Pair promote beauty, vibrancy where others see chance to tear down the city
By BETHANY BUMP
SCHENECTADY — One of the earliest examples comes from Jonathan Pearson’s diary, an entry from 1832, when he was a student at Union College.
Schenectady, he wrote, was a city “only fit for hogs and Dutchmen.”
“Why are the ways and walks never cleaned? Why never repaired? Oh, what a world of filth,” he continued.
Schenectady bashing is a pastime that dates back generations, and it’s one both locals and outsiders seem to delight in equally. School kids take particular pleasure in uttering the Electric City’s unofficial nicknames, picked up from peers and parents: Scum-nectady, Sketch-nectady and various others a newspaper would never print.
Last summer, the pastime was immortalized by BuzzFeed, the online news site prone to list-making. “Hating on Schenectady” ranked No. 25 on its list of “49 Things People from Upstate New York Love” — after cider donuts, eating Stewart’s ice cream and laughing at other cities when they complain about snow.
But if you’re a local on Instagram these days, you might have noticed a curious little counterculture gaining steam in the city everyone loves to bash. A contingent of more than 1,000 Instagram users is crushing hard on Schenectady, their pride declared in the comments and likes on two growing Schenectady-themed accounts: @SchenectadyDoesntSuck and @LongLiveSchenectady.
The accounts popped up in April and May, respectively, and have since amassed more than 1,200 and 550 followers. The people running them don’t know each other, but they have more in common than they realize. Both are young women, millennials fed up with all the Schenectady bashing who wanted to replace it with something else — a little pride and love for a city that’s constantly fighting a bad reputation.
“I was sitting in my office one day, and it’s a county office, so everybody there kind of lives and works in the area, and they were talking about how Schenectady is so horrible,” recalled Kelly Marr, 26. “So I got angry. I was like, ‘Really? You live here and you work here and you hate it so much? Why not go away and make room for people who actually want to be here and make a difference?’ ”
The idea for @SchenectadyDoesntSuck came to her that day. The name came from a hashtag she had posted with a photo on her personal account a year earlier.
“I was on a run in Riverside Park, and it was just really nice and really pretty,” she said. “And I was just like, ‘Hey, Schenectady doesn’t suck.’ ”
Marr works for Health Schenectady Families, a home-visiting program for pregnant women and parents of infants and toddlers, run in collaboration with Schenectady County Public Health Services and Catholic Charities of Schenectady County. Most of her workday is spent in the field, where she sees “the best and the worst” of the city every day.
Since April 3, Marr has posted more than 350 photos on the account, some taken by her on trips through various neighborhoods and others submitted by followers. They range from bits of trivia about the city (Did you know Schenectady is the hometown of Doctor Octopus in the Spider-Man comics?) and like-bait (colorful sunsets over the Mohawk and post-storm rainbows) to city icons (the General Electric sign, the Central Park Rose Garden, City Hall looking stately) and even the mundane (a freshly paved Brandywine Avenue).
Many of the shots serve as recommendations of things to do and places to visit in and around the city. One commenter wanted to check out Grout Park, thanks to a photo of some lovely wildflowers there. One commenter who has lived for 20 years near the Boat House on Aqueduct Road never knew they rented kayaks until viewing a photo Marr took while paddling along the Mohawk.
Other photos prompt followers to share their memories of the city. A black-and-white shot of The Costumer jogged the memory of one commenter who recalled “playing with and staring at creepy stuff” inside the costume store on Barrett Street, where her mom used to work.
In a photo posted two weeks ago, a gray-haired man sits in the Stockade neighborhood, painting a picture of the ivy-covered brick building just ahead. The photo amassed 115 likes and a heartfelt comment: “I love that you post all these beautiful pictures of my hometown! It reminds me that although things aren’t going so well there is so much beauty still left!”
Marr grew up in Burnt Hills, but she can trace her roots to Schenectady as far back as her great-grandmother, who emigrated from Poland to Schenectady long ago. One grandmother was born and raised here. One grandfather worked for GE. One set of grandparents lived in Scotia. Her father works for the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna. Her earliest memories of the city are of Perreca’s, a 100-year-old bakery on North Jay Street.
