Loretta, This Is The Utica I Know

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Earlier today a friend turned me on to a blog referencing Utica, New York, an imperfect but rising city I have come to love and adore.  In this blog, the writer, now living in North Carolina, explains how Utica’s status as a refugee (and particularly a Muslim refugee) sanctuary is destroying the fabric of the city.

If you’re an urbanist that loves hard numbers (which I love as well), this one might not be for you.  If you’re someone who believes in the fighting spirit of our urban revivals through acceptance, diversity and understanding, then I urge you to read on.  My open letter to Loretta the blogger below is more personal and less informative than the content I typically post, though it addresses the very nature of how our perceptions of our cities often fail us.  I am an even-handed writer and always do my best to see both sides… forgive me as I depart from this construct for a moment and  address this blogger who’s comments about a city I love have offended me very deeply.

Good day Loretta, my name is Arian, and I also run a blog.  About two and a half years ago, I decided to visit your former home of Utica, New York.  My goal was to travel to cities that had horrible reputations and try to find the hidden gems that perhaps people might overlook.

To my surprise, I found a community in Utica that was in the early stages of rising from the ashes of rust belt status, entering the first moments of flight toward a soaring new beginning.  In one day, I talked to some of the most kind, excited, and welcoming people I’ve ever met.  In my dozens of return trips to Utica, I’ve had the same experience, creating relationships with people I now consider very good friends, as well as ties to a community I have come to call my second home.  I have written extensively about the new small business explosion happening in the city, and have made every effort to be a regular customer, even though I live 2 hours away in Rochester.

The thing that has struck me in my conversations with countless Uticans is the acceptance of the refugee population.  There is a quiet pride and admiration for the fact that their city can be a home for folks who have escaped some of this world’s most difficult circumstances.

Loretta, your blog sent knives down my spine, and I am reminded of the ever-present hypocrisy that rears its ugly head at every turn.  In your blog, you make constant references to your faith, the cross you wear around your neck and the Catholic roots in your former hometown.  I am not a religious man by any stretch, (though I did minor in religious studies) but I am a big fan of Jesus Christ and the way he carried himself.  Call him divine, or simply call him a great role model, if you look at the stories of what Jesus did in EVERY encounter with other people, from the wealthy to the sick, from the prosperous to the persecuted, he was the ultimate example of how a human should treat his or her fellow people, regardless of status.  He was a man that understood the trials of everyone without judgement, without stereotype and without blame.  Your insinuation that refugees, especially Muslim refugees have somehow tainted Utica, or tainted our country could not be a further departure from the teachings of the man I believe you truly love and respect.

The word “Refugee” is defined by Webster is someone who “flees a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.”  Read that again for a moment, and think how bad things would have to be for you to flee the United States?  Before you throw up your “me first” agenda you so arrogantly laid out in your writing, think for a moment about how good we do have it here, and how bad it must be in these other places, that refugees would risk EVERYTHING to leave all that they know to start anew in a foreign land.

One time my car was in the shop and I took a cab, piloted by a woman from Africa.  We began talking about where she was from… She and her husband escaped from their country when militant groups began raiding their village.  She knew it was time to leave when they invaded a friend’s home and told the father he could either kill his entire family himself, or watch as the attackers raped and tortured them, AND THEN they would kill them.

Yes, please, Loretta, do tell people like this about your struggles, because I’m sure you can relate to their circumstances.  That’s sarcasm by the way.

In case you’re so completely in your own mind that you haven’t realized this, most refugees aren’t here because they want to be… they are here because they are escaping horribly inhuman atrocities, and the United States gives them hope… a hope that I thought all Americans understood this country stood for.  My mistake.

Let me tell you a little bit about my experience with poverty.  I grew up with a single mother who worked as hard as she could to keep us afloat.  I was diagnosed with leukemia at age 8 and battled the disease and endured treatment until I was a young teenager.  To this day I have no idea how my mother did what she did, but she was amazing.

Because we had so little money, we went on Medicaid for a few years.  With no insurance and astronomical medial bills, it was either this, or I died.  I think the right choice was made.

I clearly remember how upset my mother was when many of the social service agents pried into her finances and her personal life, dehumanizing her to the point where she truly dreaded these visits.  Most of these people who questioned my mother’s dignity where white Americans.  One I clearly remember had a cross around her neck.  Does this give me a license to assume that all Christians are after my rights, my life and my soul?  Is it OK for me to paint with a brush the size of Texas and claim that Christians are ruining our society?

I was born in Chicago, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse places in these United States.  I live in Rochester, New York, a quietly diverse city filled with people of all walks of life.  I’ve experienced some horrible people.  Literally NONE of them have been of refugee or Muslim origin.  None.  Zero.  In fact, some of the most hateful, judgmental people I have ever met in my life have been God fearing Christians, who are perfectly happy to impose their views on my life, yet still attend Church every week in an effort to assure themselves that they are good.  So is it right for me to call on the ban of all Catholics in Rochester?  A Christian man killed someone in my hometown last month… does this give me the license to start scripting God as the veiled anti-Christ?

