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Give Me Your Guyanese

Mayor Al Jurczynski pins his latest plan for Schenectady’s revival on a novel attempt to attract West Indian immigrants

By Nancy Guerin

Schenectady or bust: Mayor Al Jurczynski. Photo by Joe Putrock.

It’s around 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning and Mayor Albert P. Jurczynski is on his cell phone standing on the top step of Schenectady City Hall. On one side of the 6-foot-1-inch mayor stands a group of city officials, while on the other side, a handful of reporters hover over him, anxiously writing down his every word. All are awaiting the arrival of a group of Guyanese people from New York City. As Jurczynski hangs up his phone, he announces that the limousine carrying his guests is running late, but will be there any minute. He explains that usually the group comes up on a chartered bus, but on this particular day the bus didn’t show up, so plan B was to take a limo.

“Here they are,” the mayor proudly announces as the white super-stretch Ford Explorer limo with tinted windows veers around the corner of Franklin Street in a wide right turn onto Jay Street. The super-stretch pulls up in front of City Hall, and driver Herman Singh awkwardly attempts to pull into a parking space, making several passess before successfully pulling in between two other vehicles. Singh owns Tropical Funding, a real-estate and mortgage agency based in Richmond Hills, Queens, the heart of the Guyanese community in New York City. Singh has been working with Jurczynski since May to promote these weekly trips to Schenectady in the hope of enticing Guyanese New Yorkers to move to the area.

The mayor, dressed in a tweed jacket, rugby shirt and gray faded jeans, proceeds down the steep steps into the rain to greet his visitors. One by one, as they step out of the super-stretch, the mayor shakes their hands. “How are you?” he asks. “Welcome to Schenectady. How was the ride up?”

As the group spills out into the cold, damp autumn air, many look tired, as if the three-hour ride up from Queens, which was delayed for two hours, turned into more of an ordeal then they had planned.

“I heard the bus didn’t show,” Jurczynski says to a middle-aged woman in a beige turtleneck with black-and-white stripes, and her 9-year-old son. “Sorry about that, but you are here now.”

As the Guyanese emerge from the limo, they greet the mayor with a look of excitement in their eyes and with smiles on their faces. They look around, catching their first glimpses of the much-hyped Schenectady, perhaps wondering whether this small upstate city is all that it is cracked up to be, and a place that they will someday call home.

“Are you the mayor?” asks a 40-year-old man in a neatly ironed blue oxford shirt with perfectly parted jet-black hair. “I sure am,” Jurczynski chortles.

“Ah ha,” the mayor exclaims as the next person walks from the back of the limo with a tray full of curried chicken. “The most important person has arrived—the guy with the food.”

Before they proceed up the stairs into City Hall to take shelter from the rain, Jurczynski requests a group photo to appease one of the many photographers who gather around him. Once inside the building, the group shuffles up to the second floor and into City Council chambers. The large room has high ceilings, spectacular molding, authentic woodwork and rows of wooden benches and big red leather chairs. The group quickly quiets down as George Robertson, president of Schenectady Economic Development Corporation, begins to speak.

“Schenectady is a good opportunity for you,” he explains. “Here we have a number of jobs, great schools, and very affordable housing. But just as important, you are a great opportunity for Schenectady. . . . If you need help, call us. We want to make it easy for you to move up here.”

Following Robertson, a member of the Schenectady School Board talks to the 20 guests as the smell of curried chicken, black beans and rice, and Guyanese-style chow mein fills the air. She boasts about the great schools in Schenectady, including its magnet-school system and the number of local colleges and universities in the area. Next, Jay Sherman, director of development for the city, speaks of the positive impact the Guyanese have already had on the area and the number of opportunities that are available, including jobs, housing and education. Other city officials talk briefly, all giving their best pitch to convince the visitors that Schenectady is the place for them. And finally, it’s Jurczynski’s turn to speak.

“When was the last time you had the privilege to meet Mayor Bloomberg? How about Giuliani?” he asks, referring to New York City’s current and immediate past mayors. “I guess you get to see them flying by in a limo once in a while. Well, what does that tell you? If you move here, you can come by my office and have coffee with me any time.”

