Driving downtown the other night, my mother commented that, "Ed (former Mayor Ed Hanna) would be very upset if he saw what our downtown looked like. He was the only mayor who cared."
I immediately thought of how many other citizens of our city must feel the same way. True, the Hanna years were rife with controversy, wild antics and a general uncertainty of what could possibly happen next! He did understand one thing though-how to market downtown.
Ed Hanna was a man with a vision for Utica. I don't have any idea what the entire vision was, but I do know he wanted to make downtown special. The white lights were a start. Possibly emulating the cities of Europe that he and his wife were rumored to have traveled to extensively throughout their lives, he began to wrap downtown in white lights. Trees, fences, buildings-all were part of his grand scheme to make Utica the upstate "city of light."
Christmas was just the beginning. Back in those days, my friend Nick Jamsiuk, who worked in the Engineering Department, had but one job-keep the lights on! He would, during an evening of light watching, receive numerous calls from the mayor making sure that not a single light was out. Now, to know Nick was to realize that he was about the only person in town who could handle this kind of job. Unflappable, he approached his duties with a quiet demeanor that contrasted all the more with Hanna's over the top personality.
The result was a downtown that looked exciting, especially at Christmas. People would actually drive down to "see the lights." There was a sense of magic back then, that something was happening in our little city. And, downtown was the beneficiary of this initiative.
I remember, many years ago, that one Christmas I decided to do all my shopping downtown. Every single gift was to be purchased at a shop that did not exist in a mall or a sprawl center. It was, I recall, the most "Christmasy" shopping experience I ever had.
It was early evening and a light snow was falling. Salvation Army bell ringers were stationed around the town and the shops were welcoming and warm.
Reid-Sheldon was my first stop. For gift selection, downtown or anywhere, Reid-Sheldon was the best choice. Lubere's was also on the list for the ladies in my life who needed that special article only carried by this quaint old survivor of the corset era.
Of course, Woolworth's was a needed stop for cards and wrapping paper. And, maybe a parakeet? Who can forget that, at one time not so long ago, we actually had a downtown store that featured a parakeet department!
Sam Montana had a sport shop and you could still buy a tie downtown.
It was a great time. And, I did it all on foot. No parking lots needed!
That was many years ago and the downtown that I remember then was a ghost of the place that my parents knew when they were young. Today, most of the shops that I knew are also long gone, victims of time, changing tastes and a general abandonment of downtown as a relevant place to be.
Will we ever be able to shop for Christmas again downtown? Today, there are still many fine eating establishments-why not a gift certificate? Heidi Foote and Paul Balzano still operate their fine jewelry stores. There are several antique shops, Jerry Dischivio's on Oneida Square and Antiques Plus downtown. Hey, there is Tebb's Head Shop and Puff-n-Stuff, the new generation of downtown merchants!
So, it's not a total loss, it's just different. And with some help and encouragement from local government, downtown could rise again. Maybe not the same as we all knew, but vibrant, fun and relevant.
And maybe, just maybe, our new mayor will have a vision for downtown. Some white lights, maybe?
It couldnt' hurt!