Utica, New York: Home Sweet Home!

Hi there! As you may know, Anthony and I arrived back in the USA in the beginning of July. Although we are already back on the road again (more on that later…), we were incredibly lucky to be able to spend six weeks at home, in my favorite city in the whole world…

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that’s UTICA (not Ithaca!!!)

As the saying goes, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” After a long roadtrip across the US and living abroad for another year in another foreign country, I’ve been thinking a lot about Utica lately; comparing and contrasting it to the places I’ve visited, mulling over its problems, and being homesick for the things I love about it.

A lot of people like to talk smack about Utica, but I like to believe that they are mostly people who don’t really understand our fair city. Utica is a unique place with a lot more to offer than meets the eye, but we also have challenges that other cities might not have to deal with or understand. So, let me tell you a bit about my hometown!

First, some general background information about the area…

NYS and Utica Map

Located in the heart of Central New York, in the Mohawk Valley, some people might think of us as being in “the middle of nowhere,” but we are actually in the middle of everything! Utica is practically equidistant from several amazing sights that every world traveler yearns to see:

Niagara Falls at dawn
Anthony at Niagara Falls at dawn

Niagara Falls: 210 miles, 3 hours by driving or 4 hours by train

boldt castle
Boldt Castle on Heart Island

New York City: 242 miles, about 4 hours by train or driving

Montreal, Quebec: 248 miles (400 km), 4.5 hours (or less) from Canada, if you feel like a weekend getaway to practice your French.

Boldt Castle: 100 miles, about 2 hours away from Boldt castle. Once you get there, you’re going to want to stay for a while, so bring your camping gear and check out the Thousand Islands (try to visit all 1,864 of them!)

Adirondack Park: Utica lies at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, which means only about an hour from “the largest park and the largest state-level protected area in the contiguous United States.” My friend Holly has had some amazing adventures there (and taken some beautiful pictures), doing all kinds of outdoorsy things: from building an igloo and snowshoeing up and down mountains, to kayaking and camping in the wilderness for days with her dog.

Before I saw the Himalayas, I climbed Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in NYS at 5,343 feet (1,629 m)
Before I saw the Himalayas, I climbed Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks, the highest peak in NYS at 5,343 feet (1,629 m)

Surrounded by all of these beautiful and interesting places in New York State, Utica often gets overlooked. Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t pass it by!

Cultural diversity

Utica is a city that is home to a beautiful and eclectic mixture of cultures from all over the world. Thanks largely to the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, started in 1981 by Roberta Douglas, Utica has citizens hailing from over 30 different countries, who now make up 17.6% of the population, infusing new life into a dying rust-belt city.

the Utica Masjid
the Utica Masjid

“In recent years Utica has seen the addition of more than 3 mosques, multiple Buddhist temples, a Latino Association, a Hindu Association, a Somali Bantu Association, A Sudanese Association, and multiple Burmese ethnic associations. You can eat food from Bosnia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, and Burma all in one week. You can celebrate Karen New Year, Orthodox Easter, Ramadan, and Diwali in Utica, all in one year (MVRCR website).” T. R. Proctor High School, the public school I attended, has a diversity score of 0.72 (compared to the state average of 0.35) and over 40 different languages are spoken in the school. And if you haven’t heard the beautiful and heartwarming story of how the United Methodist Church became the Utica Mosque, you should!

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Like I mentioned before, Utica has challenges and incorporating a steady influx of refugees into the fabric of our city is one of them. For example, we have a huge population of kids who don’t speak English as a first language, and they want to get an education, which is great! But that also contributes to our low test scores (and is one reason why standard testing doesn’t work as a litmus test for determining school quality in every situation under the sun).

A lot of the wealthy people in the area use the schools’ poor performance as an excuse to flee to the suburbs, where they can send their kids to schools with higher rankings. It’s worth noting a few things here:

  1. Fifty-eight percent of the 2,700 students attending Proctor High School fall under the category of “minority enrollment” (Black, Asian, Hispanic) and 70% are “economically disadvantaged,” according to U.S. News.
  2. In the academic ranking of school districts of Upstate New York in 2013, Utica’s schools ranked 423 out of 429, while some of the areas wealthiest suburbs (New Hartford, Webb, Clinton, and Hamilton) ranked in the top 100.
  3. Most school funding comes from taxes payed by residents of the school district and state funding.

