Toward Greater Heights: Revisiting Utica

Preface

Before I begin, I would like to sincerely thank a number of individuals and organizations for making my second trip to Utica a reality.  Thank you to Michelle Truett for doing so much of the legwork for this trip!!  You are amazing!  Thank you to Joe Caruso, our dedicated guide for our trip… you took such good care of us!  Thanks to Mayor Palmieri, Astena Smith and Kevin Marken from On Point for College, Oneida County Tourism and Hotel Utica for accommodating us, another thanks to Hotel Utica for allowing us to use their lobby for our photo shoot, to Andria, Mike and the whole Utica Zoo Crew, to Chris and Tracey Talgo, Vitale, Richard Viti (for donating the most delicious Hemstroughts Half Moon Cookies ever!!), Garry and Carol Purcell as well as the Viti/Borza families (for the very generous donation to On Point for College) and last but certainly not least, a big thanks to my loving girlfriend Amanda who’s patience and support are so important to me!  Now, on with the show…

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I pulled the camera away from my right eye and smiled back at the confident young man in front of me.

“DuWayne, this looks awesome,” I said with an excited smirk.  And it did.  His huge brown eyes told a story of quiet confidence that can only come from someone who has seen so much.  Hope, transcendence, innocence and determination… a beautiful human story, all in one photograph.

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DuWayne looks you in the eye.  He calls you sir.  His positive energy and refined yet enthusiastic demeanor says even more about him than his calming voice.  He is currently a student at Mohawk Valley Community College.  He lives in Utica.  He has dreams of being a teacher, a mentor, of working with youth in his community and one look into his eyes convinces you that nothing is going to stop him.  He has the courage and the will to change the world, but even he will be the first to tell you he didn’t get there alone.  Because to take that next step, we all need a little help.  We need our community, we need our friends and family, our policy makers… and of course, some good old fashioned grit and determination!

Utica, like DuWayne, has all the tools to dream big and create something amazing.  That’s what caught my attention when I visited last November.  When I decided to return a few weeks ago, I wanted to help fuel the wildfire of enthusiasm and city pride, to add a little “umph” to the power of an already growing machine.  When you are committed to a person, you give them a chance to be their best.  When you are committed to a community, you maximize the potential of it’s people, giving them a chance to build something amazing.  It’s the same beautiful thing.

Returning to Utica

One night last month I clearly remember looking at my blog stats in a calm state of disbelief.  Over 25,000 views in just 2 days.  A project that began as a personal artistic endeavor had turned into a viral sensation in Utica and Central New York. 57,000 views, 343 emails, and more shares, messages, comments, tweets and retweets later, I am still in awe.  A few weeks ago, with ambitious help from Michelle Truett and Joe Caruso, I returned to Utica in an effort to connect with the city that had embraced my work with such incredible kindness.  This time, I wanted to give back by offering $5 portrait session to residents.  The proceeds would go to On Point for College, an organization that helps inner city youth navigate college from application to graduation and everything in between… and beyond into the working world.  On Point levels the playing field for students who may not have access to the guidance and tools necessary to pursue higher education.  It seemed like the perfect fit, to help the youth in Utica achieve so that they may continue raising the city “toward greater heights.”

I arrived in Utica for the second time on one of the coldest nights of the year and did what any good Utican would do on Friday night… head for The Aud to watch a Comets hockey game!  I should probably mention that this time I didn’t come alone.  My lovingly supportive girlfriend and fellow photographer Amanda came with me!

We made our way around the packed concourse… wall to wall Comets fans!  A friend once said “a small space makes for close friends.”  The Aud is the quintessential example of this… perhaps slightly too small for the sold-out crowd that occupied it on that night.  But nobody seemed to care.  It’s just part of the charm.  “We’re all in this together!” is the unspoken spirit that flows through the crowded walkway.

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After a quick stop at the gift store to pick up a tshirt, we headed for our seats.  From the moment the game started, the crowd was invested in every moment.

