On January 13th, 2015 I clicked “Publish” on my first small cities blog post featuring my visit to Utica New York. Thirty-six hours, two radio interviews and 25,000 views later, I realized just how important the story of the small city revival had become.
After visiting Utica, Schenectady, Binghamton and Troy in 2015, I decided to start 2016 with a focus on even smaller cities in New York State. The obvious first choice was only a stones throw away from where the blog began, in Rome New York.
In this post, you will see less emphasis on photography and more on dialogue, conversation and the exploration of ideas, viewpoints and visions. The photography works to establish the context, but the real meat of Rome’s adventure is in the people who’s passion lies in the growing energy and momentum their community is experiencing.
Happy 2016 New York. Meet your neighbor, your friend, your Upstate smile story. It’s driven by a group of people who believe in their town, their culture, their way of life… It’s all starting to happen in Rome New York.
(By Arian Horbovetz of ArianDavidPhotography.com)
Steam from freshly brewed coffee rose out of cups on the table. The cold January day staring at them from beyond the glass, three men from different worlds and different generations gestured emphatically as they talked about a common passion… their home.
“You can make a real impact here,” said Jake. “In bigger cities like New York and Chicago, it’s very difficult to be a regular citizen and make a difference. In Rome, you can get together with local non-profits, connect yourself with established players, or you can just start your own thing. You can start something new and fresh, and in a small community like this, people are more likely to rally around that idea!”
Lou cut in quickly. “Doesn’t Rome feel like a ground floor opportunity? We’ve all lost so much here in Rome… but now we’re starting to see this resurgence. We are starting to create new opportunities and re-generating opportunities that we lost a long time ago.”
Brandon found a space to tell his story… “When I lived in DC, I did a semester of school down there in the political program. I had an internship with a foreign policy think tank, then I worked with the teamsters… but I came back here and had that same realization, that I could make a real impact.”
As I looked around the table, I knew I had my story. The story of people who moved away, only to come home and make a difference in the community their heart yearned for. The story of a rich history and tradition anxious to blend with a dynamic future. The story of a small community on the the path to a big breakthrough.
Flash back a few hours as I stepped off the train at Rome’s train station. As a photo blogger, there is just no better way to experience New York than via Amtrak.
I walked from the platform down the stairs with my Dahon folding bike and entered the station lobby… a small but stunning view greeted me.
But the beautiful little station wasn’t all that greeted me. Jake DiBari was there as well, armed with cold weather attire and a bike of his own. Jake was my guide for the day.
I’ve never had someone actively guide me through a city before, but I’m sure glad it was Jake. He spent his entire Friday making sure I talked to the right people and saw the things that were happening in Rome.
“Rome’s population is about 30,000 people,” began Jake. “We are a very large city as far as land mass… the city of Rome spans across 74 square miles.” Before Griffis Air Force Base left, we were over 50,000 people. It’s taken time to recover from that downturn in population. But the Air Force Base is now Griffis Technology Park, home to nearly 80 businesses and almost 6,000 employees. That’s really turning things around, it’s fantastic.
Our parents and grandparents did the best that they could to get us to the point we were at… but the big thing they were missing was the youth getting involved. Myself and so many other young people really started to rally together. We created a campaign called ‘Positively Rome.’ It was something people could rally around. You heard in the community that people wanted more positive talk and less negativity. So we decided to start this organization to create and raise awareness for events, a farmers market, a brew festival, as well as where to shop, where to eat local… Our goal was to create something that made people say ‘I’m proud of where I live.’
It’s not about revitalizing, it’s not about re-investing, it’s all about building Rome. It’s all about moving forward and building on to what’s been done over the history of this community and taking it to the next level.”
I asked Jake why he thought so many young people were staying in their small communities or returning home after spending time in larger cities. This is a pattern that had, on some level, presented itself in every city I visited so far.
“I really think that my generation values quality of life above all else. We witnessed 9/11, and at that time, a lot of highschoolers and college kids were focused on getting to the big cities like New York and Boston. I think after 9/11 there was a wake-up call. The idea that being near family, being close to where your food is produced, being close to friends and familiarity resonated with people and that’s why you’re seeing small towns and small cities starting to thrive again.
