Schenectady: The Lights Shine Again

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I sat in my comfy Amtrak seat, looking at the Google Map on my phone.  When you visit a place for the first time, you gaze at a map and try to picture what each street will look like.   You see the locations of different restaurants, sights and attractions that line the roads, but you just can’t get a sense of what they are about until your shoes hit the ground.  So I sat there and really tried my hardest to imagine, “what will Schenectady be like?”  The answer later that day would make me smile.

Schenectady was the second stop on my blog tour tour highlighting small Upstate New York Cities.  As you may or may not know, my first blog entry featuring my visit to Utica New York went viral upon posting it in January, topping 60,000 views.  Now it was on to a new city, one I had heard was on the comeback trail.  As my train rolled in “above” the city, I had a very good feeling about this trip.  It was a feeling that I was going to see something special, something unique.  As we came to a stop, I grabbed my pack, my scooter (yes, I get around on a scooter) and stepped off the train.  My journey was about to begin.

One thing before I start… the most common question I have gotten during this whole blog process is “why are you doing this in the winter?  Why don’t you wait until the summer when it’s sunny and beautiful?”  The answer is simple… I’m a wedding photographer.  My summers are jammed with all-weekend shooting and all-weekday editing.  This blog tour is my “offseason” project.  And honestly I kind of like the challenge of visiting places in the dead of winter and still trying to find the beauty!

This blog entry isn’t short, but there’s just so much good stuff.  Come on with me, I’ll take you on a trip to a great little city 😉

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Here We Go Again

One of the things I want to highlight on these trips is how easy it is to travel to and through these Upstate cities without the use of a car.  Schenectady is THE shining example of this.  The train LITERALLY stops in the middle of downtown.  You get off the train, and there you are, a minute or two walk to everything… and I mean everything.

I walked to State Street, the hub of all things downtown Schenectady.  Even in the snow, it couldn’t have been more evident that a high level of thought had gone into making this a pedestrian and visitor friendly area.  Clear signage, attractive railings with artistic detail… even the bus stop looked cool.

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As I came out from under the railroad bridge, downtown Schenectady stood before me, welcoming me.  It really was a sort of shock… I wasn’t expecting such a dynamic, vibrant look and feel.  This was a downtown that looked like it belonged in a much larger city.  Here’s a twist… I’m not going to show you the pictures of downtown yet… to truly appreciate how magical this place is, you have to see it at night.  Keep reading… 😉

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At the heart of downtown is Proctor’s theater, the jewel in Schenectady’s crown of rebirth.  You see, like so many other upstate cities, Schenectady fell on hard times years ago.  General Electric, once the employer of tens of thousands of people in the area was forced to lay off most the workforce.  The local economy crumbled as a result, and the effects can still be seen today.  But with the help of Phillip Morris, CEO of Proctor’s Theater and a tremendous effort by city and local government, Schenectady is now well on its way to the same urban rebirth we are seeing in cities across the country.  While still in transition, the wheels are very much in motion.

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While taking some photos of the beautiful Proctor’s marquee, I spotted Dawn standing outside the building.

“This place is beautiful,” I said, “what’s been the driving force behind the comeback of this city?”

Dawn confidently answered by gesturing to me.  “It’s people like you blogging.  It’s Facebook, it’s people talking about it.  people are seeing it, and it’s bringing all these businesses here.”  Again, she gestured to the iconic buildings and bustling crowds in the street.  “People are talking and it’s working.”

I had arrived at just the right time.  Groups of people were walking down the street to Proctor’s for the 2pm Illusionists show.  I stopped a random group and asked them what the vibe was like in Schenectady.  The enthusiastic man in the middle couldn’t wait to answer.

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“Look at this place, look at all these people!  It’s rockin’!  You can feel it,” he said with a genuine excitement.

I continued a few steps East to Jay street… I say street, but this section of Jay was actually for pedestrians only.  One look down the street gave me the feeling that I was somewhere special… colorful, small town storefronts, a sort of “Main Street USA” feel.

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As I walked down the “alley” I was amazed at how the bustling sounds of traffic and people from the busy State Street faded away.  There was a quiet calm here, just a step away from the excitement of the downtown.

There was something for everyone.  A couple inviting cafes, several wellness shops, Antiques, even an Irish store!  A few narrow alleys off the main walkway led to parking… very smart!

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As you may have noticed in the pictures, it was cold.  Really cold.  So I happily took the opportunity to start popping into some stores to warm up!  What I found was so much cooler (see what I did there?).  My first stop blew my mind… the ReCollector.

