From Abandoned Church to Thriving Mosque

The Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica, NY has an incredible history on how their mosque was built and became a fundamental component to Utica’s community. The mosque was formerly the Central United Methodist Church which slowly began going out of business due to the continuous lack of members who would attend. Eventually in 2006 the church was left abandoned and repurchased by the city until 2008 when the Bosnian residents purchased the vacant space. The city was prepared to spend thousands of dollars to have the church rebuilt to its former state being that it played an important role in bringing people together, however at this same time Utica’s Bosnian population begun to increase dramatically. They were looking for a place to build a mosque and the abandoned church was ideal for them to set up, so they bought the church from the city for 1000 dollars and begun building. It took until around 2012 for them to complete the project with help from contractors in multiple areas like Boston, as well as participation from nearly all of the Bosnian community present in Utica at that time. Currently the mosque is open to anyone who would like to come and visit.

Before the Transition

Ron Johns a member of the former Methodist Church attended the church until around the 1980s, he had been going from birth until age 17 and according to him the church was usually full with downtown residents with an atmosphere common to most churches in the area. Around the time he stopped going he noticed a decline in the number  of members. In 2006 the Church was left abandoned and repurchased as city property, and in 2008 the local Bosnian population purchased the abandoned church to renovate into their new mosque. The Observer Dispatch actually covered two stories about the Bosnians moving into Utica and renovating the church in 2008, one about when the city was considering selling the church to the Bosnians in March 2008 and another covering when they began the rebuilding process. According to him Utican residents were initially skeptical about having a mosque in the middle of their town, but fortunately the Bosnians made it open to everyone and held tours when it was opened which led to a more seamless blend into the community.

Joining the Members in Prayer

As a muslim myself I decided to go visit the Bosnian Islamic Association mosque located in Utica on February 22nd to join in on the Juma prayers, or Friday afternoon prayers. My first impression on the mosque was that it came off as a comfortable environment and a typical place for Muslims to  join each other in prayer. The integration of the crescent moon and star, which is the unofficial Islamic symbol, in their architectural design was unique as well as the Mimbar which the Imam stood to pray. More people arrived than I originally anticipated, and there was more cultural diversity than expected as well. The Iman preached about destiny and how as Muslims we should have faith in the path Allah has set for us even though we might not might not favor it or believe it is right. We followed this by the group prayer in which I felt welcomed to participate in even though it was my first time visiting this mosque. Following the prayers I had an opportunity to talk to some of the members about the Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica, this was when I learned that they have 3 locations in total and that their Utica location is their primary mosque. Through visiting the mosque I was able to see firsthand how members of the community come together, and how the mosque serves as a cultural and ethnic boiling pot.

Photograph by Muhammad Jalloh

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Why Utica is Home

The people are the key to the city.

by Amber Lim

Utica was the first place I arrived in the United States, and coming from a tropical country (such as, Malaysia) where it’s hot and humid all year long, despite the lack of high rise buildings that I so naively expected, I was happy to feel the chilly breeze of fall and see snow for the first time. 

But it’s easy to take things for granted and soon enough, students seemed to complain about Utica on a weekly basis (if they’re putting effort to be positive for that week). 

While doing research for my topic for Utica Proud, I stumbled upon a blogpost by Sophia Elacqua, a travel enthusiast, blogger, and proud Utican, defending Utica against bad media portrayal, so I reached out to her to discuss why Utica is a great place to call home.

Photos by You Chen Zhou

Sophia believes that Utica gets a bad reputation largely because of weather, size, and average income per household is lower than the US average. 

“There are also many people in need for help in Utica,” she adds, “but fortunately, the city is on a mission to bring economic growth to the area and multiple missions, churches, community initiatives and volunteers continue to serve Utica and make it a better place.”

Being home to 60, 000+ people, certainly there is more to the “Town that Loves Refugees” than what can be seen with the eye. 

1. Community is family

I met some of the nicest, funniest, and most knowledgeable people while going to school here, and people are so willing to take time to help you out. Unlike big cities, people are less stingy with their time when it comes to making connections because they’re not always thinking about what they have to do next.

Sophia shares that “in this city you are able to make close connections with people from Utica and surrounding suburbs who share similar values and morals. Everyone knows everyone in Utica and no-one is a stranger. “

2. True four seasons and nature

I have always dreamed of experiencing four seasons before coming here, and Utica gave me exactly that right smack in the face.

