Several weeks ago I visited Schenectady New York for a blog tour stop. To put it simply, I had a blast. I fell in love with the city, it's people and all that it has to offer. My blog post about the Schenectady went viral there, gathering 19,000 views on the first day. A short while after my visit, Schenectady was rocked by a tragic apartment fire on Jay Street, downtown. Many lost their lives, others lost everything they owned. Here's where you can help me... From March 19-March 26, go to RocPix.com/categories/Schenectady and purchase a print from one of 30 images included in my blog. All profits will go to the Schenectady Foundations and their efforts to help the victims of this horrible tragedy. Help me help Schenectady put the pieces back together. Thank you so much, and stay tuned. Arian
Those of you who have been following my blog as I visit Upstate New York cities know that I have a few unique forms of personal transportation. When traveling to urban areas, I like to bring a scooter. Yes that's right, the thing your kids play on.
To be fair, the scooters I have are listed as "adult scooters." One is electric, with a top speed of 20mph and a range of 10-15 miles. The downside is it weighs 36 pounds. The other is a far lighter "kick scooter" which is unpowered but weighs only about 10 pounds.
Why travel by scooter? Because they are lightweight, "last mile" alternatives to walking. Unlike bikes, they easily travel on planes, trains, buses and cars. I can carry the kick scooter on my shoulder and break it out easily whenever I need it.
Little did I know it would save me one night.
Last weekend, I traveled by train to Miami to shoot a wedding. While I was sure I could get a cab or Uber from the train station for the 23 mile trip to the hotel, I brought my Micro White kick scooter just in case. Thank goodness I did.
While in the dining car of my Amtrak train on the way to Miami, I lost my debit card. Let me tell you the frustration of having plenty of money and no way of accessing it!
When I arrived in Miami, it was with absolutely no spendable cash, 45 pounds of equipment and clothing on my back, and 23 miles to go.
Plan A was to rent a car... No access to money. Plan B was to travel by Uber or Lyft, but without a credit card that was impossible. A cab was plan C, out of the question for the same reason. Public transpo wouldn't get me close to where I was going so plan D was out. It was late so bothering the wedding party for a ride was out of the question. That did it for plan E. I had one viable option and it would be a monumental task... To unfold my kick scooter and travel 23 miles to my hotel so I could get a couple hours of sleep before the busy wedding day. So there I was, face to face with plan F.
It took hours, likely over 1200 calories and some sort of divine intervention but I made it. I made it in time to get decent sleep, allowing me to capture one of the most beautiful wedding days I've ever been a part of the next day.
By no means am I telling this story to bolster my ego, or make it look like I am a super-dedicated photographer. On the contrary, I almost didn't write this blog because I very much embarrassed! Instead, I felt it was important to write this as a reminder to all of us that when we plan for the greatest days of our lives, make sure that we, and those we hire to make those days a reality have more than a plan B. More than a plan C. Make sure you and they have a plan F. Hopefully you never have to use it, but in the rare case that you do, you will never ever regret it!
I sat in my comfy Amtrak seat, looking at the Google Map on my phone. When you visit a place for the first time, you gaze at a map and try to picture what each street will look like. You see the locations of different restaurants, sights and attractions that line the roads, but you just can't get a sense of what they are about until your shoes hit the ground. So I sat there and really tried my hardest to imagine, "what will Schenectady be like?" The answer later that day would make me smile. Schenectady was the second stop on my blog tour tour highlighting small Upstate New York Cities. As you may or may not know, my first blog entry featuring my visit to Utica New York went viral upon posting it in January, topping 60,000 views. Now it was on to a new city, one I had heard was on the comeback trail. As my train rolled in "above" the city, I had a very good feeling about this trip. It was a feeling that I was going to see something special, something unique. As we came to a stop, I grabbed my pack, my scooter (yes, I get around on a scooter) and stepped off the train. My journey was about to begin. One thing before I start... the most common question I have gotten during this whole blog process is "why are you doing this in the winter? Why don't you wait until the summer when it's sunny and beautiful?" The answer is simple... I'm a wedding photographer. My summers are jammed with all-weekend shooting and all-weekday editing. This blog tour is my "offseason" project. And honestly I kind of like the challenge of visiting places in the dead of winter and still trying to find the beauty! This blog entry isn't short, but there's just so much good stuff. Come on with me, I'll take you on a trip to a great little city ;-) Here We Go Again One of the things I want to highlight on these trips is how easy it is to travel to and through these Upstate cities without the use of a car. Schenectady is THE shining example of this. The train LITERALLY stops in the middle of downtown. You get off the train, and there you are, a minute or two walk to everything... and I mean everything. I walked to State Street, the hub of all things downtown Schenectady. Even in the snow, it couldn't have been more evident that a high level of thought had gone into making this a pedestrian and visitor friendly area. Clear signage, attractive railings with artistic detail... even the bus stop looked cool. As I came out from under the railroad bridge, downtown Schenectady stood before me, welcoming me. It really was a sort of shock... I wasn't expecting such a dynamic, vibrant look and feel. This was a downtown that looked like it belonged in a much larger city. Here's a twist... I'm not going to show you the pictures of downtown yet... to truly appreciate how magical this place is, you have to see it at night. Keep reading... ;-) At the heart of downtown is Proctor's theater, the jewel in Schenectady's crown of rebirth. You see, like so many other upstate cities, Schenectady fell on hard times years ago. General Electric, once the employer of tens of thousands of people in the area was forced to lay off most the workforce. The local economy crumbled as a result, and the effects can still be seen today. But with the help of Phillip Morris, CEO of Proctor's Theater and a tremendous effort by city and local government, Schenectady is now well on its way to the same urban rebirth we are seeing in cities across the country. While still in transition, the wheels are very much in motion. While taking some photos of the beautiful Proctor's marquee, I spotted Dawn standing outside the building. "This place is beautiful," I said, "what's been the driving force behind the comeback of this city?" Dawn confidently answered by gesturing to me. "It's people like you blogging. It's Facebook, it's people talking about it. people are seeing it, and it's bringing all these businesses here." Again, she gestured to the iconic buildings and bustling crowds in the street. "People are talking and it's working." I had arrived at just the right time. Groups of people were walking down the street to Proctor's for the 2pm Illusionists show. I stopped a random group and asked them what the vibe was like in Schenectady. The enthusiastic man in the middle couldn't wait to answer. "Look at this place, look at all these people! It's rockin'! You can feel it," he said with a genuine excitement. I continued a few steps East to Jay street... I say street, but this section of Jay was actually for pedestrians only. One look down the street gave me the feeling that I was somewhere special... colorful, small town storefronts, a sort of "Main Street USA" feel. As I walked down the "alley" I was amazed at how the bustling sounds of traffic and people from the busy State Street faded away. There was a quiet calm here, just a step away from the excitement of the downtown. There was something for everyone. A couple inviting cafes, several wellness shops, Antiques, even an Irish store! A few narrow alleys off the main walkway led to parking... very smart! As you may have noticed in the pictures, it was cold. Really cold. So I happily took the opportunity to start popping into some stores to warm up! What I found was so much cooler (see what I did there?). My first stop blew my mind... the ReCollector. Kurt, the store owner, greeted me kindly. A delightfully eccentric man, he carried himself with a gentile, humble pride. His store was incredible... literally every square inch was covered with old records, merchandise, memorabilia with a 60's-70's rock and roll/flower child theme. I could have spent hours looking through his tiny little store and still not see half of what was there. It was the kind of place one could only own because they truly loved it. "This band took my saying 'music is the best medicine' and put it in a song," he said gesturing to a photo on the wall. "It's on YouTube and everything... check it out, yours truly even makes an appearance." I asked how long he had been there. His pride gave in for just a moment, but he regained it again as if it was there all along... "I've been here about 5 years. I'm getting by," he answered with the hint of a smile. I moved on the the next shop, Crossroads Gifts & Wellness. This was the place to come if you needed to take care of the soul. Gifts of comfort, wellness and spirituality were everywhere... everything one might need to come home from a hard day of demanding work and bring yourself back to a calm state of contentment! While she chose not to be photographed, Jessica was so kind to give me the tour and talk to me about Schenectady. "It's become very diverse," she said with a smile. "The more diverse it gets, the better it gets. It's the new businesses, they are driving the whole