Category Archives: Quality of Life

Skiing my way through Snowmageddon

There’s been much hype, and post hype criticism of the handling of the snow storm this week. My friend from the area says he uses a factor of 3 (not of the American Pie variety) to estimate the quantity of snow we will receive. Take the forecast, he says, and divide by 3.

I was actually disappointed we didn’t receive more snow because I used the snowstorm as an excuse to get out of the house (shoveling could wait, of course) and go cross-country skiing at Schenectady’s golf course just before sunset. I am new to the whole idea of skiing, so I immediately fell on the downward slope next to the parking lot; and unlike downhill skiing, where I am moderately successful, cross-country posses unique challenges for me. Specifically, I lack the ability to turn or stop with any success. But it was a beautiful day to visit the course! The low light combined with my terrible photography skills makes for a grainy photo…

Skiing at Schenectady's Municipal Golf Course
Skiing at Schenectady’s Municipal Golf Course

Not only was it a great place to ski, but it’s close, free, and has some great tiered hills which looked great for sledding. Most of the locals I speak with talk about Dead Man’s Hill in Central Park, which is a great large hill, but I think it will be even more fun to sled in the golf course, and I’ll give it a shot the next time I get a chance.

As a random aside, apparently a movie was made called Snowmageddon. From IMDB:

An Alaskan town is in danger of destruction by a mystical snow globe that appears on a family’s doorstep, wrapped like a Christmas gift, and causes deadly “natural” disasters in the real world, while simultaneously occurring in the globe.

It looks like one of those Troll 2 good-bad movies to add to my queue. if only it were on Netflix…

Don’t just eat food, give it

It’s time for the annual Concerned for the Hungry Thanksgiving Food Baskets. They are looking for volunteers to sort food, pack boxes, and deliver food to families starting next Wed, 19 Nov. Check out their website for more information. It’s a little hard to find, so I copied it at the end too.

Every day I am constantly shocked by the level of poverty in Schenectady. Food security is one of those topics that shouldn’t be an issue in the US, yet it is such a problem in Schenectady that when free breakfasts and lunches were provided to all students, attendance jumped by 38% in the high school and 50% in the middle school. Almost 43% of those who responded to the UMatter Health survey last year are using SNAP, and I see food stamps used at the grocery store every time I go.

The food insecurity contrasts with the proliferation of a food culture where people like Michael Pollan suggest food “rules” without consideration for price. Yelp abounds with reviews of restaurants, cool new food trucks, and gourmet culture. Even Price Chopper, the only grocery in Schenectady, will be changing its name to Market 32 to better appeal to the gourmet crowd. I should note here, that I generally agree with the criticism that the true cost of much of the cheap food is being felt in other ways, e.g., polluted waterways.

I also love good food, so I struggle with how to rectify the juxtaposition of high food culture with urban poverty. I don’t expect I’ll be able to change agricultural policy or any of the other structural issues that result in the largest level of inequality in the developed world; but what I can do is support the efforts of organizations, such as Concerned for the Hungry, that focus on alleviating the food needs of Schenectadians throughout the year. I hope you can join me in volunteering next week, and if it doesn’t work in your schedule (we’re all busy, right?), then I hope you can consider supporting efforts to meet the immediate local food needs.

Volunteer Information 2014
Volunteers are needed for the 2014 Thanksgiving Food Drive!! All are welcome on the following dates/times.
** Individuals do not need to sign up to volunteer. Simply come to the school at indicated dates/times.

***Groups of 10 or more, please send us an email indicating the date and timeframe you would like to volunteer.

Volunteer Location:
William C. Keane Elementary School
1252 Albany Street
Schenectady, NY 12304


Sat Nov. 15, 9-2pm: Sorting Boy Scout food donations
Weds Nov. 19, 4-8pm: Assembling Boxes
Thurs Nov. 20, 9am-3pm: Pick-up/unload food
Fri Nov. 21, 9am-4pm: Sorting food
Sat Nov. 22, 10am-5pm: Packing Food Baskets
Sun Nov. 23, 9am-6pm: Distributing Food Baskets
Mon Nov. 24, 8am-4pm: Agency Pick-up/Deliveries

** Please enter through the side entrance ONLY, the main entrance will be locked **

How do you know Schenectady doesn’t suck?

So, bashing Schenectady is one of the top things to do if you’re from Upstate NY (#25, apparently), and certainly there are many things one could complain about…or as I like to say, there is a lot of potential. Ever since the Gazette ran the article about a couple of instagrammers trying to change the image of Schenectady, I began to think about what it is that makes a place ‘suck’?