The interesting thing is, you’re seeing places like Brooklyn, like Manhattan trying to cater to that need. They’re building trail systems, parklets… the High Line in New York is a great example.”
This was an interesting viewpoint. Jake addressed the fact that, for the first time, large cities are working to create more inviting, small town, green-infused spaces. The movement to revitalize city neighborhoods is happening in nearly every urban area. This might be the first time huge cities are changing in response to it’s citizens’ desire for the comfortable quality of life they once knew in their small towns.
With that, Jake and I hopped on our bikes and began our journey. Our first stop was Bellamy Harbor Park. While I’m certain its appeal was much greater in the summer months, it was easy to see why this canalside greenspace was so important. Plenty of space for events, gatherings or just place for people to enjoy the outdoors.
Bellamy Harbor Park featured a gorgeous, brand new pavilion. Eventually, it will have bathrooms and showers.
On the other side of Mill Street was the park, featuring the confluence of the Erie Canal and the Mohawk, the start of the new trail system and plenty of beautiful green space.
Along the trail, Jake pointed out this structure, which allowed kayak and canoe access for persons with disabilities. He stated the importance of making the new trail system and park upgrades accessible and enjoyable for everyone.
We continued on to North Dominick Street into an area called “Little Italy” and stopped at a former bank turned local establishment called Rocco Gualtieri Market. The teller area, the safe… the old roots of a the building’s financial beginnings were still present, giving the interior incredible historical charm.
Once inside, I spoke with David Gualtieri, the owner.
“My Grandfather opened in 1902. We ran it until 1996 and then reopened in 2005. I love the business, I retired from my other job, so I reopened it.
With all the big box stores now… lots of people don’t want that. We have an Italian tradition that we want to keep going. It’s important to our community because we have a lot of older customers and walking through these doors brings them back. We wanted to make it a destination, not just a regular store. When people walk through the door, we want them to feel like they stepped back in time.”
Indeed the photos tell the story of all the genuine charm that I saw in Rocco’s. Bread, pasta, meats… it was a place locals could feel good about supporting. A local businessman moving the community forward by allowing customers to step back.
Continuing North on Dominick Street, we passed a handful of businesses that had seen a recent face lift. Jake explained.
“We’ve cleaned up a whole section of business facades. The city has a program where we give up to $25,000 to businesses on a main street to upgrade their facades. The business has to put up 25% and they get the money from the city. It’s helped local companies retain employees and attract new employees while increasing beautification.”
It’s become quite common for local government to provide monetary incentives for businesses to add on, upgrade, beautify or hire new employees. While at times a hard sell to taxpayers, these efforts are often essential to restoring a vibrant look and feel to small communities.
A bit further north, we reached the most unique structure in Rome New York, Fort Stanwix National Monument. As I would learn throughout the day, the monument and surrounding park was one of the most opinion-inducing topics between residents.
I would revisit the monument later in the day. For now we were just passing through on the trails through the tall grass that covered the south end of the park. As we came up on the Fort Stanwix Museum (a gorgeous structure by the way!) a gentleman was waiting for us on one of the benches. He was on bike to, slightly more reluctantly 😉
His name was Lou, a self employed internet guru who grew up in Rome but moved to Florida only to return in 2009. The three of us jumped back on our bikes and rode on.
Jake led us to Fort Stanwix Park North, a residential side street next to a nice piece of green space. We parked our bikes and knocked on the back door of one of the homes. Out walked Michael Brown.
Michael’s home was obviously under construction, but the truly unique piece of his property was not altogether visible from the street.
Where there once was a house next door, there now stood a fabulous sunken garden complete with a fire place and chimney, a greenhouse and small patio are for seating. Michael and his partner bought the house next to theirs, knocked it down and turned it into a micro paradise!
“The house that was on this site was a full three stories. It was a crack house, it was an absolute mess. Three weeks after we moved from Boston to here, they shut the house next door down for drugs. We knew we had to have it if we were gonna stay here! I teased friends back in Boston, telling them to move to Rome where you can get two houses for the price of one next to a park!”
We stepped down into the former foundation.
“We can use this space right into November and December, we can have a fire right here, we bring some furniture out and from the street nobody knows you’re here. I’ve been a landscape designer, a garden designer, a mason and a contractor for years… and I’m a theatrical designer. What this creation is, it’s urban theater.”
