I’ve spent a few days wandering around downtown Schenectady in the last couple of years, capturing some of the changes to the streetscape that are overtaking decades of decay and indifference. Some buildings are getting facelifts, some have been replaced, but it finally feels like there’s some energy on State Street, like something’s happening. Even the old Woolworth’s building, a low and unglamorous box that replaced the Hotel Vendome in 1938, is getting a brand new brick facade, and with that and the replacement of most of the block east of Jay Street, the block or two that most of us consider to be Downtown will have undergone its biggest transformation since the Erie Canal was filled and businesses moved into what had been a residential neighborhood in the teens and twenties of the last century.
But all this wandering about hadn’t meant much wandering in until I met up with an old friend for lunch and chat last week and ended up inside two places I hadn’t been inside in a very long time.
The first was the old Schenectady Savings Bank building, once well known by their slogan “Where Clinton Crosses State.” It was a stately, fairly modern marble-fronted edifice, and the inside was always light, grand, and quiet. Banks then were temples of commerce, and bankers very much the movers and shakers of the community. There are still some places where this is true, but nationalization and globalization of banks have removed the sense of local community investment that bankers used to represent, and with it an important part of what made a community in the first place. Look back at historic articles touting the creation of a bank or savings association in a town, and how proud the town was to have achieved that level of progress, and you see a very different sense of what banks meant to a community.
At some point in the ’80s, Schenectady Savings became part of Northeast Savings, a Connecticut bank, and then it became something else, then it became not a savings bank, and now it’s part of Bank of America. The building and its annex were once the headquarters of a modest but prosperous local bank, with hundreds of employees. The annex now houses social services for the elderly, and the main bank lobby is absolutely unrecognizable as the place where I used to meet my mother after school. What had once been grand, airy, and lovely is now dark, pre-fab and efficient. The only thing that looked the same to me was the vault door — and as a child, I was often treated to trips to the vault, which was impossibly exciting and a little bit dangerous, there always being the fear of being locked in there (though I was assured the emergency phone worked and that there was an air supply). Banks used to display their vaults proudly, a sign of their security in a time when people thought of money as paper bills sitting in a locked box. That’s all changed.
Better, though, was a visit inside Aperitivo, the new(ish) restaurant just a couple of doors down from Proctor’s. Nothing inside would indicate that it was ever anything but the stylish, warm, delightful dining spot that it is today, but when I was growing up, the building housed Peggy’s Restaurant, an oldstyle lunch counter where my grandmother waitressed. There’s no formica anymore, no stools at a counter, no fresh fries in paper baskets. When I was a teen, one of my greatest moments of independence came when I was allowed to bike over the bridge to Peggy’s with some friends and buy lunch. It felt like the coolest, most grown-up thing in the world to sit at a restaurant, without any parents around, and order burgers, fries and Cokes.
But places like Peggy’s depended on a big clientele of downtown workers, the office workers at the bank, women on break from the department stores, local attorneys and insurance men. As all those jobs disappeared from downtown, so did the need for the lunch counter. And while the only clues to the past are some lovely photographs of historic Schenectady locations on the walls, I couldn’t help but feel good to be having a nice meal in an old downtown haunt again.
Peggy’s, by the way, could not have even come up with the idea of a pumpkin creme bruleé, or anything as good as the spicy chicken sandwich that Aperitivo served up. Change can be good.
My friend that day was taking a broader view, which you can find here.