Should we define whether or not a place sucks by our desire to live there? If so, then there are many places that would suck for no other reason than the weather. Many people would lump the entire Northeast into that category. San Francisco has many great attractions, great scenery, beautiful weather, great food, and an avant-garde art scene, but with home prices higher there than almost anywhere else in the country, I certainly wouldn’t want to live there unless I made significantly more money.

Perhaps a place sucks because of bad schools and dilapidated buildings? It’s tempting to think of less-than-perfect locations as places that suck, but it’s also important to realize that less expensive places to live provide valuable opportunities for people on fixed or small incomes to establish themselves. These places define the American dream more than any wealthy suburb. Does Schenectady have that vibrant churn of prosperity? I’m certain it could be much better, but I know that Schenectady doesn’t suck because its citizens are low income. The schools also do not suck because of bad test scores, since they are tied to income as this summary of SAT scores versus family income shows from the NY Times. The income and schools, however, are the reason why people think Schenectady sucks. This thinking is a symptom of the growing socioeconomic divide plaguing the country, and all the more reason to have a day to celebrate Schenectady, as I’ve argued before.

Growing up in my hometown, I would always complain about the lack of things to do. Compared to Schenectady, a city of similar size, that was certainly the case. Schenectady has Proctor’s, which shows great performances year round, as well as SLOC and Schenectady Civic Players. I haven’t see the Civic Players, but I was very pleased with SLOC’s performance of Next to Normal. Not to mention its own museum, scientific history, and delicious local food. My hometown had a mall and a movie theater. So, Schenectady doesn’t suck for a lack of things to do even though I hear the same complaints from high school students as I had for my hometown when I was their age.

Ultimately, what matters are the people we interact with on a daily basis because even in the wealthiest zip code in Manhattan, if your neighbors are rude and mean spirited then where you live will suck. Last winter, two teenagers in the neighborhood came to help me clear snow from my car after one of our large snowstorms, and my neighbor helped me keep my sidewalk clear during the day, so when I came home from work I had less to shovel. I meet people across the city who are deeply concerned with improving their neighborhoods by picking up trash, as was revealed during the Goose Hill NA citizen awards. Even just last night, a biker ran into my car and broke the cover on my taillight, but instead of leaving anonymously, he rang my doorbell, told me about the accident, and gave me his information so he could pay to get it fixed. That sure beats the time I had my side view mirror smashed intentionally in CA!

So, does Schenectady suck? It’s certainly not perfect. Quality of life issues, e.g., litter, noise, potholes, can all be improved; but when it comes to the people I live with, Schenectady doesn’t suck at all.

Goose Hill NA Community Recognition Awards

Below is the transcript for the Goose Hill NA Community Recognition Awards given at the conclusion of the Steinmetz pavilion dedication ceremony.

Don Birch

Don Birch, owner of the Sawmill Tavern in Schenectady, is one of the city’s finest volunteers. In addition to running his business, Mr. Birch is involved in running several overwhelmingly successful motorcycle charity runs benefiting children and elderly and everyone in between.

In need of a meal? Don’t worry, Don will feed you. He provides shut ins with weekly meals as well as holiday meals. You may live alone, but Don makes sure that you aren’t forgotten or overlooked. The list goes on. He moves people, shovels snow, mows lawns, and provides his community with copious amounts of charity, kindness, and thoughtfulness.

Needless to say, Don is one of the first to take time from his schedule to “step up to the plate” and see to it that whatever needs doing, gets done.

Smiling and shaking hands, Don treats everyone with the utmost respect. You meet him for the first time and you’re made to feel like family.

Out hats are off to you! Thank you for the example you set.

Karen B. Johnson

Karen B. Johnson is a former mayor and former city council member for Schenectady. Currently, she is the Vice Chair of the County Legislature. Karen has given 40 years of service to the constituents of Schenectady.

Karen always makes herself available to anyone with a question. Legislator Johnson, 1 of 3 representatives for this district, has worked hard guiding, outlining, and suggesting various ideas and avenues to the Steinmetz Park Community. We have this lovely pavilion to thank her for, as well as the success of Phase 1 [of the Steinmetz Park renovation].

She has kept her eye on the funds allocated for our park and has made sure that our tax dollars have been properly used. Her 40 years of service extends way beyond her job description, and her dedication is admirable. Our sincere appreciation goes to Karen B. Johnson as well as our heartfelt thanks.

Margaret Novak

For the past 3 years, Margaret has organized and prepared a block party for her section of Randolph Rd. This includes sending out emails to her neighbors, getting the proper permission from the city, and planning for the food to be brought by the residents. The block parties have been quite a success, and that is due to Margaret’s hard work and dedication. Keep up the good work, Margaret. Perhaps, you can share your ideas with the other residential areas. We salute you, Margaret!

