Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Turning Downtown Around-Will it Finally happen?

Last week, D.U.D.A. (Downtown Utica Development Association) Conducted it's annual meeting at Thornberry's Backstage Restaurant. Elected as President for 2012 was Regina Bonacci. Also voted in were Anthony Trevisani as V.P. , Barry Sinnot as Treasurer and, yours truly, as Recording Secretary.

Regina Bonacci, or "Madame President" as I like to refer to her, is the perfect choice to lead the agency into it's next phase. For those of you who do not know her, Regina and her architect-husband Dave, purchased the old Food Bank/T.R's After Hours on Bleecker St. several years ago. A wreck of a building, it had been slated for demolition and was basically stripped down to its bones. When I was appointed as UED Commissioner in 2008, I, along with Pam Jardieu, who was a grant writer for the city at the time, were committed to saving the entire block.

Enter Dave and Regina. Dave was looking for new headquarters for his firm, Bonacci Associates, and Regina had always wanted a downtown loft space to call home. It was a perfect fit. They purchased the building from the Urban Renewal Agency and, after substantial investment and lots of hard work, today the building is an example of the kind of mixed use project that we have hoped could happen downtown.

So, what makes Regina the ideal President  for DUDA is simply this-she believes in Utica and downtown. There was never a moment when she or Dave doubted their decision. They did not listen to the negative naysayers that say downtown is dirty, unsafe, not a place to invest. They believed in their heart that this was the right move. Along with the others who also saved the block, that decision has proven to be the right one.

The same spirit that propelled Dave and Regina to invest in downtown and make it their home is what we need to harness to turn all of downtown around. And by turn it around, this is what I mean:

We need to stop depending on local government and elected officials to make the changes. We have to rely on ourselves. The downturn of downtown was exacerbated by bad politics and self-serving officials throughout the entire region. The end result-suburban sprawl with no population growth, infrastructure we cannot afford to maintain, and a highway/strip mall culture that will never contribute to the attraction of new business and residents to our region.

And while the people we picked to represent us were delighted in the tax revenue they collected from the sprawl, the city started to feed on itself. Abandoned buildings began being demolished at record speed, sometimes out of need, most times out of greed. Infrastructure crumbling around us, with the exodous of business and people happening so quickly that at times it seemed that there was no one left at all.

The saying, " Will the last one to leave Utica turn out the lights" was beginning to feel like a prophecy and not just the hater's mantra. But, as the pendulum swings, so has the fate of downtown. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, things began to happen. Now, there seems to be life again. Halting, tentative steps are being made. It is now up to us to nurture this new growth.

Enter DUDA. No city can be successful without a determined, activist-oriented, promotional organization making sure that what is best for the community is being done. We who live, work, invest in and love downtown, and our city, are the ones that have to make sure that we are in control of our future and in the future of downtown.

DUDA will no doubtedly be at the forefront of that initiative. The new board of directors is made up of new faces and a few old ones. People like Barry Sinnot, the Bank of Utica executive, an always up-beat city promotor, Chris Talgo, a dynamic young restaurateur,who is set to open The Tailor & The Cook, his second location, on Baggs' Sq. West.

There is Emmett Martin, who has leased the front office at the Bonacci Building for his Lefkowitz/M artinInsurance Agency, Jason Nole, who has run the hip bistro "Ancora" for several years, and Brett Truet, an entrepreneur and inventor who owns several signature buildings downtown and who has a passion for Utica and a vision for it's future.

Venerable citizens like Lynn Mishalanie of Utica Monday Nite fame, and antiques empresario Jerry Dischavio of Oneida Sq. and Pam Jardieu, the brilliant grantwriter and all around brain, are some long time downtown contributors who will help round out the board and bring their guidance and experience to the table.

There are so many more contributors, new board and committee members, all excited downtowners who want to get involved with the turnaround. DUDA will become the mechanism that helps us accomplish what has seemed to elude us for so long.

Downtown Utica-a place we can be proud of again!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A new kind of story-Jim and Pauline Harvey

I have been posting for some time now and it seems as if a lot of the subject matter is political in nature. Today, I thought I would tell a story about growing up in Utica. On this, the national holiday to honor Dr. King, I thought this particular story would be appropriate.

