Downtown Getdown

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I watched the water splash from the plastic blue cup with every step, betraying my lack of grace and dexterity as I made my way past the first cone. Then it was the pitcher of water, also sloshing about and spilling precious H2O into the base of the server tray. And as much as I was failing to keep the water in its respective containers, I was also in dead last place! Needless to say my first venture in the sport of “server racing” was unspectacular and a little ugly, albeit tremendously enjoyable.

Image compliments of SMITH Imagery, Utica NY

So how did I end up laughingly “racing” against other seasoned restaurant servers in an obstacle course adjacent to downtown Utica? Well because Katie Reilly, one of the event coordinators, knew by then that I love Utica and I’d probably do just about anything to support something positive there… even if it meant filling a last-minute opening in a competition I had no business being in. And I had a blast doing it.

When I first began traveling to Utica on a regular basis 7 years ago, I quickly became acquainted with the fact that a group of young people were on the forefront of rebuilding the city’s image. Made In Utica, a grassroots, down-and-dirty collection of twenty-somethings who were sick of their city’s languishing reputation, seemed to have their finger on the pulse of a community that was just waiting for a spark. MIU didn’t just light the spark… they quickly poured gasoline on it.

From organically creating a pro-local business movement with their annual “Utica Passport” campaign, where customers receive discounts at participating establishments, to reporting on positive news before the local news outlets could get wind of it, MIU was and continues to be the very sort of underground, community-leading hype-beast that a flailing city is and was desperate for. In a time when “fighting the man” is becoming increasingly popular, this incredibly strategic grassroots team of young people has created a movement that satisfies the need for community activation while maintaining an organically alternative social pose. In English, this translates to creativity and popularity by way of opposing the yawn-inducing status quo, and ruffling a few feathers in the process. And as MIU continues to activate the city with events and happenings, more and more Uticans are opening their eyes to the fact that a major motivator in their downtown’s comeback is a group of overachieving young people… and it’s working.

In 2018, Made In Utica unveiled their most ambitious venture as they launched Handshake City, an empty parcel of grassland just outside of Utica’s downtown. With a handful of refurbished and retrofitted shipping containers serving as inexpensive and flexible pop-up vendor space, MIU launched an opportunity for residents and visitors to connect to local makers and creative spirits, reminding this once sleepy city that local talent is alive and well. All this on a grassy slab of formerly-industrial property that the city is still looking to sell and develop. Handshake City’s appeal and downfall is in its constant state of temporary existence… while the whole concept is incremental activation of underutilized space, the always looming reality that it may all be sold to make way for an eager developer means that more ambitious planning impossible. But this lack of certainty doesn’t stifle the efforts of Made in Utica.

In late summer 2021 I attended Handshake City’s “Downtown Getdown” event. It was the first time I had seen the space in action for myself. People came out in droves to see the vendors, listen to an outstanding lineup of local musical artists and of course, enjoy good food and drink. A space for kids created a family friendly atmosphere. In a time when social distancing is on everyone’s mind, the outdoor venue allowed for people to spread out and approach the experience at their own comfort level.

The vibe was intoxicating, as old-school local rock-lovers took in the great music. Young people flocked to the vendors and the beer. Older Uticans came out to see a city re-energized in a way that reminded them of the city they knew as youngsters. While I have loved Utica since my first visit, the event and the space allowed me to understand just how much Uticans needed an excuse to go out and explore all that their community has to offer.

In most cities, local government or the Chamber of Commerce would be the driving force behind the downtown festival or the annual merchant event. But in Utica, an enthusiastic group of ambitious young residents are driving the social scene while giving this city’s revitalization effort a feeling of grassroots legitimacy. When a locally based organization is at the heart of a city’s re-imagination, it sends the message that Utica’s future is being organically driven by its people, and that this movement has no agenda save the desire to nurture a more naturally vibrant community. And when this honest desire is the engine behind the activation of under-utilized space, the true definition of urban revitalization is truly imagined.