Peter Rieck

If you need a good neighbor to be around, Peter Rieck is that man. While he walks his dog around Steinmetz Park every day, he picks up trash and checks to see if there is a broken swing or a park bench in need of repair. He goes home for the appropriate tools and repairs them if possible. Peter alerts the proper authorities if he sees any foul play or negative issues regarding the park. One thing about Peter is that he offers help without being asked. He is willing to lend a hand on various projects which can include taking pictures and videotaping different events…exactly what he is doing today! We can’t say enough thank you’s to Peter Rieck!

Mildred White

Another good neighbor to know is Mildred White. Not only for information and advice, but for cleaning up her street. There are many residents who have for years served their community just by taking regular walks and picking up trash and litter along the way. Mildred does it without any interest in getting noticed or getting a thank you. Millie does what she can in her own way not expecting anything in return. Along her walks she makes friends with some of the animals and feeds them. Also, she has been a faithful supporter of the Goose Hill Neighborhood Association. All of us can be like Millie, helping our neighborhood in our own way. Thank you Mildred White!

Restaurant diversity, anyone?

This past weekend, I got to enjoy both the Greek and Italian festivals downtown. The music and dancing are always good, but the highlight is the good food. I had an excellent Moussaka at the Greek fest, and the lemon sorbet at the Italian Fest from Perreca’s was excellent.

Perreca's Lemon Ice
Perreca’s Lemon Ice

I was also impressed with the band, Crush, at the Italian Fest. They played a lot of great songs, brought good energy to the stage, and really made the festival come alive. They’re highschoolers, by the way.

Crush performs at Italian Fest
Crush performs at Italian Fest

I enjoyed the festival, despite the fact that when I first moved to Schenectady, one of the first things I noticed, and ultimately wound up complaining about, was the excessive number of Italian restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, I love the classic Italian eateries that have been in Schenectady for generations. Not only are they city landmarks, but they also make good food.

It bothers me when new Italian restaurants open for two reasons. First, I’m tired of eating Italian. I miss the culinary diversity of larger metropolitan areas, and my last minute walks to get Indian take out. We need more Indian restaurants in Schenectady! But second, I worry that the new restaurants, such as Johnny’s, will displace the classic Italian landmarks that make Schenectady special. Johnny’s may make good food, but it doesn’t replace the Italian bread from Perreca’s.

I don’t go out to eat much, but when I do I have several restaurants I enjoy: Cella’s Bistro, Jasmine Thai, Perreca’s, La Mexicana, and Soulicious @ the Bellevue Farmer’s Market. But I have one restaurant that I will frequent anytime. It’s Tara Kitchen. By far the best restaurant in Schenectady, I have a standing policy to accept any invitation for dinner there. I remember going when they first opened and were serving french bread with their tagines. They’ve improved so much since they started, and I can’t wait to see more exciting, unique restaurants enrich Schenectady in the future.

Prego, Prego, Prego...Too much Italian
Prego, Prego, Prego…Too much Italian

It’s time to eliminate school districts…and reduce segregation in the process

It’s back to school time again, and with it come the supplies sales, the end of vacation, and a return to the normal routine. Schools these days are very political, and the poor teachers always seem to be the scapegoat du jour. The typical sentiments are that America’s schools are failing and bad teachers are to blame. The national academies issues a report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, that addressed America’s need to reform its education system. Meanwhile, charter schools are being embraced by the right as a weapon against, what I can only assume is their greatest existential threat, the teachers unions.

But I think these arguments miss the point. We do not need charter schools to improve the education in our schools. Most studies show they do no better than regular public schools.

The charter school discussion is important because schools have a large impact on every aspect of peoples lives even if they don’t have children.

Over the past several years, I have had discussions with many people explaining why they live where they do. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: they moved for the schools. Or, more accurately, they moved because of the perceived better quality of one school district over another. These decisions are important because the very existence of school districts, zones where inhabitants all attend the same schools, has a profound effect on where people choose to live, the price they pay for homes, and the homogeneity of the larger society.

School districts in the Capital Region are separating society instead of integrating it.

The reason for this negative effect is largely due to a positive reinforcement loop. When I ask people how they know their school district is good, more often than not, I get a lot of back tracking. We “know” intuitively that some school districts are better than others and, for lack of a better indicator, we rely on test scores to show this. We rely on test scores even though research has consistently shown that factors outside the school are the primary driver in student performance.

