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…

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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

Dates/Times/Activities:

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…