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Kurt, the store owner, greeted me kindly.  A delightfully eccentric man, he carried himself with a gentile, humble pride.  His store was incredible… literally every square inch was covered with old records, merchandise, memorabilia with a 60’s-70’s rock and roll/flower child theme.  I could have spent hours looking through his tiny little store and still not see half of what was there.  It was the kind of place one could only own because they truly loved it.

“This band took my saying ‘music is the best medicine’ and put it in a song,” he said gesturing to a photo on the wall.

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“It’s on YouTube and everything… check it out, yours truly even makes an appearance.”  I asked how long he had been there.  His pride gave in for just a moment, but he regained it again as if it was there all along… “I’ve been here about 5 years.  I’m getting by,” he answered with the hint of a smile.

I moved on the the next shop, Crossroads Gifts & Wellness.  This was the place to come if you needed to take care of the soul.  Gifts of comfort, wellness and spirituality were everywhere… everything one might need to come home from a hard day of demanding work and bring yourself back to a calm state of contentment!

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While she chose not to be photographed, Jessica was so kind to give me the tour and talk to me about Schenectady.

“It’s become very diverse,” she said with a smile.  “The more diverse it gets, the better it gets.  It’s the new businesses, they are driving the whole thing.  Union college is doing a great job too partnering with the local businesses.  It’s all bringing a lot of different kinds of people here, it’s great!”

Jessica took me to the back room to show me the hidden jewel of Crossroads… a quiet, dark little cozy room for therapeutic massage.

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Considering that I was carrying about 40 pounds on my back at the time (I have a very nice backpack!) I wanted to lay down right then and there!  But I had so much to see still, so I thanked Jessica and went on my way.

I headed across the way to the Open Door Bookstore.  As soon as I closed the door behind me I saw several of the woman working there, attending to the store.  As they did, they talked, laughed and joked with each other lightly.  They seemed to be having such a good time.  I smiled along with them, and one of them spoke up.

“We all love working here together!” she volunteered.  “We just have a lot of fun.”

“I love it,” I answered.  “Can I ask you a few questions?”

That was literally the last question I asked, because as if on cue, Karen started telling me about Schenectady.

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“Schenectady went through a hard time.  The malls came in, most of GE (General Electric) moved out.  It was really bad for a while.  But the Metroplex and Phillip Morris of Proctor’s have really built it all back up.  Proctor’s has worked hard to bring in great shows like Jersey Boys and Wicked… it brought people back to downtown as you’ve probably seen.  Morris believes a community needs theater and the arts to be vibrant.  It’s a very walkable city too… my husband and I love that we can just walk around everywhere.”

“Do you see a big youth movement here?”  I asked, thinking about my recent visit to Utica and how the young people there are driving the revival.

“It’s not a youth movement, no,” she answered confidently.  “It’s businesses moving in and and taking risks, taking a chances.  And it’s working.  They’ve worked hard to attract businesses here and it’s working.”

Karen mentioned the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority.  This organization was established in 1998 to enhance economic growth and quality of life in the county.  The Metroplex takes a tiny percentage of county sales tax revenue and commits it to projects that, in cooperation with the city and the county, increase the overall vitality of the area.  To me, it certainly seemed to be working!

OK, back to the story.  Karen was so kind to take the time to talk to me, but truly everyone who worked at the store was so incredibly friendly.  A smile and a hi greeted me from everyone I passed… it was the kind of environment that can only come from a group of people who genuinely love working together.  So rare to see!  And what a store it was!  You could find a gift, a book, anything for anyone.

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I left the store, knowing I would be back… hey, when you travel you always have to bring home gifts for the ones you love!

I took a short walk east again, this time passing by City Hall.  It was really starting to snow now… and it wouldn’t stop all day.  But that didn’t stop me from capturing the beautiful structure.

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The church across the street grabbed my eye as well.

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At this point my stomach began to rumble.  I backtracked to Jay Street, where I came across Ambition.  I would call it a coffee shop but this was so much more and I realized it as soon as I walked in… the character, the friendly servers who smiled at me, even the cozy narrow “dining area” was something so unique.  It felt good to be there for some reason, just a feeling that I was home.  Maybe it was just good to be out of the snow and cold, but the more time I spent there, the more I realized it was something different.

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I ordered the Ambition Sandwich with grilled chicken, roasted red peppers, pesto and mozzarella.  The perfect sandwich for a hungry man on the move!!

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After throwing down the sandwich and a deliciously warm cup of coffee, I spoke to Mark the owner.

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“This place is my soul,” he said with a tired but unbroken grin.  “When you do what is you, good things happen.  I’m old school.  We’ve been here for 15 years.  I haven’t benefited from the Metroplex.  I love what’s going on in Schenectady but we’ve been around for longer than that.  I love this place.”

