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Neighbor joining neighbor

Small associations keep city on track

Gazette Reporter  - 1/28/2001

Thomas Jefferson espoused the benefits of civic virtue as much as anyone of his time, and if he could have looked into the future to see democracy at work, Schenectady would have caught his eye.

Neighborhood associations, where average citizens can find a platform to air the issues that concern them and act on the solutions, have played a pivotal role in the city's history for much of the past four decades. The Founding Fathers would have been proud, and while today's city officials are often targets of an association's ire, they also realize their importance.

"I kind of came up through the ranks, so I have a keen appreciation of the neighborhood associations," said Thomas Isabella, a Schenectady City Council member for 16 years and president before resigning in 1995. "I disagreed with them sometimes, and they could get very vocal, but I never really considered them a thorn in my side. I went to a lot of the meetings. It was a way to find out what the pulse of the people was."

There are currently 14 different neighborhood associations in the city. Some are dormant, waiting for another hot issue to spark citizens to action. Some have regular meetings with busy agendas ranging anywhere from concern over the number of crossing guards to the need for federal money for housing improvements. And some are a mirror image of the city itself, at times marked by political in-fighting with two opposing factions each battling for control.

Of those 14 groups in Schenectady, the Stockade Association, created in 1958, was the first example of neighbors formally joining forces to present a united front to city government. But according to Dr. Ivan Steen, history professor at the University at Albany, the neighborhood association, in some form or other, has been around much longer.

"I can't believe Jefferson or Madison weren't visited by their neighbors or other groups that were part of a lobbying effort," said Steen. "You go back to the 19th century, and you might read how, `a group of gentlemen called upon,' whomever. Lately, neighborhood groups have become formal associations, but they usually all derived out of a single issue."

Neighborhood groups fail to get a mention in either the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, but Steen feels they are a perfect example of our country's democratic ideals.

"It's a way for people to express themselves in our democracy," said Steen. "I'm sure in the 19th century the groups were more elite. But in time they became less elite, and now it's the whole idea of average people being able to approach their legislators. People want to have access."

Carl Olsen, director of the city's Department of Neighborhood Revitalization, said Schenectady officially recognizes eight neighborhood districts, but those boundaries are for use by police and other city management groups.

"Any group of individuals can determine their own boundaries, have a few meetings, call themselves a group, and that's great," said Olsen. "Some are officially recognized as nonprofit entities, and some are just neighborhood groups. But the city is very lucky to have that network up and running. They're very helpful to us. They're our eyes and ears."

Neighborhood associations are not a local phenomenon. In May 1997, CANA, the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations, hosted the national conference of Neighborhoods USA, a nonprofit organization committed to building and strengthening neighborhood organizations. The group has a membership base of 1,100 associations, with 700 to 900 participants attending the annual conference.

"Even New York City has neighborhood associations, but they call them block associations and they have 3,000 of them," said Harold Rubin, a spokesman for CANA. "Basically, they all organized against something, and then they realize there are so many other issues, they end up staying together. But they're all a great example of a working democracy."

Saving the Stockade
It was Jim Schmitt, an Erie, Pa., native who helped rekindle civic virtue in the Stockade neighborhood back in the late 1950s. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, Schmitt moved to Schenectady in 1956, started calling his neighbors to meetings in 1958, and by 1961, the Stockade Association had made its neighborhood the first historic district in the state.

"I'm still very proud of that," said Schmitt, who has worked as an architect in the city since becoming a resident and remains active in the association. "We got together, we had high ideals, and we all became a great family. There had been some neglect in the neighborhood, so we wanted to bring attention to ourselves and create a new attitude. I can remember a young man coming up to me and telling me how he was proud to live in the Stockade because of what we had done. It made me feel wonderful."

In 1974, a handful of members of the Stockade Association broke away to form their own group, the East Front Street Neighborhood Association.

Its first priority was stopping the city's plan to build low-income housing in the neighborhood, according to Carmella Ruscitto, the current president.

"We fought that successfully, and then we realized that we should have more input into the neighborhood," said Ruscitto. "Our members made vigorous efforts to revitalize the neighborhood by getting federal grants, and we also got the zoning changed from heavy industrial to multiple resident. We feel like we've made some marked improvement in the tone and appearance of our neighborhood."

The mid-1970s marked the emergence of more neighborhood associations, including now-defunct groups like South Downtown, Linton and North Woodlawn. There were as many as 17 associations, according to Schenectady United Neighborhoods (SUN) when that umbrella group was formed in 1979 to help facilitate residents' complaints about snow removal. Only 11 of them, however, joined SUN at the time, and now eight of the 14 groups in the city are members.

"Through banding together we have accomplished a great deal," said current SUN president Dolores Hutton, who is also the president of the Bellevue Neighborhood Association. "What is a priority in Bellevue may not be one in Hamilton Hill or Mont Pleasant. But our whole purpose is to come together and see how we can help each other. If there's a problem in Mont Pleasant and it doesn't get solved, it comes to Bellevue."

Barbara Blanchard, a resident of University Place, had a problem with the city and nearby Union College in 1986 before she banded her neighbors together and made a difference.

"Garbage and bad student behavior," said Blanchard, who hosted the first meeting of the Union Triangle Neighborhood Association and became its first president. "That's why we started meeting. But even if you don't have a controversial issue, I can't say strongly enough how important it is that people organize their neighborhoods and take an interest in what happens there."

The prospect of medical waste treatment centers, trash transfer stations, closure of fire houses, and minor league baseball at Central Park are among the issues that have ignited Schenectady's neighborhood associations to action over the past three decades. Each time, average citizens acting through the neighborhood associations played a key role in the outcome.

In the case of bringing minor league baseball to Central Park, residents of the area felt the city should adhere to a local ordinance which stated that the park should remain commercial free.

"I guess you could say they squashed it," said Isabella, who in his first month as a City Council member in 1980 was pushing for minor league baseball to come to Central Park only to see the project undone by opposition from the Central Park North Neighborhood Association. "It was an unbelievable welcoming to the world of politics for me. I loved sports so I was for it. But they were organized and had a real passion for their cause. They won."

Partisan perils
Ideally, neighborhood associations want to take action only when the group feels it has a strong consensus. Otherwise, partisan politics can turn civic virtue into a frustrating experience. "I try to make sure people check their politics at the door," said Hutton, "but there are people who come in with a political agenda. Hopefully people will recognize that and root it out, because nothing can kill an organization more than politics. I'm sure we have a mixture of Republicans and Democrats in SUN, but I don't know which they are. We don't talk politics."

The two, however, are connected. Schenectady Mayor Albert P. Jurczynski says he never would have gotten involved in politics if it wasn't for his experience as president of the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association 20 years ago. "I was just out of the service and going to school, and I really didn't know what I wanted to do," said Jurczynski. "My mother went to a meeting, and then got me into it, and I thought the civic virtue would look good on my resume. But it was a great experience and gave me some exposure in the public arena.

"That's where I come from, so I'm not the least bit intimidated by the neighborhood associations," added Jurczynski. "I think they're great, and they're exactly what our democracy is about. I feel a lot more comfortable with them than I do the party bosses."