What's the Schenectady Historian Up To?
So it's been a while since I wrote in this blog, more than a year in fact. The problem with keeping a blog is that it is a whole lot like work. But I’m going to try to be better.
As Schenectady City Historian, I use my Twitter Feed to present important happenings in the city and to engage with the public, but 256 words is sometimes not enough to discuss complex historic issues and happenings.
My plan is to provide an entry here every other week to let you know what I’m working on, what we’re doing in the Efner History Center in the Attic of Schenectady City Hall, and keep you up to date with important happenings in Schenectady and the Mohawk Valley.
So let’s start with me. What have I been doing in 2019? First and foremost, my first book Schenectady’s General Electric Realty Plot was published on April 29 by Arcadia Publishing Company as part of their Images of America line. From the book jacket:
"Schenectady’s General Electric Realty Plot was formed in 1899 when the General Electric (GE) Company purchased 70 acres of land from Union College to provide unique housing opportunities for its executives and scientists and to attract brilliant minds from around the world to work for GE. The original 178 homes were designed by leading architects from as far away as Boston, New York City, and Chicago. The neighborhood, colloquially known as “The Plot,” would also become home to political and religious leaders, businesspeople, and entertainment elite. Inhabited by luminaries such as Charles Proteus Steinmetz, 1932 Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir, Ernst Alexanderson, and William D. Coolidge, the GE Realty Plot was also home to many important historic firsts, including the first demonstration of radar in the United States and the first reception of a television signal in a house."
The project was a twelve month labor of love about a neighborhood that is very dear to my heart and of great historic significance to Schenectady. It is available from: Amazon.com , Open Door Bookstore, Schenectady County Historical Society, Marty's True Value, directly from the author, and other upstate bookstores.
I was also engaged by the Colonial Schenectady Project to edit the second volume of Schenectady Genesis, by John Gearing. This work is a follow-up to Susan Staffa's groundbreaking Schenectady Genesis: How a Dutch Colonial Village Became an American City, ca. 1661-1800.
Mr. Gearing's excellent manuscript covers from 1760-1798, possibly the most tumultuous period in the history of the city. The work highs Schenectady's role in the American Revolution, its development as an early economic powerhouse because of the beaver trade, the decades long battle for the Common Lands that nearly destroyed the city, and the drive to gain independence from Albany by acquiring a charter.
Look for Schenectady Genesis, Volume II in late Summer 2020 from SUNY Press.
Next time, I'll delve into the projects we're tackling at the Efner History Center.
Role of the Municipal Historian
So what is the City Historian supposed to do? The State of New York has mandated the four specific roles of the Historian.
1) "The first, and primary, responsibility of the Local Government Historian is interpretation of the past. This involves research and writing on aspects of your muni for publishing in books, magazines, and newspapers. From the law: “The best local historians have upheld high standards of gathering and evaluating evidence, making thoughtful and appropriate generalizations, writing well-organized and readable narratives, and sharing their work with others through the most appropriate mediums.”
2) Teaching and Public Presentations
"As historian, you may teach courses in local and regional history, serve as a resource to teachers in the fourth and seventh grade local history curriculum, serve as a content consultant, speak and lecture to community groups, and participate in radio and TV talk shows to disseminate local history."
3) Historic Preservation
"Historians are advocates for historic preservation and a resource to your appointing authority on questions relating to history and preservation. The historian may be asked to prepare a cultural resource survey, identify historic structures and prepare nominations to the State and National Register of Historic Places and to develop and manage historic marker programs."
4) Organization, Advocacy and Tourism Promotion
"Historians are asked to organize and direct the commemoration of historical anniversaries and to participate in other civic or patriotic observations. The historian may be asked to act as a fund raiser or grant writer for historical programs. Appointing authorities may ask you to support local tourism."
Hi, I'm Chris Leonard, the recently appointed City Historian of Schenectady. So, a little about me before we move on to more important things in future blog entries.
I grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, which is the northern suburb of New Haven. I'm the son of two history professors: Dr. Ira M. Leonard, who taught US History with a focus on the growth of cities and nativism, at Southern Connecticut State University, and Myrtle Leonard, who focused on Renaissance Europe, concentrating on Elizabethan England. It goes without saying that history is in my blood. While my friends were reading Spiderman comics, I was reading about Abraham Lincoln and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.
I moved to the Albany in the late 1980s to attend the State University of New York at Albany, where I received Bachelors of Arts in History and English, and returned for my Masters Degree in English with a writing concentration. I have lived more than half my life in the Capital District, including the last 14 years in Schenectady. Without question, Schenectady is home!
I was appointed the Historian of the GE Realty Plot by the GE Realty Plot Association Board in December 2016. I am the first official historian of the historic neighborhood in its nearly 10 years of existence. In this position I am writing a detailed history of all the homes within "Th Plot" and their residents. I also lead monthly walking tours of the neighborhood from May to October. Additionally, I volunteer at the Schenectady County Historical Society where I have the privilege of reading and documenting the correspondence of Charles P. Steinmetz.
My interests in Schenectady history are varied. I have lectured on numerous topics including: The History of the GE Realty Plot, The Erie Canal Through Schenectady and the History of Professional Baseball in Schenectady. I am working on a book on the food trends of residents of Schenectady, from the Native Americans and Dutch settlers to the most recent waves of immigrants who have made Schenectady their home. And while I enjoy researching the major topics like the Settlement of Schenectady, General Electric, and ALCO, I want to help surface the stories of those who have generally been ignored.
It is my aim to visit with all of the neighborhood associations in Schenectady over the next few weeks and discuss how we can collect and preserve the not only the "capital H" history, but the important stories that can easily be lost.
I hold regular office hours in the Efner History Center in the attic of Schenectady City Hall:
Monday - 9AM - 1PM
Wednesday - 9Am - Noon
Thursday - 9AM - Noon
Feel free to contact me at 518 382-5088 or via email at cleonard @ schenectadyny.gov.
If you've made it this far, I commend you, and also offer you three interviews I've given, which provide a better understanding of who I am and what I'd like to do for Schenectady:
Chris Leonard: City Historian of Schenectady, BobCudmore.com, "The Historians" Podcast, March 30
Schenectady Appoints New Historian, WAMC, The Roundtable, Feb 12
Meet Schenectady's new historian, Chris Leonard, Daily Gazette, Feb 4
City Historian of Schenectady