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The Comets fell behind early.  An early goal by the Toronto Marlies quieted the crowd a bit, but the spirit in the Aud was still high.  After the first period, I decided to bounce around the complex and visit some of my new Utica Twitter followers.

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The Utica Green Men are amazing.  No really, these guys come to every game and never stop dancing, high-fiving and occasionally taunting the opposition from their front-row seats.  They are an ever-visible pair of superfans, keeping the energy high every moment.  This is one of those times I needed to go “selfie” with my photo 😉

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I traveled to the other side of the arena to talk with Chris.  I asked him to summarize the progress of his city.

“It’s gaining traction,” he said with a nod and a grin.  “It’s slow, but it’s there.”

Later in the game I had a conversation with Ken.

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“You having fun tonight?” I asked.

“No, we’re losing 3-0.”

Spoken like a diehard fan.  After talking a little hockey, we discussed the momentum of the Utica revival.  I asked him “why now?  Why is this happening now after so many years?”

“I think it’s social media honestly,” he answered.  “Before social media, it was hard to tell what was going on in the city.  Now when something is happening you know about it because everyone Tweets about it or posts it in Facebook.  You can see pictures of people having fun.  That wasn’t available until recently.”

An interesting point indeed.  In small cities, it can be difficult to see when and where events are happening.  With social media, one can see when events are going to be, see people enjoy a bar or restaurant before they go there.  Social media, good or bad, makes people want to be out in the fun they see their friends having.

On the way back to my seat, I took this pic.  Gotta give some love to these ladies that keep the crowd cheering!!

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In the third period, things suddenly became interesting.  The Comets scratched out 2 goals, and had countless chances to tie the game late, but ultimately fell to Toronto.  Still, the energy of this crowd was unreal.

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On the way out of the building a young couple stopped me…

“You, I know you, you’re the blog guy!”  I laughed and took their picture.

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After a quick trip to check into the Hotel Utica, we were picked up by our guide for the weekend, Joe Caruso, and driven a short distance to Gerbers 1933 Tavern.

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The ceiling, the bar… everything about the place had such a uniquely classic feel without being “old.”  It was comfortable, approachable with a hint of upscale.  It could not have been a more perfect reflection of the owner Mark.  He calmly moved about the place, working hard but taking the time to engage nearly everyone in a genuine way.  He would lean across the bar to listen to his customers, to share his own thoughts and stories.  Here was a man of now, but with a deep appreciation for history, people and the human spirit.

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“There was a guy that came in once,” Mark began.  “When he was 12 he used to shine shoes here.  Then the place closed for 40 years!  When we reopened, he came in to tell me his story about when he was a kid and worked here.  It’s pretty amazing.”

I sat down and talked with many good people, out with good friends for a good time in a comfortable establishment.  Rick Short from the Rick Short Band saw on Twitter that I was going to be at Gerbers and came out with his lovely wife and say hi.

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I imposed on another table and started a conversation about Utica.

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“There are lots of different kinds of people here.  Refugees, people from everywhere.  Everyone knows everyone comes from a different place so they all kind of mind their own business.  Not like they keep to themselves, more like they all know they have to get along so everyone just kind of accepts everyone else.”

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After some great conversation, some delicious beers and an overall great evening, Joe kindly drove Amanda and I back to the Hotel Utica for some sleep in anticipation of a full day.

In the early morning I woke to a bright sun… and extremely cold weather.  My phone told me the story outside… -2 degrees.  But that didn’t stop me from a morning trek to my new favorite place for a hot cup of coffee.

I bundled up and headed down to the lobby.  The sun poured in the windows.  Hotel Utica is one of those places that is just stunning any time of day or night.

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I stepped out into the cold air, passing by the Sun Mural on my way to Genesee Street.  I felt compelled to stop and admire it.  I had such a higher appreciation for this work of art now.  It had sort of become an icon for my newfound relationship with this city.  I snapped a picture from a different angle.  The “real” sun poured in, despite the bitter cold.

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Even with the cold and the snow, I snapped pictures as I walked.