As he works the crowd with lighthearted humor, touching on a variety of topics—including his appreciation for El Dorado rum, a specialty of Guyana, and the newly built Hindu temple in the area—Jurczynski also speaks about his own parents and how they immigrated here from Poland. He also mentions how his in-laws came from Italy, as if he is letting his guests know that he understands what it’s like to move from Guyana to the United States. He talks of the similarities between the Guyanese and the Italians, stressing that both cultures are hard working, religious and family- oriented. He then promises that they will stop by his in-laws’ house later that day during the three-hour bus tour of the city. “If you are good, perhaps then you will be able to try a glass of my father-in-law’s homemade wine,” he boasts.

Jurczynski says that if they like sitting in traffic for hours on end, or enjoy paying $4 or $5 to go over a bridge, then Schenectady is not for them. But if they are interested in living a small-town life, working hard and owning their own homes, then this is the place.

“We want you to move here,” he says. “We want you to open businesses here. We want you to send your children to our schools.

“You can even run for mayor if you want.” Jurczynski pauses, then adds, “but only when I am done, and I will tell you when I am done.” This draws a huge laugh from the crowd.

“But we don’t want you to come up here to rent, to be on public assistance. We want you to come up here and live the American dream.” Many perk up at the sound of this, and as they hang on the mayor’s every word, it’s obvious that he has won them over.

Two years ago, “Mayor Al,” as he is known, never would have thought he’d be giving weekly tours of his city to Guyanese immigrants. There already were about 200 Guyanese living in Schennectady, unbeknownst to the mayor, who was struggling with a host of Schenectady’s woes, including numerous shootings in Hamilton Hill, a corrupt police department and a failing economy.

This whole project started, he explains, after he received a call last year from Deryck Singh, a Guyanese immigrant who has lived in Schenectady for 15 years and was looking for a place to build a Hindu temple. The mayor made a few calls, leading to a vacant Catholic church, which soon became the temple’s home. It was through Singh that Jurczynski began to learn more about this small group of immigrants living in his city. What he was hearing sparked his interest. As he puts it, “It was music to my ears.”

“This is a group of people that do not believe in public assistance,” says Jurczynski. “I admire people who refuse to take that even if they are qualified. The Guyanese have a very strong work ethic, with strong family values. Who wouldn’t want this population to inhabit their city?”

While Guyanese migration to Schenectady was already happening, it was at a very slow pace, he says, so he decided to help it along.

“I first attempted to do this with the Hasidic Jewish people back in 1996,” says Jurczynski. “I wanted them to come here and help rebuild our city, but it never caught on.”

I’ll take you there: Real-estate agent Howard Singh. Photo by Joe Putrock.

The mayor began a concerted effort to get the Guyanese to leave their homes in the five boroughs of New York City and move to Schenectady. He started to network by making trips down to Richmond Hill. He soon hooked up with realtor Herman Singh (not related to Deryck), and in May, Jurczynski went on Singh’s weekly radio program, Herman Singh Show Time, on WRTN 93.5 FM in New York City.

‘This show is mostly listened to by the West Indian population in New York City,” explains Jurczynski. “I just told them that they should move to Schenectady. I told them to come up and visit and I gave them my cell phone number.”

Just one month later, the bus trips from Richmond Hill to Schenectady, paid for by Singh, began. “At first they were every other week, but they became so popular that we started running them every week,” says Singh.

Once in Schenectady, the bus is greeted by the mayor, and after lunch, which is also provided by Singh, the group piles back on the bus—or, on this day, the limo—to tour the city.

Before the group leaves City Hall, the mayor says, “I am going to show you the best part of Schenectady this afternoon, and you will probably think that New York City has nicer areas, but I am also going to show you the worst, and you can decide for yourself if Queens or Brooklyn or Manhattan’s worst neighborhood compares to this. I think you will see that they do not.”

Host with the most: the Mayor and Guyanese guest. Photo by Joe Putrock.

The three-hour tour includes a trip to Schenectady’s own Central Park, visits to area schools, and a swing through each neighborhood in the city. And yes, the final stop is at Jurczynski’s in-laws’ house, where, as promised, they are given a sample of his father-in-law’s homemade wine. The mayor promises them that he will review their résumés and help them find jobs. He says he will build them a cricket stadium, promises them he will officiate their weddings, and reiterates how much he loves El Dorado rum and curried goat and chicken.

All the while, Jurczynski compares Schenectady’s small-town living to that of Guyana by stating that it is a slower-paced community where everyone knows each other, a place where you can have a garden, go fishing or hiking, own your own home and feel confident that your children are receiving a good education. He even stops off at other Guyanese families’ homes during the tour. Often, if the residents are home, they come out to bear witness to the wonderful life they have found in Schenectady and to assure the visitors that the mayor is not just feeding then empty promises.

