Utica, New York: A Day of Fun, A Story of Hope

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So often we think of vacations as far away places where we spend lots of money for 3-7 days of relaxation, activities and bliss.  Vacations are seen as things we reach for but experience so rarely, especially in today’s work world.

I’ve found a very different truth.  I’ve found that one can experience the benefits of a vacation without spending much money at all.  I’ve found that while it’s good to get out of your town for a bit, you don’t have to go far to feel like you’re getting away and having a good time.  And finally, I’ve found that in many cases, you can do this in one day.  Yep, that’s right… any given Saturday, you too can experience a cheap day away… one that will leave you feeling refreshed and feeling good about yourself before you dive back into the work week!

For example, did you know you can spend a day in New York City doing whatever you want for less than $100 transportation without driving at all?  It’s true!  There is a Greyhound Bus that leaves Rochester at 12:50am and arrives in NYC at 6:45am.  You sleep on the bus and wake up in the Big Apple!  Spend a day seeing the sights, maybe a little shopping… whatever you want.  Then, hop back on a bus for Rochester at 9:30pm, sleep all the way, and arrive in back in the ROC in the early morning.  Round trip is $85.  That’s it.  In a little more than 24 hours, you can spend a day in New York.  You can return to work on Monday and tell all your co-workers about the amazing time you had, and watch the jealousy in their eyes 😉

But New York City shouldn’t have all the fun.  There are places all over this great country, places nobody would think to go, that have wonderful things to see and do.  You can be inspired by great art, see unique architecture, meet good people, eat great food and maybe enjoy a delicious alcoholic beverage or three.

So I made a decision.  In the next year or so, I will travel to places all over New York State that people might not think of as fun or interesting places to spend a day.  My first stop was a few months ago in Utica New York.

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UTICA???

“Utica?  Why do you want to go there?”  If I had a quarter for the number of times I heard that I would be a rich man.  OK maybe not rich, but you get the idea.  The perception is that Utica has nothing… another small city, once a manufacturing success story,  that has fallen on hard times.  This perception is not far from reality actually.  It is a city once rich in jobs and manufacturing.  Like so much of this country, the jobs left town or went overseas, putting Utica in a difficult financial state.

Like I typically do, I hopped on the Amtrak armed with my camera and my electric scooter in an effort to tell the real story about Utica.  My goal was to see the sights, talk to the people, eat the food… to capture the feeling of Utica in one day and show people everywhere that every city, no matter how small, has something to offer.

As I stepped off the train onto the platform, I was immediately reminded of this town’s rich railroad heritage.  A beautifully restored New York Central steam locomotive, a caboose, a diesel locomotive “pulling” a passenger car… all these pieces surround the Utica rail station.  As I stepped into the station I nearly gasped at the sight.  It was beautiful.  Tall marble pillars reached to a criss-crossed pattern in the ceiling.  Hanging lamps and lighting from another time… a timeless beauty captured and revered here.  What a site for a small city!

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I was anxious to see all that I could see in a day.  So I stepped out into the street, hopped on my scooter and, it being early in the morning, headed to find a good cup of coffee.  I was told there was only one place to go… Utica Coffee Roasting Company on Genesee Street.

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The building was delightfully colorful on the outside, in stark contrast to the neighborhood.  Derelict buildings and general neglect appeared to be the theme of the area I was in.  But I stepped inside this oasis of color and found myself in a modest looking coffee shop, full of your typical eclectic charm with a hint of blue collar “it is what it is” attitude.

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About that… Utica Coffee Roasting was a good place to start my day.  Their website talks about their goal to create a local-minded, economically-intelligent business to a neighborhood that has come on hard times.  Not only do they serve coffee to the public, they also create their own coffee and sell it wholesale.  I ordered a coffee and purchased a shirt, inspired by their model.

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I spoke briefly with Aaron, a young barista who was working there.  I told him a little bit about what I was there to do.

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“There’s a mural just down the street you should see,” he said.  “It kind of sums up Utica.”

After a delicious cup of very strong coffee, I set out to find this mural.  I found it, and he was right.  It spoke volumes.  I wasn’t sure if it was ironic of prophetic.  My answer came a bit later.

