“It’s a sad city’s sad attempt at creativity.”
Full disclosure. I said those words about my own city of Rochester some 15 years ago when it featured it’s “Horses On Parade” campaign, where local businesses and organizations purchased and uniquely painted plastic horses throughout the city in an effort to show creativity and solidarity in our town.
I admit it, I was so horribly wrong in that assessment. I apologize.
Fast forward to now when I am ever so slightly smarter about the world around me and how it works. I understand that, just like people, every city does the best it can with the resources that it has. From there, it is our job as citizens to do what we can to strengthen our communities. The easiest and BY FAR most effective way to do this is by being an ambassador for your city. I was not an ambassador for Rochester 15 years ago and I am slightly ashamed to admit that now as I truly love this city’s urban revival.
Fast forward to November when I found myself starting my photo blog series in Utica New York. I had NEVER heard a positive word about this city or it’s people. Every account I received was one of crime and economic hopelessness. What I found when I visited was something so incredibly different. A population of people greeted me wherever I went, and EVERY person was eager to tell me about the love they had for their town, their neighbors and everything that was happening. They had a grit to them, a sort of “hey, we’ve been through the ringer, but we love our home for everything that it is!” The people I met that day changed every impression I had about this small city of just over 60,000 residents.
This dynamic would repeat itself twice more as I visited Schenectady and Binghamton, two cities that, like Utica, have reputations for being “rust belt” ghost towns. What I found was a surging energy from residents who were so passionate to convince me otherwise, to show me that their town was the place to be. Again, it worked. I’m a fan of these cities for life.
In the last 6 months I have learned something so vital… that each and every one of us has the power to change minds and change perspectives of those within our cities, as well as those from afar. We have the ability to change a culture just by seeing the good, seeing the hope, and working to maximize the potential in our communities.
Like everything else in this society, cities are now brands and commodities. They rely on all of us to market that brand and do what we can together to build a culture of love and appreciation for our community. My blog has 131,000 views since mid January, and it has NOTHING to do with me… it has everything to do with the good people that believe in the communities I visit. Those who continue to spread the good word about their local passion. They make their hometowns better places, and spread the good word to all who visit. Below are a list of people who I have stumbled upon over the last 6 months that are true ambassadors for their cities:
Sarah Foster/Marcie Dyar – Sarah and Marcie both work for Oneida County Tourism and were my first contacts when I visited Utica. These two young professionals don’t just do their job, they ARE their job. Promoting good vibes about their communities is not just about answering phones, it’s a way of life. Their social media timelines are filled with images of them out and about in their town, highlighting the best of what Utica has to offer.
Michelle Marrick Truet/Joe Caruso – Michelle and Joe work for the City of Utica and were instrumental in continuing my connection with the city and even bringing me back several times. Their tireless efforts to make Utica a tremendous place to live and visit are the epitome of what a citizen ambassador is capable of.
Garry Purcell – Garry is the father of a friend of mine and a passionate Utica resident. Besides being a huge follower of my blog, Garry has personally introduced me to his favorite things and places in and around his community, even giving me behind the scenes tours of local businesses! I have to credit Garry for introducing me to half moon cookies, a habit I will not soon kick 😉
Kelly Marr – Kelly, a resident of Schenectady, told me the story of overhearing two people talk about how much Schenectady sucks. In a huff, she immediately began the now popular Instagram account, @SchenectadyDoesntSuck. Kelly was my primary guide when I visited Schenectady, and her enthusiasm for her town led me on an incredible adventure there. Furthermore, she invited me to spend time with her, her fiance and their friends to show me a night on the town in their city! A true citizen ambassador!
Talia Cass – Another Schenectady resident, Talia also helped guide my Schenectady experience through her job in tourism as part of Proctor’s Theater. Proctor’s has been a major source of strength in the rebirth of that city, and Talia embodied that message with her youthful spirit and inspiring, mature love of her community. She was even kind enough to join me for breakfast while I was there!
Sara Mae Hickey – Sara has become a legend in the Capital Region and rightfully so. She recently opened a cafe and bakery called Puzzles which employs workers with developmental disabilities. It is an effort to provide meaningful, constructive work for folks who might not have the opportunity anywhere else. Sara not only provides this incredibly important service to her community, she took over an hour out of her day to walk me around her facility just weeks before it opened to the public.
Rachel Snyder – Rachel now lives in Pensy but is originally from the Binghamton area and speaks so very fondly of it. Just like Kelly above, Rachel helped guide my experience through the city of Binghamton, but more importantly, her passion for her home town and the people there inspired me to want to see the whole community for what it is. She put me on the path to believing in the power of Binghamton and it’s wonderful people.
Everyone At The Cyber Cafe – When I stopped in Binghamton, I had the unfortunate experience of initially meeting a lot of folks who were down on their city, or at least struggling with the notion that it might be headed in the right direction. Then I stopped into The Cyber Cafe where employees and customers alike spoke of the wonderful things happening downtown. These people quickly convinced me of all Binghamton has to offer.
Janna Rudler – Another Binghamton supporter, Janna works at the Bundy Museum just west of downtown. Janna took a tremendous amount of time out of her day not just to show me the museum, but to tell me how the arts community is working hard to change the local culture.
Cathy Williams Goretsky – A former Utica resident now retired in Florida, I can definitively say Cathy is my biggest supporter other than my mother an my girlfriend! A day or two after the Utica blog launch, Cathy called me from Florida to graciously thank me for writing the positive words about her hometown. She is almost always the first person to comment on anything I post on social media, and regularly sends me interesting Utica articles. She also runs a private Facebook group of former Uticans living in Florida! She is a true example of an ambassador from afar, and someone who just adores her home, good or bad. I feel honored every time she contacts me 🙂
Steve Vogt – OK, this last one has nothing to do with my blog. Steve Vogt, or “Mr. Rochester” is a good friend of mine. I don’t know if there is anyone who combines such an incredible knowledge of our city’s history with an up-to-the-minute knowledge of what’s happening today. He knows so many people, and relentlessly has his finger on the pulse of this energetic body that is The Roc. He inspires me with the pride he takes in his community and how much he spreads the positive message about our town. We are truly lucky to have him here.
Above are the people I have come across in the last 6 months who, unsolicited, have shaped my view of the places I have visited, as well as my own. Through my experiences with this blog, I have learned how incredibly vital it is that all of us realize our power and potential to shape the perceptions of our cities, our communities, our homes. Without money, without fame or widespread influence, we as everyday individuals have the ability drive the motors of change. Let’s start the engine!