Schenectady's mayor recruits Guyanese to city

Old river town seeks new residents to shore up its ailing economy

August 07, 2002|By Sarah Kershaw | Sarah Kershaw,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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 tour of the city. He takes them 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 resumes, officiate at their weddings and learn to love their spicy soups.

He has given out his cell-phone 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."

Plan is working

His plan is working. From the time last year that Jurczynski (pronounced jur-ZIN-ski) heard there was 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.

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 church to house the temple, and in the process he learned a few things about the Guyanese, he said.

`Singing my tune'

Jurczynski recalled 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 with 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, two buses will make the trip.

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