Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Last Exit for West Utica . . .

This was the place to be: the best neighborhood, in the best city, in the best state, in the greatest country ... or so it seemed during my growing-up years in post-WWII 1950s West Utica. It was far from being the richest neighborhood in town. It was solidly working-class -- but it was comfortable and it was safe. 

The houses were small, on small lots, but well cared for. Many had nice gardens. There were plenty of jobs near by - at Boserts, the Brewery, the State Hospital, Globe Mill, Bendix, and GE. Schools were also nearby - Washington, Lincoln, and Kernan. And we had neighborhood parks: Addison Miller, with its swimming pool, playground, tennis and basketball courts, and wide open playing fields, Pixley Park with a wading pool, and several tiny parks. We could get our dose of culture at the M-W-P Institute. There were good eateries too: Lyntons, Kohler's, Deller's, and Spilka's, each with a strong neighborhood clientele. You could pretty much walk to most places that you had to go to - and we did - in the process becoming familiar with each other, each other's families, and our surroundings. With familiarity came security, because if someone or something was out of place, he, she or it would be noticed. Good jobs, good schools, good friends and neighbors, and good places to spend time with them -- what more could anyone want?  

But change happened. While it did not happen overnight, and there were many causes, it is easy to mark the beginning of West Utica's decline: New York State's opening of the North-South Arterial. 

Built in the 1960s at the same time as the Interstate System, this limited-access highway was thought by most to be "progress" -- an homage to the automobile and the call of the open road, promising to whisk us to where we wanted to go with a minimum of delay. I remember the rush of excitement peddling my bicycle down the wide stretches of fresh pavement a few days before its opening, and the excitement renewed with the first automobile trip. Of course, not everyone was happy with the new road because there was a three-quarter mile stretch with several cross streets and stop lights, the result of pressure brought by some "backward" people living nearby who were afraid that an elevated highway would be the end of their neighborhood. It is only now, almost a half-century later, that one realizes they were right.

While the road had its intended result of relieving Genesee Street of traffic, it also brought heavy traffic and noise to an area that did not previously have it. The road was utilitarian in appearance, doing the job but not attractively. While some cross streets were maintained, others were cut off, creating a barrier to pedestrians and traffic and dividing the neighborhood in two. Meanwhile, the road facilitated suburban areas siphoning off residents and businesses. The proximity of West Utica to the Downtown business center was no longer an advantage when the road placed outlying areas an equal number of minutes away, but made some local streets more difficult to reach. The end result may have been fine for motorists and suburban growth, but poor for pedestrians, neighbors, and the economic vitality of the city.  
Another "whammy" to West Utica came from downsizing of the State Hospital. Long a source of stable, well-paying jobs, doors were shut, removing many families'sources of income. Exacerbating West Utica's problems was the release of many former mental patients into the community who were ill equipped to cope with the demands of everyday life and did not interact well with other residents. The hospital site itself became an eyesore with boarded-up buildings, discouraging others from investing in properties nearby. 

West Utica has steadily declined over the years, its population dwindling and those remaining becoming increasingly poorer and troubled. Boarded up or burned out houses are no longer unusual, and most areas suffer from various levels of disrepair. Crime has become a problem. While the portions closest to Utica College, the Utica Business Park, and the Faxton-St.Lukes Campuses are still relatively trouble free (demonstrating that proximity to good jobs has a beneficial effect), a murder, a recent drug bust, and an increase in short term temporary residents have raised concerns that these areas, too, will go the way of the rest.  

Some, seeing the decline, may be tempted to write off West Utica entirely, but that would be a mistake. First of all, it must not be forgotten that people live there, and no matter how poor they may be, they are still entitled to be treated by their government with respect, dignity, and justice. Second, it would be a waste of the valuable infrastructure (water, sewer, roads, sidewalks, etc.) that is already in place. The infrastructure is capable of supporting higher levels of activity, and requires more activity to pay its maintenance costs.

While Utica and all of Upstate have declined over the years, it is clear that bad decisions have made West Utica's conditions worse. Recognizing the cause-and-effect relationships gives hope that future mistakes can be avoided, and that the situation may eventually be turned around with better choices.

Current events provide an unprecedented opportunity for change that will make things either better or worse depending on the choices made. The former Bosert's site has been recently cleared and several acres are now ready for redevelopment. Buildings at the State Hospital site are also being raised, creating another large tract that could be put to reuse. What happens at these sites will affect the entire neighborhood. Unfortunately no plans are currently in place for either site.
The biggest opportunity (or threat) is the programmed reconstruction of the North-South Arterial which is nearing the end of its useful life. At one point, plans had been narrowed to a depressed expressway or a multi-way boulevard, either of which would have remedied some of the neighborhood's problems with the current road. The existing street grid would have been maintained, the ability of pedestrians and traffic to cross from one side to the other would have been enhanced, visual barriers would have been eliminated, and the process of reconnecting the neighborhood on both sides would have begun. With this arrangement, one can envision the M-W-P/Pratt/Player's Theater arts-centered area seamlessly integrating with the Varick Street area to make West-Utica a regional destination for arts and entertainment.

However, in a seeming "bait-and-switch," the State Dept. of Transportation has recently revised its proposals to an expressway, providing various excuses for rejecting both the depressed highway and multi-way boulevard concepts. The expressway would eliminate crossings at Sunset Avenue and Warren Streets. Only crossings at Noyes and Oswego Streets would remain -- for now. In recognition that pedestrians need to cross, a couple footbridges are proposed -- but does anyone other than DOT really expect them to be actually used? The proposal will effectively build a wall across the middle of West Utica, making large areas more difficult to access and substantially reducing the potential for redevelopment. The West Utica neighborhood will be sacrificed merely to shave three minutes off suburban commutes. 