thing. Union college is doing a great job too partnering with the local businesses. It's all bringing a lot of different kinds of people here, it's great!" Jessica took me to the back room to show me the hidden jewel of Crossroads... a quiet, dark little cozy room for therapeutic massage. Considering that I was carrying about 40 pounds on my back at the time (I have a very nice backpack!) I wanted to lay down right then and there! But I had so much to see still, so I thanked Jessica and went on my way. I headed across the way to the Open Door Bookstore. As soon as I closed the door behind me I saw several of the woman working there, attending to the store. As they did, they talked, laughed and joked with each other lightly. They seemed to be having such a good time. I smiled along with them, and one of them spoke up. "We all love working here together!" she volunteered. "We just have a lot of fun." "I love it," I answered. "Can I ask you a few questions?" That was literally the last question I asked, because as if on cue, Karen started telling me about Schenectady. "Schenectady went through a hard time. The malls came in, most of GE (General Electric) moved out. It was really bad for a while. But the Metroplex and Phillip Morris of Proctor's have really built it all back up. Proctor's has worked hard to bring in great shows like Jersey Boys and Wicked... it brought people back to downtown as you've probably seen. Morris believes a community needs theater and the arts to be vibrant. It's a very walkable city too... my husband and I love that we can just walk around everywhere." "Do you see a big youth movement here?" I asked, thinking about my recent visit to Utica and how the young people there are driving the revival. "It's not a youth movement, no," she answered confidently. "It's businesses moving in and and taking risks, taking a chances. And it's working. They've worked hard to attract businesses here and it's working." Karen mentioned the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority. This organization was established in 1998 to enhance economic growth and quality of life in the county. The Metroplex takes a tiny percentage of county sales tax revenue and commits it to projects that, in cooperation with the city and the county, increase the overall vitality of the area. To me, it certainly seemed to be working! OK, back to the story. Karen was so kind to take the time to talk to me, but truly everyone who worked at the store was so incredibly friendly. A smile and a hi greeted me from everyone I passed... it was the kind of environment that can only come from a group of people who genuinely love working together. So rare to see! And what a store it was! You could find a gift, a book, anything for anyone. I left the store, knowing I would be back... hey, when you travel you always have to bring home gifts for the ones you love! I took a short walk east again, this time passing by City Hall. It was really starting to snow now... and it wouldn't stop all day. But that didn't stop me from capturing the beautiful structure. The church across the street grabbed my eye as well. At this point my stomach began to rumble. I backtracked to Jay Street, where I came across Ambition. I would call it a coffee shop but this was so much more and I realized it as soon as I walked in... the character, the friendly servers who smiled at me, even the cozy narrow "dining area" was something so unique. It felt good to be there for some reason, just a feeling that I was home. Maybe it was just good to be out of the snow and cold, but the more time I spent there, the more I realized it was something different. I ordered the Ambition Sandwich with grilled chicken, roasted red peppers, pesto and mozzarella. The perfect sandwich for a hungry man on the move!! After throwing down the sandwich and a deliciously warm cup of coffee, I spoke to Mark the owner. "This place is my soul," he said with a tired but unbroken grin. "When you do what is you, good things happen. I'm old school. We've been here for 15 years. I haven't benefited from the Metroplex. I love what's going on in Schenectady but we've been around for longer than that. I love this place." I walked in to Ambition hungry and left feeling so very full and satisfied. What a good meal in a super cool place. Moving on, I made my way toward the library. Along the way, there were so many signs of construction and development. What had happened on State Street appeared to be slowly expanding outward to the surrounding areas. I approached the library and found it to be a very interesting building. I was curious, so I stepped inside. Inside was quite a sight... a fortress of learning, with high ceilings, plenty of light and a touch of semi-modern architecture that gave the whole building a sense of strength and power. The building wasn't what I would call "pretty." But pretty can be overrated. Instead this was, through and through, an impressive, regal, hard working center for the education of the community! Continuing on. I was definitely working off that lunch now. So naturally I wanted to eat more. I was told I had to have the wings at a place called 20 North Broadway Tavern. It was just a stones throw away from the library so I headed in that direction. I stepped inside, greeted by a modest but warm interior. What I learned quickly was that this was one of those establishments where friendly, down to earth people collect to hang with other friendly, down to earth people. When you think about it, that's kind of rare these days. Well, OK, rare in some places, not in Schenectady. "Hey guys, this guy wants to take your picture!" the bartender shouted. Like clockwork the guys turned for a quick shot. To my left was a gentleman named Jim. Jim introduced himself, and the conversation began. While simply dressed, he carried himself with a mature sense of calm. He was a thinker, a soul who had no agenda other than being a good man among good men. "I'm a member of of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians," he said with a pride that shone brightly in his eyes and his posture. "Our group here focuses on flooding. We go into the basements of flooded places, people's homes, and clean out the muck. People don't think about that kind of stuff, but that's what we do. We help people through some tough times." Jim loved Schenectady. So did his buddy Joe, who had the best tagline for the city. It stuck with me, and become more and more true with every moment I spent there. "Schenectady isn't a town, it's a habit you can't break." Let me tell you right now... it's true. Oh by the way, I had some great wings. GREAT wings. ;-) I walked out of the bar, once again, stuffed beyond belief. This was a trend that would continue. The whole weekend. Meaning I literally ate my way through the town. I walked toward the Stockade neighborhood and ran into a young man walking in front of me. "I lived in Brooklyn. There I was paying $1500 a month for rent. Here, I pay $500. For now. It's becoming a high-end place. The businesses are bringing different kinds of people, all with different ideas here. It's making a difference. And the casino that's planned... the casino will turn this from a place where people pass through to a place where people go. It's about to become a destination." In a short time, I would learn that the Rivers Casino, planned for construction on the Mohawk River was one of the most controversial topics in the town. Some believed it will bring jobs, tourism and economic prosperity. Others feared it would bring the wrong kind of people to the region. Casinos have always been a polarizing topic in smaller cities and communities, and this was no different. I continued my walk to the "entrance" of the Stockade neighborhood. The Van Dyck Restaurant and Lounge stood tall to my right and looked like an inviting establishment, so I went inside and spoke to the man in charge. "Proctor's is really driving the growth here. I mean, when there's a show, we never have free tables because everyone comes here before or after. It brings people downtown from all over. They see the show, then they eat, then they shop. It drives the whole thing." Behind the Van Dyck was a small brewery called Mad Jack Brewing. The nifty little building was closed at the time, but I was able to snap a picture. Micro breweries have become such a huge part of urban revivals in cities across the nation. This little gem looked like it fit the part just right! I thanked the friendly staff at the Van Dyck and began walking down Erie Boulevard, once the path of the Erie Canal. Erie is famous for the giant General Electric sign that seems to hover above it, watching over the city like an ancient guardian. Unfortunately the story of General Electric is tied in more with Schenectady's difficulties than the urban revival that is happening today. Like so many huge corporations, GE was the employment backbone of the city for many years. But like so many large industrial organizations, corporate restructuring in the late 20th century led to massive layoffs and job loss. Schenectady lost nearly one third of it's population, and economic hardship became rampant due to a lack of jobs. GE, however, has given the city some solid hope recently, creating jobs in the renewable energy field. The new jobs have helped fuel this city's transition back to the bustling city it once was. Walking down Erie Boulevard truly told the story of a city in transition. I could clearly see the first signs of improvement to a corridor of the city that was otherwise peppered with neglected buildings and industry. Bright new streetlights lined the road as if to shine a light on the future, while currently highlighting a lot of crumbling brick. Like all things, it will just take some time. A refreshing new addition to this area is the Wolff Biergarten. I stepped inside in need of warmer air, and a pint. The picture tells the story of this truly unique place. After a drink and a warm up, walked back to my hotel to change. I then fought the vicious snowfall and traveled back to State Street for dinner. Remember when I said I wanted to save the downtown pictures for later? That's because, to really appreciate this city, you had to see it at night. Even in the midst of a thick snowfall, it beckoned me