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Civility … for all our sakes

Recent street violence in downtown Schenectady reported by area media reinforced the fact that the barrel is always at the mercy of a few bad apples — and worse, when the affected fruit numbers more than a few. But from experience, I agree with the comments of those quoted in some of the reports: these are isolated incidences, noteworthy and alarming, but, certainly, a call to action.

I lived in Chelsea for more than 20 years. Halfway through that happy stretch, Bruce Ritter’s Covenant House replaced the Maritime Union in the ship-shaped structure next door. The outcry from neighbors surprised me; I had no idea what would come.

But quickly, weekend nights were punctuated with the sounds of police and emergency vehicles and the otherworldly screams from the inhabitants of this drug recovery center acting out in “roid rage” (the result of abuse of already illegal anabolic-androgen steroids), beating one another, and hurling themselves against the stoops, fences and walls of neighboring houses.

Adding to the incredible scene were the half-clothed hookers with their incessant singsong query of every male passerby on foot or car: Steppin’ out, dear?). They engaged too quickly with the drug dealers driven to our neighborhood and the West Village as Disney “cleaned up” Times Square for more righteous folk.

For more than a year, the outrageous behavior persisted and blistered our sense of community. Parents and children sitting on the stoops to their houses and apartments were threatened, solicited and propositioned. Those of us with cars (a luxury in Manhattan) had more than once come down in the morning to find windows smashed and door damaged — not by objects but by drug-addled people acting out their inner pain and rage against … who knows?

While talking with my mother in a suburb of Philadelphia one afternoon, I disconnected without ever saying goodbye. As we laughed, I saw a car drive up to mine — then slow, then stop. Curious, I watched as we talked. With a jolt, I realized that I left my keys in the trunk after unloading groceries. I dialed 911 and ran down the three flights of stairs, missing most of them. My car was in motion. I chased it in the hope that the afternoon traffic and the three intervening traffic lights would force the driver to halt before he hit the easy escape of the West Side Highway.

“Stop that man. He’s stolen my car.” I was the one screaming now! Most just looked and kept on walking. Why get involved? Why invite trouble?

Once the car turned and headed north on 10th Avenue, I cut my pace. My heart was about to jump out of my body. No sense dying over a car, I told myself. I walked slowly up the avenue, and decided to return home. In the middle of the next block, I saw a police car — and my car! They had responded to my call and saw the car. The driver must have realized that I was a nut case in my relentless chase. He had abandoned the car, still running, mid-block, half on the sidewalk.

Before I finally moved (for reasons unrelated to what I have said above), the neighborhood changed. People with a spirit of adventure — the same spirit that reclaimed the Upper West Side, Harlem, So-Ho, and most recently the East Village, No-Ho and Tribecca moved in searching for new horizons and more affordable living.

Soon, thereafter, an undaunted gay population began to infiltrate the neighborhoods, gentrifying the houses and streets, attracting businesses and nightlife. And, as in the other ‘hoods, they were followed by the well heeled with a nose for cache, one-upmanship and upward mobility. Their presence, more than anything else, not only attracted businesses — but encouraged them to stay open longer and late to accommodate the busy and flexible working and living styles of incoming residents.

When the hundreds of limos that depart the Financial District each night to deliver their high-powered money-manager passengers to their pied de tiers, lofts and condos, their passengers want to stop at local delis, eateries, pharmacies, coffee-terias. The smart entrepreneurs built them — and toughed it out — knowing that they would come — and they did and do.

Of course the economics of Schenectady differs from the Big Apple. But the relentless march of trendsetters and gentrifiers and entrepreneurs will help reclaim downtown Schenectady. In truth, they already have with the support of the DSIC (Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporations), savvy realtors, the city’s Chamber of Commerce, a reinvigorated police force and, of course, the ever-present Proctors arts and entertainment complex and its followers, which appear to support the number and frequency of whole-family entertainments at this historic theatre and pulling more and more people into the downtown area.

Short-term challenges must not be allowed to derail the future of the Electric City. Civility will prevail if civilized people are prepared to prevail.

For all our sakes, I hope so.

Unruffled but on-guard about recent crime-related events, Thom O’Connor still plans to move to Schenectady — and probably downtown.


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