Canal town faces crisis of identity


CLYDE, N.Y. -- Sitting in Pete's Diner, talking about his beloved hometown, Kenneth DiSanto makes the plan sound plausible, even probable. Of course this forlorn little village will transform itself from plain old Clyde, smack in the middle of nowhere, to Clyde-on-the-Erie, historic site and tourist magnet.

Step outside onto Glasgow Street, however, and the obstacles to that plan become plain.

Just for starters, you cannot actually get to the Erie Canal from three-block-long downtown Clyde. Railroad tracks run between the water and the village; freight cars rumble through every 20 minutes or so.

Nor can you get from the canal into Clyde; the only dock, on the far side of a bridge, cannot accommodate anything much bigger than a rowboat.

Nevertheless, Clyde, halfway between Rochester and Syracuse, is pinning its hopes for the future on the canal that first gave it life back in the 1820s.

'Canal corridor initiative'

So are dozens of other communities in upstate New York. They are being egged on by the federal government, which since 1996 has been pushing a "canal corridor initiative" to redevelop the historic canal for tourism and recreation -- and has given out almost $240 million in grants and loans to help pay for the efforts.

"Nobody wants to live in a chapter in a history book," said Andrew Cuomo, the secretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development (and a possible future candidate for governor).

But, he said, remaking and marketing the canal will promote "tourism, jobs, energy and optimism, and the quality of life of the locale."

Across New York state, there are hundreds of villages and towns of 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 souls, stranded in history as well as geography. Places that once had a reason for being -- a railroad stop, a turnpike gate, a waterfall to drive a mill -- are struggling to survive in the age of the Internet.

In Clyde, "our game plan has been to find a reason for existence," said DiSanto, who is, among other things, chairman of the village's Industrial Development Corp.

That makes Clyde similar to many upstate communities, said Susan Christopherson, a professor of urban planning at Cornell University who has studied the canal redevelopment program. So does its separation from the canal itself. "In many cases, it ran adjacent to the downtown business district," she said. "It wasn't directly connected to downtown."

Some communities along the canal are more prosperous than Clyde, and more urban; many in western Wayne County, for example, where Clyde is, have become suburbs of Rochester. But "Clyde is fairly typical of most rural downtowns" in central New York, said Barbara Harper, director of the Wayne County Economic Development Authority.

Diminished downtown

Which means that there is not a whole lot here: Pete's, of course, and the Trackside Deli, a Key Bank branch, antiques shops and a cute little flower shop. For shopping there's a hardware store, the Clyde Bargain Center and Messinger's Variety Store, an old-fashioned five-and-dime that sells housedresses and hairnets when its 91-year-old proprietor can make it to the cash register.

Clyde has a leafy little town green, too, with a bandstand and fountain. You have to look closely to realize that the statue of George Washington has lost its nose, or that the fancy little roof on wooden supports labeled "Clyde's Famous Mineral Spring" covers only a pipe with a soda can smashed into it.

It's hard to say exactly how many people still live in Clyde. Locals put the population at 2,400, but last year's Census Bureau estimate is about half that. In any event, Clyde is so small that it has only one telephone exchange, and people tend to identify themselves by the year they graduated from Clyde-Savannah High.

And for some of those people, the canal remains a real part of life, even today. Take Brian Howell, who worked on the last steam-powered vessel to ply the Erie. That was only 15 years ago -- and Howell, who works for the State Canal Corp., is only 34 (Class of 1984).

At one time, the canal was all the reason Clyde needed for being. When the canal opened in 1825, it provided for the first time transportation through the spine of mountains that runs down the eastern United States. Wheat could come east, widgets could go west, and people could move both ways, on barges drawn by mules. Clyde was the first stop for westbound barges that had pushed for hours through the malaria-infested Montezuma Swamp. Not surprisingly, mule drivers got off to have a drink in one of Clyde's taverns.

There were shoe shops and clothing shops, and, in time, a fancy hotel, a racetrack, two newspapers, two train stations, three graveyards, at least four churches and a home-grown marching band. The biggest house in town belonged to the owner of the glass factory, which turned out handmade Mason jars.

The railroad brought Abraham Lincoln, who in 1861 spoke a few words to a crowd gathered in Clyde. In the 1880s, it brought the Italian workers whose names are now borne by almost everyone in town.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Clyde continued to prosper. "If I had to be transported back in time, it would be to the 1930s," said R. Hugh Miner, the town historian and publisher of the monthly Crossroads Advocate. In this agricultural area, even the Depression was not so bad, he said, "and this was a very close-knit community."

Just ask George L. Storto, who says he is related to everyone in town (his father owned an ice cream parlor). A member of the Clyde-Savannah High Class of 1948, Storto left Clyde in 1957 and ended up in Arizona, working for a big insurance company. And he married a woman from Tennessee.

"She said, 'Someday you have to show me that little town you're from, because you talk about it and dream about it,'" Storto said. In 1995, he and his wife came back to Clyde.

Storto is part of what may be Clyde's secret weapon: a group of well-traveled, well-to-do retirees who are determined to save the place they still love. They include DiSanto and Richard DeVito, who both retired from Xerox, and Rudolph A. DeLisio, who retired from General Electric (classes of '56, '51 and '41, respectively).

They knew Clyde before the GE plant closed and eliminated 350 jobs in the early 1960s. Even though some other businesses have moved in -- Parker Hannifin, which makes industrial hydraulic equipment, and Thomas Electronics each employ well over 100 people -- Clyde seemed to lose something, they said.

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