I asked Michael what he liked best about Rome.
“I like that we are 4 and a half hours from everywhere. I can go to New York and see a show in a day. I can go to Boston and visit friends. I can go to Ohio and see my family. I can go to Montreal. I can be in the country in five minutes and I can be in the Adirondacks in a half hour. This is quite frankly the easiest place to live in the country. I’ve traveled the world, and I just really love it here.”
Michael’s enthusiasm for Rome was so interesting to me. Here was someone who had lived a very fast paced, culture-filled life in a big city like Boston, and yet he chose Rome because he truly believed he had everything he could ever ask for right in this city of 30,000. This wasn’t someone who moved away and was drawn back, he was an outsider that made the choice to make Rome his home and he simply couldn’t have been happier about it.
OK, full disclosure it was a very cold January day and we were pretty much frozen. Jake, Lou and I moved on toward Ballister’s Bistro for a warmup and a cup of coffee. We were joined by a 3rd Rome resident, Brandon James. I sat back and listened to the three men talk about Rome.
“I came back to Rome because I liked what was going on, because of people like Jake,” said Lou. “We all take a positive attitude, we don’t know the word ‘no.'”
Lou continued. “A guy named Mike Colangelo put together a Facebook group called People and Places of Rome NY. It has almost 12,000 members on there now! That’s our little cafe! That’s where we know what’s going on!”
Jake picked up the ball, “social media is really beneficial for small communities. We are able to connect instantly, and do it for free. That’s become one of the most important and beneficial tools for community leaders and event coordinators to really get the word out about everything that’s going on locally. It’s crucial to the growth of small communities like Rome. It’s also a great way to find talented people in your own community. That’s really important because it makes you realize that you live in a culturally rich community when sometimes people think places like Rome and Utica have nothing like that.”
“And also use it for cat videos,” interrupted Brandon to a chorus of chuckles. “No really, I came back here from DC because I just love the pace of life here in Central New York. I love DC to death! But the rush and the way people are so willing to ignore everything around them… it’s so impersonal. The pace here is just more my speed.”
Lou spoke up again. “I have a much busier lifestyle here than when I lived in Cape Coral Florida, which is one of the booming towns in Florida. It’s easier to get involved here, plus there’s this friendliness we all share together.”
As the guys continued to talk, I moved to the counter and caught the eye of the owner, Dan Ballister.
“We opened June 22nd. It’s really unique for Rome, people say they love the way it looks, they love the menu and we have great people working here. When you have those things you should be pretty successful! I moved away when I was 23 but I moved back in March of 2014. I was in Charlotte, and my friends were saying, ‘you light up when you talk about these things you want to do in Rome, why don’t you go do it?’ I tried to be pragmatic and stay at my stable job, but eventually I wanted to come back to be part of the community I grew up in.”
I slid over to talk to a young employee who was speaking to a lovely woman in red.
“The best part about living here is that there’s always stuff to do. I can snowboard at Woods Valley, you can go ice skating at the arena, you can go get great pizza with friends… there’s always stuff to do.”
The lady in red had a slightly different take on the way the community was moving.
“It hurts sometimes, to see the changes they’ve made in Rome that are not quite complimentary. It’s very congested the way they’ve done the malls. The traffic patterns aren’t the greatest. It’s spread out and it doesn’t seem to have a pattern anymore. It did have, and it was starting to show off it’s heritage, but it got messed up in modern times. I would love to see a movement to come back to to where it was. You can’t restore it completely, but Rome’s beauty in the beginning was because it was quaint and historic. It’s grown, and there’s such a drastic change in the last few years. There’s a big gap there from the Rome I used to love.”
This wonderfully eloquent woman’s words reminded me that, as we move forward, it’s so important to be true to our roots, our history, family and culture that made our towns and cities special to begin with. The hardest part about reviving a community with rich history is finding the balance between the generations that made us great, and the generations that will lead us into the future.
This could not have been a better lead into our next stop, the Old City Hall. That’s where I met Matt.
