique executed during his tenure.
Working with Union College volunteers inspired by Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in New Orleans and other stakeholders, SICM raised funds for a community playground that was erected by a team of volunteers in an Amish-style barn-raising ceremony.
“It was fascinating to go from nothing to a community playground in one day,” Grigsby said.
More recent victories have included blocking a proposed liquor store across from SICM headquarters, a business critics say would have delivered a setback to the positive momentum taking shape in the neighborhood, which is among the city’s most impoverished.
SICM, too, is undergoing changes at its Albany Street headquarters:
They’re poised to expand the location as part of a $1.1 million effort, building a new community resource center with an expanded food pantry.
Grigsby will serve as honorary fundraising chair in his retirement.
As he leaves office, the clouds are lifting over Schenectady:
Affordable housing complexes are taking shape in Hamilton Hill and Goose Hill, downtown is booming and a slice of polluted waterfront has been transformed into a vibrant housing, retail and entertainment complex.
Much of that should be attributed to Schenectady County Metroplex Authority and its chairman Ray Gillen, who excels at leveraging funds and pulling deals together, Grigsby said.
“On the whole it’s doing much better,” Grigsby said. “It’s just taken longer than people hoped for.”
While the city’s fortunes have improved considerably since he touched down in 1986, myriad challenges remain.
“The big challenge of this community is embracing diversity,” Grigsby said. “We have a more diverse community, but we have community institutions that don’t reflect that.”
That lack of diversity has been a flashpoint in recent City Council and County Legislature races.
Grigsby acknowledged progress is a “tough nut to crack.” But more community conversation is a good starting point, he said.
Bright spots include the city’s Affirmative Action Coordinator Ron Gardner leading the city’s affirmative action programming and the recently reignited Schenectady NAACP.
“We need that voice of advocacy,” Grigsby said. “That voice has been missing for quite some time.”
Another challenge is ensuring a strong independent Civilian Police Review Board.
Police oversight boards in small and medium-sized cities, including Schenectady, should have subpoena power, Grigsby said, which would allow for more effective investigations of alleged police misconduct.
But laws like Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, which shields law enforcement personnel records from release, remain strong in New York, he said.
“It makes independent oversight much more difficult,” he said.
Grigsby has seen his share of city police chiefs come and go, and expressed optimism over Chief Eric Clifford’s tenure so far.
“I’m glad to see this emphasis now on supporting neighborhoods, and neighborhood concerns of policing,” he said.
The department, however, needs to continue to be sensitive in how it responds to quality-of-life issues and should aim to deploy resources at an “appropriate level,” Grigsby said.
Does he have any regrets?
The outgoing director said he does not, but rather hopes several unfinished agenda items can eventually be addressed.
That includes boosting participation in Schenectady County Embraces Diversity, an effort designed to foster diversity-related discussions between youngsters and adults.
Following the defeat of the proposed liquor store, Grigsby said the city must consider ways to address planning and zoning for different development.
“Not for Big Brother, but some way to steer what I and others would see as more appropriate development,” he said.
Addressing hunger and food insecurity, which has historically been at the center of the nonprofit’s efforts, also remains paramount.
Grigsby hopes the nonprofit will obtain approval to serve mobile summer meals from street corners, and hopes the county can implement a recently crafted food plan designed to address insecurity more systematically.
And while calls for viable inner-city grocery stores remain chronic, Grigsby acknowledged current models don't fit — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution.
Another looming concern is declining volunteerism.
While people are generally willing to volunteer for one-off events like food drives, it’s more difficult to entice people to sit on a committee, which requires sustained effort.
It’s those volunteers, Grigsby said, who have made the journey so rewarding.
“One of the best memories for me is the remarkable and dedicated volunteers and people I have met and worked with through SICM,” he said. “Staff, volunteers, delegates — just a remarkable crew.”
Jo-Anne Rafalik will serve as acting director during the transition to new leadership.
Rafalik, who took office Jan. 1, acknowledged she has big shoes to fill.
But as the nonprofit enters a new chapter, Grigsby has left the organization poised for success with strong finances and an expansion on the horizon, she said.
“He left us in very good hands,” Rafalik said.
Carman, SICM’s president, agreed.
“He leaves behind him not only the legacy of strong programs of direct service and the echo of a clear voice of conscience, but also an organization that is today well-equipped to move into the future,” he said.
A retirement party will be held for Rev. Grigsby Jan. 26 at 4 p.m. at College Park Hall on the campus of Union College. Members of the public are welcome to attend. Grigsby asks that all donations be directed toward the SICM Capital Campaign.