Sophia has traveled to 15 countries and worked in New York City, and she observed that some of her friends who grew up in New York City have never driven a car, seen the true beauty of the seasons, especially fall, or have walked into a bar and recognized almost everyone there. She also adds that since Utica is so close to the Adirondacks, hiking is much recommended. 

3. Short lines

I become grateful every time I come to Utica from New York City because unless it’s almost the Super Bowl or some special occasion, I don’t have to wait in line for 30 minutes to get toilet paper. And because it’s so slow paced, you are more likely to be greeted with a smile and can take all the time in the world deciding which cupcake you want.

4. Diverse options 

In a world of chains and corporations, part of what makes Utica beautiful are family businesses! Cultural diversity also contributes to wide array of authentic cuisines. Some of Sophia’s favorite food spots around the city include Peking Tokyo’s sushi, Aqua Vino, Zeinas, Voss’, Sumo, Polish Community Club pierogies, O’scugnizzo’s pizza, and Friends and Pho.

Utica has much to offer that big cities couldn’t, and if you can’t find something interesting to do on your free time, we suggest looking into brewery tours, the Boilermaker 15k Road Race, Stanley Theatre, Munsons William Proctor Art Museum, music on Saranac Thursdays, and so much more.

“In this city you are able to make close connections with people from Utica and surrounding suburbs who share similar values and morals. Everyone knows everyone in Utica and no-one is a stranger.”

Sophia puts, “It’s always the people that make the place and Utica has a unique community surrounded by our various suburbs with a melting pot of cultures. I’ve been taught to never forget where I’ve come from, and I couldn’t be more proud to be a Utican.

Special thanks to:

You Chen Zhou. my talented photography major friend, who took great photos of Utica:
https://youchenz.wixsite.com/portfolio

Check out Sophia’s blogpost:
https://thatawkwardtanline.com

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Utica Proud PDF with clickable links:

utica wordpress

 

 

 

a big brother for refugees

Midtown Utica Community Center (MUCC)

MUCC is an inclusive multicultural and refugee-friendly space that serves all.

Chris Sunderlin, founder and executive director of MUCC, taught ESL classes to adult refugees for seven years until he decided to start the MUCC with his own paycheck. It was apparent to him that the refugee population lack opportunities to cultivate, express, and preserve their culture. The MUCC is not like any other community center, it’s like a family, a big brother. It connects services and people together to make everybody’s life a little easier and better.

“ It’s a family, a place to belong, to feel
  welcome, wanted and useful. ” 

I visited the MUCC for the first time during freshmen year for a photography project and was amazed by how involved the youths are at this community center. It is hard for anyone who had to move and adjust to their home. The MUCC serves as a communal space that is open to all providing them a place that’s their so they feel included in the community. 

Part of MUCC’s purpose is to help change the conversations and thought processes of people who is not affected by refugees or immigrants; they don’t know refugees, they don’t know immigrants, they don’t know any other culture other than their own. Through a partnership with Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio, President and CEO of Munson-Williams-Proctor Museum, the MUCC community has been incorporate with several exhibitions. It is incredibly powerful to include immigrants, refugees and people of color in every aspect of the community.

The MUCC does a lot of programming with the youths. They support a summer youth program through the Oneida County Workforce Development Agency where kids get paid while learning job skills.  Their focus may be towards the youth, but anyone who wants to come are welcomed.

“We really are awesome, we kill it. Wherever we go we take over. We invade, which isn’t a really good word because we’re refugees.”

Chris Sunderlin wishes to see one of the kids from within MUCC growing up and taking the lead in the future. With the current housing situations for refugees, he envisions an expansion of the center to allocate new refugees in one central location where they could stay for a year and adapt to the American lifestyle before finding their own apartment elsewhere. Other possibilities would be adding a gym, having a storefront and owning a campsite where the MUCC could set up language camps, cooking camps, yoga retreats, and wellness retreats. Chris sees many different futures for the MUCC. Without any affiliation to any larger organization, Chris create the MUCC from scratch and relies on donations from the people to thrive. For our community and our children, your contribution and support will make a huge impact today, tomorrow, and towards our future.