in. The lights, the signs... they tempted me as I walked. A street that had humble beginnings was suddenly lit up like Times Square. People ignored the cold to enter the countless places to eat, drink and enjoy a Saturday evening. It was hopping. The snow wasn't about to stop this town from having a good time! As for me, I stepped into Aperitivo, a high-end restaurant right near Proctors. The interior, the food... none of it disappointed. The food, the service and the atmosphere left me feeling like I was in New York City... but the other people dining were dressed very comfortably! This place was the ultimate blend of delicious food, gorgeous styling and everyday approachability. I was an instant fan. While I was eating, I received a text from one of my Schenectady contacts... she is listed on my phone as Schenectady Doesn't Suck. "We are at the Bier Abbey- do you know where that is?" Yes, I know, that deserves an explanation. When I first decided to visit Schenectady, someone turned me on to the person who runs the Instagram account @SchenectadyDoesntSuck. Turns out her name is Kelly. Kelly is a regular Schenectady resident who just loves her city and everything in it. When I contacted her for some ideas of places to visit on my trip, she sent me a five page email detailing the best things to check out. Five pages. In fact, EVERYTHING I had done to that point, as well as everything I would do while there was on Kelly's recommendation. Kelly is an example of why small urban areas like downtown Schenectady are making a comeback all over our great nation. She is a part of a young generation that is taking their cities back... they have a tremendous amount of pride in what their city is, as well as what it can be. These young people are ambassadors, changing minds and perceptions, giving hope to places once overtaken by a negative images. I spent the rest of the evening with Kelly, her wonderful fiance Jesse, and their friends. They welcomed me in as one of their own, much like the rest of Schenectady had done all day. We had such a great time that night... we closed 20 North Broadway Tavern! I included these pictures of the amazing people I spent the evening with for one reason... I walked into Schenectady a stranger, and the good people, like everyone else I had met there, had taken me in as one of their own. That was the spirit of the city, an incredible wealth of inclusion, a welcoming spirit and a love of life. And that was just day 1. I woke the next morning and headed back to the historic Stockade Neighborhood. Kelly was right, it was a photographer's dream. Old residences, each one with their own unique charm. Everywhere I looked, there as something I wanted to snap a picture of. I circled back toward downtown to meet Talia from Proctor's Tourism. Naturally, we met at Ambition, where I arrived early and had the best bloody mary ever. Talia walked in, sat down and greeted me with a vibrant smile. This 22 year-old was wise beyond her years... a nice blend of youthful enthusiasm and professional poise. We talked about the city, about Proctor's and how the relationship between the theater and the city had created such an incredible synergy. Between the night before and this meeting, I could see that the young people were embracing what the city had to offer. When the youth of a community feel a sense of pride in their hometown, they are likely to stay, and make it the best version of itself. Talia was the perfect example of this. After our meeting I decided to finally head to Proctor's to see what this great place was all about. On the way, I passed the owner of Lennon's Irish Shop on Jay Street. He was shoveling the snow that had fallen the night before. I engaged him. "People want change, but they don't want to do it themselves," he answered when asked about Schenectady. He looked down at the tool in his hand. "You can either wait for someone to shovel, or you can pick up the shovel and clear a path yourself." Very wise words! On to Proctor's. Full disclosure, and it pains me to say this, but I was not allowed in the theater because the show that was there was setting up. You can find some amazing photos at Proctors.org however! I was able to see the rest of Proctor's which was impressive in itself. I was in luck, they were hosting a farmers market! Scores of people were there, checking out all sorts of local products from wine to cheese to fresh veggies. Like so many communities, this farmers market gave vendors a chance to introduce their products to local customers who were eager to buy from their neighbor. After snapping some pics I decided to travel up the hill to the Museum of Innovation and Science, or "miSci." This was more of a family fun/learning environment for children, but I felt it was important to highlight one of the family destinations in Schenectady... and what a great place it was! Everywhere I looked, there was a mix of educational, fun and hands on activities! I was so impressed with how much they were able to fit in a relatively small facility without feeling cramped. They even featured a small planetarium in the center of the building! To top it off, they had a special live butterfly exhibit, which was really pretty cool! miSci was obviously such a treasured resource for children and families in the community. Even I learned a lot just walking around, taking pictures! By the time I left, my time in Schenectady was growing short. I wanted to head down to the Mohawk River to see the park there. Mind you, I'm sure it's beautiful in the summer... the snow just didn't allow for the most flattering of photos! But even with the frozen landscape, it was a very peaceful place. There was a sense of calm. The calm turned to curiosity when as I watched 5 guys and 1 girl walk into the park. One of the young men was carrying a pumpkin. I had to ask. "We've had this pumpkin since Halloween," one of them said. "We never carved it so it didn't really rot. We thought it was time to get rid of it, so we're gonna chuck it in the river." I laughed out loud. "That's how they do it out here in Schenectady huh?" Nearly all of them answered at once. "YUP!" OK so it didn't go "IN" in river. After the pumpkin chuck, I talked to the group a bit. Turns out they all went to Union College in Schenectady. I'm going to share their thoughts as one, as they all seemed to be on the same page. "It's good here. The casino though, I don't know, it's a bad idea. We've already got a good thing going here, why do something that might hurt that? I mean in some places casinos have worked, but in a lot of places it's really turned out bad. Just tends to bring the wrong kind of people I think." As I mentioned before, this was one of those polarizing topics that get people talking. The important thing was that there seemed to be a clear community dialogue. What happens is yet to be seen. Heading back into town, I had one more place I really wanted to check out. Puzzles Bakery & Cafe. But this was no ordinary place with no ordinary owner, Meet Sara Mae Hickey. I met with Sara for about 45 minutes. The smile never left her face. She had the sweetest, most genuine way about her, without a hint of ego or selfishness. But don't let that fool you... this was a determined, hard working young woman with the most amazing mission: to open a bakery that provided the opportunity for meaningful employment to people with special needs. When I was there, work was still going on to get the building ready. Sara spoke of the challenges that she had faced, and ones she still had to confront. But she spoke confidently about the community support. "The community has been amazing. Just amazing. Local business owners, even other restaurants told me if I ever needed anything to give them a call. This is something that touches everyone's life eventually, and everyone has been so kind and helpful. It hasn't been easy, just all the extra things you have to think about it, but the city and the community have really embraced us. That's a really good feeling." I got the tour, but honestly as nice as the bakery was, that wasn't what was truly remarkable. It was Sara. I was so glad I saved this meeting for last. Here was a young woman who was compelled to do something to help persons with developmental disabilities in her community feel a sense of pride, a sense of self respect. In contributing to a team, to a community, these folks could feel a greater sense of purpose and responsibility, something WE ALL need to feel complete in our lives. Next time you are in the area, I urge you to visit Puzzles, meet this remarkable woman and see that she is one of the shining lights that makes a community great. And that's just it. As always, great places to eat, drink and have fun are vitally important. Schenectady has these in abundance! They create nests for people to enjoy themselves, take a load off, and laugh with friends. But the heart of any community is in its people. It's the young woman who swells with such pride about her city that she takes the time to help a complete stranger experience the town she loves. It's the dedication of a person and an organization to see that the arts remain important to an area. It's the determination of a group and of government to create an environment that attracts businesses and creates a sustainable economy. It's the man that picks up a shovel, taking responsibility for his little piece of the city. It's the business owners who's establishments are a reflections of their souls. In my two days there, folks were not only happy to talk to me, they were eager. They love their city, they love what's happening, and they want nothing more than to make outsiders feel welcome in the place they call home. Schenectady, like so many Upstate New York cities is going through a rebirth. It's a bit further along in the process than others, with a strong, well conceived momentum. The scars of a difficult past are beginning to fade, replaced by confident faces excited about the future. Questions still remain and the transition is not complete, but the present and the future are filled with endless possibilities. There was a saying years ago: "Schenectady Lights the World." After spending two days in the city, I can confidently say that the lights are back on and shining brighter with each day.