“This is an incredible building. I still get excited about what we’re going to do here. Loft spaces are going to be on the second floor and third floor, really high-end stuff. These apartments are gonna be like 1,600 square feet, huge. Commercial space will be on the first level, some retail, a sandwich shop, that sort of thing. Our vision is to create a sort of walk about… you have the fort over there, you have the Capitol Theater over there, and then hopefully this old City Hall will be the centerpiece to bring this all together. We wanted to create this space for everyone to enjoy this area.”
Matt continued. “These handrails, these are made by the same folks who did all the wrought iron in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame. These Greek columns, we’re gonna keep all that… it’s gonna be great.”
“In the Northeast, in the 1700’s, 1800’s, masons and bricklayers, they worked on these buildings with a level of craftsmanship that we might never see again. Today, we throw together a building in three months and wonder what took so long. This building took three years and thousands of people to put it together!
During the 1970s they had urban renewal and they knocked down so many of these buildings. Luckily some of these buildings they saved. If you knock something like this down, you cannot replace it. It’s priceless. Let’s restore it, let’s retain it. They were built by our great great grandparents for their great great grandchildren. What we are doing is simply handing the baton down to future generations.
It was very important to me that we didn’t just make this building residential. Residential is easy, everyone needs a place to live. We could have put 12 or 15 apartments in here. But if we did that, who would be in the building? Couples, their kids, their friends… but this building was built as a municipal building with the idea that the community had a piece of it. Making the first floor commercial, we make an open community so that everyone can come in. My idea is to make this an oasis. I want to create that space of serene peace. Not only that, you go from your apartment upstairs to the coffee shop on the ground floor and meet with people and share ideas… that’s what creates excitement, that’s what creates a community!”
I could have gone on and on with Matt’s enthusiasm. I could have dedicated an entire blog to his love for his job, his mission, his passion. It was such a pleasure to converse with a man who not only understood the intricacies of architecture, but also the complexities of how architecture compliments and invigorates a community while staying true to it’s history. Matt’s passion was infectious, and very simply, I can’t wait to see the final result.
Another story of past meets present was realized at our next stop, the historic Capitol Theater.
Once I stepped inside, I realized I was in a place of historical importance.
Just like Stanley Theater in Utica, I was blown away that a structure like this existed in Rome New York. Jack Theakston was more than happy to give me the tour.
“This theater opened in 1928. It ran movies until 1974. The last film played here was The Exorcist. We reopened it in 1985 as a non-profit. I actually came here ten years ago as a visitor, and I liked what they were doing here so much that I joined the company to help them. I worked in theater management and in film and in 2010, I found myself out of a job… one was to go to Los Angeles to work for Sony Pictures, the other was to work here. I juggled it in my head, 3,000 miles versus 300 miles… this one’s got a little more job security to it,” Matt said with a grin.
“We do about 125 performances in this theater each year, and then we have an expansion project right now which includes two small shoebox cinemas that show independent films.”
Jack’s tour gave me another insight into the melding of Rome’s rich history into today’s entertainment and quality of life. Speaking of life, our next stop was full of it… and right next door!
Brenda, owner of Brenda’s Natural Foods talked with me about the importance of the products she sold in her store, which interestingly enough was celebrating it’s 6 year anniversary the day I was there.
“Any place that serves food can be a gathering place. People can choose to make this a location before a show next door. We definitely serve as a hub in the downtown area, and we feed them well too!”
After speaking with Brenda, it was time to head across town for lunch at DeMatteo’s. There, Jake, Lou, Brandon and I were joined by a handful of other community residents and enthusiasts.
As we sat down for food, Santino, the youngest member of our growing group, said something very important.
“Where you grew up has a lot to do with who you are. You want to be a part of growing that… that’s what it is for me. I left for a while but I’m so excited to be back.”
Mike Kohli, to my left was sporting a great tie. He spoke to Santino’s return. “The last few years there’s been a lot of youth coming back to town. Santino, he left for a little while, came back… it’s awesome to see the youth coming back and taking pride in their hometown.”
Dan Frieden to Mike’s left had been a Rome resident for all of four years. “The wife is the number one reason I am here, but it’s not the only reason I want to stay here! I was in the military for 23 years so I’ve seen and lived in so many places and Rome really does have everything wrapped up into one place. Good people, good beer, ski slopes, a lake, everything.”
I can’t say enough about the delicious food at DeMatteo’s. Just an awesome place to grab a bite!
