Why Not a ‘People’s History of Utica’ Mural in Downtown?

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

The Observer-Dispatch’s editorial today breathed some needed life into an idea among local activists and organizers that has been tossed around for nearly a year.

The OD’s article, ‘5 downtown spots that need some TLC’ included the Franklin Square alley, a notable, but mostly overlooked feature of the downtown landscape which has recently gotten some love via the launching of the Franklin Square Film Festival, a series of free movie screenings throughout the rest of the summer.

Shout out to Frankfort-native Mario Restive, now of Syracuse and co-operator of Nomad Cinema, for helping to bring some free fun to Utica. All too often, efforts to push Utica’s recreational options focus on fun for a fee.

This is important because cities need open, public spaces. These provide the core of the synthesis of culture and ideas that cities historically produce. On that, the alley’s most notable usage prior to the free film fest was for the Occupy Utica encampment in the fall of 2011.

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Participants in the Occupy Utica kick off listen to a speech delivered in the Franklin Square alley on October 17, 2011. [Photo by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage]

Among the other ideas in the OD’s article were murals gracing the exteriors of buildings in the downtown area, notably the Liberty Bell fountain mural — and the Franklin Square alley is a perfect location for harboring the spirit of both free-initiatives and Utica’s deep history of people’s movements.

On that history, Utica was a popular stop along the traveling routes of fiery abolitionists and labor organizers to give speeches as they passed through the area along the Erie Canal.

Several landmarks from those times still stand, like the Hope Chapel AME Zion Church, Mechanics Hall and the Burke Building on Bleeker Street which are notable in the role of past people’s movements which helped shape the nation’s history.

The Hope Chapel AME Zion Church congregation has long been associated as central to Utica’s role in both the Underground Railroad and the broader abolitionist movement.

After all,  Gerrit Smith, Utica native and a leading abolitionist of the time, convened the first meeting of statewide abolitionists in Utica in 1835 to establish a New York State Anti-Slavery Society. While that meeting was successfully disrupted, the city still played a key role in the abolitionist movement to the end of slavery. That the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum is located in nearby Peterboro is no coincidence.

Mechanics Hall, located on the corner of Hotel and Oriskany Streets, was also a well-known meeting place in both the abolition movement as well as a place for lectures and speeches. It was also pivotal in Utica’s deep involvement in the US labor movement beginning in the late nineteenth century. Solomon Northrup, most notably of ’12 Years a Slave’ delivered speeches at Mechanics Hall.

The Burke Building, home to Garro’s Drugs since 1910, was also a meeting place of the anarchist movement, which had a considerable presence throughout the Mohawk Valley during the militant years of labor struggle in the United States.

And these experiences should not overshadow the longer, indigenous history of the Haudenosaunee throughout what is now upstate New York and the Mohawk Valley. The impact of the Iroquois Confederacy’s political system had a major influence on the organization of the American republic.

Anyone who looks into the history of Utica is going to find a lot to chew on, as every major wave of change throughout the story of the American experience has not only passed through the area, but reverberated strongly among those waves as well. Prior to colonialism, participatory democracy in the region dates back even further into the histories of the indigenous practices and customs.

 

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Signs of demonstrators are held high at the beginning of Occupy Utica. [Photo by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage]

This is the type of history which should be reflected on the walls of the Franklin Square alley. As it remains an important foci of grassroots organization in the city, this history of people power which has flowed through Utica’s streets since the beginning should not be forgot.

As downtown undergoes its current rebranding and commercialization, as cheered on by an anti-living wage Chamber of Commerce, it would stand as an important, if not subversive, sliver of memory, that popular consent and resistance to exploitation are important traditions in this area (so treat your workers right).

While the Observer-Dispatch continues on to recommend that public display spaces for art should be included in any efforts to provide some TLC for the city’s downtown, free spaces open to congregation, discussion, cultural series should also be maintained and the Franklin Square alley, given the neighborhood’s past and present ties to people’s movements, as well as the region’s remarkable indigenous history, is a perfect spot for this exact type of initiative.

Utica has lost so much of its history in recent decades, it’s due time to start taking some of it back. Both as credit to what we have gained through it, and what we can learn from it.

 

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