“If I am here I come out to say hello,” says Sauitrie Rajkumar, who moved to Schenectady four years ago from Richmond Hill. “I like to see if I know anyone on the bus.”

Sauitrie and Raj Rajkumar’s home is usually one of the stops the mayor makes on his weekly bus tours, and it is no surprise why. As you pull up to 250 Duane Ave., the first thing that catches your eye is the oversized white iron fence at the foot of a newly blacktopped driveway. Apparently, the fence is a signature of Guyanese homes in Richmond Hill. The driveway is large enough to fit at least five cars, but only one large white truck is sitting there. After the couple bought their home, they purchased the lot next door and converted it into a driveway. There’s a basketball hoop, a swing, and a scattering of children’s toys. The house itself is obviously well cared for, with a fresh coat of white paint, dark green trim, and flowers filling out the front yard. The house stands out compared to many other homes in the neighborhood—Hamilton Hill—that appear to be in need of the same type of tender loving care.

The couple moved to the area with their four children in 1998 after Sauitrie’s sister moved up from New York City and bought a home. The Rajkumars paid $13,500 for their house but have since spent a lot of money fixing it up and converting it from a two-family to a one-family home.

“When we lived in the city, we had a small apartment and the kids had to all share a room,” he says. “We paid $1,000 a month and we were all crammed in there. But now we come up here and own a two-story house for less than what we paid in rent in the city. We have spent a lot getting this place in shape, but the money it cost us still couldn’t buy us a home in Queens.”

The couple explains that when they came here, there were very few Guyanese in the area, but through word of mouth and with the weekly bus trips, that has quickly changed. What the Rajkumars like best about living here is that it reminds them of back home in Georgetown, Guyana.

“Everyone in Guyana owns their own home,” says Raj. “You work hard and you build your own things. I try to get all of my friends to move here because it is country just like back home. I can go fishing, hunting and go to the lake. It’s an easier life. In Queens I had to work so much harder for so much less.”

Raj, who owns his own business selling auto-body supplies, has kept many of his customers down in Queens and makes weekly trips to maintain his business. He is slowly trying to move his work up here. Sauitrie works as a home health aid and has had no problems finding work in the area.

“I don’t miss New York City,” says Sauitrie. “Here I have my own home, I live in a nice neighborhood and it’s comfortable living. I feel safer here. I like the schools, and we see the city improving as a result of the Guyanese moving here. In this neighborhood, whenever you see new siding, a new roof or flowers, you know it’s a Guyanese family that has moved in.”

But the two admit that if someone told them five years ago that they would be living in Schenectady, they would have never believed them.

“We never thought we would move here,” he said. “We didn’t even know Schenectady existed. It took us a month to even pronounce the name correctly.”

The Rajkumars are just one of many success stories of approximately 3,000 Guyanese that have settled in or around Schenectady since last May. What makes Schenectady so enticing, many say, is the availability of jobs and affordable homes in the area. The unemployment rate in upstate New York is at about 3.6 percent, much lower than in New York City, and people can buy homes for a fraction of what they would pay downstate. But it is not just those who have moved here that have reaped the benefits of upstate living: The city of Schenectady has gotten a lot out of this deal as well.

For years, explains Robertson, president of the Schenectady Economic Development Corporation, the city has been trying to attract middle-class families to the more rundown sections of the city like Hamilton Hill, Mont Pleasant and Central State Street by offering grants and loans to encourage people to buy and fix up houses. But there have been few takers until now. On Emmet Street alone, 27 houses have been purchased by Guyanese families since May. Some were bought for as little as $1. Homes that normally were considered an eyesore or a drug spot are now being bought up, renovated and lived in. As a result, property values in certain areas have nearly doubled. But troubled neighborhoods are not the only sections that Guyanese have been settling. “All around the city the Guyanese are moving in,” said Singh, who says that since May he has handled 150 mortgages for people who have taken the bus tour and liked what they saw.

And rising property values is not the only way that the city has benefited from the influx of Guyanese, according to Robertson. From an economic-development perspective, the Guyanese are giving the Schenectady work force the shot in the arm that it has desperately needed for years.

“As General Electric declined over the past two decades,” says Robertson, “a lot of young people left, leaving employers scrambling for new workers. Schenectady has the second- highest percent of senior citizens of any county in New York, and I think the absorption rate of the Guyanese has been indicative of that.”