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Finally, I arrived at Utica Coffee Roasting.  I slipped inside, feeling warm once again.  After setting my camera and a few layers of clothing down on one of the tables, I went to the counter to order a hot coffee.  Ashtyn was behind the counter.

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“Can I ask you a few questions?”  I asked.

“Sure, I just have to get these muffins before they burn,” she calmly answered.  I giggled and waited as she pulled some green… yes green muffins out of the oven.  When she was done I continued.

“What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not working?”

“My friends and I just hang out, go to different coffee shops,” she answered.  “We just go around Gramming.”

I had no idea what that was, and she could tell.

“We just go around taking pictures of buildings and brick walls and stuff.  We put them on Instagram.”

I laughed.  “I can relate to that.”

I grabbed my coffee and headed back to the hotel.  It was time to set up for the main event of the day.

Before I knew it, folks started to roll in to The Hotel Utica to have their picture taken.  Kevin from On Point for College manned the “check in” table with my girlfriend, taking money and information.  They kept the whole thing moving!  Astena from On Point and Joe from the City of Utica were there as well to provide assistance.  Camera crews and TV stations and… oh my it was quite the scene!

One after another, individuals, couples, families and friends came in from the cold to have their pictures taken in the beautiful Hotel Utica Lobby, which was generously offered to us for the day.  Most who came by thanked me for the positive support in the previous Utica blog… it was overwhelming how kind and appreciative everyone was.  Several participants even brought half-moon cookies for us, a Utica tradition!

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I cannot tell you how impressed I was with the level of support we received, and on such a cold day! Residents came out to support their community, and the impact was just amazing.  We raised $400 in 3 short hours for On Point for College.  Given the cold weather we could not have asked for anything more!

After the event, we were taken over to Master Pizza for lunch with the Mayor!  Walking in, you immediately get that easy-going pizza joint feel… bright walls, plenty of seating, and the smell… yum!! I don’t even want to get into how hungry I was at that point!

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Soon after we entered, Mayor Palmieri came in.  His enthusiasm and energy complimented his approachable smile.

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As we spoke, his experience in marketing came through… not to deceive but to inspire.  I got the sense right away that he was just as excited about what was going on in Utica as I was.  His Thursday sweep, where he and his team actually walk different neighborhoods and talk to residents and business owners really set the tone for what seemed to be a “boots on the ground” approach to making Uitca a better place to live.  It was an honor to speak with him and share a delicious meal!!  And by the way let me tell you about Master’s buffet, freaking amazing!!

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A young man walked in the door as we were finishing lunch and introduced himself as Vitale.  Vitale, a quiet speaker with a subtle but confident smile, led us all to the lofts upstairs, which he owned.  We had our own private tour.  As soon as we walked in the door, I was in love.

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A gorgeous space with high ceilings and exposed brick.  The space was just right for two, with the modern feel of urban elegance.  A hint at the price said otherwise however, this place was very reasonable from a rent perspective!!  After visiting a couple units, all of which had the same beauty, we thanked Vitale for his generous time and headed on our way.

Since my first trip to Utica, everyone had been telling me to see the Library.  Secretly I thought “how interesting could a library be?”  But since my girlfriend is a bit of a library buff, we thought it would be a great place to check out.  As soon we entered, I understood what everyone was talking about.

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Sarah was one of the helpful people behind the desk.  She humored me and smiled for a photo.

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The deeper we went into the library, the more beautiful angles it revealed.  A stunning gem worthy of a large city in a humble neighborhood.  But the visual aspect was just the beginning.  I learned the library was also a vital resource for the massive refugee population in Utica.  I could see the diverse population of readers and learners throughout… And what a place to educate one’s self…

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The children’s section, found in the bright and cozy basement was just as impressive, and lots of fun too 😉

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Honestly the library was the kind of place I could have spent all day.  As beautiful is the architecture was, the true beauty was in the commitment to community education.  You could see it in eyes of the staff, the attention to detail in the facilities and programs available.  This was the center for the love of all learning in Utica.

