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Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place:
Chapter 2: Schenectady's Downtown Story

Go back to: Shovel Ready Home | Downtown Growth and Decline | ahead to: Character, Image, and Other Reasons Downtown is Important

[This information is from pp. 29-37 of Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place: Rethinking Schenectady's Downtown Strategies, a master's thesis in city planning by Christopher Patrick Spencer (MIT, 2001), and is reproduced with his permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 711 Spe.]

Settled by Van Curler 1661
Burned by French and Indians
February 8, 1690

Historical markers that inform us of an event, Washington Slept Here, or explain what once occupied a site, Pennsylvania Station (1910-1963), are one way to tell a story about the past. Another method is through the physical evidence of the past that remains. A city can be read through the building styles, settlement patterns, and the materials used in construction. The fabric which remains gives us a window into the past, and helps us understand a city's people, its industry, its economic cycle, or even how it was affected by outside events. When there is no remaining physical record of the past, we are limited to written accounts, photographs, maps, an active imagination, or historical markers, such as the one above, located at the entrance to Schenectady where the main commercial street meets the Mohawk River.

Fig 2.01 [enlarge]

Schenectady's early settlement along the Mohawk River and Binnekill around 1798.

In 1642, the Dutch tradesman Arent Van Curler traveling along the Mohawk River spotted what he later described in a letter to his brother as "…the most beautiful land that the eye of man ever beheld." (1) He bought the land from the Mohawks, which included the Groote Vlacht (great flats) and bouwlandt (farm land). Much of the low-lying "rich alluvial plain" along the Mohawk River and Binnekill was subject to flooding, but did "provide the foodstuffs needed to sustain the settlers and their livestock. Lots also were divided and assigned within a stockade that was built to ensure more adequate protection against possible incursions by unfriendly Frenchmen or Indians from the north." (2) But on the night of February 8, 1690, while the residents were asleep, a party of Frenchmen, Sault and Algonquin Indians slipped into the unguarded north gate and killed 65 of the men, women, and children and burned most of the homes within the settlement. (3) Today the original Groote Vlacht area is mostly occupied by the General Electric Company. The original stockade area has remained primarily a residential section and is home to the city's first National Historic District, an impressive collection of 18th and 19th century buildings. The north and south gates of the stockade were uncovered in 1972 by a utility company doing excavation.

Many of the early streets of the city were laid out perpendicular and parallel to the Mohawk River and the Binnekill. But because of the twists and turns of the river, almost none of the streets in the city run in a north-south or east-west direction. Adding to the confusion for many, the Mohawk, which is generally thought of as a river with an east-west orientation, approaches the city from the northeast. Near Schenectady it is separated by a number of small islands. At the point where the Binnekill meets Washington Avenue, it turns sharply north. North of Union Street, it rejoins the Mohawk where the river turns again and flows in a north-easterly direction out of the city. Each one of these turns in the River has affected the grid of the city. For Schenectadians, it makes it difficult to know if they are going north or south, or if they are on the east or west side of the street. Few people use compass directions and are more likely to refer to going right or left, or going up or down the street or downtown or uptown. The downtown is actually located to the north of much of the city, but sits at the foot of the valley and lower than the rest of the city. So despite the fact that downtown is northerly for most of the residents, it occupies an area of the lowlands of the city and the Mohawk Valley.

After the massacre Schenectady was rebuilt and gradually grew from a little settlement into a small town. By the time it was chartered in 1798, the population of the city had grown to around 3,000 and its first college had been opened for three years already. People worked mainly as farmers, traders, merchants, or in the local mills, which were integral to the agricultural economy. For most of the early 1800s, residential development continued within the stockade and along the spine of State Street, which would eventually develop into the city's "downtown" and main shopping street. The growth and success of the city over the next 120 years was, for the most part, a combination of luck and location.

Roads, Rails, and Ditches

Fig 2.02 [enlarge]

Early view along the Erie Canal on what is now Erie Boulevard. View looking east towards the Union Street Bridge.

Fig 2.03 [enlarge]

The passenger platform for one of Schenectady's earlier train stations.