And so the cycle begins. Parents with the means to choose where to live select a home in a “good” school district and maybe pay more than they’d like to support their children. These parents, because they chose where to live based on the schools, are going to be more involved in their children’s education and will produce well performing students. These children go on to sustain or improve the test scores of their district, thus encouraging more involved parents to move into that district.

This sort of reinforcing loop hurts everyone involved. Parents who want to ensure their children receive every possible benefit probably pay more for their home than they should, while children from poor families are segregated into “poor” performing school districts without the opportunity to interact with a large diversity of socioeconomic statuses. We see this effect on a national level with a widening gap between rich and poor students (but a declining gap between white and black students), and we also see this effect on a local level.

I created two figures using the property value listings on Zillow for an area of North Schenectady and Niskayuna. In the first picture, I am only showing homes for sale or recently sold that are smaller than 2500 sqft. In the second picture, I add a filter to remove those homes that are less than $200k. The difference is stark, and for those of you not familiar with the Capital District, the dividing line in home prices is the border between the Schenectady School District and Niskayuna.

Homes for sale or recently sold 2500sqft or less
Homes for sale or recently sold 2500sqft or less
Homes for sale or recently sold for >$200k and <2500sqft
Homes for sale or recently sold for >$200k and <2500sqft

The interesting thing about these price differences is that these homes were all built around the same time, sit in the same neighborhood with equivalent access to amenities, and are of similar size, yet the homes in Niskayuna are significantly more expensive. This difference is the tax imposed on families who want to send their kids to a good school. The loss of involved parents makes Schenectady schools worse, and the divide further grows between the haves and have-nots.

Which brings me back to charter schools. If we had a system in which the state provided money to send your child to whichever school you wanted regardless of where you lived, then the arbitrary division between Niskayuna and Schenectady would disappear. Parents who want what’s best for their children can live more cheaply, and any student will have access to a diverse and well performing student body regardless of their ability to move. But all of these changes require that the funding come from a larger domain than a single school district, the funding must be given to students on a need basis to account for transportation and other needs, and schools must be restricted by socioeconomic status to ensure no school is a ghetto.

It’s what’s right for Schenectady, it’s right for NY state, and it’s important for social harmony. Our democracy depends on our ability to live together. Let’s start by eliminating school districts.

A day to celebrate Schenectady

Football season is finally upon us. It’s amazing how a college football game can really transform a town. Thousands of people come in from all over to tailgate, and the whole town gets transformed into a giant party.

Schenectady doesn’t seem to have anything close to this. Sure we have Union College, but even when they were winning a national title in hockey it was hard to find much of a unifying spirit. We did have the parade after the victory, but given the historical an improbable nature of the championship, we can hardly rely on Union hockey championships to regularly rally the community.

Sure, we have our fair share of cultural events, such as the Greek fest (which is also coinciding with Little Italy fest) or St Anthony’s Festa, but nothing that binds the community together like a large sporting event would. I’m actually a really big fan of all of these events, including the Polish festival, which I, unfortunately, couldn’t attend this year. We also have Proctors, which draws people to town from all over the region, but it too lacks the singular event phenomenon.

The event doesn’t need to be a sporting event, either. Many cities have established festivals to draw people to several events happening concurrently. It’s time for Schenectady to have a festival that brings together the entire city, and not just a single ethnicity. It also needs to be separate from a national holiday.

Even Niskayuna has a day of celebration.

With all of the great institutions in Schenectady, it’s time for a day to invite the world to visit and see what Schenectady has to offer, from the Rose Garden to the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. Maybe by then, we’ll have established that Schenectady Ice Cream I’ve been thinking about.

And now, in preparation for tailgating this weekend…

F Bon Jovi

One of the aspects of living in upstate NY I’m still trying to grapple with is deciding on which professional team to route for. When it comes to baseball (does anyone really watch baseball anymore?), I seem to be surrounded by Red Sox fans, this despite Facebook pronouncing me in solid Yankees territory.

I’m not even sure which basketball team I should pull for. At least I know baseball fans who, while they don’t actually watch an entire game, keep up with the sport. I don’t know anyone who actively follows an NBA team.

And then there’s football. I tend to lean more towards the inexperienced-player-botching-a-play game of the NCAA, myself. As far as I can tell, most people fall along the familiar Yankees/Red Sox lines with the Yankees fans pulling for the Giants and the Red Sox fans routing for the Patriots. But then there’s the other present but somewhat lesser fan bases of the Jets and Bills. Any person unlucky enough to be a fan of one of these 2 teams has the great misfortune of constant abuse from the Patriots fans. They are truly a brave bunch.