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I made my way back to the train station to get a glimpse of the bi-weekly Farmers Market held there.  I was amazed as I walked in… the place had been transformed into a bustling public market, full of vegetables, fruits, breads, cheeses and other delicious items.  It was an incredibly social place as well, with folks of all ages talking, laughing, buying.

"What's the Vibe in Utica?" "It's pretty upbeat."
“What’s the Vibe in Utica?”
“It’s pretty upbeat. Things are looking up!”
The produce comes right from our local farm.  We sell it fresh right here for people in this community.  We make our money here and then we go out and spend it in the community.  It all stays here!
“The produce comes right from our local farm. We sell it fresh right here for people in this community. We make our money here and then we go out and spend it in the community. It all stays here!”
"People want to know where their food is coming from.  They can feel good about the fact that they are buying from their neighbor, someone they know and trust and see in their community, not someone halfway around the world."
“People want to know where their food is coming from. They can feel good about the fact that they are buying from their neighbor, someone they know and trust and see in their community, not someone halfway around the world.”

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Three generations of local farmers.
Three generations of local farmers.
"The young people used to move away.  This generation is different.  They are changing things here.  They are bringing the city back to the way it was when we used to hang out here."
“The young people used to move away. This generation is different. They are changing things here. They are bringing the city back to the way it was when we used to hang out here.”

I stopped into the Oneida County Tourism office, also located in the train station (see a trend?) and spoke with Marcie there.

"I love the culture here.  There’s a lot of history and tradition.  I mean you get that in New York (City) but here it’s more inviting.  The people who own the restaurants and businesses downtown, some of them have owned their businesses for 20-30 years. There’s definately a lot of good things happening.  The younger generation is taking this city back.  It’s great to see."
“I love the culture here. There’s a lot of history and tradition. I mean you get that in New York (City) but here it’s more inviting. The people who own the restaurants and businesses downtown, some of them have owned their businesses for 20-30 years.
There’s definately a lot of good things happening. The younger generation is taking this city back. It’s great to see.”

I left the train station in high spirits.  So many people I spoke with were so anxious to tell the story of Utica’s revival.  I heard all about the new high-end loft apartments being built downtown.  I heard about the new nanotechnology manufacturing plant that’s being built there.  You could see it on their faces… they were all so ready for someone to come along and take an interest in their city and what was happening there.  It kind of felt like I was a kid again, meeting another kid who couldn’t wait to show me his shiny new toy.  It was inspiring to see.

I moved outward from the train station, taking photos of buildings that no doubt once represented a wealth of manufacturing and agricultural jobs.  Now, they were abandoned.

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History popped it’s head up, but I wondered how many people here had ever stopped to notice this dedication.

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I couldn’t help but notice though, little places of beauty here and there.  Almost like mini parks that, for moments at a time, masked the image of urban decay.  You could see the effort, the desire by design to make this a beautiful place at one time.  And from what I had been hearing, hopefully that time was coming again.

I made my way south on Genesee Street.  Closed storefronts and vacant commercial space once again blended with “parklets” and glimpses of effort to keep hope alive.  All this was interwoven with beautiful old buildings, a sign of what once was.

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“What is that?”

I turned, jolted out of my focused observation.  A man and his two boys stood staring at my EcoReco M3 electric scooter.

“That’s my ride today,” I answered with a laugh.  The man was very curious about my mode of transport.  I began talking with the man and asked if I might take his picture.  I did.

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“It’s hard.  No jobs, no factories for people to work.  I don’t make much money.  I have to work very hard for my family.

I felt for him, I could see the struggle, but I could see his tenacity.  I spoke with him for 5 minutes or so.  I was about to thank him and scoot to my next destination when he spoke rather insistently.

“Come see my restaurant!  It’s right there!  Meet my family!”  He pointed to the Panda House a couple storefronts down the street.

I’m never one to turn down a spontaneous experience, so I happily followed the man and his two boys into his store.  It looked like every Chinese takeout joint I’d ever been in.  But he was very proud of it, and even more so of his family, all of whom were inside.  He asked if I would take a picture of his family, which I was all too happy to do!

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Again, I was moments away from thanking the man and going on my way…

“You took our picture, now I cook you lunch!”