Our next stop was dinner.  By now, you all understand that I love my food!  And what a treat Chesterfield was!  An attractive bar area gave way to a classy but comfortable dining area.

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The company could not have been better.  Astena and Kevin from On Point for College, Joe Caruso, Astena’s father (what a wonderful man!) and On Point students DuWayne and Patience all joined for dinner.

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It was a conversation I would have loved to continue for days.  I was so inspired by DuWayne and Patience.  Neither of them had it easy, but right away you could tell that their trials through life were the very things that powered them forward.  Their unwavering ambition paired with the assistance of On Point for College made these two an unstoppable force.  In speaking with them, it was beyond clear that the hard work that was invested in raising money for On Point earlier that day was more than worth it.  I was so happy and humbled.  It was a wonderful meal, and a conversation I will never forget.

Finally, Joe and I finished off the night at Nail Creek Pub.  Owner Chris Talgo and his lovely wife Tracey were there to greet us.

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Alissa and Lindsay from the Observer Dispatch swooped in for some fun Utica talk as well!  What great ladies and wonderful ambassadors for their city!

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I sat down at a large table of young peeps and started a conversation…

“Wait, did you write that thing, that blog?”

“Yeah.  Can I take your picture?”

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Suddenly the whole bar cheered and clapped for the man that walked in… “RAINBOW!!” everyone shouted.  I turned around to see a funloving, interestingly-dressed man slowly dancing his was into the bar.  Apparently he’s a legend in Utica, loved and welcomed by all.  I smiled as the guests at the bar one by one high-fived and hugged this curious character!

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I finished the evening talking with Marcie and Sarah from Oneida County Tourism.  I had to have a photo with Sarah… you see, Sarah was the person I talked to on the phone before coming to Utica.  She told me where I should go and what I should do, or at least gave me a solid outline.  Without her help, my Utica experience may have been very different!

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And that leads me to a point I want to make.  I have gotten a real sense for just how committed people like Joe and Michelle from The City of Utica (who were essential in bringing me back) and Sarah and Marcie (who helped get me around Utica my first trip!) are to making Utica an amazing place for residents and visitors alike.  They have woven this commitment into their lives, into the fabric of who they are.  Utica residents should be know, these are people that work hard for you and your city every day!  I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, and it’s a beautiful and very rare thing!

After a solid sleep in our gorgeous Hotel Utica room, Amanda and I finished our Utica weekend with a much-anticipated trip to the Utica Zoo.  Even with the cold temperatures and the snow, this was the cherry on top of an already lovely weekend.  As soon as the doors opened, I felt like a kid again.

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Andria, our guide for the day, took us around the entire facility.  We got to go behind the scenes and even had the chance to interact with some of the locals!  I can’t say enough good things about Andria, Mary, Mike and the staff at the Utica Zoo.  My girlfriend and I just love animals, and the photos you see below are just a sample of the countless photos we took during our visit.  We had such a good time!

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The good people of the Zoo even sent us off with a couple going away presents!  Amanda gave our stuffed Red Panda a fitting name… Oriskany.  He watches the apartment while we are gone. 🙂

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Sigh.  So that was it.  That was my second trip to Utica.  It was even more jam-packed with fun stuff and great people than the first time.  But you know what made this visit really great?  It was the fact that this time I went into the adventure with expectations based on what I experienced the first time I was there.  The best part was, every expectation was exceeded.

Utica, you have my heart.  You have lots of amazing things to do, we’ve established that.  More importantly, you have the officials that are making Utica a great place to live and visit.  You have residents who are the most ambitious ambassadors.  You have the diversity to make the city colorful, and a culture that is helping to turn those colors into a beautiful canvas.  Most of all, you have hard working,  fun-loving citizens, ready to engage and pitch in for the love of their home.  Those are all the ingredients that make what you have so special.  It’s the people of a community that take the countless pieces and find a way to make them all fit together.  I have written words and taken some pictures… you are the ones that have given light to Utica’s radiant future.  Keep reaching toward greater heights… I can’t wait to see you again soon.

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