Often, we as citizens wait in anticipation for that big company to come into our town, employ our friends and neighbors and raise our communities to the bustling, vibrant heights we once knew or heard about. “We need more jobs,” we shout, expecting some multinational company from afar to magically appear. Unfortunately, those times are, for the most part, behind us. Instead, we must enact the change we want to see in our communities by taking the many small steps that make a big difference in the long term. Growing our cities, tending to them like a garden, adding the key ingredients… these are the elements of a healthy urban environment today.
For over a year and a half I’ve written about small cities in New York that have changed the tide of shrinking populations forgotten resources. These cities have embraced a nationwide movement toward downtown living, shopping and entertainment, as well as a more urban-centered approach to community development.
By “urban” I am of course not speaking about skyscrapers and concrete. On the contrary, I’m talking about the movement away from national chains in strip malls and back to shopping local. I’m speaking to the idea of getting out of our cars and exploring a revitalized downtown on foot or bicycle. I’m talking about events and happenings that usher residents back to the center of their city where they can once again feel the power of togetherness and pride in their downtown area.
Last week, I hopped a train from Rochester headed for two of my favorite places in New York State, Rome and Utica. The welcoming people, the wide-eyed enthusiasm about the future… and the food, oh the food… it all makes me smile and keeps me coming back.
My first stop was Rome, where I disembarked from my train, unfolded my Dahon Vybe folding bike and took a short ride to Bellamy Harbor Park. Cloudy skies yielded a light rain, but that wasn’t going to stop me from having some fun.
Waiting at the park to greet me was Jake DiBari of Positively Rome, and a rack of brand new Zagster bicycles just waiting to be ridden. That’s right, Rome New York, a city of just over 30,000 people now has a bike share program.
With a tireless effort by Jake and Positively Rome, the city now has three racks of bikes along its Mohawk River Trail for use by residents and visitors for a staggering price of $1 via the Zagster smartphone app.
Bike share, which gained extensive attention when it was implemented in New York City, has expanded to communities large and small across the country. These programs not only give residents an easy and affordable outdoor leisure activity and transportation option, they have been shown to heighten public perception and even have potential to increase economic prosperity in the cities that host them. For Rome specifically, bike share shows a continued commitment by organizations, local government and key individuals like Jake DiBari to public health, wellness and the maximization of one of Rome’s greatest resources, its extensive trail system through urban and nature settings.
Jake and I unlocked our bikes from the rack with relative ease and set out on a test ride along the Mohawk River Trail/Erie Canal Trailway. As an avid cyclist, I was extremely impressed with the quality of the bike and smoothness of the ride. The bike made for a comfortable, upright experience with a low crossbar, making it easy to get on the bike initially. The grip-shift gears were extremely smooth and easy to use, the brakes were responsive and the entire bike itself seemed sturdy, comfortable and fun. For safety during morning and evening rides, the bikes are equipped with front and rear lights that are powered simply by pedaling. And while made for comfort more than speed, it was still very easy to get these bikes moving pretty quickly. Check out some iPhone footage from our ride!
“I know everyone’s gonna really enjoy it,” said Jake as we pedaled. “At the end of the day, it’s stuff like this that makes your community a lot better place to live.”
With the addition of bike share, Rome not only gives its citizens another recreational option, it also increases its attractiveness to individuals and businesses outside the community that are looking for quality of life additions like these. QOL endeavors show a city-wide commitment to happier, healthier people, which makes Rome a much more attractive destination to visitors.
I couldn’t have been more impressed with Rome’s bike share program, and I can’t wait to stop in again and ride around one of my favorite small cities in New York State!
I headed back to the Rome train station and hopped an Amtrak train over to Utica.
It as around lunch time so naturally, I headed to one of my favorite places, Ocean Blue and enjoyed their Lobster Mac and Cheese. Whether you’re from CNY and haven’t visited Ocean Blue or you’re an outsider that passes by Utica frequently on the Thruway, I cannot recommend this foodie destination more. Fresh seafood shipped in daily, a tremendous view of the city… you just can’t go wrong.
After lunch, I connected with some of my best friends from Utica, Ken and Amy Smith at another transcendent establishment, Bite Bakery and Cafe.
From there we moved on to drinks at one of my all-time favorite Utica destinations, Gerbers 1933 Tavern for food, drinks and some of the best people CNY has to offer.
Finally, it was time to head back over to Franklin Square for the summer outdoor film series sponsored by Bite Bakery and Made In Utica. We arrived as the alley was being set up for the evening’s movie, Jaws.
OK sidebar… more and more, outdoor movies have become a fun and easy way for urban neighborhoods to attract individuals and families downtown for a night of outdoor entertainment. Like the drive-in theaters of old, these pop-up outdoor cinematic experiences have the power to bring people together in a fun, innocent, downtown adventure, and can have a real impact on the local businesses that surround it. These seemingly simple steps can change the way residents see and experience their urban centers.
Alas, my train was scheduled to leave just as the movie started. I had my fun in Central New York, but it was time to depart, even if it was a little early. I biked to the Amtrak station and headed home.
In one day, I experienced 2 ways in which 2 small cities raised some community-wide eyebrows. I witnessed one city’s effort to promote wellness and outdoor recreation and another city’s keen idea to create a gathering place in their downtown. These are the simple, approachable and functional ideas that create a level of excitement in our small New York cities, feeding an ever-growing rebirth and revitalization of the new urban experience.
See you soon Central New York, keep up the great work.