Not Your Average Cup of Joe

Spice up your morning routine with a cup of coffee from Cafe Domenico

Julia Eck

Walking into Cafe Domenico on a cold Utica morning is about as close as you’ll get to feeling the warmth of the sun in the middle of winter. The atmosphere of this local gem has been shaped through the sound of jazz music, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, and the vibrantly painted walls- a speck of gold in an otherwise grey winter-scape. Unique photographs and works of art adorn every inch of the space, each one holding some form of sentimental value to the members of this family enterprise. Combined with the various types of furniture and decor, the art escalates the feeling of coziness within the cafe and creates the illusion that you are home. Orin and Kim Domenico (the husband and wife duo who own the cafe) created this space with every intention of having it function as a slow-moving and comfortable retreat where people could go to talk with each other and enjoy a variety of high-quality beverages. They also, both being writers and having roots deeply ingrained in the arts, intended for the cafe to work intimately with the local arts and music community. Next door to Cafe Domenico you can find their not-for-profit arts center where local events are held, however the walls of Domenico’s are reserved for their own special collection. Every time you visit, you are guaranteed to discover something you’ve never noticed before- whether it’s a beautiful black and white photograph or a splash of honey in your chai tea.

“We wanted it to be a beautiful place
and a place that’s comfortable to come that encouraged people to talk to one another”
-Orin Domenico

Cafe Domenico is not just a supporter of the arts, though, but also of local businesses. When Orin began to cultivate his vision for the space he wanted to make sure it was a beautiful and one-of-a-kind establishment for the community to enjoy, and one that was the culmination of hard work, individual creations, and quality product. The goal was never to open many locations and grow the cafe into a chain, but to form an original business that was a direct reflection of the people who built it. I can see this vision reflected in every aspect of the cafe, and I feel as though this space brings a much needed sense of artistic expression and individual perspective to the community. As a college student, it is a great place to go when I have homework to do, or when I want to socialize with my peers outside of an academic setting. And it also has really great coffee. Orin says that lattes are one of the cafes most popular drinks, on top of their regular coffee, and I highly recommend grabbing a hazelnut one if you’re ever nearby.

It is becoming progressively more difficult to find businesses like cafe Domenico that foster a sense of originality and artistic expression, and so this this space is a wonderful asset to the community. It is incredible to see the diverse group of characters that make their way through the cafe, whether it’s to work, talk, or just simply relax, and visiting is something that I look forward to, especially during the colder months. There will come a time when I no longer reside in Utica, but I dearly hope that there will not be a time when Cafe Domenico can say the same. I have a feeling that this is a space I will gravitate to when I find myself back in Utica, or simply when i’m in the mood for a little inspiration or a good cup of coffee.

 

 

 

Photos and illustrations that depict the interior of Cafe Domenico.

Transforming Utica One Bicycle at a Time

Utica Bike Rescue Gives the community connections and healthy habits that will last a lifetime

by Alexandra Morales

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Riding a bike for the first time was an experience I hope I never forget. The wind in my hair, my parents cheering me on, slamming into the back of my dad’s Ford face first after I forgot to brake… childhood at its finest. Most of my favorite memories growing up started on a bike, because that was my brother’s and my activity of choice. Riding around my neighborhood, exploring every street, was how I met some of my best friends in elementary school. I’m not sure what happened to my old bicycle, but it brought me memories and friendships that will stay with me forever.

Today, it’s easy to feel disconnected with others, both on a physical and emotional level. People connect more online now, which can be great, but as a result we sometimes miss out on chances to get some fresh air and form relationships with people within our local community. Matthew VanSlyke kills two birds with one stone with Utica Bike Rescue.  As its founder and Executive Director, VanSlyke combines his knowledge of transportation with his passion for teaching and empowering others to create a growing community of bike riders, both old and new.

As a professional transportation planner, VanSlyke sees the world in terms of mobility. He takes immense pride in the improvements Utica Bike Rescue is able to have on people’s quality of life by giving them the freedom to travel independently. “In my line of work we spend a lot of time developing plans and projects that have delayed benefit,” VanSlyke says. “In contrast, the work that Utica Bike Rescue does provides immediate, tangible benefit to those who need it most.”

“If we simply gave things away we’d be doing our customers a disservice.” One of the key reasons Utica Bike Rescue is able to have such an impact is due to VanSlyke’s insistence upon teaching customers to sustain their own bikes, rather than simply giving them a handout. He continues, “We like to make sure that the people who receive bikes from us know how to keep it operational and enjoyable.” More recently, the mission of Utica Bike Rescue expanded to overall health and wellness. Soul Stop, which opened in Clinton last year, is a fitness and training studio that offers spinning and yoga classes, personal training, and bike repair workshops. 

