It’s been said you can’t step in the same river twice. It’s almost as true of cities — as much as they seem to be bound up in concrete and steel, it turns out they’re ever-changing, and whether for better or for worse, the geography of the familiar can change until it’s not even recognizable anymore. When I was growing up, there were a couple of blocks of downtown Schenectady that were as much a part of my personal geography as my home and the schoolyard down the street. They were the blocks with the grand department stores and the creaky old stores I never set foot inside, the record store where we used to buy our 79-cent singles and the peanut store I never went into, the newsroom full of cigar smoke but hardly any comic books, the fabric stores where my mother held me hostage for hours and hours, as bored as a boy could be, while she picked out fabric for her next sewing project.

These were blocks with personal history. The Wallace’s Department Store, where my grandmother waitressed in the little cafeteria near the back entrance — because every department store had some kind of lunch counter then. Her aunt worked there as well, in the ladies’ department. My mother worked there, too, making clothes for and dressing mannequins. And my father worked there, first as a valet for the parking lot (though they didn’t use the word valet then — he parked cars), then as a delivery man for the furniture department, whose warehouse was down on Weaver Street. When Mrs. Beauville left the Wallace’s lunch counter to start her own restaurant across the street at 426 State Street (in the space that had been Fox & Murphy Sporting Goods), which became Peggy’s Restaurant, my grandmother went with her, and worked there until she retired around 1980. While my mother was raising children, my father continued with Wallace’s until about 1966, when he went to work for Golub Corp., which operated what were then known as Central Markets. Not too much later they became Price Chopper. Eventually my mother went back to work, just up State Street at the Schenectady Savings Bank, but even before that we made frequent trips to downtown. And so there was a time when I could have closed my eyes and named every business with a storefront between the Hotel Van Curler and Veterans Park. And I would have thought all of that would have been permanent, but of course it was nothing like it. In that 400 block of State, the core of downtown for all those years, not a single business survives from my youth — you might except the Proctor’s Theater, but it’s actually a vast improvement on the ’70s adult “art” movie house with occasional horror movie shows that I remember from my teens. When the Carl Company, Schenectady’s last local department store, succumbed gracefully to the general tendencies that had killed all the other local department stores in upstate New York, and the Woolworth let go of its rundown little corner location, and even the daily newspaper fled its antiquated space for something better way outside of downtown, there was nothing left of that old geography I knew so well, except its skeletons. Some of them, happily, are being renovated and finally put to use after decades of bungled efforts (which famously included the rebuilding of a tiny canal area, which seemed to be based on the premise that was brought people downtown was a small, unusable artificial waterway in no way connected with the canal that the residents of Schenectady had vehemently fought against in the first place).

This obsession has blossomed fully within me into an all-out effort to recapture that geography of my youth, to remember what was where and when, to try to put names to the empty faces on the streets of Schenectady. Some of these efforts can be seen here, where I have scanned a number of photographs of the Electric City as it used to be. And I have also been scanning a number of ads and articles from a pair of old editions of the Schenectady Gazette that my grandparents saved from V-E and V-J days. Brittle, well before my time and not much longer for this world, but fascinating to me. And if you care to, more modern pictures of the City that Lights and Hauls the World here.

This obsession is not limited to where I grew up — I’m pretty much fascinated by the history of every place I’ve been. Of course, not many places in the U.S. have quite as rich and interesting a history as Schenectady. Syracuse, where I lived for a long time, got a late start, comparatively, but I was still always fascinated by its story. I just recently tripped upon a great, detailed site that lays out much of the geography and architecture of the Salt City, Yestercuse. With the history you get a lot of the present, as well, and it’s saddening to me how a city that seemed so vibrant (if struggling) when I lived there seems to have fallen on some very hard times.

5 thoughts on “History

  1. me!

    Mrs. Wachter (mom’s HS best friend’s mom) also worked in Wallace’s. It’s where we used to buy our gloves for Easter. (You too?)I can remember getting a fair paddling in that store over the “colored” water fountain. (Turns out that the water wasn’t colored at all — and there are few rewards for children who read at age four.) It may have been the only time I REALLY pitched a fit in a store, and for my efforts I got marched over to the clearly clear water, was not allowed to drink, was promptly paddled and removed from the premises. I remain disappointed that the water wasn’t colored. One would think that a nice store like that wouldn’t have it carved in stone unless it was true…

  2. Carl

    Really? I don’t remember anything like that anywhere. I do remember you needed to pay a dime to use the toilets, which was a fairly common practice at the time.

  3. me!

    The Brits said “spend a penny”, but it’s true that it cost a dime to pee in the good old US of A. I think that’s why it became fashionable to put dimes in penny loafers. I put forward: that changed about the time that middle-class kids went hippity-hip-pee, and loafers went the way of the covered wagon. I’ll fabricate some facts to support this before I write up the thesis.All my genealogical digging hit pay dirt: my mother’s dad’s family was listed as mulatto in the early 20th century censuses — and prior generations listed as black and mulatto. (On the Pennsylvania frontier, some things mattered more than appearances, it seems.) Still digging, but it puts a very different light on my Uncle Harold’s efforts to integrate Union College. The same line, by marriage, goes back to the Mayflower. Do tell!

  4. Mike Airhart

    I missed out on Barney’s and Wallace’s, but I remember touring downtown in the early 1980s with a few friends and a videocam. I was a high school junior and I knew that times would be changing soon, so I captured what I could. We goofed off at the Carl Company, gave a passing glance to the empty cavern of Center City and the partially reoccupied Wallace’s, and poked around Canal Square. (I think I still have the VHS tape somewhere.) Canal Square was luring some new merchants to the area around Peggy’s Restaurant, but the development was (even then) so obviously tenuous and low-budget. The canal idea was better than an empty alley, perhaps, but it went nowhere and drew no one. I moved away a year later, to a city with a much more promising downtown. Now that city is almost as troubled as Schenectady, and Schenectady seems (again) to be bouncing back….

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