After leaving the restaurant, Jake and I jumped back on our bikes and headed up the Mohawk River Trail.
“We just finished The Mohawk River Trail Project which is about a four mile trail through the city,” Jake said. “Its an urban trail that takes you through Rome. It’s safe, it’s 10 feet wide and paved. We have beautiful benches coming to the trail… it’s a great way for people here to get out and enjoy the outdoors in any season. More than that, we want to be known as one of the more bike and pedestrian friendly cities in New York State. Even if you’re not a biker, it’s a quality of life addition. It says something about a community when you see people out walking, biking and exercising.”
We made our way past Mohawk Valley Community College, and up to Griffis Technology Park before Jake and I parted ways for a while. Solo for the first time, I headed back downtown via North George Street. The further south I traveled, the bigger and more beautiful the houses became! I made a quick stop in Vogel park, which was beautiful even with a decent coat of snow.
Did I mention the gorgeous houses that flanked the street were?
Each one unique, each one magnificent in size and character. It was one of the most amazing streets I’ve ever traveled on. I had to take a moment to stop and admire almost every residence!
Eventually I made a right onto West Bloomfield Street to stop in to the Rome Arts and Community Center. When I stepped inside, I was so glad I did.
Director, Kelly Flemming.
“Rome Arts and Community Center is a nonprofit multi-arts facility committed to fostering creativity, cultural awareness and a strong community connection through a broad range of programming and services. RACC is Rome’s only fully-functioning multi-disciplinary arts facility, serving not only Rome, but as far as five counties in a 100-mile radius.
[We] strive to offer a quality selection of programs for the public at little or no cost to them, so as to make all programs available and accessible, regardless of financial status, race, age, and gender.”
The RACC was just a beautiful facility, and while I wasn’t able to spend much time there (I arrived right at closing!) I am looking forward to making my way back and seeing the place in action!
When I finally reached downtown Rome once again, I took the time to snap a couple photos. There were refreshing, occasional signs of beautification… of a fun, relaxing approachable environment. Benches, places to eat lunch, parklets… these were scattered all over the area!
The many churches highlighted a community that was steeped in faith.
It was time to pay a visit to the Rome Historical Society. They had a lovely little museum meticulously dedicated to the history of Rome and Central New York. From battles to railroads, residents to artifacts, Rome’s past was beautifully captured in one building. It was really something special.
Arthur Simmons, Executive Director (left).
“A museum like this is critical to the community. The history of Rome goes back to the 18th century and even before and even before when you look back at the Oneida Nation territory. The first forts were built here in the 1750s during the French and Indian War. Fort Stanwix was built here in 1758, it was also garrisoned through the Revolutionary War. The arsenal house served the War of 1812 and beyond… there’s just so much history here.”
Mike Colangelo (right) talked about where Rome was going. “I think attitudes are on the upswing. People are starting to embrace Fort Stanwix (monument) which they went against originally because they lost a big portion of their downtown. But it brings a lot of people here. It’s a unique feature. We’re also getting some industry in here, so hopefully that will help our economy shine again.”
After a quick interview with the Rome Daily Sentinel newspaper, I was on my way, taking pictures of downtown once again. There was the abundant visual dedication to the historical context of Rome’s rich military tradition. A monument to unknown Revolutionary War soldiers, a veterans’ memorial park… all constant reminders that Rome and it’s people were a place that mattered in America’s past, as well as it’s present.
The images above led me to my next stop as I finally visited the Fort Stanwix Momument and Museum. The museum was a dynamic recounting of Rome’s military heritage and the role Fort Stanwix played.
While the monument itself was closed, I got a sense of just how massive the structure was! If you are a history buff, this is the place for you!
All day I heard stories of mixed feelings regarding the Fort Stanwix Monument. While I thought it was wonderful that Rome’s history was at the center of the city, I could certainly see how it divided it. A structure like this can be a blessing, or it can be a barrier to creating a unified downtown. Time will certainly tell, but for the most part, residents seemed to embrace and accept the monument and what it meant to their community and rich history.
OK… with sunlight fading and my fingers becoming icicles, I decided it was time to call an end to the exploring and start experiencing the local establishments. I would honestly expect there to be more places to enjoy a drink in Rome, but by my count, there were a surprising few. The Savoy, however, did not disappoint!
