Movement vs. Militant: A Perspective On Utica, A Lesson For Us All

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Let me start by saying first and foremost that I do not support any project, plan or movement regarding the Utica Downtown Hospital project.  My thoughts here are my own, and they are from the perspective of someone from over a hundred miles away, watching the storm cloud that has enveloped a city I love.  I am not writing this to further an agenda or anyone else’s agenda, I’m doing it because A) I truly believe someone simply needs to say “cut it out,” and B) other cities need to see this as an example of how not to handle disagreements.

This is a piece directed at Utica, but it is a clear and present reminder to all of us that we must be willing to see the big picture regarding what is best for our cities.  There will always be wins and losses, the important piece to remember is the overall health of the communities we serve.  Not making light, just trying to make sense.  Here goes.

This area will be completely transformed by a proposed hospital development project, the source of a heated battle between two sides that are increasingly vocal.

The Issue

Sometimes in our lives, we need mediators, translators, lawyers… people who speak for and between us in an effort to remove emotion and subjectivity, dispassionately moving us through a disagreement. More often than not, these disagreements have two sides, both with compelling and complex narratives. The problem is that both sides are so deeply motivated by their emotional connection to their cause, they fail to see that the disagreement itself might be imposing catastrophic harm to their overall intentions.

Just like people cling to their own points of view, our budding urban revival movements also face serious questions of direction. Often, these directional differences can tear cities apart, casting a cold public shadow over any positive growth. Two of the most important pieces to any urban revival, public perception and momentum, are deeply affected by directional conflicts that turn ugly and unruly.

An extremely wise woman once made one of the most poignant and applicable statements I’ve ever heard:

“Every idea is initially good. But when the protection of the idea becomes more important than the idea itself, all the good is lost.”

In one of my favorite little cities, Utica, New York, this dynamic is in full swing. As the city continues to grow slowly and incrementally, a proposed downtown hospital construction project is being met with defiant opposition from individuals and groups in the community. Proponents of the hospital claim that it will add jobs and fuel downtown growth. Opponents point out that entire city blocks will be razed and businesses relocated to make way for a project that they claim has questionable motives and financial holes.

And it’s gotten nasty. Both sides have set their flags deep in the proverbial ground and have not ceased in the firing of public salvos. Opponents to the hospital have been painted as obstructionists to change, halting the further growth of downtown. The opponents have been vicious with their verbal and social media attacks on individuals and business owners who don’t agree with them. Even from a distance, even from my Twitter feed on my phone, I can see the daily fireworks of opposition on both sides, pummeling one another in the public realm. I can’t even write a positive piece on Utica anymore without being dragged into the metaphorical muck of posturing and mudslinging over the downtown hospital.

This is what happens, unfortunately, when a movement becomes militant.

I don’t have a stake in this game, so allow me to be an outside mediator without any real desire for a specific outcome other than getting back to what’s important in our cities. While I believe in incremental growth should trump large-scale projects, I believe Utica will be fine either way. Hospital or not, Utica has thousands of other important choices to make in determining its urban future. I’m not making light of the issue at hand, I’m simply offering a big picture perspective that needs to be realized.  No city is about one idea, one defining project or initiative… it is about a series of ups and downs, missteps and little victories.  We must advocate for what is right, but not to the level of assuming that one project will change everything.

Fighting for a good idea, whatever it may be, is always important. But the battle should never overpower the truly important goals of changing perceptions and maintaining positive momentum. From what I see right now on social media, in the news and independent publications, not to mention personal conversations, the once positive force that I felt so strongly in Utica is turning into anger, frustration and even worse, apathy in the community and quite honestly, in me as well.

This is a lesson to every city USA, including my own city of Rochester as we fight for the future of a key piece of real estate downtown. To our leaders, our influencers, to our community pillars, listen to your citizens. Listen to their legitimate concerns and for God’s sake be transparent and inclusive. To our citizens, remember to keep your advocacy strong, but be mindful that no idea is worth cresting into the dark, off-putting and distracting motives of militant behavior. There are few ways to better frustrate a population than to turn a disagreement into all out warfare. We all want the best for our cities, and those wants are often decidedly different… but massive, ever-present conflict that spills into every orifice of your community not only disrupts growth, it drives people away. When this happens, it doesn’t matter which idea wins… there will be no one left to celebrate with the victor, or comfort the loser.

Allow me, for a moment to be the dispassionate mediator that is standing outside all the blustering conflict, urging everyone to reset and look at the big picture. Continuing to wage war over this subject is hurting Utica far more than any hospital, or lack there of possibly can. When we hyper-focus on one idea as the savior of our downtowns or the hellish fire that will destroy them, our community loses either way.

Remember, if two people are constantly fighting in a bar, eventually nobody cares who’s right or wrong… everyone will just go somewhere else.