The Guyanese are taking jobs in many different sectors, from health care to construction. Contec, a manufacturer of electronic devices, hired nearly 65 Guyanese workers over the summer, and Kingsway Arms Nursing Center has hired 45.

“I dropped my dry cleaning off at Henry’s cleaners, and there were three Guyanese working there,” said Robertson.

He also explained that a number of people are looking to open their own businesses, such as bakeries, restaurants, beauty salons and clothing stores.

At Mahbeers, a West Indian market on McClellan Street, business is soaring as a result of the influx of Guyanese.

“Business has been growing,” said Mahbeer, the owner. “We are even thinking of putting an addition on the back of the store. I go to the city every week to stock up on supplies, but now each week before I leave I am all out of many products.”

The mayor’s eagerness to at- tract the Guyanese has not always gone over well with Schenectady residents. At first, many felt slighted that the mayor was rolling out the red carpet for this particular group of people, while others who have been living in the city for years had not received such attention.

Councilman Joseph Allen says that he finds it offensive that the mayor continues to emphasize the Guyanese commitment to hard work, thereby implying that they are the only group of people in the area with a strong work ethic.

“My father worked two jobs,” says Allen. “I know a lot of people who can tell stories of how their families came here and worked hard to make it. All of the sudden, the Guyanese are the only people who have strong work ethics? It is almost a slap in the face for those who have been here all these years.”

He also argues that the Guyanese are getting the first crack at houses that many Schenectady residents are not even aware are up for sale. Last month, he says he was shown a newsletter by a local Guyanese resident with listings of city-owned homes on the foreclosure list that had not yet been seen by members of the City Council.

“I thought that we would be in the pipeline, but we are not, and that is a problem,” says Allen. “I am glad that the Guyanese are here and that they are buying up homes. But when the mayor hooks up with a realtor and the realtor hooks up with the people and starts bringing them up by the busload and then they start getting first pick at properties? That just doesn’t go over well with the people that have been here a long time.”

But Jurczynski contends that all of the programs and houses that are available to the Guyanese have been and still are accessible to Schenectady residents.

“We are not offering anybody anything that has not been around for quite a long time,” says Jurczynski. “Anyone can come on these tours. Anyone can buy these homes. It’s just that up until now, nobody has taken advantage of such programs.”

Chauncey Williams, president of Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association, agrees with the mayor on this point. For years, he said, the association had tried—without much success—to get people to take advantage of the many programs available to help them buy homes in Hamilton Hill, like he did in 1982. He says that at first, he was a bit skeptical of the Guyanese moving into the area, but he has since changed his mind.

“The Guyanese are buying property up left and right, and they make great neighbors,” says Williams. “Nobody can argue that. They do whatever it takes to make it work, including working two or three jobs. They are running the crime element out because it has become really family-oriented on certain streets. Houses that were once known as drug spots are now beautiful homes. This is having an effect on the neighborhood, forcing others to take better care of their properties and sparking others’ interest to buy. It has also raised the property values.”

His main concern, he says, is that with the increase in property value, it is becoming too expensive for many to rent and even harder for those who want to buy. Already, he notes, certain houses that were on the market for just $20,000 last year are now receiving bids for $47,000.

“The problem is that some people don’t make enough money to buy property because the prices have gone up,” he adds. “But where were they when the houses were going on the foreclosure list for $1?”

Inspecting the goods: The Macaghwar family checks out Schenectady. Photo by Joe Putrock.

On the day of the limo tour, Michael and Komaldely Macaghwar, who have come up from Queens, say they like what they have seen so far. And they say that they are seriously considering moving up here.

“We will need to go home and think it over, but we need a different lifestyle for our kids,” says Komaldely, who has three boys ages 25, 19 and 9. “I want to own a home. This has always been my dream, and we can’t do that it down there. We want a yard and a basketball hoop. My son has always wanted his own room. I think we can have that here.”

Her husband continues, “I want to get out of New York and have less financial stress. I want my kids out of the tunnels and bridges and want to live in place where the pace is easier.”

Chauncey Williams echoes the sentiment that many others have may have thought—but haven’t said—about this new and strange migration to Schenectady.

“When you think about it, it’s quite bizarre,” says Williams. “These people are trying to live the American dream, and when you look at it, they found that dream in Schenectady. And that’s the part that kills some of us, because for a long time, we thought of this place as the hellhole of America.”

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