Utica Proud

Bringing life back to the Handshake.City

This isn’t the “Handshake City” that your grandparents knew.

By: Emma Waller
Painted shipping container with flowers and the word "love"
One of the painted shipping containers, taken from the Handshake.city Facebook page.

Some people think that Utica is a dying city, but the young locals behind Handshake.City would beg to differ. Handshake.City, founded in February 2018, is a communal urban art park and marketplace that aims to bring food, art, culture, and community service events to downtown Utica, and get this – it’s made out of renovated shipping containers. 

In Baggs Square West, affectionately known as “The Backyard of Utica,” events are held throughout the summer months varying from the music and arts Downtown Getdown festival to the family-friendly Book Jam! 

Woman with straight brown hair smiling
Katie Reilly at a Handshake.City event

I sat down and talked with Katie Reilly, one of the founders of Handshake.City, who was able to give me more insight into the project. Reilly and her partners from Made in Utica, the organization that founded Handshake.City, have been organizing events in downtown Utica for the past five years, including a film series, yoga workshops, and a handful of festivals, but until recent years they held most events in the alleyway next to Bite Bakery on Genesee Street. 

Inspired by tiny houses and sustainable living, Justin Parkinson, Reilly’s main partner on the project, came up with the idea for an urban container park. Reilly stated, “It really started more with the intention to be a marketplace, and then last year as we got started we realized it fit in better with the event circuit. Now it’s all wrapped into one with the marketplace being supported by the events. With that came an unintended art gallery. It became a place for bands and it became a place for vendors as well.” In fact, almost all of the public art at Handshake.City is done by Utica natives or other people from around New York state. Marisa Vallese, an illustrator from Utica, designed the whimsical Handshake.City mural, and local muralist Tony Thompson facilitated a graffiti jam at the Downtown Getdown event at Handshake.City in August 2018. 

Illustration of smiling Golden Retriever, paint palette, stack of books, guitar, and Handshake City logo
Illustration by Emma Waller, featuring the official Handshake.City logo

One of the things that makes Handshake.City so special is the fact that almost all of the labor that goes into it  comes from volunteers and people from the surrounding communities. “The whole thing really belongs to the people who volunteer and put their own time into it,” says Reilly. 

In ‘Phase One’ of the project, volunteers helped excavate and landscape the lot and prepare the shipping containers for use. This year, volunteers will be needed just as much as in the past, since 2019 marks the start of ‘Phase Two’… but what does that entail? “We really want to build out what will be the marketplace, which is actually the containers,” says Reilly. “Right now, they’re really just like empty garage or storage spaces, but we really want them to be more like little stores, with finished walls, shelving, and lighting. So developing this is a huge part of the next phase.” It’s important for the team to continue to develop the containers, in order to benefit the vendors. They would love for people to be able to set up shop in the containers year-round, which would allow vendors to choose their own hours. 

One thing Reilly stressed about the coming plans for the container park is that they welcome all kinds of people, “Vendors can be anyone who has an idea that they want to test. If you have a product idea and want to figure out how it would want to work, we’re sort of an incubator or a launchpad for people trying to figure out what they want to do when launching a new product or business.” If development continues as planned, vendors will have even more options of how to optimize their space, and current long-term members could potentially set up shops of more permanence. For now, it is easy and affordable to become a vendor at the park, temporarily or long-term, and the vendor fee is tax deductible since the organization is a nonprofit.

people sitting at picnic tables playing board games and eating, string of flags hanging above tables with blue sky behind
Last year’s Fall Fest, photo by Katie Reilly

In addition to the development of the containers, this year brings many exciting events to Handshake.City.  The first Art Jam of the year is in May, where representatives will be seeking out local artists to help create new pieces for the park this year. In addition, Kids Day, an event focused on encouraging safety, will be held in May. Several popular events from last year will also be returning to the park this season, including Barks and Brews and the Guild of Thespian Puppets. 

The makers of Handshake.City try to host events of many different kinds, especially
focusing on showcasing things that the area is otherwise missing, such as public space to interact with dogs around, live music, public art, food trucks, and open-invite volunteer activities. Every month, this year beginning in May, there is a volunteer day where community members interested in helping out with the preparation of the park for future events are encouraged to come down to Baggs Square West and do their part.

In addition to the events, Reilly and her team have even more plans for the future: “One of the other things we want to do this year too is more workshop-type things. So maybe jewelry making classes or gardening, things like that. That’ll be a new thing that we didn’t do last year – outside of the main events, we really want to do some more hands-on experiences.” One thing that the event coordinators from Handshake.City want to emphasize is the ability for their space to give back to the people who visit it. They want people to come and enjoy the park and all it has to offer, and in return they offer services and experiences that will benefit the park visitors. Whether it’s education-based or community enhancing, the services offered by the folks at Handshake.City are ones that many people can benefit from. •