Before the Fire: Living On Jay Street
Story and photographs by Stanley A. Johnson
Demolition on the buildings at 100-104 Jay Street in Schenectady continues this week following the fire earlier this month which killed at least four, injured several more and left dozens looking for new homes.
I did not know Harry Simpson, Robert Thomas, Berenices Suarez nor Jermaine Allen, who all died in the blaze. I did recognize James & Kristie Lynch, who lived at 100 Jay Street. They were volunteer security at almost every Alive at 5 concert for the last decade. James is always the first to tell you to get down if you attempt to get upon someone’s shoulders to see better.
The couple has had a particularly hard time settling down in the past year, winding up on Jay Street after being forced out of one of the two Colonie motels that are also currently being demolished, those for code violations.
Those two tall Jay Street buildings across from Schenectady City Hall have been home to hundreds, perhaps thousands of short and long-term residents over the years. The Gleason Building, 104 on the left, had an elaborate front full of faces and scrollwork.
I lived in a rear apartment on the on the fourth floor of 104 Jay for a couple years in the early ’90s, so I imagine that anyone else around here who has lived in those buildings had a similar reaction: Horror first, then relief that it didn’t happen when I lived there.
If there wasn’t a working smoke detector when I moved in, I would have put it in, but I really don’t remember. There were no sprinklers, but there were fire extinguishers in each hallway.
It wasn’t the worst place I’ve ever lived; It was small and efficient, close to the library, the post office and City Hall.
Downtown Schenectady was going through some hard times. Although it was still several years from bottoming out, it was a downhill slide in progress.
I lived there because it seemed convenient to my workplace, a photography studio a few doors down from Bibliomania, the used book store ran by photographer and bluegrass musician Bill Healy. My next-door neighbor was Up Your Alley Records owned by Dave Clayton, a drummer I had met at the Blockhouse Beef ‘n Brew’s Tuesday Night Clam Jams next to the bus station.
Those open-mic jam sessions had moved by this time to a couple blocks up North Jay Street in an old fire station renamed Night Shift (before it became a strip club.) It was during one of those jams when a harmonica player named Uncle Ben and Dave started the band Blues Alley.
Dave’s store was one of three downtown record stores, the other two being Edie’s CD’s and Strawberries. The Open Door held the corner at one end of the walking mall, while the other end featured Orion, both of which are still there.
Others living on my floor in 104 included an Ellis nursing student, a middle-aged disabled man and a young woman who had many visitors long into the night.
I was probably out more than I was in the apartment in those days. But too much weirdness gradually began to take things out of my comfort zone, starting when someone stole my bicycle from my basement storage cage. Another time I was trying to get the elevator down, but it was taking a long time. The doors opened and I discovered a couple entangled in lust on the floor. I took the stairs instead.
Weirdness was affecting our business as well. We heard complaints about aggressive and drunken panhandlers, read about robberies in the paper and noticed an increase in vacant storefronts. Some parents of students in the suburbs were not comfortable sending their kids downtown and sales showed it. Eventually, the studio closed, and I moved to the Stockade.
Recently, Schenectady’s State Street has improved and, if the anticipated casino is successful, things should get even better on Erie Boulevardd. But without many alternatives to 100-104 Jay Street, there are fewer places to live downtown.
Several organizations have launched campaigns to accept donations to help those affected by the fire, including the Schenectady Foundation, the Salvation Army, the Milllennial Council, Mohawk Ambulance, Fundabilities.com and the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York.