Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Historic Old St. John's Honors Utica Monday Nite Founder Lynn Mishalanie

Even though the much loved "Utica Monday Nite" series came to a close this year, the Sacred Music Concert Series, long a Monday Nite favorite, was ressurescted by The Historic Old St. John's Choir on Monday, June 11, 2012.  Rev. John Buehler, Pastor of the downtown landmark, planned the concert as a way to pay tribute to UMN founder Lynn Mishalanie.

 The stunningly restored interior of St. John's was cooled by it's new central air conditioning unit, to the delight of the near capacity crowd seeking relief from the late spring heat that unexpectedly took hold in the city. Many familiar faces, some stalwart UMN volunteers, others dedicated attendees, filled the church in anticipation of the musical selections to be presented by the Choir of St. Johns. Lead by longtime music director and organist Angela Nassar, the concert was opened with "Joyful, Joyful ,We Adore You (Hymn of Joy)" by Ludwig Van Beethoven. One selection, "The Prayer," by Carol Bayer Sager and David Foster, was powerfully presented by soloists Jill Bush and Patrick Marthage. The appreciative audience rose to it's feet for a standing ovation at the conclusion of the song, and would not sit down before the two dynamic soloists took a bow. The Battle Hymn of The Republic concluded the concert, but not before Rev. Buehler rose to present Lynn with a huge bouquet of white roses edged with red. According to Father, Historic old St. John's had been a part of the UMN Sacred Music Series since it's inception. The choir felt that there was no better way to show their appreciation to Lynn for all that she has done to promote the arts than to use their gifts and talents to honor her.The concert was their way of saying "thank you" for all that she has done to promote arts in the Utica area and for giving sacred music a venue to be heard by all.

 Lynn graciously accepted the bouquet and, not used to or being comfortable with such a show of love and appreciation from the community, thanked everyone for the honor that they had bestowed upon her by being present for not only that night's concert, but for the entire fifteen years of UMN.

 And then it was over. As the crowd filtered out of the church, I could not help but feel the huge loss that our city has experienced with the end of UMN. Yes, the program's mission was to promote the arts and celebrate the tradition of Monday night downtown shopping that existed for decades in Utica. But, it was so much more! Utica Monday Night was an economic development tool. By putting Downtown Utica on a stage every Monday, we were able to show that the city was clean, safe, friendly, and open for business! No other local marketing program did as much to promote the city as did Lynn and UMN. Over 40,000,00 calendars were printed and distributed throughout the region every year to promote Utica and UMN. The "Cultural Corridor, " a term crafted by Lynn to give our region an identity, exposed the amazing talent and diversity of the arts in our community.

 Initially, local government "got it" and supported the program. As the years progressed, the angry, suspicious and mean spirited tenor of our politicians began to peck away at the funding. Local corporate support began to diminish as well. By 2011, Lynn, with UMN deeply in debt and the economic downturn being used as an excuse by elected officials to pull all funding, decided to close the curtain on the 2012 season.

 The enormity of the loss of UMN is not even yet known by those who benefitted from it. The city has lost it's only true marketing and promotional vehicle. The citizens have lost a reason to explore the city every Monday night. The elected officials congratulate themselves and wax on about how they are "cutting costs and keeping us safe." But, at what price?

 During WW2, with bombs dropping over London, and with the treasury nearly empty, advisors to Winston Churchill suggested cutting all funding to the arts. Close the museums, shutter the theaters, end all the concerts. Save the money for what was "truly important."

 Mr. Churchill refused. His reasoning was clear and simple. "If we do that," he stated, "then what are we fighting for?"

 Where is our Winston Churchill?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Saturday Demolition Strikes Again In Downtown Utica

The Bleecker Street block that was the subject of controversy due to the sketchy purchase/demolition arrangement crafted by former Mayor Roefaro was hastily demolished yesterday by the city. Apparently, Mayor Palmieri decided to allow his Engineering and DPW staff to assemble on a weekend to smash into obvilion yet another downtown building. It reminds me of the destruction of the Albert Hotel that was carried out in much the same way.