In speaking with Matthew VanSlyke, I’ve realized the many different things bicycles can provide a community. Utica Bike Rescue teaches local kids and families through the Bicycle Rodeo program, and utilizes volunteers to teach bike repair at their workshop. Overarching ideas of sustainability, wellness, independence, and transportation are all aspects of a much larger picture. 

“…The bicycles we provide to folks honestly transform lives… When you travel by bike you’re connected to places in ways that don’t happen with any other form of transportation. I never get tired of hearing people’s stories about their first bike, an epic bike trip they went on or the collection of bikes they have at home. It’s something we can all relate to and the simple independence that bicycles provide is amazing. Being able to play a part in providing this for people is an honor and a privilege that I’m extremely grateful for.”

Like Matthew VanSlyke, I believe it is important to seek out opportunities for growth and change in trying times. Rather than hoping and waiting for someone to make a difference, VanSlyke took it upon himself to bring together like-minded people, both volunteers and customers, to work toward the common goal of experiencing life in a more sustainable, healthy, and connected way. It is inspiring to see someone as genuinely passionate about their work as Matthew VanSlyke create such an impact within his community.

Beijing House

By Eureka Du

An escape from the customary flavor; Beijing House serves some of the most authentic Chinese cuisine in Utica.

Beijing House has been running in Utica for about ten years. It has always dedicated itself to serve the local community. The restaurant owner, Chen Caibin, developed the Chinese menu to accommodate the tastes of the local people. With its international flavor, Beijing House is supported by its surrounding community. What is attractive about the Beijing house other than tasty, flavorful food is the welcoming and warm environment we feel once we enter. Chinese classical furniture and ornaments allow customers to feel a pleasant atmosphere. There is another group of customers who choose to take out. Beijing house uses mostly ready-made materials to prepare its dishes. However, comparing to most fast-food restaurants around Utica, Beijing house provides our community with healthy and delicious food in a short time. The restaurant has always been packed and has not encountered any serious setbacks.

Life in Utica is different compared to Mr.Chen’s life back in China. However, with this successful business, Mr. Chen is living pleasantly with his family now. His family moved to New York City in 2000. To make a living, they decided to open a Chinese Restaurant. The location of Utica, the lack of competition, and the affordable rent brought them here, and that is how the story of Beijing House began.

Besides being a successful business in Utica and a source of income for the family, Beijing House shows how Utica is a culturally friendly environment for all individuals with all kinds of ethnic backgrounds.

 

See You at The Other Side

Illustration by Adelin Zegstroo

Celebrating Art, Education, and Community

By Adelin Zegstroo

It doesn’t look like much from the outside, just a simple brown building, but The Other Side hosts a wealth of knowledge. Not the knowledge that can be found in a library, hidden in a mountain of books, but the knowledge of people dedicated to sharing what they have to offer. In the simplest of definitions, The Other Side is a community. Founded in 2007 by Orin and Kim Domenico, The Other Side serves as host to a local art gallery and a multitude of community events. From lectures and environmental discussions, to the arts and Western wisdom traditions, The Other Side has something for everyone. “We just started adding programs,” said co-founder and owner Kim Domenico. “Sometimes people in the community would want to start something; [The Other Side] is a starting place for [these] things. I always encourage basically anything people want to do… but through the arts.” Over the twelve years that it has been open, The Other Side has and continues to host yoga classes, poetry sessions, community lectures, jazz shows, and many other events. Every month the artwork changes and another local artists is given a chance in the spotlight.

Photo of people enjoying themselves at art show.
Guests enjoy opening night of Kathy
Donovan’s show at The Other Side Gallery.
Photography by Nancy Zumpano 


From the perspective of a college student who didn’t grow up in Utica, The Other Side is a sanctuary from the stress and hassle of everyday life. It offers a chance to unwind and meet new people.  The atmosphere is beyond welcoming. While interviewing Kim I realized what a special place The Other Side is to so many people. In a world that never stops, it’s important to have a place to be still; The Other Side is this place. Community has always been something of great value to me. To find somewhere in Utica where I instantly felt welcomed has been a huge blessing. If it’s not already obvious, Kim and Orin Domenico care a lot about community.  This passion carries into  The Other Side. “We think of it as our art and we’d like to think others feel the same way.” If you’re interested in art or education then check out The Other Side.  Another important part of The Other Side is that its a non-profit. Kim and Orin care about bringing art and education to up-town Utica. By making The Other Side non-profit they open it up to anyone and everyone. Next time you have a spare evening, stop by and join The Other Side in celebrating art, education, and community!