When I feel low, I often spend a day in Utica. A forsaken rust-belt city in the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York may not seem like a cure for depression, but it is and I have taken its welcome for granted for too long. Three girls stand on the south side of Genesee Street, ready to welcome new comers on a cold night in December. The street is an important one; facing each other across its width are the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute. This is the big heart of this city.
Utica became a city because of the Erie Canal. Incorporated in 1832, the railroads followed, beginning in the next year, and eventually the New York State Thruway came through the north end of the city; all routes following the path known as the Mohawk Trail. Utica built an industrial economy from its natural resources - furniture, textiles, machinery, lumber (from the nearby Adirondacks) - and immigrants. Its history is not simple; the textile industry fed on the cotton imported from southern slave states, yet the city also became a major station on the Underground Railway in the 1850s.
The jobs that left upstate New York for the South in the decades following World War II, are the jobs that are now leaving there for other countries. A once proud city of 100,000, Utica shrank to 60,000 by 2000. The one thing most people have heard about Utica's struggles is the bumper sticker that read "Last One Out Of Utica, Please Turn Out The Lights." The original version of the familiar song we know as "Red River Valley" was originally about their river: "Mohawk River Valley."
Once again Utica opened its doors to refugees. It began in the 1970s when Roberta Douglas and Catholic Charities made the city a haven for Amerasian children exiled from Vietnam. Then in the 1990s, refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina were welcomed, and then Somali Bantus, Sudanese, Burmese Karens, Bhutanese, Nepalis, Russians, and now Latinos. Today, fully a quarter of the population is made up of refugees and their children. People who came seeking sanctuary and stayed to make homes, rehabilitating run-down buildings, and starting businesses. This, too, is not simple but it is good. As testified to by the man holding a hand-lettered sign on a cold December night last year: "Refugees Welcomed In Utica."
To read more:.
Starting Over: Bhutanese-Nepali Refugees in Utica, NY by Kathryn Stamm, et al in Himalaya Journal, Hanover, New Hampshire..
- Office of the State Comptroller of New York, Honorable Thomas DiNapoli, Albany.
1. Refugees can play soccer with me - Love and Rage Media Collective, Utica, NY.
2. Bhutanese-Nepali residents of Utica, NY, Himalaya Journal, Hanover, New Hampshire.
3. Refugees Welcomed In Utica, Love And Rage Media Collective, Utica, NY.
4. Tina Russell for the Utica Observer-Dispatch - Fadumo Ali, age 15 and Rica Akimeli at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Museum for the exhibition Portraits of Hope: Faces of Refugee Resettlement in Central New York , August 12, 2016.
5. Utica In Winter - courtesy of State of the Reunion.