So whether you attribute Utica’s lack of academic success to “huge disparities in financial resources,” or some kind of mysterious, inherent “badness” that has poisoned the Utica City Schools is up to you. But what you can’t measure or put a label on is what you can learn from going to school with children from all walks of life!

Food, food, and more food!

Local produce for sale in Cornhill

With all of that cultural diversity comes a lot of great food. You can get just about anything here, from Italian to authentic Japanese food, as well as dishes that are unique to Utica. Ask anyone in town and they will have an opinion on where to find the best riggies, if Sicilian style pizza is better than American, the difference between a “black and white cookie” and a half moon, and how to make the perfect greens. For our wedding, our friends Adam and Jess made enough Lebanese stuffed grape leaves to feed all of our guests.

and then they taught us how to make them ourselves!
and then they taught us how to make them ourselves!

Food festivals abound in Utica, including but not limited to: Taste of Utica, Ukrainian festival, Taste of Lebanon, Festival of St. Cosmos and Damian, and RiggieFest. Food AND alcohol festivals include Utica on TapBrew Fest, and Wine in the Wilderness. Have you ever wandered around a zoo at night with a bottle of wine and some friends, while being serenaded by a live band? If not, you should definitely consider trying it sometime.

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Anthony in front of Yaosen, on Auburn Ave. Real Japanese food!

Restaurants

The Tailor and the Cook: This restaurant is the standard I measure every restaurant by that purports to be 5-star or “fine dining.” In everything that a restaurant could be or do they have exceeded my expectations. First of all, they chose a location in historic Bagg’s Square—the neighborhood of Utica that time forgot. It’s been sort of cut off from the downtown and is hard to access thanks to a six lane road that was built between it and Downtown Utica, but a few new businesses have been working hard to revitalize the area (including the Tailor & the Cook’s amazing new neighbors, Utica Bread!). Their menu is self-described as “New American Cuisine with a spotlight on Locally Produced Products,” and I’m pretty sure the quality and deliciousness of their food is incapable of disappointing you.

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Anthony digging into a beautifully prepared charcuterie plate at the Tailor and the Cook
Anthony returning victorious with breakfast fresh from Utica Bread, Utica’s new bakery in Bagg’s Square

O’scuggnizzo‘s (pronounced “Ohscuhneets) Pizzeria just celebrated their 100 year anniversary last year. Don’t be deterred by the shabby exterior of their location on Bleecker street. Their pizza is in such high demand, they had to open a second location in South Utica…and they have also made provision for Uticans who have wandered far from home, offering shipping to anywhere in the continental U.S.

Like I said, Uticans love pizza, so of course you have several options…Our newest favorite place is called Slice, and they sell “the biggest slices in Utica.” The staff is super friendly and the ingredients are fresh. They make a lot more than just pizza though, so bring a huge appetite, especially if you like Italian style pastries…

The Bagel Grove is definitely worth a visit if you are a bagel connoisseur. The style and quality of their bagels will rival anything you could find in New York City or on Rue Saint Viateur. I used to work right across the street at Faxton Hospital and would go there (much too often) for lunch after work.

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Bagel Grove, Florentine Pastry Shop on Bleecker Street, and the biggest slice in Utica! Click the pictures for links to these establishments!

I could keep going on about the food, but suffice to say, it was nice to be home for a while. Moving on…

Utica is a thriving center for the arts!

The Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute is a “regional fine arts center serving diverse audiences through four program divisions— Museum of Art, Performing Arts, School of Art and PrattMWP.” The museum has frequent visiting exhibitions and features works by Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali, and Georgia O’Keefe (to name a few) in the permanent collection. Students who are accepted to Pratt MWP College of Art and Design complete the final two years of their degrees at the renowned Pratt Institue in Brooklyn. The “Munstitute” also shows films and hosts musical performances, and every summer they host a free Arts Festival. Local artwork is on display at the Sidewalk Art Show and attendees vote for their favorite pieces. There is live music, food, and an Antique and Classic Car show, too.