I walked in to Ambition hungry and left feeling so very full and satisfied.  What a good meal in a super cool place.  Moving on, I made my way toward the library.  Along the way, there were so many signs of construction and development.  What had happened on State Street appeared to be slowly expanding outward to the surrounding areas.

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I approached the library and found it to be a very interesting building.  I was curious, so I stepped inside.

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Inside was quite a sight… a fortress of learning, with high ceilings, plenty of light and a touch of semi-modern architecture that gave the whole building a sense of strength and power.

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The building wasn’t what I would call “pretty.”  But pretty can be overrated.  Instead this was, through and through, an impressive, regal, hard working center for the education of the community!

Continuing on.  I was definitely working off that lunch now.  So naturally I wanted to eat more.

I was told I had to have the wings at a place called 20 North Broadway Tavern.  It was just a stones throw away from the library so I headed in that direction.  I stepped inside, greeted by a modest but warm interior.

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What I learned quickly was that this was one of those establishments where friendly, down to earth people collect to hang with other friendly, down to earth people.  When you think about it, that’s kind of rare these days.  Well, OK, rare in some places, not in Schenectady.

“Hey guys, this guy wants to take your picture!” the bartender shouted.  Like clockwork the guys turned for a quick shot.

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To my left was a gentleman named Jim.  Jim introduced himself, and the conversation began.  While simply dressed, he carried himself with a mature sense of calm.  He was a thinker, a soul who had no agenda other than being a good man among good men.

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“I’m a member of of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians,” he said with a pride that shone brightly in his eyes and his posture.  “Our group here focuses on flooding.  We go into the basements of flooded places, people’s homes, and clean out the muck.  People don’t think about that kind of stuff, but that’s what we do.  We help people through some tough times.”

Jim loved Schenectady.  So did his buddy Joe, who had the best tagline for the city.  It stuck with me, and become more and more true with every moment I spent there.

“Schenectady isn’t a town, it’s a habit you can’t break.”  Let me tell you right now… it’s true.

Oh by the way, I had some great wings.  GREAT wings. 😉

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I walked out of the bar, once again, stuffed beyond belief.  This was a trend that would continue.  The whole weekend.  Meaning I literally ate my way through the town.

I walked toward the Stockade neighborhood and ran into a young man walking in front of me.

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“I lived in Brooklyn.  There I was paying $1500 a month for rent.  Here, I pay $500.  For now.  It’s becoming a high-end place.  The businesses are bringing different kinds of people, all with different ideas here.  It’s making a difference.  And the casino that’s planned… the casino will turn this from a place where people pass through to a place where people go.  It’s about to become a destination.”

In a short time, I would learn that the Rivers Casino, planned for construction on the Mohawk River was one of the most controversial topics in the town.  Some believed it will bring jobs, tourism and economic prosperity.  Others feared it would bring the wrong kind of people to the region.  Casinos have always been a polarizing topic in smaller cities and communities, and this was no different.

I continued my walk to the “entrance” of the Stockade neighborhood.  The Van Dyck Restaurant and Lounge stood tall to my right and looked like an inviting establishment, so I went inside and spoke to the man in charge.

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“Proctor’s is really driving the growth here.  I mean, when there’s a show, we never have free tables because everyone comes here before or after.  It brings people downtown from all over.  They see the show, then they eat, then they shop.  It drives the whole thing.”

Behind the Van Dyck was a small brewery called Mad Jack Brewing.  The nifty little building was closed at the time, but I was able to snap a picture.  Micro breweries have become such a huge part of urban revivals in cities across the nation.  This little gem looked like it fit the part just right!

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I thanked the friendly staff at the Van Dyck and began walking down Erie Boulevard, once the path of the Erie Canal.  Erie is famous for the giant General Electric sign that seems to hover above it, watching over the city like an ancient guardian.

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Unfortunately the story of General Electric is tied in more with Schenectady’s difficulties than the urban revival that is happening today.  Like so many huge corporations, GE was the employment backbone of the city for many years.  But like so many large industrial organizations, corporate restructuring in the late 20th century led to massive layoffs and job loss.  Schenectady lost nearly one third of it’s population, and economic hardship became rampant due to a lack of jobs.  GE, however, has given the city some solid hope recently, creating jobs in the renewable energy field.  The new jobs have helped fuel this city’s transition back to the bustling city it once was.