“Oh that’s so nice of you, you don’t have to do that, I’m not really hung…”

Before I could finish, he was already throwing food into a wok.  I could see this exchange was making him happy and it made me very happy as well.

As I sat down to my piping hot meal, alone with the restaurant owner and his family, I smiled.  This was human.  This was real.  This was one of the countless reminders of why stepping outside of my comfort zone was so important.  To go to a place you don’t know, simply to explore.  To find people like this.  That’s what it’s all about.

“You ate my food.  Now we are friends.”  He shook my hand, and I walked out the door with a million thanks and a stomach feeling a little too full.  That experience was alone was well worth the trip.  But I had many more places to go.

I backtracked slightly, making my way to the Hotel Utica.  Once inside, smiled.  Like the train station, it was another little known pocket of overpowering beauty.  The way the light came in the tall windows… it was like stepping back in time to when Hotels were grand and awe inspiring.

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Just gorgeous.  I was amazed.  I snapped a few pics, and was off.

A short distance south, I found myself at the beautiful Stanley Theater.  Lucky for me, the theater was hosting Utica’s annual “Riggie Fest.”  I had no idea what that was, but I was about to find out.  The doorma… I mean doorperson led me inside with a smile.  She was so excited to lead the photographer here to see Utica inside.

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Once inside, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

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People crowded shoulder to shoulder at different food tables owned by various local restaurants.  The place was packed!  Then I looked up in amazement at the ornate gold-littered walls and ceiling.  Burgundy curtains and gorgeous chandeliers made me scratch my head… this place was a palace.  A beautiful gem in a city so struck by economic hardship.  Within minutes, the wonderful staff whisked me away to the theater.  The doors opened.  It took some time for my eyes to adjust, as they only had minimal lighting on inside.  The theater was empty, but the more my eyes adjusted, the more in awe I was.

There before me was one of the most beautiful theaters I’d ever seen.  While slightly smaller than other theaters I’d been in, the gold ornamentation, the lavish trim and the centerpiece, the largest LED free-hanging chandelier in the world, made this place stand apart.  For 5 minutes, I stood alone on the stage, surrounded by low light and silence.  It was a truly humbling place to be, but the quiet made it so comfortable, so peaceful.

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After getting the photos I was looking for, I stepped back outside into the wall-to-wall chaos that was the Riggie Fest.  OK, admittedly I had no idea what a riggie was, but I learned quickly.

A “Riggie” is a Utica-born pasta dish typically containing chicken, rigatoni and peppers with a spicy tomato sauce.  There are many variations, but that’s the general idea.  I had my first (and to this point only) riggie at the Papa Joes station.  It was pretty good I must say!  Unfortunately after having some delicious food only an hour or so before, I wasn’t up for eating a whole lot more so I decided to grab a quick beer at the bar, talk to some locals and head on my way.

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“This one’s on us,” said the delightful young lady who handed me my beer.  “Just tell the world about us!”

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After talking to some wonderful people in the theater, I was on my way.

Just outside the Stanley Theater, I went native and took a selfie with the Utica Comets mascot.  The comets are the new minor league hockey team based in Utica, something almost EVERYONE was excited to tell me.

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I continued to travel south down Genesee street to my next destination, The Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.  I honestly didn’t think much of the structure as I walked up the stairs to the entrance.  It looked more like a fortress of concrete than a haven of fine art.  Once again, I was pleasantly surprised as I walked through the doors.

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Immediately, a large Jackson Pollock stared at my from across the room.  The complex, though nearly empty, told the story of a small community of people who were passionate about making this an oasis of fine art in a struggling city .  After talking to a guard, I took a stroll around the small but refined facility.  There were some beautiful pieces and an interesting photography exhibit (which I could not photograph).  It didn’t take me long to make my way around the building, which was nice in a way.  In 20 minutes, I could get a refreshing “taste” of some amazing works and be on my way.  And that’s precisely what I did… but not before really falling for this resource that was so very unique to such a small city!

Back on my scooter, I flew back northward on Genesee street, then made my way west.  I stopped to snap a photo of this very interesting looking church. (EDIT – I have now learned this is a Mosque, which makes sense now that I take a little longer look at the photo… thanks to Courtney on Twitter for the correction!)