It is interesting that while officials in Utica are still talking expressways, those in other cities are discarding them. San Francisco replaced an earthquake-damaged freeway with Octavia Boulevard, and a dismal neighborhood suddenly blossomed, attracting all kinds of investment. New York City replaced the West Side Highway with a boulevard, with similar results. It seems that planners everywhere else but here have gotten the message that expressways through developed neighborhoods will kill them, that inter-city traffic is better routed to go around rather than through city neighborhoods, and that heavy local traffic can be handled with boulevards. Even Syracuse is now considering eliminating Interstate 81 from its downtown area and replacing it with a boulevard.  

In what may be a lucky coincidence, Utica just kicked off development of its master plan, 50 years after the last one was done. It is expected to take about a year to complete. Here is an opportunity to address Boserts, the State Hospital, and the Arterial, and plan for these sites to work for the benefit of West Utica. Given the State's desire to redo the Arterial soon, there is no time to waste. If the State must hold up on its plans for a year or two and revise them again, so be it. A delay is better than having to live for the next fifty years with a mistake.

Today, the West Utica of 50 years ago would probably be called "walkable," "sustainable," or even "green" -- the qualities that people look for in communities now. Political pressures, fads, lack of information, and failure to see likely consequences led to the poor decisions that caused the neighborhood's decline. The cleanup of the Bosert's site, clearing of much of the old State Hospital grounds, and the need to replace the Arterial, all occurring while Utica revises its Master Plan presents one of the best opportunities -- and maybe the last opportunity -- to give back to West Utica those qualities that have been lost. We, the Public cannot depend on our leaders and civil servants to automatically make the right decisions for us. We need to discuss these issues, be involved in the process, and insist that they work for us.

To paraphrase lyrics from an old Gene Pitney song, this is the last exit for West Utica -- the last chance to turn around.

[This article was originally published in the July, 2009 "Utica Phoenix." Be sure to pick up the August "Phoenix" now available in a newsrack near you.]

For more information on development of the Utica Master Plan, go to (a link is in the Blogroll at left).  Meetings are planned for every neighborhood. . . . Participate . . . It's Your City . . . and YOUR FUTURE.


Anonymous said...

Yes, and the respect and dignity must include a concerted effort to clean up the drug/crime infestation of a once proud area.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Strike!

SmallBizMan said...

I agree that a master plan needs to be done, and the arterial and other "problem" areas need to be addressed to be done right. So, waiting 1 or 2 years makes good sense.

But it will be a steep uphill battle Strikeslip, as there seems to be little interest from the burbs and county and state governments, in trying to plan for and build a bigger-better metro Utica area.

If Utica cannot galvanize solid support and participation from residents outside of Utica, as well as it's own citizens, it's Chamber of Commerce, the OD, county and state government etc. etc., then this will be throwing more money into the wind.

Previous comments in other posts seem to support this.

As for the arterial, the more affluent suburban communities, will support and push through the non-stop arterial project. As Utica continues to wither, most people want to get through Utica on a non-stop arterial, as fast as possible, to avoid exposure and being slowed down in the poor-rundown communities the arterial goes though in West Utica. It costs tens of thousands of dollars in fuel and wear and tear on vehicles every year, not to mention lost time, to stop all the cars and tractor trailers numerous times on this section of the arterial. If it looked more like Kittery, Maine (factory outlets corridor), then Utica would stand a chance with getting a scenic parkway instead of a raised high-speed highway. Maybe something for Utica to consider when it puts together it's master plan.

Brendan Woodruff said...

Amazing piece. You perfectly captured what has taken place in America over the past 50 years through the lens of West Utica. Many of the towns and cities that we visit now and talk about being nice (the Saratogas and Ithacas) are nice due to the fact that they have walkable neighborhoods.

By creating a nice boulevard lined with trees and having plenty of space for pedestrians will not only make the area look nicer, but make those driving through more aware of the neighborhood they are in. The problem with large highways designed for nothing but speeding through cities is that one does not have to contemplate where they are, because they are on the road. The arterial should be incorporated back into the neighborhood so that people will either think more about West Utica as they drive through, or they will find other ways to get where they are going by going around the city, thus alleviating traffic and pollution issues for the local populace.

The more people think about West Utica, the more they may want to help bring it back to it's former glory, especially with the groundwork being laid for some potential economic growth.

Dave said...

Having had "dual citizenship" in Cornhill and West Utica as a child in the 1950's, I saw many similarities in their decline. My memory is that West Utica had begun it's downward direction some years before the advent of the arterial. The arterial's route was a natural, replacing as it did the railroad that ran through the middle of town, which many years before had replaced the Chenango Canal that ran through the middle of whatever was there at the time. The problem with West Utica (other than a lack of law enforcement which seems endemic throughout Utica) still boils down to jobs, or the loss of them. I remember the idyllic lifestyle described by Strike, and I remember what fueled it. As he pointed out, GE, Bosserts the State Hospital, etc. provided good jobs. Good enough for the sons and daughters of the families mentioned to get out of their small homes and small lots and move the suburbs to live in small houses on big lots. Nothing new about that; it happened in every city in America. The Arterial helped speed them across town and out of town to their homes.
Of course I don't know what kind of highway design will eventually prevail. But a good guess is that the insurance companies will weigh in heavily. The fewer intersections, the safer the road. If they can afford to fly it in the air with Up Ramps and Down Ramps, obliterating neighborhoods along the way, they will do so, ala downtown Syracuse where 81 and 690 meet fifty feet above the heads of those visiting Upstate Medical Center.
There isn't much hope that a parkway-style road will be built. I've said before that a city is a past paradigm. It will take untold influence to get the feds and state (who will pay for this) to "do it pretty."