In a time where political half-truths and falsities are quoted as factual and spread across the internet via social media, it is becoming more and more important for all of us to fact check and critically think about everything we see.
OK, enough about politics… I think we’re all maxed out there! Let’s talk about how the above statement applies to the perception of our New York State communities and beyond.
I’ve said this many times, but if I had believed what EVERYONE had ever told me about most of the places I have explored in New York State (Utica, Schenectady, Binghamton, Troy, etc.) I would never have visited at all. The Urban Phoenix wouldn’t exist and I would never have had the incredible experiences, met the amazing people, or experienced the unique and refreshing local cultures that keep me traveling on this insatiable journey.
If you’ve ever said “that place sucks” or “don’t go there, you’re gonna get shot” about a place you haven’t been to in 5-10 years, or have simply driven through and not experienced directly, here are 5 ways to “fact-check” your statement before you propagate this negative perception.
Just Freaking Go There
Today, when people ask me why I would spend time in a place like Utica, I ask “have you been there recently?” Typically there answer is no or “I’ve driven through there and there’s not much to see.” This is the number one problem that rising cities like Utica and Schenectady have to overcome… the continuing perception of a stereotype created long ago. So if you are from places like Rochester or Syracuse and you think these cities “suck,” commit to spending half a day there. Call the tourism departments in these communities and have them point you in the direction… places to go or things to do, the best restaurants, etc. It all starts with feet on the ground and an open mind!
Coffee, Food, Drinks and People
The best way to know a local culture and what’s going on in a community is to talk to the locals and see what’s going on. Learn the history and know where people that live there are coming from. It’s not daunting, it doesn’t take long, and usually residents are incredibly willing to share their community’s high points!
The best way to do this is to pop into the local coffee shops, eateries and nightlife establishments (no chains, every town has local cafes, restaurants and bars… these are your targets). Make it fun! Talk up the bartender, ask your server what’s happening downtown, inquire about local happenings while your barista makes your cappuccino.
Leave The Car Behind
When you visit these places, try to park your car and leave it there as much as possible. You cannot truly get a sense of a city while you’re maneuvering through traffic in a place you don’t know well. Walk the streets, take note of local architecture, stumble upon that retail shop and feel the city move around you. Walking these cities is usually relatively easy, simply because most of them are small and walkable.
Understanding The Ugly Parts
Just like people, cities go through ups and downs, and sometimes a city on the rise still flashes the scars of the difficult times and circumstances it is currently recovering from. Boarded up storefronts and buildings in disrepair are often evident in these small Upstate New York communities, and are very much a reminder that these are cities that are still in transition.
While these are typically depressing visual constructs that negatively taint our local view, it is important to understand that these are issues that every city struggles with, and realize that most cities are doing everything they can to make things better. Tremendous resources are being committed to reinventing depressed neighborhoods and rehabilitating old, unused buildings as more and more people are choosing to move back to their downtown areas. Still, this is a transition that happens over the course decades, not months or years… for now, try to temper your view of these zombie properties and visual blemishes with the knowledge that slowly, communities are turning these areas around.
Keep An Open Mind
The key to all of the above is to approach with an open mind… if you go into the experience of urban exploring with a pre-formed, tainted view of the place you’re visiting, your mind will look for every reason to support this mindset. It is imperative, just like fact-checking, that you look for your “urban answers” with an unbiased, exploratory motive with the goal of finding the truth for yourself.