Preface Before I begin, I would like to sincerely thank a number of individuals and organizations for making my second trip to Utica a reality. Thank you to Michelle Truett for doing so much of the legwork for this trip!! You are amazing! Thank you to Joe Caruso, our dedicated guide for our trip... you took such good care of us! Thanks to Mayor Palmieri, Astena Smith and Kevin Marken from On Point for College, Oneida County Tourism and Hotel Utica for accommodating us, another thanks to Hotel Utica for allowing us to use their lobby for our photo shoot, to Andria, Mike and the whole Utica Zoo Crew, to Chris and Tracey Talgo, Vitale, Richard Viti (for donating the most delicious Hemstroughts Half Moon Cookies ever!!), Garry and Carol Purcell as well as the Viti/Borza families (for the very generous donation to On Point for College) and last but certainly not least, a big thanks to my loving girlfriend Amanda who's patience and support are so important to me! Now, on with the show... I pulled the camera away from my right eye and smiled back at the confident young man in front of me. "DuWayne, this looks awesome," I said with an excited smirk. And it did. His huge brown eyes told a story of quiet confidence that can only come from someone who has seen so much. Hope, transcendence, innocence and determination... a beautiful human story, all in one photograph. DuWayne looks you in the eye. He calls you sir. His positive energy and refined yet enthusiastic demeanor says even more about him than his calming voice. He is currently a student at Mohawk Valley Community College. He lives in Utica. He has dreams of being a teacher, a mentor, of working with youth in his community and one look into his eyes convinces you that nothing is going to stop him. He has the courage and the will to change the world, but even he will be the first to tell you he didn't get there alone. Because to take that next step, we all need a little help. We need our community, we need our friends and family, our policy makers... and of course, some good old fashioned grit and determination! Utica, like DuWayne, has all the tools to dream big and create something amazing. That's what caught my attention when I visited last November. When I decided to return a few weeks ago, I wanted to help fuel the wildfire of enthusiasm and city pride, to add a little "umph" to the power of an already growing machine. When you are committed to a person, you give them a chance to be their best. When you are committed to a community, you maximize the potential of it's people, giving them a chance to build something amazing. It's the same beautiful thing. Returning to Utica One night last month I clearly remember looking at my blog stats in a calm state of disbelief. Over 25,000 views in just 2 days. A project that began as a personal artistic endeavor had turned into a viral sensation in Utica and Central New York. 57,000 views, 343 emails, and more shares, messages, comments, tweets and retweets later, I am still in awe. A few weeks ago, with ambitious help from Michelle Truett and Joe Caruso, I returned to Utica in an effort to connect with the city that had embraced my work with such incredible kindness. This time, I wanted to give back by offering $5 portrait session to residents. The proceeds would go to On Point for College, an organization that helps inner city youth navigate college from application to graduation and everything in between... and beyond into the working world. On Point levels the playing field for students who may not have access to the guidance and tools necessary to pursue higher education. It seemed like the perfect fit, to help the youth in Utica achieve so that they may continue raising the city "toward greater heights." I arrived in Utica for the second time on one of the coldest nights of the year and did what any good Utican would do on Friday night... head for The Aud to watch a Comets hockey game! I should probably mention that this time I didn't come alone. My lovingly supportive girlfriend and fellow photographer Amanda came with me! We made our way around the packed concourse... wall to wall Comets fans! A friend once said "a small space makes for close friends." The Aud is the quintessential example of this... perhaps slightly too small for the sold-out crowd that occupied it on that night. But nobody seemed to care. It's just part of the charm. "We're all in this together!" is the unspoken spirit that flows through the crowded walkway. After a quick stop at the gift store to pick up a tshirt, we headed for our seats. From the moment the game started, the crowd was invested in every moment. The Comets fell behind early. An early goal by the Toronto Marlies quieted the crowd a bit, but the spirit in the Aud was still high. After the first period, I decided to bounce around the complex and visit some of my new Utica Twitter followers. The Utica Green Men are amazing. No really, these guys come to every game and never stop dancing, high-fiving and occasionally taunting the opposition from their front-row seats. They are an ever-visible pair of superfans, keeping the energy high every moment. This is one of those times I needed to go "selfie" with my photo ;-) I traveled to the other side of the arena to talk with Chris. I asked him to summarize the progress of his city. "It's gaining traction," he said with a nod and a grin. "It's slow, but it's there." Later in the game I had a conversation with Ken. "You having fun tonight?" I asked. "No, we're losing 3-0." Spoken like a diehard fan. After talking a little hockey, we discussed the momentum of the Utica revival. I asked him "why now? Why is this happening now after so many years?" "I think it's social media honestly," he answered. "Before social media, it was hard to tell what was going on in the city. Now when something is happening you know about it because everyone Tweets about it or posts it in Facebook. You can see pictures of people having fun. That wasn't available until recently." An interesting point indeed. In small cities, it can be difficult to see when and where events are happening. With social media, one can see when events are going to be, see people enjoy a bar or restaurant before they go there. Social media, good or bad, makes people want to be out in the fun they see their friends having. On the way back to my seat, I took this pic. Gotta give some love to these ladies that keep the crowd cheering!! In the third period, things suddenly became interesting. The Comets scratched out 2 goals, and had countless chances to tie the game late, but ultimately fell to Toronto. Still, the energy of this crowd was unreal. On the way out of the building a young couple stopped me... "You, I know you, you're the blog guy!" I laughed and took their picture. After a quick trip to check into the Hotel Utica, we were picked up by our guide for the weekend, Joe Caruso, and driven a short distance to Gerbers 1933 Tavern. The ceiling, the bar... everything about the place had such a uniquely classic feel without being "old." It was comfortable, approachable with a hint of upscale. It could not have been a more perfect reflection of the owner Mark. He calmly moved about the place, working hard but taking the time to engage nearly everyone in a genuine way. He would lean across the bar to listen to his customers, to share his own thoughts and stories. Here was a man of now, but with a deep appreciation for history, people and the human spirit. "There was a guy that came in once," Mark began. "When he was 12 he used to shine shoes here. Then the place closed for 40 years! When we reopened, he came in to tell me his story about when he was a kid and worked here. It's pretty amazing." I sat down and talked with many good people, out with good friends for a good time in a comfortable establishment. Rick Short from the Rick Short Band saw on Twitter that I was going to be at Gerbers and came out with his lovely wife and say hi. I imposed on another table and started a conversation about Utica. "There are lots of different kinds of people here. Refugees, people from everywhere. Everyone knows everyone comes from a different place so they all kind of mind their own business. Not like they keep to themselves, more like they all know they have to get along so everyone just kind of accepts everyone else." After some great conversation, some delicious beers and an