“This is a town that is deep with Italian culture. I mean, it’s called Rome. I would say what’s special about it is it’s almost stereotypical in the best way. They try very hard to make you feel welcome, and I like that.”
“Have you been to Utica? There is so much going on there right now, it’s just an explosion! You’ve got restaurants, and those loft apartments and that Ocean Blue restaurant on the roof… I just don’t see that happening here. Rome has always been very resistant to change.”
The comments by this young lady were interesting because again, it is important to know that in any community, not everyone sees things the same way. While her statement was certainly valid, important and true, I didn’t believe anyone I talked to in Rome wanted to be like Utica. Yes, there were certain things that Utica had accomplished that every rising community would want to experience, but the vibe I received was that residents wanted to create something just as vibrant and meaningful in Rome while retaining the uniquely classic feel that Rome had always embodied.
I paid my bill, thanked the lovely lady behind the bar and moved on down Dominick Street to The Mill.
Yet another great space to have a drink and a good time!
Sam, the self-proclaimed “unofficial Mayor of Rome” was kind enough to talk to me about her city.
“Everybody knows everybody.”
I asked her if that was the charm and the curse. She had a great answer.
“It’s not small enough to be a curse. It is nice to go grocery shopping, go to a bar, go shopping, and you just know people. It’s comforting I think. I think we need that a little bit.”
One of my last stops in the day was to the Toccolana club for… and I’m not joking… a bocce tournament. Bocce is huge Rome, and I mean huge. Santino, who I met earlier at DeMatteo’s, was running a tourney this night.
(Santino is on the right) “We host the World Series of bocce every year. That’s the time to be here! Thousands of people come just to be a part of it! We have teams from all over the east coast and the country.”
I’d never seen anything like it. Some were serious, others looked like they were there to drink and lightly compete. But everyone was having fun and enjoying a sport that has become synonymous with Rome.
After leaving bocce Heaven, Jake was kind enough to drive me to my last stop for the evening, Kikko’s Koffee House. Don’t let the name fool you, this was much more than a place to get a cup of joe. Their wine list, their food menu, everything about this place was simply amazing. I had such a good wine, and a soup that honestly was to die for.
More impoortantly, I met up with Ann Polanowicz Rushlo who was one of my original followers as a result of my Utica blog and Lori Colasanti Frieden who was kind enough to send key people like Jake my way to maximize my Rome experience. About 10 other people joined us as well! From what I gathered in one day visiting Rome New York, if you intend to have food or drinks with one person, you will eventually be joined by many, many others. 😉
Lori (left above) spoke first. “Many people here want to go back to the good old days. A lot of times people want to over romanticize the past. It’s human nature. But if they really think about it, there were elements of the past that weren’t as great as they remember, so they tend to downgrade the present and future, which is unfortunate. But Jake and I and all of our friends who are on the same page, we are using the ‘drip drip’ method to slowly change the mindset. It won’t happen overnight, but we are very patient and very stubborn! I am from an Italian family, so I had to work on my family first before branching out into the community with this!”
Ann on the right chimed in. “I’m not a native Roman but I’ve been here for almost twenty years so I’ve seen the attitudes start to change. For me, it’s about the regional approach. So the fun part for me is to invite the region to Rome and say ‘here’s what Rome is, here’s where we are going.’ It’s really cool for me to be able to change people’s perspectives, both near and far, through the work we do.”
The crew, including my friends and “extraction team” of Ken and Amy Smith who were kind enough to come out, enjoy a drink and take me back to the train station.
With that, it was time to conclude my day of exploring Rome New York. I had such a wonderful time, and could not be more grateful to the truly amazing people who took time out of their day to make me feel welcome and share their community with me.
Rome has a number of questions to answer as it moves into the future. It is a city that lacks a true downtown, and a city that is geographically divided by one of the very things that makes it unique (Fort Stanwix National Monument). More locally owned retail, more places to enjoy good food and beverage and more things to do will most definitely be on the horizon for this small city of just over 30,0o0, and they will come. How do I know? Because I saw the spirit in the hearts of a community that wants to embrace a bright future while holding true to the incredible history and tradition that made Rome great, and will make it great again. Nice to meet you Rome, I’m hooked. Can’t wait to see you again.