Stepping Away From Utica

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Seven months ago, I received a flurry of messages from friends and Utica residents sharing the excitement that the hard-working city in Central New York was going to institute a 90-day “Complete Streets” lane reduction of their downtown thoroughfare, Genesee Street. My initial elation was driven by two factors; the first is that I love Utica and I knew based on my tireless research that this project would help make downtown safer, more accessible and more vibrant. The second was that I have been calling for this change for more than 5 years, citing that Genesee street has nowhere near the traffic count to justify 4 lanes of automobile traffic.

As someone who has advocated for the prosperity of cities across Upstate, Central and Western New York, I saw this as a victory and a necessary step in the evolution of a downtown I have grown to truly love and enjoy. While I have no formal training in urban planning, I have dedicated the last 8 years to research the best practices for communities looking to grow a strong local economy, foster a transcendent sense of local pride, and welcome all walks of life to the table. As I’ve stated many times, I have the privilege to have a platform where I can share the teachings of those far more intelligent than I.

But this wasn’t any “road diet” in any town or city… this was Utica. This is where my Urban Phoenix journey began. This was real multi-modal progress in the small city that I’ve visited more than 60 times since my first encounter. This was a progressive change in a city that I’ve told so many to visit and even invest in. This was a traffic realignment in a city where some of my best friends spend an overnight multiple times a year based on my urging. This was a foreword-thinking movement in a city that countless followers have told me they were surprisingly inspired by. This was measurable progressive change in a city that I thought could embrace the positives of a street design that gives pedestrians and cyclists a fair shake against traffic patterns that prioritize car ownership.

And then, the thrust of a sword from the perils of insular perspectives that ignore the empirical data of complete streets design began to rise. Members of several local organizations took to social media and protested the project with venomous intent. Local leaders piled on, appealing to an audience of car-centric constituents who believe that the ability to drive through the city is more important than experiencing the city.

Denigration, relentless dismissal of facts, and some of the most vicious personal attacks I’ve ever seen clouded the local social media forums of the small city of 60,000. As I attempted to present the facts and address the pushback, I myself was threatened with legal action, as were many proponents of the project.

The overwhelming contempt for Genesee’s Complete Streets trial led to a common council “no” vote to make the change permanent. But with the hard work by local advocates and officials, a re-vote led to the permanent painting of Utica’s historic street with a 4 to 3 lane road diet.

No sooner did the Complete Streets trial conversation come to a halt than the replacement of the famed Sun Mural step into the hot seat as the city’s most contested debate.

Vehemently opposed criticism of the fact that none of the final artists chosen were local, paired with questions regarding the fact that white people weren’t adequately represented in the initial renderings dominated social media, further magnifying the insular perspective of so many in the CNY city.

Pair this with a Utica school board race that became a vulgar name-calling, shouting match that begs the question… which one of these are the children?

When I visited Utica for the first time, I was truly inspired by a community that embraced a new tomorrow. A new but thriving small business culture seemed to fuel a downtown revitalization that transcended mediocrity. I met so many who were truly excited about the inspiring direction of the city.

And while so many embraced my support which has led to scores of visitors who regularly patronize Utica’a local business, there has always been an element that has rejected my presence. I have ignored this construct for many years, but I can’t help but notice that these individuals and groups have grown their voice and want nothing more than for people like me that might have a unique perspective on their community based on empirical data and research to go away.

Utica, when we first connected 8 years ago, I was inspired by your message. Today, I’m truly troubled by your current narrative. As an outsider, I’m going to step away from what I can honestly say is a toxic internal battle. More and more I’ve seen my presence as a free resource diminish, and my view as a threat to the “what we’ve always been” narrative as a rallying cry. To those who have always been skeptical of my love affair with Utica and have seen me as a threat to the status quo, I can sense the grin stretching across your face as you read these words.

I don’t make any money doing what I do. Quite the opposite, I lose money. I do this because I am inspired by the forward-thinking efforts of citizens, small business owners, local governments and organizations who are working hard every day to lead their communities toward a bright future. I genuinely feel privileged to tell these stories across our state and beyond.

I myself have spent thousands of dollars in the Utica economy. I’ve encouraged hundreds of people to visit Utica, and nearly all of them have shared my enthusiasm for what is happening there. These visitors have also patronized Utica’s amazing shops, restaurants and bars as a result. This is not an attempt to glorify my influence, it is an effort to portray just how much I believe in this small Central New York city, and how quick I am to tell people about all the good things that are there. I don’t have to do this, I don’t make any money from doing this, I do it because I care about Utica.

So I’m happy to take my support to Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Schenectady, Albany, Troy, Rome, Binghamton, Amsterdam and beyond. I’m happy to support communities that aren’t burdened with the growing social toxicity that I see gaining momentum in Utica.

I am not saddened nor deterred but this departure. My hope always is to assist in the influence of smart city design across our state and that is what I will continue to do. I will simply be executing these goals in partnership with communities that are ready to receive the message of New Urbanistic concepts.

I have had the good fortune of meeting so many lifelong friends in Utica and my commitment to their companionship will not end. But as I step away from my direct support of Utica, I say “see you in a bit” rather than a permanent “goodbye” as I am hopeful that the insular perspective that is so pervasive today will eventually be overcome. Utica, it’s time you not only looked in the mirror… it’s time you looked outside your bubble, realized that you’re not as unique as you think you are, and most importantly, embrace the direction that other cities are taking toward a more vibrant, inclusive and prosperous future.