When I was a child of about 6 or 7, our neighborhood was a robust mix of nationalities and people of such diverse backgrounds that it was a bit like the United Nations! We had Polish, Ukranian, and Hungarian refugees that were displaced after WW2. There was Tony the Barber, who was Italian, and also some German folks, Irish and even a woman from Argentina!

The one nationality we did not have on our street was African-American. And, if some of our neighbors had it their way, we never would.

Now, the house next door to us was owned by a Hungarian lady. She wore spikey high heels and lots of red lipstick. She also hated us, and reserved her special disdain for my grandfather.

Grandpa was a reserved guy who went to work everyday and came home to my grandmother. They did not have exciting lives, lived for the occasional picnic, and reveled in the fact that they had three grandchildren living upstairs in their little house.

That quiet life was to come to a screeching halt one day in 1967 when the "lady next door" announced she was selling her house. And the buyers were not just anybody. The were a middle aged couple, they had no children.

And they were black.

I had attended Egbert Bagg School on Mandeville St., so I knew plenty of black kids. The thing is, the streets of Utica were still segregated in the '60's. I did not understand it at the time, but there were certain blocks the were quietly "off limits" to black families. And Cottage Place was one of them.

Immediately, the neighborhood was up in arms. The phone calls began. "What do you plan to do about this?" they would ask. One lady down the street confronted my mother, who was president of the Bagg School PTA, at a meeting. "This is terrible, she said, "our lives will be ruined if we let THEM move in! We need to circulate a PETITION demanding that they not be allowed to buy that house!"

The "THEM" she refered to were Jim and Pauline Harvey. Mr. and Mrs. Harvey had lived all their lives in the traditionally accepted black neighborhood near the Aud. Jim was a foundry worker, Pauline had spent her career at G.E. on Broad St. They were a hard working, god-fearing couple. And they dreamt of a better life.

That life was to be found in a little house on Cottage Place. Right next door to us.

My family was in a tough spot. There was not anything that we could legally do to stop the sale. And, my parents and grandparents were not the kind of people who would try to stop them even if they could. They were realistic about the situation and accepted it as a part of the changing times sweeping our society. My mother told the lady at the PTA meeting that she would have no part of any petition. The neighbors who expected us to start the brigade against the Harvey's were outraged.  So, we waited. And wondered. And hoped that things would not turn ugly.

My grandfather had lived in our house since he was born there in 1905. In fact, his family had bought the place in 1890, when the neighborhood was solidly white, mostly protestant, and very upper-middle class. The depression had taken it's toll on that world and so in the 1930's, the big old rambling Victorian era dwellings were divided up into 2 and 3 family apartments.

Then came the war, and the influx of refugees in the 1950's. The Hungarian lady with the lipstick moved in and began to take an immediate dislike to my grandparents. And, her revenge was to sell her house to a black couple named Harvey.

Moving day came. She moved out, the Harvey's moved in. The neighbors peeped from behind their curtains to watch the progress. They wanted to see this new couple, check out their furniture and possessions. We were kids running around, not really grasping the importance of what was happening right there on our street. The walls of segregation were being broken down right before our eyes. And, this was not happening in some strange city in the south, televised grainy images in black and white. This was real, it was here.

And it was exciting!

We got our first look at the Harvey's. He was a solidly built man who resembled Louis Armstrong. She was a pleasant looking woman who you could just tell would be nice. While the adults hid and whispered, the children of the street welcomed the new couple. We said hi, they said hi back. Suddenly, it did not seem so strange. The drama was forgotten, and we went about the business of childhood.

My grandparents and my mom and dad seemed relieved that this event went off without any problems. My grandfather said he didn't care who moved in, as long as miss high-heels was gone. My grandmother commented that she had lovely curtains. And, all was quiet on the street.

Now, the question arose-who is going to talk to the new neighbors? My family was expected to show them that they were not welcome. We were to ignore them at all cost, or risk being shunned by the neighborhood. For the first few weeks we did just that.

Then an event occured that was to forever change the dynamic of the street and pit neighbor against neighbor.