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Bottom right are a couple of Thomas Cole’s paintings, a Hudson River School painter, from his series “The Voyage of Life,” on display at the museum. (Photos from the East Utica Facebook community, click to go to their page)

Growing up, my mother used to take me and my sisters to the Stanley Theatre where we got to see such world-renowned performers as Itzak Perlman, Winton Marsalis, James Galway, and the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra, among many others. The theater is so famously beautiful, that it was recently used in the filming of a new movie.

Inside the Stanley Theatre
Inside the Stanley Theatre

Speaking of good music, if you have a penchant for the nostalgic sound of vinyl, there is still a record store downtown on Bleecker Street (which has managed to survive the onslaught of big box stores and online shopping) called Off-Center Records.

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Breweries, pubs, and live music, oh my….

All brewed right here in Utica, NY!
All brewed right here in Utica, NY!

If you’re more in the mood for the kind of music you can dance to with a beer in your hand, you have plenty of options, as Uticans are historically big fans of drinking and the local music scene is thriving. Fun fact: Utica Club was the first beer to be officially sold in America after prohibition, thanks to the F. X. Matt Brewing Company. In the summer, the brewery hosts an event that takes over all of Varick Street, called Saranac Thursdays. There is live music and lots of partying from 5pm til closing time every Thursday night during the summer. (This is also where you want to be if you’re in town for St. Patrick’s Day.)

While you’re down on Varick Street, make sure you check out the Nail Creek Pub & Brewery for lunch, dinner, happy hour, or Sunday Brunch! They are serious about their amazingly delicious pub food, with gourmet dinners on Wednesday nights and they will occasionally brew their own beer in-house. They frequently host local bands, including an open traditional Irish music session on the first Tuesday night of every month.

pretty great session last night at #nailcreekpub with #comhaltas!

A post shared by Sarah Marris-Swann (@sarahmarrisswann) on

Or you can head downtown to The Dev, a local institution. Bar, restaurant, bakery, cafe, caterer, art gallery, and music venue all rolled into one, Anthony and I used to love going here to see gallery openings by talented local artists, like my friend Alex, or dance to some of our favorite local bands.

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My parents and Anthony’s friends discussing important things at the Green Onion Pub the night before our wedding.

In South Utica, next to the old Uptown Theater is the Green Onion Pub, co-owned by a couple of enterprising young Uticans, Nick and Collin, where Anthony and I had our first date (and many subsequent ones). It’s a great neighborhood bar with a jukebox, and they also occasionally have live music.

If you are feeling like a quiet night in, or if you’re searching for the perfect offering to bring to a house party, check out Collin’s store across the street (and next door to Slice), the Hop & Goblet, where they specialize in craft beers from all over the world (but hurry, they close at 7 pm!).

More culture and some great cafes…

There might not be a Starbucks within city limits, but as far as I’m concerned, that is a source of pride and a testament to the success of our local businesses. If you need some help waking up the next morning, Cafe Domenico is another of my favorite spots in Uptown Utica. When I lived in Utica, whether I was looking for some caffeine to keep me awake while studying, catching up with friends, searching for a chess partner, or just trying to find a place to sit and think, I always gravitated toward Cafe Domenico. The atmosphere is jazzy, friendly, and laid-back. Paintings by local artists, photographs, and framed vinyl albums cover the walls. They often have used books for sale and there’s also a piano in the back loft, which the barista will let you play if you ask nicely.

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Right next door to Domenico’s is The Other Side, where you can attend poetry readings, music concerts, philosophical discussions, lectures on various subjects, or check out their rotating art gallery, just to name a few of the events that are hosted there.