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After scootering around some construction, I arrived at my next stop, the Matt Brewing Company.  After a peak around the outstanding gift shop, I took the legendary tour and had a blast.  So many things to see, and I learned so much about the brewing process.  The facility is extremely impressive, and my tour guide was exciting, informative and hilarious.  The tour was equal parts knowledgeable and entertaining.

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And I got some free beer at the end.  Are you noticing a trend here?  While enjoying my Saranac brew, I had a conversation with my tour guide.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there’s a lot of construction going on. People are throwing millions of dollars into downtown Utica. People my age aren’t moving away anymore. The big story is the nanotech company that’s coming in. That’s gonna really make a difference in this city.”

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The tour guy (among others) told me I had to have a pint at Nail Creek Pub.  So I did.  I figured it would give me a chance to enjoy another good beer and talk with the locals.  I ended up sitting next to Matt and Marisa, a delightful young couple that were enjoying their date night.  We ended up chatting for probably a good 45 minutes.  Out of all the wide eyed, super friendly people I spoke to that day, these two were the most excited about a transitioning Utica.  They spoke at length about the Brewery, the nanotech company moving in, the lofts being built downtown which apparently weren’t even completed and already had a waiting list.  They talked about the great locally owned restaurants and bars…

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“We don’t want to eat at a chain… We want a place that’s pinnacle. We want to own where we live and what we do.  This is our city, our town.  We want the best and we’re gonna go get it!”

I thanked my new friends and scootered to my final and most anticipated location… dinner.

The Tailor & The Cook was a relatively new business in Utica and was actually located in a somewhat run down area… right next to the coffee shop I visited early in the morning actually!  But there was nothing “run down” about this place.  Exposed brick and a “shabby-chic” look and feel hit me as soon as I walked through the door.  A beautiful bar with top shelf spirits and sharply dressed bartenders and servers gave this place a look of approachable class.

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There wasn’t an open table… for the rest of the night.  Luckily, there was a spot at the bar.  I had more “Rock and Rye’s” than I would like to admit.  Interesting to note… the cocktails were on the back of the drink menu, not the front.  In my own city of Rochester, high-end cocktails have found their way to the front of the menu in just about every establishment, even coffee shops.  I guessed this would probably be the case here, as the “cocktail craze” just hadn’t quite hit yet.

Now, I’ve had lots of good food.  But the steak dinner I had at The Tailor & The Cook was about as good as anything I’ve ever had.  I destroyed my plate, a combination of extreme hunger from the days activities and the fact that the food was so amazing.  I can’t tell you high highly I recommend this restaurant.  I was so impressed.

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A short while later, it was time to catch my train home.  It was dark, and as I made my way back to the train station I had some time to think.

Utica is a city that has been struck by hard times.  But in my day, I tapped into an energy, a revitalization that was simply contagious.  Folks here were so excited about the things that were happening.

I could see a lot of Rochester 5 years ago in Utica today.  High-end restaurants and bars revitalized poor neighborhoods, a technology company was coming in promising new jobs, loft apartments were bringing young people back to downtown.  These were all things that began popping up in Rochester a short while ago.  And now we know that these things work to bring back a vibrant urban lifestyle… it has certainly worked for our city!  And like Rochester, Utica has so many places like the Stanley Theater that pay tribute each day to the city’s rich history.

Then I remembered the mural I had been to before, the one Aaron the barista told me about.  The mural read “Utica: Always Reaching for Greater Heights.”  When I first read those words I was skeptical, but now seeing what I during the day, I realized it couldn’t be more true.

As I hopped on my train home, I reflected on the day.  Why wouldn’t anyone spend a day in Utica?  I had just experienced one the best days I’d had traveling in ages.  Great food, an art museum, a glorious theater, a hotel for the ages, a successful brewery, minor league sports… honestly it’s an awesome little place.  And let’s not forget the wonderful people of Utica, I had so many fun, stimulating conversations with interesting, down to earth folks.

The best part is, it’s somewhere different, somewhere you can write your own adventure.  You’ve been to New York City, you’ve seen it all… but have you experienced Utica?  As funny as it might sound, I will bet money you will have a great time and leave refreshingly surprised.  I sure did!

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