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For Schenectady, A Guyanese Strategy

July 26, 2002

For Schenectady, a Guyanese Strategy


SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — This small city in the Mohawk River valley, where industries built in the early 20th century on the hard labor of immigrants from Italy and Poland crumbled long ago, is in the market for a new ethnic group.

The mayor has found one, and he is doing everything short of packing up their homes in New York City and driving the moving van to get them here.

They are Guyanese immigrants living in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, and since May, Mayor Albert P. Jurczynski has gone to rather unusual lengths to persuade them to move to his struggling city of 62,000 people.

He is their guide on a weekly bus tour that brings dozens of Guyanese immigrants here every Saturday for a three-hour tour of the city. He takes them to Schenectady's own Central Park for ice cream cones. He takes them to his in-laws' house for homemade wine. He promises to build them a cricket stadium one day, to personally review all their r´sum´s, officiate at their weddings and learn to love their spicy soups.

He has given out his cellphone number on a New York radio show that is popular among Guyanese immigrants. He makes regular trips to Richmond Hill, Queens, the city's largest Guyanese neighborhood, where he walks along Liberty Avenue practically demanding that everybody move to Schenectady on the double. He flatters the merchants, buys Guyanese products and dines on braised bass, curried goat and 15-year-old Guyanese rum.

"Let me ask you something," the barrel-chested mayor boomed through a microphone as a bus filled with 43 visiting Guyanese immigrants rolled away from Schenectady City Hall on a Saturday in July. "Bloomberg, down in New York City, would he be doing this? For that reason alone you should move to Schenectady."

His plan is working. From the time last year that Mayor Jurczynski (pronounced jur-ZIN-ski) heard there was a a small Guyanese population in his city, some 2,000 have moved here, according to Schenectady officials, with each weekly bus tour bringing more. They are buying dilapidated or condemned homes — some for as little as $1 — and fixing them up, making plans for restaurants and shops and taking jobs as construction workers and nurses' aides. Most important to the mayor, they are telling their friends and relatives about an obscure and hard-to-pronounce place called Schenectady.

Immigrants to this country move from place to place all the time, creating new and often large enclaves as they go. While many depressed or deserted cities have courted and encouraged immigrants to move in, what usually drives these migrations — like the movement of Bangladeshis from Queens to Detroit and Bosnians to Utica, N.Y. — is word of mouth.

In this case, the motor of change is Mayor Al, as he is known around the city.

Mr. Jurczynski, 45, a Republican who grew up here and is serving his seventh year as mayor, seems to have decided that his city's future lies in the hands of the Guyanese. And his obsession has left some in established ethnic communities feeling slighted.

There are roughly 140,000 Guyanese in New York City, the largest population outside Guyana, a former British colony on the northeast coast of South America. Most are ethnic Indians, whose ancestors were brought to Guyana from India as indentured servants. They speak English, which has helped make their adjustment to life in Schenectady much less difficult than it was for the earlier immigrants from Italy and Poland. (The mayor is the grandson of immigrants from Poland.)

The mayor's effort began after he received a telephone call last year from Deryck Singh, a Guyanese immigrant who settled here 15 years earlier and was looking for a place to build a Hindu temple. There were only 200 Guyanese immigrants living here, but the mayor helped them find a vacant Catholic church to house the temple, and in the process he learned a few things about the Guyanese, he said.

Mr. Jurczynski recalled Mr. Singh, who moved here from the Bronx after stumbling on Schenectady one afternoon during a drive up the New York State Thruway, saying Guyanese people "don't believe in public assistance."

"When I heard that, I had a big smile on my face," the mayor said. "And I said, 'You're singing my tune.' "

After that, the mayor began to meet and greet more Guyanese immigrants, including two savvy real estate brokers from Queens, one of whom hosts a radio show in New York City.

Last May, the mayor called in to "Herman Singh Show Time," a radio program on WRTN 93.5 FM, and told the largely Guyanese audience that they should move to Schenectady and call him directly on his cell phone. It was a bold move, but it was subtle compared to what came next.

A month later, the bus trips began, leaving every other Saturday at 6 a.m. from Richmond Hill and returning 12 hours later. Starting in July, the trips, paid for by the two real estate and mortgage brokers from Queens who often get dozens of clients after each trip, are running weekly. Soon, for the first time, two buses will make the trip.

Unemployment here is about 3.6 percent, far below that of New York City, and houses sell at a fraction of prices in New York City.

"I have a better life here for half the cost," said Deryck Singh, the district manager for the Albany division of Stewart's Ice Cream. "I have a great deal of love for New York City, but I just can't do it every day."

The city has been selling homes on its demolition list, in some of its most downtrodden neighborhoods, to Guyanese immigrants, for as little as $1. And Schenectady gets a great deal: It costs $16,500 to demolish each condemned building, so they save the cost of demolition and watch their property values rise. Herman Singh, the radio host and broker, said that after seven bus tours so far, his business, Tropical Funding, had handled 72 mortgages for people who had taken the bus tour and had bought property in Schenectady.

Mr. Jurczynski has made no secret of his motivation in having the Guyanese move into a city that has lost tens of thousands of residents over the last few decades. But the mayor, who is quick to describe the Guyanese as hard-working, entrepreneurial and tidy, has been criticized by some of the city's black residents for rolling out a red carpet for the Guyanese and, in doing so, implying that Schenectady's other ethnic groups — blacks, Hispanics and Asians make up roughly 20 percent of the population — are neither as industrious nor as desirable.

At a recent Schenectady Council meeting, Councilman Joseph Allen said he found it "offensive" that the mayor would imply that "the people who have lived here for years don't have a strong work ethic."

George L. Robertson, president of the Schenectady Economic Development Corporation, said the city had tried offering numerous financial incentives to encourage home buying and entrepreneurship. But when residents of Schenectady earn enough to buy homes, they often leave for the suburbs, he said.

At the welcome reception at City Hall in July, a parade of employers, school officials and others made their pitches to the Guyanese visitors, leaving them with information packets and canvas tote bags. Mr. Robertson told them: "Quite frankly, you're an opportunity for us. We very much are looking for a new ethnic group."

Afterward, as everyone headed to the bus for the mayor's tour, Yasmin Baksh, 41, a Guyanese immigrant and unemployed banker who lives in Richmond Hill, said, "We feel so welcome. They want us to come develop the area. The way they were speaking, I've never heard this."

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