On Sunday nights, Cafe Domenico’s is closed, so if you need a caffeine fix or some delicious food, you’d do well to head over to my other favorite Utican cafe (in West Utica), The Tramontane, fondly known as “the Tram.” They have a vegan-friendly menu and they host an open mic night every Sunday where you are likely to hear a mixture of poetry, djembe drummers, comedy, folk bands, rap, or local hero Rainbow and his band.

oats at the tram

Beautiful Buildings in Utica

I’m obviously not an authority on architecture, but Utica has some pretty beautiful buildings.

engagement session at upl
Photo taken to commemorate our engagement by my incredibly talented sister, Martha Swann, inside the Utica Public Library

Utica’s Union Station, was recently listed as one of the eleven most beautiful train stations in the country.

Inside Union Station
Anthony buying a paper while we wait for the train to NYC, inside Union Station, Utica, NY

The Rutger Street Mansions: beautiful on the outside, but the insides need a lot of work. Check out the amazing work that the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica is doing to try to preserve buildings like these.

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Outside of one of the Rutger Street Mansions
Inside one of the Rutger Street mansions
Inside one of the Rutger Street mansions

So yes, Utica has its share of urban decay. However, the Landmarks Society is not the only group working to improve and restore beautiful buildings in Utica. Urban Renewal and Housing Visions are both working hard to revitalize neglected neighborhoods, and they are doing some pretty impressive work. And while some people may cite low housing prices in the city as a reason to look elsewhere, I say, welcome to a beautiful and historic community that is made stronger by your support, Uticans!

Apartment building on Park Ave, before and after photos from Urban Renewal's Facebook page
Apartment building on Park Ave, before and after photos from Urban Renewal’s Facebook page

And why would you want to start a business out in the middle of nowhere when you could have a gorgeous building on Main Street, right next to the train station?

Thanks, Google Maps!
Thanks, Google Images!

Because I don’t know about you, but my idea of a “neighborhood” restaurant is not one that is 4 miles outside of town and surrounded by a sea of parking lots.

applebees
Can you identify YOUR “Neighborhood Grill & Bar”?

Speaking of new local businesses…if you haven’t heard the news, General Electric is coming back to the area along with Austrian company AMS in the form of Nano Utica, bringing thousands of jobs and $3.5 billion in investments (and GE is apparently offering an average salary of $91,000). So, if you’re one of the new employers or employees moving to the area, welcome! Do you like sports?

Gerber's 1933 Tavern
Gerber’s 1933 Tavern

Sports

Hockey is back in Utica, and people love it! Catch the Comets playing at the Utica Auditorium after dinner at Gerber’s 1933 Pub—where the theme is the 1930s and they have a special menu on game nights.

The Annual 15k Boilermaker Road Race has become so popular that it draws long distance runners from all over the world. Locals have to wait at home by their computers on the day of registry to try to get a spot in the lineup, as the race usually fills up in the first hour!

Parks

After a long day of enjoying the sights of Utica, if you’re looking for some quiet recreational time, T.R. and F.T. Proctor Park in East Utica are a great place for a walk, run or bike ride. These beautiful parks were designed by the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects (you may have heard of them and their dad, Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park in NYC) and it’s where our annual fireworks show is held on July 4th.

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Speaking of bikes, if you want to rent or buy a bike or get yours fixed, check out Welch’s Bicycle & Ski Shop in West Utica. They’re a family run business that’s been operating in the city for decades and will go out of their way to help a biker in need. When our friends visited from Seattle, Welch’s rented them bikes for $20 a day. It’s a great way to get around the city, and you see more of the little things when you’re traveling at a slower pace!

There is also a beautiful scenic bike path along the historic Erie Canal. Enter near Aquavino Restaurant in North Utica or at Barnes Ave to the left of Sal’s Auto Repair in West Utica, and you can bike, walk, or run all the way across the state.

Sometimes I just can't wait for the snow to melt to go for a bike ride!
Sometimes I just can’t wait for the snow to melt to go for a bike ride!

Or don’t rely on my advice, just take a ride around the city and discover it for yourself! There’s more to see and do than just what I’ve mentioned here, so post a comment below and share your favorite place/thing to do in Utica with me. :)

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A rainbow over Varick and Columbia Streets
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