Building Something from Nothing in Utica

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So how did I end up “racing” against other seasoned restaurant servers in an obstacle course adjacent to downtown Utica, New York? Well because Katie Reilly, one of the event coordinators, knew by then that I love Utica and I’d probably do just about anything to support something positive there… Even if it meant filling a last-minute opening in a competition I had no business being in. And I had a blast doing it.

When I first began traveling to Utica on a regular basis seven years ago, I quickly became acquainted with the fact that a group of young people were on the forefront of rebuilding the city’s image. Made In Utica (MIU), a grassroots, down-and-dirty collection of twenty-somethings who were sick of their city’s languishing reputation, seemed to have their finger on the pulse of a community that was just waiting for a spark. MIU didn’t just light the spark—they poured gasoline on it.

From organically creating a pro-local business movement with their annual “Utica Passport” campaign, where customers receive discounts at participating establishments, to reporting on positive news before the local news outlets could get wind of it, MIU was and continues to be the very sort of underground, community-leading hype beast that a flailing city is and was desperate for. In a time when “fighting the man” is becoming increasingly popular, this incredibly strategic grassroots team of young people has created a movement that satisfies the need for community activation while maintaining an organically alternative social pose.

In English, this translates to creativity and popularity by way of opposing the yawn-inducing status quo, and ruffling a few feathers in the process. And as MIU continues to activate the city with events and happenings, more and more Uticans are opening their eyes to the fact that a major motivator in their downtown’s comeback is a group of overachieving young people, and it’s working.

In 2018, Made In Utica unveiled their most ambitious venture as they launched Handshake City, an empty parcel of grassland just outside of Utica’s downtown. With a handful of refurbished and retrofitted shipping containers serving as inexpensive and flexible pop-up vendor space, MIU launched an opportunity for residents and visitors to connect to local makers and creative spirits, reminding this once sleepy city that local talent is alive and well. All this on a grassy slab of formerly-industrial property that the city is still looking to sell and develop. Handshake City’s appeal and downfall is in its constant state of temporary existence. While the whole concept is incremental activation of underutilized space, the always-looming reality that it may all be sold to make way for an eager developer means that more ambitious planning impossible. But this lack of certainty doesn’t stifle the efforts of Made in Utica.

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