overall great evening, Joe kindly drove Amanda and I back to the Hotel Utica for some sleep in anticipation of a full day. In the early morning I woke to a bright sun... and extremely cold weather. My phone told me the story outside... -2 degrees. But that didn't stop me from a morning trek to my new favorite place for a hot cup of coffee. I bundled up and headed down to the lobby. The sun poured in the windows. Hotel Utica is one of those places that is just stunning any time of day or night. I stepped out into the cold air, passing by the Sun Mural on my way to Genesee Street. I felt compelled to stop and admire it. I had such a higher appreciation for this work of art now. It had sort of become an icon for my newfound relationship with this city. I snapped a picture from a different angle. The "real" sun poured in, despite the bitter cold. Even with the cold and the snow, I snapped pictures as I walked. Finally, I arrived at Utica Coffee Roasting. I slipped inside, feeling warm once again. After setting my camera and a few layers of clothing down on one of the tables, I went to the counter to order a hot coffee. Ashtyn was behind the counter. "Can I ask you a few questions?" I asked. "Sure, I just have to get these muffins before they burn," she calmly answered. I giggled and waited as she pulled some green... yes green muffins out of the oven. When she was done I continued. "What is your favorite thing to do when you're not working?" "My friends and I just hang out, go to different coffee shops," she answered. "We just go around Gramming." I had no idea what that was, and she could tell. "We just go around taking pictures of buildings and brick walls and stuff. We put them on Instagram." I laughed. "I can relate to that." I grabbed my coffee and headed back to the hotel. It was time to set up for the main event of the day. Before I knew it, folks started to roll in to The Hotel Utica to have their picture taken. Kevin from On Point for College manned the "check in" table with my girlfriend, taking money and information. They kept the whole thing moving! Astena from On Point and Joe from the City of Utica were there as well to provide assistance. Camera crews and TV stations and... oh my it was quite the scene! One after another, individuals, couples, families and friends came in from the cold to have their pictures taken in the beautiful Hotel Utica Lobby, which was generously offered to us for the day. Most who came by thanked me for the positive support in the previous Utica blog... it was overwhelming how kind and appreciative everyone was. Several participants even brought half-moon cookies for us, a Utica tradition! I cannot tell you how impressed I was with the level of support we received, and on such a cold day! Residents came out to support their community, and the impact was just amazing. We raised $400 in 3 short hours for On Point for College. Given the cold weather we could not have asked for anything more! After the event, we were taken over to Master Pizza for lunch with the Mayor! Walking in, you immediately get that easy-going pizza joint feel... bright walls, plenty of seating, and the smell... yum!! I don't even want to get into how hungry I was at that point! Soon after we entered, Mayor Palmieri came in. His enthusiasm and energy complimented his approachable smile. As we spoke, his experience in marketing came through... not to deceive but to inspire. I got the sense right away that he was just as excited about what was going on in Utica as I was. His Thursday sweep, where he and his team actually walk different neighborhoods and talk to residents and business owners really set the tone for what seemed to be a "boots on the ground" approach to making Uitca a better place to live. It was an honor to speak with him and share a delicious meal!! And by the way let me tell you about Master's buffet, freaking amazing!! A young man walked in the door as we were finishing lunch and introduced himself as Vitale. Vitale, a quiet speaker with a subtle but confident smile, led us all to the lofts upstairs, which he owned. We had our own private tour. As soon as we walked in the door, I was in love. A gorgeous space with high ceilings and exposed brick. The space was just right for two, with the modern feel of urban elegance. A hint at the price said otherwise however, this place was very reasonable from a rent perspective!! After visiting a couple units, all of which had the same beauty, we thanked Vitale for his generous time and headed on our way. Since my first trip to Utica, everyone had been telling me to see the Library. Secretly I thought "how interesting could a library be?" But since my girlfriend is a bit of a library buff, we thought it would be a great place to check out. As soon we entered, I understood what everyone was talking about. Sarah was one of the helpful people behind the desk. She humored me and smiled for a photo. The deeper we went into the library, the more beautiful angles it revealed. A stunning gem worthy of a large city in a humble neighborhood. But the visual aspect was just the beginning. I learned the library was also a vital resource for the massive refugee population in Utica. I could see the diverse population of readers and learners throughout... And what a place to educate one's self... The children's section, found in the bright and cozy basement was just as impressive, and lots of fun too ;-) Honestly the library was the kind of place I could have spent all day. As beautiful is the architecture was, the true beauty was in the commitment to community education. You could see it in eyes of the staff, the attention to detail in the facilities and programs available. This was the center for the love of all learning in Utica. Our next stop was dinner. By now, you all understand that I love my food! And what a treat Chesterfield was! An attractive bar area gave way to a classy but comfortable dining area. The company could not have been better. Astena and Kevin from On Point for College, Joe Caruso, Astena's father (what a wonderful man!) and On Point students DuWayne and Patience all joined for dinner. It was a conversation I would have loved to continue for days. I was so inspired by DuWayne and Patience. Neither of them had it easy, but right away you could tell that their trials through life were the very things that powered them forward. Their unwavering ambition paired with the assistance of On Point for College made these two an unstoppable force. In speaking with them, it was beyond clear that the hard work that was invested in raising money for On Point earlier that day was more than worth it. I was so happy and humbled. It was a wonderful meal, and a conversation I will never forget. Finally, Joe and I finished off the night at Nail Creek Pub. Owner Chris Talgo and his lovely wife Tracey were there to greet us. Alissa and Lindsay from the Observer Dispatch swooped in for some fun Utica talk as well! What great ladies and wonderful ambassadors for their city! I sat down at a large table of young peeps and started a conversation... "Wait, did you write that thing, that blog?" "Yeah. Can I take your picture?" Suddenly the whole bar cheered and clapped for the man that walked in... "RAINBOW!!" everyone shouted. I turned around to see a funloving, interestingly-dressed man slowly dancing his was into the bar. Apparently he's a legend in Utica, loved and welcomed by all. I smiled as the guests at the bar one by one high-fived and hugged this curious character! I finished the evening talking with Marcie and Sarah from Oneida County Tourism. I had to have a photo with Sarah... you see, Sarah was the person I talked to on the phone before coming to Utica. She told me where I should go and what I should do, or at least gave me a solid outline. Without her help, my Utica experience may have been very different! And that leads me to a point I want to make. I have gotten a real sense for just how committed people like Joe and Michelle from The City of Utica (who were essential in bringing me back) and Sarah and Marcie (who helped get me around Utica my first trip!) are to making Utica an amazing place for residents and visitors alike. They have woven this commitment into their lives, into the fabric of who they are. Utica residents should be know, these are people that work hard for you and your city every day! I've seen it with my own two eyes, and