“My mother used to work there,” she said. “I remember going in when I was maybe 3 or 4, my mom plopping me up on the counter, and going, ‘Mama Papa, this is my daughter.’ And they loved me because I had some chub on me and was this cute little blonde thing.”
She may have gone to school in another district, but her favorite childhood memories were of the city across the county line, of Perreca’s famous tomato pie or the Italian ice and spumoni from Civitello’s across the street. Today, Marr lives in the Stockade, a few doors down from The Van Dyck Restaurant & Lounge, where she may be found some evenings downing a big glass of red wine after work.
“It’s been fun getting to really know the city and the people in it,” she said. “I think there’s a lot to the city that people just don’t know, and I feel like a little unofficial tour guide, almost. I personally think it’s awesome to watch the followers just kind of loving on it and being like, “Yeah, stand up for your city.’ We live here, so let’s make good things happen.”
Some of the vilest Schenectady bashing comes from Schenectadians themselves. The self-deprecating habit was always easy for Secora Kohinke to fall into during her days at Schenectady High School, where the prevailing school of thought was, in a phrase, Schenectady sucks.
“Growing up here, I cannot tell you how many people hate it here,” the 24-year-old recalled. “They were always like, ‘I hate it, I can’t wait to get out of this city.’ And I kind of fell into that, too, where I’d think, ‘I don’t want to live here, nobody likes it here.’ ”
Her perception quickly changed when she moved out of her dad’s Bellevue home into an apartment downtown at age 17. Without a car, she walked everywhere, and still does. Along the way, she takes snapshots with her phone and uploads them to Instagram, where she has gained a following under the name @LongLiveSchenectady.
The shots are everything Instagram loves (flowers, sunsets, ivy-covered buildings) and things only Schenectadians will appreciate (brunch at More Perreca’s, the ornate façade of the Nicholaus building, a streetscape featuring the Zen Asian Fusion Lounge, Bombers Burrito Bar and Nico’s Rooftop Tavern).
“Like, this was not like this 10 years ago,” Kohinke said from a window seat at Happy Cappuccino one recent morning.
She looked out on the Jay Street Pedestrian Mall, where a man with a guitar sat smoking a pipe. Passers-by walked purposely toward State Street, or otherwise strolled leisurely past shops as they waited for the Jazz on Jay concert to begin.
“So many of these businesses were closed down,” she said with an eye toward State Street. “It’s insane. I just remember walking down here, and it was a ghost town. There was nothing going on. And now you come downtown and there’s people everywhere and all these brand-new restaurants.”
Despite the ongoing revitalization downtown, Schenectady trash talk remains a sore spot for some downtown businesspeople who fear the city will never shed its negative image. One Jay Street business — Zaria & Bella’s — even picked up and left earlier this year, citing, among other things, the persistent, damaging misperception that downtown is dangerous. Business suffered as a result, the owners said.
In a sure sign of the times, however, some businesses are crediting the existence of these newfound Instagram accounts for boosting business or, at the very least, spreading a positivity that wasn’t there before.
On Kohinke’s last day of work at Manhattan Exchange in early May, she posted a photo of the restaurant to @LongLiveSchenectady with the caption, “The friendliest pub in town.” The brick façade looked warm and inviting, cast in the soft glow of twinkling lights from a nearby tree. Contented diners ate under umbrellas on the stone patio. Bright red flowers climbed an iron gate fronting lower Union Street.
When she went there for dinner two weeks ago, her old boss asked her if she was the person who posted the image.
“I told her I was,” she recalled, “and she said, ‘I just wanted to thank you, because I’ve had so many people come in and say they’re here because they saw that photo.’ ”
Kohinke also serves as the city’s unofficial tour guide, replying to commenters who want to know which beers are on tap at Manhattan Exchange or how much longer a pilot bike share program will be in town. And she’s happy to do it. She’s even met up with some of the commenters personally to ruminate over their mutual love of the city and disdain for its trash talkers.
“I just feel like it’s not as bad as everybody says,” Kohinke said. “That’s another reason I started this, because I’m always saying Schenectady’s great, and now I can say, ‘Here, let me show you.’ ”
This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.