Schenectady's location played a major role in the three major transportation networks and systems that passed through the city in the early 1800s. The first was made possible in 1800 when the New York State Legislature passed the Turnpike Law allowing "private companies to build, maintain, and supervise turnpikes that would replace the stagecoach or wagon routes between cities of the state." (4) In 1808, a bridge was built across the Mohawk River as part of a turnpike and toll road that extended to Rome, New York. Soon after that, the Albany Turnpike was completed, linking Albany with points west via Schenectady. These turnpikes, although quite simple, were an improvement over earlier roads which were often washed out and filled with ruts, offering a ride that was typically was slow and rough. Excavation for the second major transportation system that would pass through Schenectady started in 1817, and was known as "Clinton's Ditch" for the sitting governor. By 1825, the 363 mile-long Erie Canal was completed, running through Schenectady along the eastern edge of the Mohawk River on what is now Erie Boulevard. Six years later in 1831, Schenectady's third major transportation system, the railroad, came through the city. (5) Like many of the early railroads, it followed the route of the canals, which had followed those of the rivers.

It is difficult to assess the exact impact that each of these early transportation systems had on the growth of the downtown. However, an examination of the build-up of commercial and residential structures during the time of each of the new systems provides some indication. Given the turnpike's route, which went directly along State Street in what is now considered the downtown, it is likely that travelers and shippers passing through that area frequented the stores or other businesses, expanding the customer base for the early merchants beyond the pedestrian city. In fact, as City Historian Larry Hart explains, "Inns and taverns sprang up all along the stage coach routes for the accommodations of hungry, thirsty, or tired travelers." (6) Another physical indication of growth during that period and the turnpike's effect on the downtown is the number of houses still remaining that were built in the Federal Style, the dominant housing type from 1780-1820. This of course does not take into account all those that have been replaced due to later intense development pressure, turned into parking lots, or modified beyond recognition.

Fig 2.04 [enlarge]

The wide expanse of Erie Boulevard along what was the Canal, towpath and Dock Street.

The impact of the Erie Canal on the downtown is much more observable, both in terms of the types of buildings left in its wake, and the physical nature of the streets that have replaced it. The canal, which included a tow path along one side, was filled in and paved over in 1925, becoming Erie Boulevard. Along the lower section (west [south?] of State Street), the tow path, canal, and adjacent Dock Street together have left lower Erie Boulevard extremely wide. The buildings along the canal were a combination of wood and masonry warehouses and granaries. The late date at which the canal was filled in caused many of the properties along it to miss the construction boom of the preceding 20 years. Although a number of buildings were constructed after that period, their scale has more in common with the smaller warehouses than that of the street. Today the buildings and street, especially south of State Street, remain out of scale with one another, and most of Erie Boulevard appears underdeveloped. The canal and the warehouse environment kept most residential development from occurring along that route, and preserved it for later industrial uses.

Fig 2.05 [enlarge]

An early and still surviving example of a Greek Revival structure in Schenectady.

Although the Erie Canal undoubtedly promoted growth of the downtown and surrounding residential area, there are relatively few Greek Revival structures found in Schenectady compared to many other canal towns of this period. It may be that much of the housing of that period was lost due to subsequent development pressure. It may also indicate that the city experienced less growth and development as a result of the canal than other towns. Or perhaps, the canal provided a means for those who could afford it to locate farther outside the city.

Fig 2.06 [enlarge]

Early Gothic Revival structure in Schenectady.

With the advent of the railroads, Schenectady was opening up to more possibilities and people. The downtown continued to prosper and grow, and the city's small but developing manufacturing base was being exposed to a much larger market. The character of the "upper" section of State Street, the area east of Erie Canal and the railroad tracks, was rapidly becoming as much of a commercial center as the "lower" section of State Street, the area west of the Erie Canal and east of the Mohawk River. By the late 1800s, the transformation of the upper part of State Street to an exclusively commercial character was almost complete, with a few residential structures still remaining near the base of Crescent Park. These changes did not occur as quickly or as early as they did in cities like New York, and despite the commercial growth, many of the newer buildings continued to house people in the upper floors.