it's a beautiful and very rare thing! After a solid sleep in our gorgeous Hotel Utica room, Amanda and I finished our Utica weekend with a much-anticipated trip to the Utica Zoo. Even with the cold temperatures and the snow, this was the cherry on top of an already lovely weekend. As soon as the doors opened, I felt like a kid again. Andria, our guide for the day, took us around the entire facility. We got to go behind the scenes and even had the chance to interact with some of the locals! I can't say enough good things about Andria, Mary, Mike and the staff at the Utica Zoo. My girlfriend and I just love animals, and the photos you see below are just a sample of the countless photos we took during our visit. We had such a good time! The good people of the Zoo even sent us off with a couple going away presents! Amanda gave our stuffed Red Panda a fitting name... Oriskany. He watches the apartment while we are gone. :-) Sigh. So that was it. That was my second trip to Utica. It was even more jam-packed with fun stuff and great people than the first time. But you know what made this visit really great? It was the fact that this time I went into the adventure with expectations based on what I experienced the first time I was there. The best part was, every expectation was exceeded. Utica, you have my heart. You have lots of amazing things to do, we've established that. More importantly, you have the officials that are making Utica a great place to live and visit. You have residents who are the most ambitious ambassadors. You have the diversity to make the city colorful, and a culture that is helping to turn those colors into a beautiful canvas. Most of all, you have hard working, fun-loving citizens, ready to engage and pitch in for the love of their home. Those are all the ingredients that make what you have so special. It's the people of a community that take the countless pieces and find a way to make them all fit together. I have written words and taken some pictures... you are the ones that have given light to Utica's radiant future. Keep reaching toward greater heights... I can't wait to see you again soon. Like the blog? Please take the time to visit ArianDavidPhotography.com for all the services I have to offer!
To my followers who are not from Utica, I'm sorry... I just can't get enough of these Central New Yorkers. They're pretty awesome. Today I sent out a press release about my latest adventure to a familiar destination. Yep, it's back to Utica. I will travel to Utica Friday January 30th for the Comets game at the Aud. and you better believe I will be armed with a camera! Come to the game and say hi! Can't wait kick it with Audie and the crazy Utica fans! After that, headed out to a bar to mingle, any suggestions? OK so the good stuff... Saturday I am gonna be shooting mini portrait session for $5 in front of the mural on the corner of Genesee and Lafayette. You get to bring any peeps you like! Significant other, family, besties... whatever you want! You get four poses of your choice. I will email the link with your full resolution pics to you a few days after. All proceeds go to On Point for College in Utica. This is an organization that assists first generation youth with college including mentoring, academic and financial services. In my Utica blog, there was a lot of talk about hope... well this is an organization that takes hope and gives it the tools to succeed!! For more info call or text 585-530-0738 :-) I am going to be taking a loft tour, eating dinner and then out for a fun night likely starting at Nail Creek Pub. Come out and join me, I'd love to talk Utica, photography or whatever else! Special thanks to the City of Utica, Michelle Truett and Joe Caruso for all their hard work putting this together!! I can't wait to head back to the city of Utica! If you're in town, see you soon!
I don't even know what to say... Which, if you heard my radio interviews on WIBX and WUTQ this morning you'll understand is quite rare ;)
What has happened in the last 48 hours is nothing short of unbelievable. Never in a million years could I have imagined my little day trip would touch so many good people. I am truly humbled by what I've seen and what I've heard. Honestly it's been one of the most incredible couple days of my life. You gave me a gift... The gift of knowing that I, in a small way, may have helped a community of people realize how strong you are, how much you have, and how welcoming your spirit is.
I feel like I should formally introduce myself to you. My name is Arian David Horbovetz, and I'm a wedding and portrait photographer from Rochester NY. I'm actually not really a blogger! My turn ons include photography, baseball, urban planning, mass transit, and people. If there is something I love more than photography it's getting to know amazing people... Like you.
My idea to visit Utica grew from my desire to step outside of the "photos for money" realm for a bit and express myself through my art. It's something every photog should do occasionally. I do it several times a year, and then blog or post about my experience so my social media followers can see that I am trying to stay fresh and hone my craft.
To be honest, I never really expected Utica to even pick up this story... It was more directed at people here in Rochester that already follow me on social media. The result completely shocked me. Utica and Central New York picked this up, started sharing it and it spread like wildfire.
Let's start with the numbers. This blog post just topped 25,000 views by nearly 20,000 people. The most views I ever received on my blog in a day before Wednesday was 54. Late Wednesday afternoon you shattered that mark... 62 views... In 10 seconds.
I have received hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts of heartfelt thanks. I have received 49 emails and several phone calls... One call from a wonderful ex-Utican now living in Florida! Twenty one people told me they were brought to tears. Before today I had never been on the radio... This morning I did two wonderful interviews with WIBX and WUTQ. I did a Utica Observer Dispatch interview on my lunch break. I was asked to give input into Utica's rebranding campaign. Finally I attended a Young Professionals event in Rochester tonight where a young woman I had never met called me over and said "I know you, you're the photographer! I'm from Utica!"
I'm truly humbled that my pictures and words touched so many people. The truth is, you did the same and more for me. I think I kind of identify with Utica a bit. I grew up poor with an amazing single mother (see Margaret Dilmore in Victor NY on FB and give her some love!). We didn't have much but we worked hard and made the best of what we did have. At the end of the day, I was raised to love and appreciate the good people around me and the simple things in life.
Through struggle and difficult times, we made it. I have a good life now, but I never forget my roots. I believe in who I can be because I always remember who I was.
So thank you Utica... Thank you for two days of kindness of love. You've shared your passion for your home with me, and to know you now is to better understand myself.
Where do we go from here? I will leave that up to you. I'm yours Utica, I'm a fan and I think I always will be. Tell me what you need and I promise I will do what I can! :). That's what friends do right?
I will be back in Utica soon, maybe even this weekend. I have some big plans, so stay tuned to my Facebook and Twitter pages! Be well, take care, and know that your words brought a smile to my face that will never fade. Goodnight.
So often we think of vacations as far away places where we spend lots of money for 3-7 days of relaxation, activities and bliss. Vacations are seen as things we reach for but experience so rarely, especially in today’s work world.
I’ve found a very different truth. I’ve found that one can experience the benefits of a vacation without spending much money at all. I’ve found that while it’s good to get out of your town for a bit, you don’t have to go far to feel like you’re getting away and having a good time. And finally, I’ve found that in many cases, you can do this in one day. Yep, that’s right… any given Saturday, you too can experience a cheap day away… one that will leave you feeling refreshed and feeling good about yourself before you dive back into the work week!