I think this resiliency, which has been acquired over the years, helps explain why when I was driving through Buffalo recently, I listened to a promo on a local radio station encouraging listeners to tweet F Bon Jovi (just the letter) whenever they didn’t hear a Bon Jovi song. Luckily for them, the station had implemented a Bon Jovi ban and promised to never play his songs.

Intrigued, I looked it up the next chance I had and learned that Bills fans have a deep seated fear that Bon Jovi will buy the team and move them to Canada, eh? Now that’s passion for their team.

Economists often debate the benefit of building a sports stadium, and It’s my understanding that it is typically economically neutral; but these studies often do not account for the city pride that people gain when a team arrives, or in the case of Buffalo, when a team leaves. And so, Bon Jovi becomes a victim of a city that has seen its fair share of struggles, a team that just can’t win that Super Bowl, and fans forced to put up with Massholes.

So here’s to you, Bon Jovi. I’m certainly not going to weigh in on this fight, but maybe an uplifting song will get you through these troubled times.

The Perfect Summer Job

This post is part of a series exploring the workers I’ve met who are on the front lines of the fracing boom in Pennsylvania. You can find links to the other articles on the overview page.

If I had to guess someone in the class was going to be from Texas, I would have guessed it would be James. He walked into the class wearing  cowboy boots and a large belt buckle touting the wonders of Jack Daniels. He drove a 1985 Ford pickup that he unashamedly touted as being impermeable to the impending rain because of its complete lack of electronics.

To James, this job as a welder’s assistant (a job he described as “doing whatever the welder wants me to do.”) was a fantastic opportunity for the next 6 months. He was notified of his need to attend the class just the day prior when “a Mexican” failed to show up for work. But it was also great pay for his level of education.

At 19, James was the youngest person there. He had joined the Marine Reserve, following in the path of his older brother, and needed to find a job for when he wasn’t actively deployed. With just a high school degree, his job paid $14/h, which meant his job paid more in 2 weeks than his girlfriend’s did all summer. This sort of opportunity reminds me of the stories people tell of being able to find a decent job with just a high school education back in the 60s before the onset of globalization. Plus, with appropriate additional training, he could be highly recruited for other jobs in the region.

When I compare James’ experience with that of Danny’s, it reminds me of the disruptive innovation popularized by Clayton Christensen, but applied to labor. Have we entered a world in which college represents an over education of the labor force when what we really need are skilled trades? How much longer can we afford for the nation’s youth to take on significant debt without the opportunity to pay it back?

What each of the stories in this series represent are people trying to make it as best they can. It’s easy to think of the shale gas revolution in environmental terms, primarily because most of the news stories focus on that, but it also affects many other aspects of our society. By providing jobs to people with little training, others like James and Jason can earn a living; but the people working on these well sites also represent people like Danny, who have been let down by the larger American economy and fall back on the decent salary despite their training in other areas…much in the same way that a barista at Starbucks or waiter at your local restaurant may have a college degree. The environmental impacts also need to be accounted for, absolutely, and the environment and the economy are not mutually exclusive; but the environment must be balanced with the many other positive benefits to society. What other industry shows so much promise and opportunity for such a large swath of the american public?

An American Dream Deferred

This post is part of a series exploring the workers I’ve met who are on the front lines of the fracing boom in Pennsylvania. You can find links to the other articles on the overview page.

I wish someone told me you can’t just follow your dream

With gelled hair that was parted down the middle, Danny was the oldest student in the class. He was also the most melancholic. Danny didn’t intend to join the world of unconventionals. Instead, he had a goal of pursuing a career in political science.

Danny went to college and majored in Poli Sci at a university near Harrisburg, PA. Like many students, he took out a substantial amount of student debt to pay for school only to learn upon graduation that he could not find a job in his field when he graduated just prior to the Great Recession. Like many others in a similar situation, he found work where he could. In Danny’s case, that was in the world of fracing.

His first job required little of the skills that he went to college, and into debt, for. Danny spent his days “watching water levels in tanks.” His description of the job seemed so elementary, that it surprised me it hadn’t been automated, yet. He outwardly disdained the working conditions and told me that he disliked wearing a hard hat and ear plugs when he envisioned himself doing work in an office somewhere. Danny was visibly demoralized; he remembers his hopeful, younger self who could accomplish anything he wanted to…he could follow his dream.

But his job in fracing became more than a job he disliked; it became an opportunity. After working for a couple years in the field, he went back to school, but this time to earn an associates degree in oil and gas production. He chose this path because his current employer would pay for his education, and because in this area of PA, oil and gas became a possible career path.

It remains to be seen whether or not Danny succeeds in his new career in the oil and gas field, but it’s certainly better than the alternative of being unemployed with accumulating student loans.