Through the 1880s, development pressures were much less intense than those occurring in the bigger cities, which in many ways, helped Schenectady's downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods remain more livable. Although the railroad would have made it quite possible, there was little out-migration of people from the city seeking the sylvan environs espoused by Thomas Cole or the Gothic Revival abodes portrayed by Andrew Jackson Downing. There is, however, some evidence of housing from that time period located in a number of the outlying pastoral settings around Schenectady, suggesting that a few citizens with the means may have found escape from city life in the nearby countryside. Within the city, there are few extant houses built in the Gothic Revival style, which persisted from 1840-1880. The majority of the houses remaining from that period are more characteristically Italianate in style. This style, which was also prominent from 1840-1880, was more suitable to the smaller lots of an urban area, and did not require the natural setting that the Gothic Revival was at home in.

Fig 2.07 [enlarge]

View of the American Locomotive Company along the Mohawk River.

Fig 2.08 [enlarge]

Second Empire mansion of John Ellis, President of Schenectady Locomotive Works. Now a rectory for Saint John the Evangelist Church.

Although the arrival of the railroad played an important role in the growth and development of the city, more important was the role the city played in the growth and development of the railroad. In 1848, Schenectady Locomotive Works was born, and although it grew slowly and faltered at first, by 1901 it had merged with several other companies to become the American Locomotive Company, or ALCO as it was commonly referred to. By the time it closed its doors in 1969 and the last engine moved out, it had played a major role in the growth and industry of the city as well as the shipping and transportation of the country. Its presence has had a lasting impact on the downtown. The main plant for ALCO, or "The Works" as it was called in the earlier days, was located along the Erie Canal and the Mohawk River, about a half a mile northeast of State Street. Its location prevented any further expansion of the residential area of the Stockade, or any chance for connecting the city with the river along that stretch.

Residential growth during the early part of the ALCO era can be seen in the scattering of Italianate and Second Empire structures that were erected in and around the downtown. John Ellis, the founder of American Locomotive, built a large Second Empire mansion up on the hill of Nott Terrace, where from his cupola, he may have had a view of The Works down below. A number of other houses built during this period lined both sides of Nott Terrace — stretching from Nott Street to State Street. Most of these were leveled in the 1950s and 60s as a result of major urban renewal projects.

One of the most fortuitous developments for the city actually started as a misfortune for the Schenectady Locomotive Works. A disagreement between managers caused one of them to leave — determined to start his own company. He began construction on two large buildings located along the great flats, but his funding fell through and neither building was completed. Soon after, Thomas Edison arrived in Schenectady by train in search of a new manufacturing location away from the labor disputes and other problems of New York City. He sighted the two buildings that had been the outgrowth of the disagreement, and found them to be quite suitable. Here he decided to build the main plant that was to become the General Electric Company. For many in Schenectady, this is the beginning of the story of the city — the awakening of the "sleepy canal town" as some writers have described it.

Fig 2.09 [enlarge]

The sprawling operations of the General Electric Company along the River.

Fig 2.10 [enlarge]

Symbol of Schenectady's early industrial power and importance.

In 1886, before Edison arrived the population of the city was under 13,000 and had only grown by about 3,000 in the 19 years prior. By 1910, the population of Schenectady numbered almost 73,000 — 14,000 more than it is today. (Which is about 700,000 less than the city's 1924 plan had projected by the year 2000!) By 1930, the city had reached its peak of about 95,700 residents. Because of the dominance by both American Locomotive and General Electric, many referred to Schenectady as "The City That Lights and Hauls the World." This explosive growth, coupled with the many homes and commercial buildings built during this period, gave the city many characteristics typical of a boom town. The majority of the existing housing stock dates from the first 30 years of the 20th century. Most of the commercial buildings in the downtown are about 70 to 110 years old. Many in the city see this as an obstacle to progress, a sign that the city that is filled with old, deteriorated, and obsolete buildings. Other see it as an opportunity for enhancement, a chance to build on the stock of historic buildings that contribute to the character of the downtown and neighborhoods of the city.

