Back in July of 2002, an article appeared in the New York Times* about Schenectady mayor Albert P. Jurczynski's plan for the economic revitalization of his upstate city: immigrants. In 2002, the city had lost a quarter of the population it had in 1960, and with major manufacturers like General Electric gone, the Mohawk Valley city was in rough shape. Mayor Jurczynski, whose grandparents had been some of the many Polish immigrants who shaped Schenectady, saw an opportunity in the hardworking Guyanese population of Richmond Hill in Queens, and began to actively court migration to Schenectady, which provided an opportunity for the Guyanese to own homes and businesses (some vacant houses were sold for as little as $1). With the help of two Guyanese developers from Queens, free bus tours from Richmond Hill, and the Schenectady Economic Developement Corporation, Jurczynski attracted as many as 2,000 Guyanese, growing the community in the city substantially from 200 just the year before. That December, The Times continued to follow the case in an editorial, touting the impact of immigrant groups on smaller older (read:declining) towns as "enormous and positive."
The turnaround to the city anticipated by mayor Jurczynski did not come quickly enough. By 2003, the New York Times was reporting a different situation: less than a year later, the city in decline had, according to the Chamber of Commerce's Marc DeNofio, "hit rock bottom" in light of serious problems with the budget. DeNofio's note of optimism was "We can't go any lower, so the only way to go is up. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but in 10 years from now, hopefully Schenectady will be back on the map." By the time this article was written, the Guyanese population in Schenectady had reached around 5,000, and the hope was that the initiative to recruit these immigrants would pay off in the long term revitalization of the city.
At the time of its inception, this initiative caused controversy, with other ethnic groups in Schenectady feeling that they were getting the short shrift, or felt the mayor and others were insinuating that they were not hard-working. Others still found the idea exploitative. But for many, the opportunities found were a version of the American dream.
So what's happening now? One blog that chronicles the Guyanese diaspora notes the impact of one Stewarts District Manager, another account from a Albany Times Union report in 2004 runs up against a cultural divide with the backyard slaughter of goats. (An article from the Daily Gazette noted the eventual ban of all livestock in the city, but alas, you have to pay to read that paper online.)
As the debate over illegal immigration has brought cultural clashes and immigration issues generally to the fore in recent weeks, I wonder about the impact these issues have on Upstate communities, not only culturally but economically. The Guyanese in Schenectady represents a very different attitude towards immigration and migration than those we have seen in the discussion. How has the Guyanese initiative worked in Schenectady thus far? What controversies still exists in the community, and what new ones have been raised? Is Schenectady on its way to being "on the map" again? Please comment or email your thoughts on this issue.
Posted by Natalie
*Articles from these years are in the New York Times archives, which you have to either pay for, or have access to LexisNexis. If you'd like to see the text of this article or others, send me an email.The first article is available elsewhere online; the second "Two Cities, Two Immigrant Landings" from December 25, 2002, and third "Schenectady Hits a New Low, And There's No Edison in Sight" from November 23rd, 2003 are not.