Walking down Erie Boulevard truly told the story of a city in transition.  I could clearly see the first signs of improvement to a corridor of the city that was otherwise peppered with neglected buildings and industry.  Bright new streetlights lined the road as if to shine a light on the future, while currently highlighting a lot of crumbling brick.  Like all things, it will just take some time.

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A refreshing new addition to this area is the Wolff Biergarten.  I stepped inside in need of warmer air, and a pint.  The picture tells the story of this truly unique place.

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After a drink and a warm up, walked back to my hotel to change.  I then fought the vicious snowfall and traveled back to State Street for dinner.  Remember when I said I wanted to save the downtown pictures for later?  That’s because, to really appreciate this city, you had to see it at night.  Even in the midst of a thick snowfall, it beckoned me in.

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The lights, the signs… they tempted me as I walked.  A street that had humble beginnings was suddenly lit up like Times Square.  People ignored the cold to enter the countless places to eat, drink and enjoy a Saturday evening.  It was hopping.  The snow wasn’t about to stop this town from having a good time!

As for me, I stepped into Aperitivo, a high-end restaurant right near Proctors.  The interior, the food… none of it disappointed.

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The food, the service and the atmosphere left me feeling like I was in New York City… but the other people dining were dressed very comfortably!  This place was the ultimate blend of delicious food, gorgeous styling and everyday approachability.  I was an instant fan.

While I was eating, I received a text from one of my Schenectady contacts… she is listed on my phone as Schenectady Doesn’t Suck.  “We are at the Bier Abbey- do you know where that is?”

Yes, I know, that deserves an explanation.  When I first decided to visit Schenectady, someone turned me on to the person who runs the Instagram account @SchenectadyDoesntSuck.  Turns out her name is Kelly.  Kelly is a regular Schenectady resident who just loves her city and everything in it.  When I contacted her for some ideas of places to visit on my trip, she sent me a five page email detailing the best things to check out.  Five pages.  In fact, EVERYTHING I had done to that point, as well as everything I would do while there was on Kelly’s recommendation.

Kelly is an example of why small urban areas like downtown Schenectady are making a comeback all over our great nation.  She is a part of a young generation that is taking their cities back… they have a tremendous amount of pride in what their city is, as well as what it can be.  These young people are ambassadors, changing minds and perceptions, giving hope to places once overtaken by a negative images.

I spent the rest of the evening with Kelly, her wonderful fiance Jesse, and their friends.  They welcomed me in as one of their own, much like the rest of Schenectady had done all day.

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We had such a great time that night… we closed 20 North Broadway Tavern!

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I included these pictures of the amazing people I spent the evening with for one reason… I walked into Schenectady a stranger, and the good people, like everyone else I had met there, had taken me in as one of their own.  That was the spirit of the city, an incredible wealth of inclusion, a welcoming spirit and a love of life.  And that was just day 1.

I woke the next morning and headed back to the historic Stockade Neighborhood.  Kelly was right, it was a photographer’s dream.  Old residences, each one with their own unique charm.  Everywhere I looked, there as something I wanted to snap a picture of.

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I circled back toward downtown to meet Talia from Proctor’s Tourism.  Naturally, we met at Ambition, where I arrived early and had the best bloody mary ever.

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Talia walked in, sat down and greeted me with a vibrant smile.  This 22 year-old was wise beyond her years… a nice blend of youthful enthusiasm and professional poise.  We talked about the city, about Proctor’s and how the relationship between the theater and the city had created such an incredible synergy.  Between the night before and this meeting, I could see that the young people were embracing what the city had to offer.  When the youth of a community feel a sense of pride in their hometown, they are likely to stay, and make it the best version of itself.  Talia was the perfect example of this.

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After our meeting I decided to finally head to Proctor’s to see what this great place was all about.  On the way, I passed the owner of Lennon’s Irish Shop on Jay Street.  He was shoveling the snow that had fallen the night before.  I engaged him.

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“People want change, but they don’t want to do it themselves,” he answered when asked about Schenectady.  He looked down at the tool in his hand.  “You can either wait for someone to shovel, or you can pick up the shovel and clear a path yourself.”

Very wise words!

On to Proctor’s.  Full disclosure, and it pains me to say this, but I was not allowed in the theater because the show that was there was setting up.  You can find some amazing photos at Proctors.org however!

I was able to see the rest of Proctor’s which was impressive in itself.  I was in luck, they were hosting a farmers market!

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Scores of people were there, checking out all sorts of local products from wine to cheese to fresh veggies.  Like so many communities, this farmers market gave vendors a chance to introduce their products to local customers who were eager to buy from their neighbor.

