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A Reader’s Response to Utica’s History

I’ve been so wildly busy now that the warm, spring weather has finally arrived. We’ve not had any time to travel at all! the kids were moping today, wanting to “go somewhere.” All I can do is comfort them my promising a trip soon (we’ve going up toward the Adirondacks next week, so I’ll have to plan something).

In the meantime, I’m going over old trips and republishing them for those of you who haven’t seen them. I also got a terrific response to my post on Bagg’s Square in Utica. A former Utican, living through the “Sin City” days of the 50s and 60s, sent me such a rich email that i asked him if I could publish it for others to enjoy. He graciously gave his permission. I suppose his story tells the story of so many Upstate New York cities in the 50s and 60s. Upstate was on the verge of the edge of the steep decline we are experiencing today. Due mostly to corruption and changes in our state constitution that favored Downstate policies, Upstate New York is still reeling. I’ll leave you with his email. It is an interesting read:

I found my way onto your site while searching on Bagg’s Square, and wanted to add my take on the sad fate of Utica after 1960. Great site, great writing !!!

The Bagg’s Square memorial building was erected by the widow of the last Bagg to run the Bagg’s hotel on the same spot. The hotel was torn down in 1932. She intended it to be a museum to the busy travel history of that spot (going back to the pre-railroad stagecoach days !).

NY state is responsible for trashing a lot of Utica. One interpretation is that (oddly) the nearly useless “arterial” limited-access highway that bisects Utica today was a peacepipe to Utica’s democrat machine boss Rufus Elefante from then governor Averell Harriman. After the embarrassments of the Appalachian meeting in ’57 (q.v) and the partially related Sin City investigations of Utica by the state and feds, Harriman and Elefante are alleged (by Elefante) to have made a peace of sorts by Harriman promising to send highway money Utica’s way (Elefante had stayed mostly clean in the investigations, unlike mob types like the Falcone brothers of Utica. If you watched the mob meeting broken up by the FBI in “The Sopranos” with mob guys in expensive overcoats running away into the woods, that was inspired by the NYS police raid on the Appalachian meeting).

The highway got built and the already unfashionable Union Station area was cut off badly from the rest of the city. The highway also bisected neighborhoods and took numerous homes and small businesses by eminent domain. While the construction was a blast to watch for a small kid (me), it accelerated the misguided move to the suburbs post-WWII and the “anything new is better” movement like Robert Moses’ “improvements” in NY City.

Utica was, in my native’s opinion, artificially propped up by the boom at Griffiss AFB from 1954 onwards. In the late 50s, Congressman Alexander Pirnie rose to seniority that permitted him to direct lots of activity to Griffiss (today, it’d be pork, not largess). In 1959, we had flying over my house in Whitesboro the 40 or so aircraft of two SAC units, the 25 of an ADC fighter interceptor unit, uncounted cargo aircraft visiting the big depot of the Air Materiel Command (read “distribution center”), and the Rome Lab, employer of a lot of the parents of my classmates. We had spinoff aerospace companies like GE (when they still did radar) and Bendix (aviation hydraulics division). Pirnie retired. I left for grad school [out of state] at age 20 in ’73. Utica had been doomed since the 1950s, when industry left (disgusted by high labor costs), but we just didn’t know it yet. The air base was chipped away at and failed to hold its units (which, like the clothing mills, moved to the sun belt). In 1993, the Clinton Administration’s base closing list closed Griffiss completely (but left the civilian-USAF Rome Lab).

In the 1990s, Utica became a landing spot for Bosnian immigrants and large banking companies who found Uticans well-educated and willing to work their customer service phone banks. It is painful for a guy like me who abandoned the area as a young hothead, but who knew Utica in the late 50s and early 60s, to visit when I do research of my own on Utica. Gone are things like the wonderful donut smells from the New York Bakery (and even Hemstrought’s) and the diesel exhaust perfume of commerce as you enter the city.

R.B. Phillips

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About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

Comments (5)

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  1. Louis Barile says:

    I get the impression from reading your “blog” that the north-south arterial is adjacent to the Union Station. TheNorth-South Arterial is a distance away. You may be confusing the construction of the Bagg’s Square Bridge, at the site of Bagg’s Square Museum location and near the Union Station. That has nothing to do with the ARterial and was State of New York Project. The North-South=Arterial was part of the construction of the Federal Highway program. The Thruway was opened in 1954 at Lowell, New York., I was the ribbon cutting and hear the remarks by then Gov Thomas Dewey,the final construction of the Thruway and its vast network of arterials (all roads leading to Thruway entrances) was to have been completed by 1960. The original design of the North-South Arterial was an elevation of road to Oswego Street but that plan was blocked by an effort, led by the pastor of Holy Trinity Church, to construct at street level. The reason cited was a disturbance to the students of Holy Trinity Elementary School. So the statement of a sop to a former political boss is in error. The entrance to the Bagg’s Square Bridge begins at Oriskany Street. There’s renewed discussion about elevating the North South Arterial. The more things chance, the more they remain the same.

  2. R.B. Phillips says:

    How did Dewey’s moustache look, Mr, Barile? He was the only politician who had one when I was small.

    You are right in pointing out the Genesee Street bridge (c.1969), which stole a corner of the Bagg’s Square Memorial and encouraged speeding past Union Station, was not part of the arterial. But the arterial isolated the entire area from nearly the old DL&W coal dock (west of the auditorium) through the great old neighborhood between Oriskany Blvd. and Whitesboro Street (where Nookie’s delicatessen, spelled “delicat Essen” on the sign – remember? – and New York bakery shared a building) through to John Street and beyond.

    Together with the Potter Street housing projects and ethnic changeover making people think that area was unfashionable or even dangerous (baloney), the arterial provided another shove to folks looking for reasons to shop & eat elsewhere. I was writing in my usual semicoherent way and don’t always think in the clearest way either.

    With your seniority, can you tell me when the Imperial Restaurant closed? I know the Club George finally closed ~2006. I hear they have torn down the old police station. How does that open things up?

    The Genesee St. bridge, which will cause you to miss the turn for Union Station if you aren’t sharp, did come from the same thinking that it is OK to bisect streets and disregard abutters that is evident in the arterial. It smells the same to me still.

    Best wishes,
    R.B.

  3. S. Williams says:

    Imperial Restaurant closed in 1983 after being in business 57 years. Both owners, Leonard and Howard Cramer, are deceased.It was the official club of the Observer Dispatch employees.

  4. Louis Barile says:

    The Imperial Restaurant and other adjacent structures were demolished to make way for the EastWest Arterial. Ironically, the East-West Arterial also was planned as an elevated roadway but the operators of the Boston Store objectgedd strenously and so it was constructed at ground level. The Imperial Restaurant moved to Seneca Street across from the Hotel Utica where it did a grat business until the owners decided to call it quits. So, the Imperial Restaurant closed after a stint in business on Seneca Street. Len and Howard Cramer were good friends of mine.

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