So many people ask me how I got the initial idea for my blog. I usually tell some extremely shortened version of the real story so as not to put listeners to sleep, but the truth is not many folks know why I made Utica and Schenectady the focus of my first blog visits, or why I visited any cities at all!
Back up like 25 years ago or so. It was just Mom and I living in Victor, NY. We didn’t have much money. At all. My mom had a yard sale every December to afford Christmas presents. My mom is a pretty amazing lady by the way 😉
Anyway, we didn’t have money for vacations. No Outer Banks or Cape Cod for us… nope, we took day trips to places like Bristol New York for a hike, or B. Forman Park in the sleepy little town of Pultneyville New York to fly a kite and eat a picnic lunch. My mom was also insanely supportive of my love of trains, so just following some small town shortline railroad was an adventure for us.
Those were my vacations growing up… I learned to appreciate the simple, wonderful little places close by. I learned the value of a random left turn down a road we’d never been down, just to see what was there. I learned how a place that so many might overlook could be a place I cherished with all my heart.
Alright, fast forward to Summer 2014. On a rainy morning I hopped an Amtrak train headed for New York City for a photo shoot. My photography business was really starting to take off, and I was overjoyed at the prospect of shooting in the big city. On my way, my train stopped at the Utica Amtrak Station.
It was a Saturday and there were tents lining the station parking lot for what appeared to be a farmers market. At this point, the sky was very grim and the rain was really coming down. But the people at the market, they didn’t really seem to care. I saw people smiling, talking, laughing from under their colorful umbrellas and rain ponchos. I remember pulling out my phone and Googling the population of Utica, New York. Just over 60,000. I remember reviewing every memory I ever had regarding other people’s impression of Uitca, and thinking none of them were positive.
I looked back out the window at the people roaming the farmers market. I distinctly remember having that thought that changed my life as I stared through the droplets of water on my Amtrak window.
“There has to be a reason this many people live here.” I almost said it aloud to myself. I wanted to jump out my window and find out. But as soon as I had that thought, the locomotive gave two quick blows of the horn and we were moving again.
A short while later, we stopped in Schenectady. For those who aren’t familiar, Schenectady’s train station is actually raised up above the city, so when the train pulls away from the station, you can look own State Street (which is like looking down the street of a much larger city) and marvel at the bustling crowd, the interesting architecture and walkable downtown.
The seeds of curiosity were planted. In the tradition of my childhood, I had the idea to create a travel blog featuring photographic tours of places people wouldn’t think to spend a day and highlight the hidden gems in those places. Much like the vacations of my childhood, I would explore the places nobody else thought to explore. I would travel to these locations via train, talk to residents, business owners and community leaders and really try to not only find things to do, but get a sense of what makes these areas special.
To my surprise, it opened a world up to me that I had no idea was there. I met amazing people and saw such good things that were happening in these places that everyone from outside them told me were devoid of hope. It changed my view, changed my world and reminded me that curiosity is the first step toward curing negativity.
Just over 100,000 people have viewed my blog entries detailing my visits to Utica and Schenectady in the last year. Nearly 200,000 people have viewed at least one post on The Urban Phoenix. But what I’m most proud of is that I’m working to change the perception of these communities in places like my home city of Rochester, and hopefully I’ve helped change the conversation within them as well.
This blog, this idea, this project all came about because of curiosity. It’s that exploratory spirit in all of us that looks to find that thing that might be hard to see, or might have gone overlooked. I’m far from the only one! We are all explorers, adventurers in our own minds. It’s this spirit that will quiet the naysayers, the people who accept what they see on Facebook or hear from friends as fact. The real appreciation of what is good comes from a stubborn curiosity, an appreciation for the fact that the best things aren’t always obvious, and a realization that with an open mind, we can see the magnificence all around us!