Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Utica On The Defense-Again!

The City of Utica is on the defense-again!

Once again, Utica has been attacked by a wandering journalist looking for a story. What a perfect place to  feature-Utica, NY.

It has all the qualities that a photo journalist could ever wish for. An erie, post-apocalyptic feel to the streets, weed choked parks with abandoned, crumbling buildings everywhere. A population that at times is known to wander zombie-like through the destitute, wind and debris-swept streets of downtown.

Yes, let's capture that image and transmit it across the globe for all to see. The relief that some, who view this, will feel at the fact that they do not live in such a sad, awful place. The references to  "rust belt, former industrial powerhouse, a city in decline," will accompany the images.

And there it will be. Another kick in the (missing) teeth to a place that many years ago learned how to handle such abuse. But, have we? Have the constant attacks and negative headlines really taught us anything?

The response is always the same.  "We have so many good things to be proud of," they will write. "The Stanley, Zoo, Munson. What about the Boilermaker? Affordable real estate, wonderful people. A ski slope right in town! Why, we always collect the most money for the Heart Run, don't we?"

Yes, we will defend ourselves by stating the obvious-that we have many great things to be proud of. Most communities in decline do. And yes, we are in decline. We have been for many, many years. It is obvious to strangers who visit. Photojournalists scouting around for communities to be featured in  "Architectural Digest" don't come to Utica.

Publications looking for a place to capture the destruction of the American dream do.

So we will keep on defending, they will keep on showing the seedy underbelly of our city. When will we stop being so defensive and ask this one question:

Could there be a problem here?

If a total stranger to our city could so easily find such negative and truly awful images to capture, could there possibly be some truth to these pictures? As challenging as it may be, the time has come for a good, hard, realistic look at the city we have become. The result may scare us.

For years, our region has happily developed the suburbs while the city has declined. Decayed. Died from within.

When Griffiss Air Base closed in 1995, we all banded together to create what is now an economic powerhouse of jobs-Griffiss Industrial Park. When downtown Utica began hemorrhaging jobs and business, no one took a second look. Why, even The Utica Chamber of Commerce decided to drop "Utica" for a fresher and more generic sounding "Mohawk Valley."

We as a collective region turned our backs on Utica. We left it for the disadvantaged, the social services  recipients, the disenfranchised. We developed spanking new suburban shopping opportunities, pristine homogeneous suburban neighborhoods, and even installed an "International Sculpture Garden" at Griffiss! Now, you don't even need to go downtown for culture anymore.

So when a stranger who doesn't know about all the wonders that surround Utica wanders into town, they see the results of our handiwork-a city in decline. When the stranger reports through words or photos their impression of our city, we react with the outrage and indignation that any loyal citizen would.

How about if this time, we react with action? What if, for a change, we took a good, hard look and admit that we have problems and that if we are to succeed as a region, we have to fix the one thing that will continue to hold us back-Utica.

It will not be easy. We may have to ask the money-rich suburbs to throw something into the pot. Local redevelopment agencies like EDGE may have to refocus their energies on Utica. And, development of suburban farms and orchards will have to stop. Sprawl without population growth has been a major contributor to the destruction of Utica. County planning has turned the other way and allowed this uneven playing field to be created for the benefit of a few wealthy and influential developers.

We have to create a fair and balanced development strategy if we are to succeed. All the hopes of a burgeoning nano tech industry in Utica will fall flat if a company comes to town and sees what our friend the photo journalist just did.

We need to emulate cities like Schenectady, NY  The county actually gives the city a portion of it's sales tax revenue to stimulate downtown development. The Metroplex, their county agency, operates opposite to what we do here. They focus all their efforts downtown. They understand that, as a region, they are only as good as their lead city.

Or, we could do nothing. Let it remain as it has. And when the next negative story is featured, we can cry foul, talk about all the wonders of our region, and fool ourselves into thinking all is well in Utica, NY.

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