Me Your Guyanese
Al Jurczynski pins his latest plan for Schenectady’s revival
on a novel attempt to attract West Indian immigrants
or bust: Mayor Al Jurczynski.
Photo by Joe Putrock.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
want you to move here,” he says. “We want you to open businesses
here. We want you to send your children to our schools.
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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.”
take you there: Real-estate agent Howard Singh.
Photo by Joe Putrock.
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.
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
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.”
with the most: the Mayor and Guyanese guest.
Photo by Joe Putrock.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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?”
the goods: The Macaghwar family checks out Schenectady.
Photo by Joe Putrock.
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.
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
Chauncey Williams echoes the sentiment that many others
have may have thought—but haven’t said—about this new and
strange migration to Schenectady.
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.”