By 1940, the population of the city had shrunk by about 8,000 to 87,500 — marking a downward trend which continues today. Despite the downturn in population, the downtown remained busy, with little room for expansion. The chamber of commerce responded in 1947 with a grand vision for the city and its downtown. It was a time of tomorrow and the impressive plan suggested a futuristic city center that would help erase the image of the old industrial town and provide room for the downtown to grow. Over the next 20 years or more, guided by the 1947 vision and a 1948 plan, and assisted by the state and federal government subsidies, the city set out to rid the area around downtown of blight and replace it with something much less congested and much more suburban. Along State Street and other commercial streets in the downtown, merchants began to "update" the façades of their buildings to keep pace with the new look of the suburban prototype.

Fig 2.11 [enlarge]

Trolley tracks being installed in 1913…

Fig 2.12 [enlarge]

…and then being removed in 1952.

The old, outdated streetcars made their last run in 1946, and were replaced with buses until the company folded in 1951. By 1952, the worn cobblestone roadway and rusting tracks had been removed and replaced with a fresh carpet of black macadam for the comfort of the automobiles, which would own the road until the buses returned, mostly empty, in 1970. With the streetcars gone, everyone coming downtown would need a place to park. More commercial buildings and large tracts of residential housing were bulldozed to make way for parking lots, suburban department stores, and acres of empty promises.

By the time the 1960s came to a close, so did most of the downtown theaters. Soon after the new decade began, department stores began folding, buildings tumbled, and parking lots continued to spawn, while shoppers kept shopping — at the malls. The city's backwards "Field of Dreams" had not worked. And so the city began to build. They embarked upon ambitious projects on opposite sides of the street. On one side, they connected an entire block of buildings from within so that customers could avoid the harsh realities of the street. A canal, that often acted as a moat, was dug around part of the mall, both to remind people of the local heritage and to help them forget where they were. Unfortunately it leaked into the basements, became a liability, and was unceremoniously filled in like the previous canal. On the other side of the street, water was also the main attraction. It was supposed to be filled with skaters, families, and weekly events. But almost before the paint was dry both projects were in the red. At the rink, the weekly events happened yearly, the ice turned to turf, and families traded skates for soccer cleats. Neither project was built to the standards promised and neither performed as expected. Despite the evocative names that brought to mind visions of a city center, a canal, and a square — together the project only seemed to create a larger hole in the downtown. Schenectady's Canal Square and Center City had failed to revive State Street or bring the shoppers back.

Fig 2.13 [enlarge]

The new look of State Street after trolley tracks had been removed and new pavement put down.

By the mid-1980s, the merchants located along State Street and Jay Street were suffering. In response to their plight, the city began two parallel, or perhaps more appropriately perpendicular projects. Less substantial than those of the late 1970s, one project was somewhat effective, the other mostly destructive. Traffic was diverted from one block of Jay Street, trees and lights added, and pedestrian traffic encouraged. Despite the long history of failed pedestrian malls, this one worked, in short, because of its length. Along State Street, empty sidewalks were widened to relieve the congestion, benches added, and not much was encouraged. Along the road, traffic was encouraged, parking discouraged, and shoppers eliminated. And just like in Los Angeles and all of other cities that have tried removing parking from the street, it only served to deter business.

Since the mid-1980s, Schenectady has struggled to turn around the fortunes of the downtown. While not all the storefronts are empty, they contain largely a mix of social services, accountants, lawyers, and a number of other uses that are hardly guaranteed magnets for downtown shoppers. A number of streetscape projects were completed largely through volunteer efforts to help beautify the downtown and ready it for the new millennium. The city, for its part, has been unable to put together a street-level approach to retain or attract small businesses. The buildings lining the downtown street continue to deteriorate, making them easy targets for demolition. And although new buildings are being planned, the vacancy rate for existing ones remains high. At the same time, salvageable buildings are becoming landfill while vacant land remains waiting nearby.

Schenectady's downtown is at a point where many people feel it can go nowhere but up. But it has been at that point before, and somehow went lower. The city must begin to understand what a good downtown is before it can build one. It must begin to understand the downtown's importance to the city, surrounding towns, and the region at large. It must understand where it has gone wrong in the past, so it can avoid costly mistakes in the future. It must know where it was, where it is, and where it wants to go, before it can get there.

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