The Harvey's water shutoff burst one day. Located at the edge of our driveway, Mr. Harvey needed to dig a hole large enough to get into and repair the gusher. He asked for permission, and it was granted. Then a strange thing happened. My grandfather returned home from his job at Partlow, my dad from GE. They stood by the hole that Mr. Harvey was digging and, after a few minutes, with no words spoken, got two shovels and helped him dig the hole.

Then, my grandmother and my mom came out and, after a few minutes, began to talk to Mrs. Harvey.
All of a sudden, just like that, we were friends! This mysterious, exotic couple were just two normal, nice, friendly neighbors.They became close friends with my family. And, they would remain that way for almost 40 years.

Eventually, the entire neighborhood accepted Jim and Pauline. It took about 10 years, They became regulars at weddings, funerals, graduations and holiday parties. And, when they eventually passed away, my mom bought their house. We just could not risk just anyone buying the house that the Harvey's loved and lived in for so long!

The house that, in it's own small, quiet way helped to destroy the segregation that had divided our city.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Happy Anniversary Mayor-former and current!

Today is the 1 year anniversary of me, my sister, and our new mayor being escorted out of city hall by the former mayor. Yes that's right, one whole year has passed since that eventful day. And so much has changed!

The day began like so many others. Little did he know that, by proceeding with this foolhardy plan, the ex-mayor would set in motion the beginning of his own political demise. I believe what he did by firing us was to galvanize our current mayor's resolve to mount a campaign for the office.

Already, Mayor Palmieri has accomplished two important tasks. First, he has addressed the blight on the Parkway by pursuing legal action to clean up the ruins of the Manny's Cheesecake fire. Second, he obtained a search warrant to personally investigate the HSBC Building in order to file a notice and order for the owner to make the necessary repairs to prevent further damage to a downtown landmark.

Bravo! If the former mayor had not been asleep at the wheel for so long, these tasks could have easily been accomplished long ago. And they should have. But, that's why he is not mayor today and Rob Palmieri is.

We still have a long way to go, a lot of work to do. I don't think Rob will doze off. If he shows signs of it, it's our job as citizens to nudge him awake.

And nudging is what I do best! Happy Anniversary Mayor!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"On Bobby and Linda"- Dan Minor loves to talk about us!

Dan Minor posted a blog on the OD.com website with the above title. In it he reveals that we applied for our "old jobs" at city hall.

That's not entirely correct. I sent a resume and correspondence to then Mayor-Elect Palmieri several weeks ago, well before he was sworn in. In it, I detailed my relevant experience, vision for the city and offered my services if they were needed. I never, EVER asked for a specific job, especially the Urban & Economic Development Commissioner position!

Why not, you may ask? I must admit, I did enjoy the job-for a while. Trouble is, it's a no-win position. There is really very little money to undertake any meaningful economic development. That means the Commissioner gets blamed for every company that closes, goes bankrupt or leaves the city. Not a great way to make a living, I would say.

Now Linda is another matter. Why would anyone take a person with the years of institutional knowledge and expertise that she had and do to her what the previous mayor did is a mystery. And, possibly one of the most foolish things that ever happened in a very foolhardy administration such as our previous one was. So, my advice to the current leader would be-grab her if you can! No one in town has the ability to handle the Corporation Counsel Office as well as Linda Fatata can.

So, there it is folks. Not very exciting. Now, lets stop talking about the past, and work on the here and now. We have so many huge problems that everyone who is willing to work for the betterment of our city should be included.

Yes, even Linda and Bobby!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

January 1st, 2012


And let's hope that 2012 is better than the year we just buried!

Time for change, time to make things right, in our personal lives, our professional affiliations and in our hometown. What better way to start than by swearing in a new Mayor and Common Council?

That is only a part of the puzzle. Elected officials cannot cure all of our problems. We need to unite as a community and figure out how to cure our maladies. The Mayor and other officials need us. We have all sat by in silence for years while the dysfunctional city officials did their best to wreck our city.

No more! Let's all resolve to stay involved and make our voices heard!

Now, let's enjoy the first day of 2012.