For example, did you know you can spend a day in New York City doing whatever you want for less than $100 transportation without driving at all? It’s true! There is a Greyhound Bus that leaves Rochester at 12:50am and arrives in NYC at 6:45am. You sleep on the bus and wake up in the Big Apple! Spend a day seeing the sights, maybe a little shopping… whatever you want. Then, hop back on a bus for Rochester at 9:30pm, sleep all the way, and arrive in back in the ROC in the early morning. Round trip is $85. That’s it. In a little more than 24 hours, you can spend a day in New York. You can return to work on Monday and tell all your co-workers about the amazing time you had, and watch the jealousy in their eyes ;-)
But New York City shouldn’t have all the fun. There are places all over this great country, places nobody would think to go, that have wonderful things to see and do. You can be inspired by great art, see unique architecture, meet good people, eat great food and maybe enjoy a delicious alcoholic beverage or three.
So I made a decision. In the next year or so, I will travel to places all over New York State that people might not think of as fun or interesting places to spend a day. My first stop was a few months ago in Utica New York.
“Utica? Why do you want to go there?” If I had a quarter for the number of times I heard that I would be a rich man. OK maybe not rich, but you get the idea. The perception is that Utica has nothing… another small city, once a manufacturing success story, that has fallen on hard times. This perception is not far from reality actually. It is a city once rich in jobs and manufacturing. Like so much of this country, the jobs left town or went overseas, putting Utica in a difficult financial state. Like I typically do, I hopped on the Amtrak armed with my camera and my electric scooter in an effort to tell the real story about Utica. My goal was to see the sights, talk to the people, eat the food… to capture the feeling of Utica in one day and show people everywhere that every city, no matter how small, has something to offer. As I stepped off the train onto the platform, I was immediately reminded of this town’s rich railroad heritage. A beautifully restored New York Central steam locomotive, a caboose, a diesel locomotive "pulling" a passenger car… all these pieces surround the Utica rail station. As I stepped into the station I nearly gasped at the sight. It was beautiful. Tall marble pillars reached to a criss-crossed pattern in the ceiling. Hanging lamps and lighting from another time… a timeless beauty captured and revered here. What a site for a small city!
I was anxious to see all that I could see in a day. So I stepped out into the street, hopped on my scooter and, it being early in the morning, headed to find a good cup of coffee. I was told there was only one place to go… Utica Coffee Roasting Company on Genesee Street.
The building was delightfully colorful on the outside, in stark contrast to the neighborhood. Derelict buildings and general neglect appeared to be the theme of the area I was in. But I stepped inside this oasis of color and found myself in a modest looking coffee shop, full of your typical eclectic charm with a hint of blue collar “it is what it is” attitude.
About that… Utica Coffee Roasting was a good place to start my day. Their website talks about their goal to create a local-minded, economically-intelligent business to a neighborhood that has come on hard times. Not only do they serve coffee to the public, they also create their own coffee and sell it wholesale. I ordered a coffee and purchased a shirt, inspired by their model.
I spoke briefly with Aaron, a young barista who was working there. I told him a little bit about what I was there to do.
“There’s a mural just down the street you should see,” he said. “It kind of sums up Utica.”
After a delicious cup of very strong coffee, I set out to find this mural. I found it, and he was right. It spoke volumes. I wasn’t sure if it was ironic of prophetic. My answer came a bit later.
I made my way back to the train station to get a glimpse of the bi-weekly Farmers Market held there. I was amazed as I walked in… the place had been transformed into a bustling public market, full of vegetables, fruits, breads, cheeses and other delicious items. It was an incredibly social place as well, with folks of all ages talking, laughing, buying.
"What's the Vibe in Utica?"
"It's pretty upbeat. Things are looking up!"
"The produce comes right from our local farm. We sell it fresh right here for people in this community. We make our money here and then we go out and spend it in the community. It all stays here!"
"People want to know where their food is coming from. They can feel good about the fact that they are buying from their neighbor, someone they know and trust and see in their community, not someone halfway around the world."
Three generations of local farmers.
"The young people used to move away. This generation is different. They are changing things here. They are bringing the city back to the way it was when we used to hang out here." I stopped into the Oneida County Tourism office, also located in the train station (see a trend?) and spoke with Marcie there.
"I love the culture here. There’s a lot of history and tradition. I mean you get that in New York (City) but here it’s more inviting. The people who own the restaurants and businesses downtown, some of them have owned their businesses for 20-30 years.
There’s definately a lot of good things happening. The younger generation is taking this city back. It’s great to see."
I left the train station in high spirits. So many people I spoke with were so anxious to tell the story of Utica’s revival. I heard all about the new high-end loft apartments being built downtown. I heard about the new nanotechnology manufacturing plant that’s being built there. You could see it on their faces… they were all so ready for someone to come along and take an interest in their city and what was happening there. It kind of felt like I was a kid again, meeting another kid who couldn’t wait to show me his shiny new toy. It was inspiring to see.
I moved outward from the train station, taking photos of buildings that no doubt once represented a wealth of manufacturing and agricultural jobs. Now, they were abandoned.
History popped it’s head up, but I wondered how many people here had ever stopped to notice this dedication.
I couldn’t help but notice though, little places of beauty here and there. Almost like mini parks that, for moments at a time, masked the image of urban decay. You could see the effort, the desire by design to make this a beautiful place at one time. And from what I had been hearing, hopefully that time was coming again.
I made my way south on Genesee Street. Closed storefronts and vacant commercial space once again blended with “parklets” and glimpses of effort to keep hope alive. All this was interwoven with beautiful old buildings, a sign of what once was.
“What is that?”
I turned, jolted out of my focused observation. A man and his two boys stood staring at my EcoReco M3 electric scooter.
“That’s my ride today,” I answered with a laugh. The man was very curious about my mode of transport. I began talking with the man and asked if I might take his picture. I did.
“It’s hard. No jobs, no factories for people to work. I don’t make much money. I have to work very hard for my family.
I felt for him, I could see the struggle, but I could see his tenacity. I spoke with him for 5 minutes or so. I was about to thank him and scoot to my next destination when he spoke rather insistently.
“Come see my restaurant! It’s right there! Meet my family!” He pointed to the Panda House a couple storefronts down the street.
I’m never one to turn down a spontaneous experience, so I happily followed the man and his two boys into his store. It looked like every Chinese takeout joint I’d ever been in. But he was very proud of it, and even more so of his family, all of whom were inside. He asked if I would take a picture of his family, which I was all too happy to do!
Again, I was moments away from thanking the man and going on my way…
“You took our picture, now I cook you lunch!”
“Oh that’s so nice of you, you don’t have to do that, I’m not really hung…”
Before I could finish, he was already throwing food into a wok. I could see this exchange was making him happy and it made me very happy as well.
As I sat down to my piping hot meal, alone with the restaurant owner and his family, I smiled. This was human. This was real. This was one of the countless reminders of why stepping outside of my comfort zone was so important. To go to a place you don’t know, simply to explore. To find people like this. That’s what it’s all about.
“You ate my food. Now we are friends.” He shook my hand, and I walked out the door with a million thanks and a stomach feeling a little too full. That experience was alone was well worth the trip. But I had many more places to go.
