June 13, 2018 - Phil Bean today had a Guest View in the Utica Observer-Dispatch, Utica handshake firmer these days.
Our response is in
I recently became aware of (and a fan of) a group called Made in Utica, which will be launching a creative new commercial endeavor downtown they’ve dubbed “Handshake City.”
Not to be confused by the short film, The Handshake City
I’ve heard that some believe the moniker “Handshake City” is a holdover from the bad old days, when the city was in the grips of corruption and conflict. From my perspective, this is historically inaccurate, and I think it’s worth saying as much because the true story of “Handshake City” suggests something about the connection between Utica’s past, present, and future — and how much control communities might have over their own fates.
Utica’s so-called “loom-to-boom” period, which ushered in high-tech manufacturers after the departure of the textile mills in the 1940s and 1950s, happened thanks to a collaborative, creative, can-do spirit that was considered so notable by outsiders that Fortune magazine did a laudatory feature story on Utica in 1949. [ Take Utica For Instance (PDF, 7.95MB) ]. Then, alas, came scandal, in 1957, and a descent into divisiveness and therefore self-defeat — and this was the Utica in which I grew up, the Utica I was compelled to leave in the early 1990s after years of trying to make a go of it in the area.
Those were tough times, and many of us found it exceedingly difficult to keep a happy and hopeful thought about our hometown — and we felt particularly justified precisely because others had tried to alter what seemed to be Utica’s fate and failed.
In an attempt to get the area back on track and to turn the corner on “Sin City” (an unfair label imposed on Utica by outsiders who had no idea of the ruinous impact a clever turn of phrase could have on a place), community leaders tried to rebrand Utica as the “Handshake City.” They wanted to remind people of the spirit that had landed Utica on the pages of Fortune — a community that came together to brainstorm, break out of the limits imposed by the past, and make deals with a friendly handshake.
When I was a teenager, I considered “Handshake City” a funny, contrived, perhaps even ridiculous nickname, but it was hardly a negative one. It was rolled out by the Chamber of Commerce with great fanfare in the fall of 1970, the O-D reported, in order “to promote the city as a friendly and a good place to do business.”
Comedian Joan Rivers was featured at the official launch of the Handshake City campaign. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have taken note of what she said (I can just imagine).
The O-D reported, though, that Utica’s mayor, Dick Assaro, commented: “I look forward to the day when people can say, ‘they tried something new and it worked’.” Unfortunately, rebranding Utica as the Handshake City didn’t work, and Dick Assaro didn’t live to see the new Utica for which he aspired.
A half century later, Utica now seems, finally, to be in a moment when bold people—officials, entrepreneurs, and other citizens, younger and older — are again trying something new, and this time it seems to be working.
I visit Utica multiple times a year, but usually only for quick weekend visits. Still, new things tend to jump out when you visit occasionally, and new and promising developments are hard to miss with every visit.
Big projects, like the opening of hip apartments downtown and fun, high-quality bakeries and eateries, often grab the spotlight, justifiably. However, other developments also merit attention, like the seemingly large number of average people who are renovating and repairing their homes in many parts of the city, seemingly at an unprecedented rate.
The prevailing spirit is also new. The bitter factionalism and internecine battles within the city and the enmity between the city and county have become largely a thing of the past — indeed, the county government has become a steadfast champion of Utica’s redevelopment, as it should be, as suburban areas cannot thrive if the urban center is declining. Differences, both within Utica and beyond, clearly remain, but that’s normal and healthy, and they seem largely to play out in a constructive and public-spirited manner. In addition, marvelously creative younger Uticans with considerable initiative are making a welcome and increasingly noticeable impact on the face and soul of the community.
Even more impressive is the fact that this spirit withstood the disappointing withdrawal of Austrian chipmaker AG from the Marcy Nano project. In times past, the predominant reaction, in my experience of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, would have been to remark bitterly on how nothing good ever happens in or even near Utica. Although some people perhaps still see it that way, things continue to progress these days in a generally positive direction, and with a certain admirable style.
People who know me will confirm that I’m not a blind optimist (to put it mildly). Still, good things don’t happen if you’re actively denying that they can ever happen. For being so realistically positive and for producing tangible results, the new Utica—a Re-Made Utica—deserves a congratulatory handshake, a pat on the back, and, most of all, respect. It took 50 years—likely most of my lifetime—for this to happen, but success that’s long in coming can impart wisdom and perhaps even wit, and there’s something to be said for that.