Of course not.  That’s just ridiculous.  Why would I generalize the actions of a few to an enormous population of perfectly wonderful, loving Christians?  That would be irresponsible right?

On the point of Muslims and refugees in positions you don’t see fit, I wonder if you would go to the same lengths to research the qualifications of a worker who was a Christian?  And if so, I would remind you that Christians are “handed” positions of power without proper qualifications all the time.  Heck, while we are on the subject of qualifications, our current president has no political experience whatsoever, and yet there he is, running the free world.  Whether you believe he is doing a good job or not, by your logic, he should not be there.

Loretta, let me tell you why Utica and cities like it have struggled for so long.  This is kind of long, but stick with me.  A lot of it starts with the GI Bill.  Not what you were expecting right?

OK, so the GI Bill allowed our war heroes (God Bless them!!) to get VERY cheap financing to build new homes.  But cities were dense, so the only place to cheaply build new homes was outside of our cities.  60,000 Americans took advantage of this opportunity, building homes on the outskirts of our urban centers that we now know as our suburbs.

Here’s the catch.  African Americans, who did not enjoy anything resembling equal rights at this point in history, were scarcely given loans by banks, so they were not able to benefit from this mass urban exodus.  Out of the 60,000 veterans who were allowed to take advantage of the GI Bill, only about 100 were black.  They served our country, but were never allowed to return to the benefits white Americans did.

Meanwhile, to make moving outside of the city easier, the American highway system began creating a country in which owning an automobile was a necessity for day to day life.  With the rise of cars, mass transit eroded to where it is now… bare-bones, underfunded networks in nearly every city.  Those who could afford cars could move into the suburbs and commute… those who could not began to see their options limited with each passing year.

As the suburbs grew in wealth, more and more people moved out of their cities and into their outlying areas… and jobs went with them!  Meanwhile, a disenfranchised urban poor had no way to take advantage of this movement, creating poverty-stricken urban centers surrounded by wealthy, predominantly white suburbs.  Even as black Americans began to gain more rights, the damage was done… the ability to access favorable jobs and opportunities declined steadily, and our formally dense, diverse urban centers became a cycle of poverty and vacancy.

The nails in the coffin in cities like Utica were A) automation and the invention of machines that could do the jobs of several people and B) jobs shipped overseas.  Last I checked, neither of these had anything to do with Muslims, Obama, Millennials, etc.

This, sadly, was what really led to our failing urban areas across the country.  Our cities didn’t fail because of Muslims Loretta, they failed long before that.  They failed because of our shortsightedness, our inability to accept that the worst thing you can do is leave a city, a country, or a people on islands of desperation.  What happened in Utica is the same thing that happened in cities across America.

Alright, it’s 1:01am and this is getting long.  Let me tell you about the Utica I know and love… you know, the hometown that you say is supposedly gone.  The Utica I know comes together to solve their problems, they don’t cast their city off as damaged.  They take ownership over their sketchy past in an effort to see a brighter tomorrow.  They work hard to change the negative perceptions, fighting with a “by-the-bootstraps” spirit every day as they revive their once vacant downtown.

I see it in the business owners who, one by one, are making Utica a hot spot once again.  I see it in the residents who show their appreciation for these entrepreneurs by giving them their patronage every day.  I see it in the spirit of the crowds at Saranac Thursdays, the thousands of people who follow Made In Utica, and in Mayor Palmieri, who is as enthusiastic as anyone about the direction of his town.

I see it in the people I know who work with refugees every day to help them get on their feet.  I see it in the friends I have made that are refugees… they are happy, contributing members of society.  I see it in a beautiful library that brings the hope of education to a refugee population that, like you, just wants to be safe and work hard to support their families.

The Utica I know understands that their city is making progress but still has a long way to go.  They also understand that by working together, by building a diverse population that works as one to solve problems, Utica is a better place.  I see it in the people that choose to make a difference, not run away and cast stones from afar.

Loretta, I’ve visited cities just like Utica all across this country.  And everywhere I go I’ve met people who want to blame the plight of the average American on someone who doesn’t look or talk like them.  Liberals, Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, Millennials, Obama… I’ve heard it all.

You know what the real problem with this country is Loretta?  It’s fearful, one dimensional, hypocritical, narrow-minded, self-centered thinking.  It’s the people that run away from any situation that doesn’t fit their neat and tidy, bow-wrapped world you think you have a right to.  You know what that means?  It means that if Utica has a problem, it isn’t refugees, it isn’t Muslims and it certainly isn’t Obama… Loretta, the problem is you.