After snapping some pics I decided to travel up the hill to the Museum of Innovation and Science, or “miSci.”  This was more of a family fun/learning environment for children, but I felt it was important to highlight one of the family destinations in Schenectady… and what a great place it was!  Everywhere I looked, there was a mix of educational, fun and hands on activities!  I was so impressed with how much they were able to fit in a relatively small facility without feeling cramped.  They even featured a small planetarium in the center of the building!  To top it off, they had a special live butterfly exhibit, which was really pretty cool!

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miSci was obviously such a treasured resource for children and families in the community.  Even I learned a lot just walking around, taking pictures!

By the time I left, my time in Schenectady was growing short.  I wanted to head down to the Mohawk River to see the park there.  Mind you, I’m sure it’s beautiful in the summer… the snow just didn’t allow for the most flattering of photos!  But even with the frozen landscape, it was a very peaceful place.  There was a sense of calm.

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The calm turned to curiosity when as I watched 5 guys and 1 girl walk into the park.  One of the young men was carrying a pumpkin.  I had to ask.

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“We’ve had this pumpkin since Halloween,” one of them said.  “We never carved it so it didn’t really rot.  We thought it was time to get rid of it, so we’re gonna chuck it in the river.”

I laughed out loud.  “That’s how they do it out here in Schenectady huh?”

Nearly all of them answered at once.  “YUP!”

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OK so it didn’t go “IN” in river.

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After the pumpkin chuck, I talked to the group a bit.  Turns out they all went to Union College in Schenectady.  I’m going to share their thoughts as one, as they all seemed to be on the same page.

“It’s good here.  The casino though, I don’t know, it’s a bad idea.  We’ve already got a good thing going here, why do something that might hurt that?  I mean in some places casinos have worked, but in a lot of places it’s really turned out bad.  Just tends to bring the wrong kind of people I think.”

As I mentioned before, this was one of those polarizing topics that get people talking.  The important thing was that there seemed to be a clear community dialogue.  What happens is yet to be seen.

Heading back into town, I had one more place I really wanted to check out.  Puzzles Bakery & Cafe.  But this was no ordinary place with no ordinary owner,  Meet Sara Mae Hickey.

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I met with Sara for about 45 minutes.  The smile never left her face.  She had the sweetest, most genuine way about her, without a hint of ego or selfishness.  But don’t let that fool you… this was a determined, hard working young woman with the most amazing mission: to open a bakery that provided the opportunity for meaningful employment to people with special needs.

When I was there, work was still going on to get the building ready.  Sara spoke of the challenges that she had faced, and ones she still had to confront.  But she spoke confidently about the community support.

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“The community has been amazing.  Just amazing.  Local business owners, even other restaurants told me if I ever needed anything to give them a call.  This is something that touches everyone’s life eventually, and everyone has been so kind and helpful.  It hasn’t been easy, just all the extra things you have to think about it, but the city and the community have really embraced us.  That’s a really good feeling.”

I got the tour, but honestly as nice as the bakery was, that wasn’t what was truly remarkable.  It was Sara.  I was so glad I saved this meeting for last.  Here was a young woman who was compelled to do something to help persons with developmental disabilities in her community feel a sense of pride, a sense of self respect.  In contributing to a team, to a community, these folks could feel a greater sense of purpose and responsibility, something WE ALL need to feel complete in our lives.  Next time you are in the area, I urge you to visit Puzzles, meet this remarkable woman and see that she is one of the shining lights that makes a community great.

And that’s just it.  As always, great places to eat, drink and have fun are vitally important.  Schenectady has these in abundance!  They create nests for people to enjoy themselves, take a load off, and laugh with friends.  But the heart of any community is in its people.  It’s the young woman who swells with such pride about her city that she takes the time to help a complete stranger experience the town she loves.  It’s the dedication of a person and an organization to see that the arts remain important to an area.  It’s the determination of a group and of government to create an environment that attracts businesses and creates a sustainable economy.  It’s the man that picks up a shovel, taking responsibility for his little piece of the city.  It’s the business owners who’s establishments are a reflections of their souls.  In my two days there, folks were not only happy to talk to me, they were eager.  They love their city, they love what’s happening, and they want nothing more than to make outsiders feel welcome in the place they call home.

Schenectady, like so many Upstate New York cities is going through a rebirth.  It’s a bit further along in the process than others, with a strong, well conceived momentum.  The scars of a difficult past are beginning to fade, replaced by confident faces excited about the future.  Questions still remain and the transition is not complete, but the present and the future are filled with endless possibilities.

There was a saying years ago: “Schenectady Lights the World.”  After spending two days in the city, I can confidently say that the lights are back on and shining brighter with each day.