Back in the early 1990's, the Albert Hotel in Downtown Utica was an imposing structure. Located on the east side of Genesee St, it was attached to the north wall of the Masonic Temple. The front of the structure was a solid red brick facade trimmed with granite. It housed two basement level store fronts. One of these was the wonderous "Littlecote Hobby Shop" located in the left side shop. As a child I spent many an hour in that shop purchasing the tiny bottles of "Testers Ply" model paint and other accessories needed for my latest creation!

 Upstairs was the "Christian Science Reading Room." Two pink damask chairs flanked a mohogony table with a brass reading lamp with a green toile shade in the front window overlooking Genesee St. The mise-en-scene was so inviting, I was always tempted to go in, sit in one of those chairs, grab a book and acquaint myself with the teachings of that religion! I never did, however.

Up the remaining stairs and through the towering double walnut front doors with etched glass panels  was the Albert Hotel. Housed in a gargantuan renaissance revival mansion that had been converted in the post war (WW1) building boom, the Albert was a gracious and elegant residence that catered to travelers and long term residents. Its enormous rooms still boasted the rich details of the Victorian era in Utica. Carved marble mantelpieces with plate glass pier mirrors above, walnut pocket doors with fancifully etched panels and floor to ceiling, shuttered windows greeted guests looking for lodging.

By the 1990's the hotel was not in operation and the storefronts were empty. In Utica, that seems to be all the reason you need to justify demolition. Unlike other cities that use their historic buildings to spur renewal, we demolish ours. The Masonic temple decided it needed parking. The city initially rejected their plan, saying that the building was indeed important, historic, and should be preserved.

The solution? Knock it down anyway. But, do it on a Saturday, when the media is absent and downtown is deserted.

That solution was ressurected yesterday to eliminate the Bleecker St block. Sneak it through on a Saturday, when the city is unaware and maybe no one will notice. But people do notice. And, they continue to be disgusted by the apparent lack of concern over the systematic dismantleing of our city by elected officials that come and go-but leave a wake of destruction that we may never recover from.

The Bleecker St. building was actually four buildings constructed over the years, joined together as was the custom before codes and zoning laws created the open, wind swept desolation of the modern era. The original building, located in the center, was an 1840's era grange hall. In the 1870's, the front steeple-like entrance was removed and the strorefront facade added to create an expansive mercantile block. The smaller side wings, actually stand alone structures, were added later as well.

Throughout the years many notable businesses occupied the block. "Winners" ladies apparel was an early tenant that lasted for many years. In the '80's the wonderful "Serendipity,"a novelty food and gift shop occupied the small single storefront on the east. The building also housed many antiques and collectable shops over the years, providing downtown with the kind of retail tenants that every successful small city tries to nurture and preserve.

Not in Utica. When the building was sold several years ago, the tenants were removed, the building was haphazardly boarded and left to rot. And rot it did!

The original structure was the one that failed. Because of defered maintenance, with the city apparently looking the other way, the structure fell into ruin and the grange hall roof collapsed. In Utica that can mean only one thing-imminent demolition.

The huge cost of tipping fees and labor  that it will eventually cost us, the taxpayers, for the demolition, could have been invested in another approach-selective demolition. Remove the original hall, preserve the store fronts and side wings, and create a courtyard where the original building stood. Grant money could be used to finance the project. In fact, the building was on the list of  potential projects that  the Main St. grant that was already received identified and could have helped finance.

Not in Utica. We don't follow the successful models of other cities that get it. We are still in the 1970's, when demolition was the redevelopment tool of choice. We are not even following our own Masterplan, which calls for the innovative type of projects that I have proposed here.

Utica has been at the mercy of mayoral administrations over the years that have, because of their lack of knowledge, incredible hubris, and apparent love of vacant lots, demolished much of what made our city great-it's amazing architecture.  The current administration has a vision for what downtown is going to be. Unfortunately, no one knows what that vision may be. A Saturday morning demolition hints at what that vision is. The continued demolition of our city will continue, and will happen when you least expect it.

What's next? HSBC? The New Century Club? The Cathoilc Women's Club?  The Charlotte St. block across from the courthouse appears to be the next group of buildings on the chopping block. When will we learn that a city is not made up of empty lots and surface parking strung between several banks and government offices? An exciting, vibrant city is made up of the kinds of businesses and occupants that the buildings we keep tearing down could hold.

But, not in Utica.

It seems that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.