I backtracked slightly, making my way to the Hotel Utica. Once inside, smiled. Like the train station, it was another little known pocket of overpowering beauty. The way the light came in the tall windows... it was like stepping back in time to when Hotels were grand and awe inspiring.
Just gorgeous. I was amazed. I snapped a few pics, and was off.
A short distance south, I found myself at the beautiful Stanley Theater. Lucky for me, the theater was hosting Utica’s annual “Riggie Fest.” I had no idea what that was, but I was about to find out. The doorma… I mean doorperson led me inside with a smile. She was so excited to lead the photographer here to see Utica inside.
Once inside, I couldn’t believe what I saw.
People crowded shoulder to shoulder at different food tables owned by various local restaurants. The place was packed! Then I looked up in amazement at the ornate gold-littered walls and ceiling. Burgundy curtains and gorgeous chandeliers made me scratch my head… this place was a palace. A beautiful gem in a city so struck by economic hardship. Within minutes, the wonderful staff whisked me away to the theater. The doors opened. It took some time for my eyes to adjust, as they only had minimal lighting on inside. The theater was empty, but the more my eyes adjusted, the more in awe I was.
There before me was one of the most beautiful theaters I’d ever seen. While slightly smaller than other theaters I’d been in, the gold ornamentation, the lavish trim and the centerpiece, the largest LED free-hanging chandelier in the world, made this place stand apart. For 5 minutes, I stood alone on the stage, surrounded by low light and silence. It was a truly humbling place to be, but the quiet made it so comfortable, so peaceful.
After getting the photos I was looking for, I stepped back outside into the wall-to-wall chaos that was the Riggie Fest. OK, admittedly I had no idea what a riggie was, but I learned quickly.
A "Riggie” is a Utica-born pasta dish typically containing chicken, rigatoni and peppers with a spicy tomato sauce. There are many variations, but that’s the general idea. I had my first (and to this point only) riggie at the Papa Joes station. It was pretty good I must say! Unfortunately after having some delicious food only an hour or so before, I wasn’t up for eating a whole lot more so I decided to grab a quick beer at the bar, talk to some locals and head on my way.
“This one’s on us,” said the delightful young lady who handed me my beer. “Just tell the world about us!”
After talking to some wonderful people in the theater, I was on my way.
Just outside the Stanley Theater, I went native and took a selfie with the Utica Comets mascot. The comets are the new minor league hockey team based in Utica, something almost EVERYONE was excited to tell me.
I continued to travel south down Genesee street to my next destination, The Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute. I honestly didn’t think much of the structure as I walked up the stairs to the entrance. It looked more like a fortress of concrete than a haven of fine art. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised as I walked through the doors.
Immediately, a large Jackson Pollock stared at my from across the room. The complex, though nearly empty, told the story of a small community of people who were passionate about making this an oasis of fine art in a struggling city . After talking to a guard, I took a stroll around the small but refined facility. There were some beautiful pieces and an interesting photography exhibit (which I could not photograph). It didn’t take me long to make my way around the building, which was nice in a way. In 20 minutes, I could get a refreshing “taste” of some amazing works and be on my way. And that’s precisely what I did… but not before really falling for this resource that was so very unique to such a small city!
Back on my scooter, I flew back northward on Genesee street, then made my way west. I stopped to snap a photo of this very interesting looking church. (EDIT - I have now learned this is a Mosque, which makes sense now that I take a little longer look at the photo... thanks to Courtney on Twitter for the correction!)
After scootering around some construction, I arrived at my next stop, the Matt Brewing Company. After a peak around the outstanding gift shop, I took the legendary tour and had a blast. So many things to see, and I learned so much about the brewing process. The facility is extremely impressive, and my tour guide was exciting, informative and hilarious. The tour was equal parts knowledgeable and entertaining.
And I got some free beer at the end. Are you noticing a trend here? While enjoying my Saranac brew, I had a conversation with my tour guide.
"I don't know if you've noticed but there's a lot of construction going on. People are throwing millions of dollars into downtown Utica. People my age aren't moving away anymore. The big story is the nanotech company that's coming in. That's gonna really make a difference in this city."
The tour guy (among others) told me I had to have a pint at Nail Creek Pub. So I did. I figured it would give me a chance to enjoy another good beer and talk with the locals. I ended up sitting next to Matt and Marisa, a delightful young couple that were enjoying their date night. We ended up chatting for probably a good 45 minutes. Out of all the wide eyed, super friendly people I spoke to that day, these two were the most excited about a transitioning Utica. They spoke at length about the Brewery, the nanotech company moving in, the lofts being built downtown which apparently weren’t even completed and already had a waiting list. They talked about the great locally owned restaurants and bars...
"We don't want to eat at a chain... We want a place that's pinnacle. We want to own where we live and what we do. This is our city, our town. We want the best and we’re gonna go get it!"
I thanked my new friends and scootered to my final and most anticipated location… dinner.
The Tailor & The Cook was a relatively new business in Utica and was actually located in a somewhat run down area… right next to the coffee shop I visited early in the morning actually! But there was nothing “run down” about this place. Exposed brick and a “shabby-chic” look and feel hit me as soon as I walked through the door. A beautiful bar with top shelf spirits and sharply dressed bartenders and servers gave this place a look of approachable class.
There wasn’t an open table… for the rest of the night. Luckily, there was a spot at the bar. I had more "Rock and Rye’s" than I would like to admit. Interesting to note… the cocktails were on the back of the drink menu, not the front. In my own city of Rochester, high-end cocktails have found their way to the front of the menu in just about every establishment, even coffee shops. I guessed this would probably be the case here, as the “cocktail craze” just hadn’t quite hit yet.
Now, I’ve had lots of good food. But the steak dinner I had at The Tailor & The Cook was about as good as anything I’ve ever had. I destroyed my plate, a combination of extreme hunger from the days activities and the fact that the food was so amazing. I can’t tell you high highly I recommend this restaurant. I was so impressed.
A short while later, it was time to catch my train home. It was dark, and as I made my way back to the train station I had some time to think.
Utica is a city that has been struck by hard times. But in my day, I tapped into an energy, a revitalization that was simply contagious. Folks here were so excited about the things that were happening.
I could see a lot of Rochester 5 years ago in Utica today. High-end restaurants and bars revitalized poor neighborhoods, a technology company was coming in promising new jobs, loft apartments were bringing young people back to downtown. These were all things that began popping up in Rochester a short while ago. And now we know that these things work to bring back a vibrant urban lifestyle… it has certainly worked for our city! And like Rochester, Utica has so many places like the Stanley Theater that pay tribute each day to the city’s rich history.
Then I remembered the mural I had been to before, the one Aaron the barista told me about. The mural read "Utica: Always Reaching for Greater Heights." When I first read those words I was skeptical, but now seeing what I during the day, I realized it couldn't be more true.
As I hopped on my train home, I reflected on the day. Why wouldn’t anyone spend a day in Utica? I had just experienced one the best days I’d had traveling in ages. Great food, an art museum, a glorious theater, a hotel for the ages, a successful brewery, minor league sports… honestly it’s an awesome little place. And let’s not forget the wonderful people of Utica, I had so many fun, stimulating conversations with interesting, down to earth folks.
The best part is, it’s somewhere different, somewhere you can write your own adventure. You’ve been to New York City, you’ve seen it all… but have you experienced Utica? As funny as it might sound, I will bet money you will have a great time and leave refreshingly surprised. I sure did!
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