Tonight at 8pm ET/5pm PT, tune in to a Levitt AMP virtual concert for a taste of what makes Monday nights so special in Utica, New York. Featuring performances by four talented artists—acclaimed singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Isaac French; new mellow rock collaboration Tree of Life, local rapper Leeky XIV featuring Eric Armitage; and award-winning blues legend Jimmy Wolf, this lively and eclectic evening celebrates the creative energy that’s transforming a ‘Rust Belt’ city in Upstate New York into a thriving hub for residents from across the globe. Tonight’s show is co-presented by the Levitt AMP Utica team and the nonprofit Utica Monday Nite, who’ve spearheaded the transformation of a littered triangular throughway in the heart of their city into a vibrant, inclusive and music-filled point of pride. Check it out tonight at levittamp.org/virtual!
Reviving a ‘Rust Belt’ community through inclusion and creativity
Located on the Mohawk River at the foot of the majestic Adirondack Mountains, Utica residents enjoy stunning geography, access to global culinary delights and neighbors from all over the world. Like many other former industrial hubs in the Northeast, Utica experienced decades of decline in the mid-20th century, losing about a third of its population after local factories closed. Yet new populations were soon to arrive with the 1981 founding of the nonprofit Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, which would change the face of the city by resettling more than 15,000 refugees from over 30 nations, increasing the city’s population to more than 60,000 and making the city home to the nation’s fourth largest concentration of refugees—including Somalis, Bosnians, Syrians, Sudanese and people from Myanmar. Today, nearly 20 percent of Utica’s population is foreign born with more than a quarter of the population speaking languages other than English (and over 40 languages spoken in the local high school!). People from all over the world have found a home and a welcoming space in Utica.
Along with the resurging population, the city is also experiencing a new level of investment in its downtown. Old vacant mill buildings are being transformed into high end lofts, large traffic projects are increasing downtown safety, a growing concentration of local cafes and eateries—like Utica Coffee, Utica Bread and The Tailor and the Cook—is spreading through downtown, and the arts are being used as a vehicle to build social cohesion and a shared pride in this new chapter of community life. People are starting to “love where they live,” explains Levitt AMP Utica program coordinator Michelle Truett. “That’s one of my favorite things,” she says, “you just have to love where you live and dive in and make it better and enjoy the things that it has to offer.” And Utica has much to offer residents. For a relatively small community, it’s home to significant cultural assets—including a world-renowned art museum and art college, a major performing arts center, a dance school and a legacy of free and inclusive Monday night public arts programming.
Creating Monday night magic
Nonprofit Utica Monday Nite (UMN) was founded in 1997 by Lynne Mishalanie—“the placemaker before placemaking was such a hot topic,” according to Truett—to bring weekly place-based arts and cultural celebrations to life throughout Utica all summer long and stimulate economic growth throughout the city and region. Over the next 15 years, the Monday night happenings became a popular pillar of community life, employing thousands of artists, actors, dancers and musicians and creating a point of pride for the entire city. Despite its success, the nonprofit struggled to maintain financial sustainability for the weekly event, and the Monday night celebrations came to an end in 2012. UMN continued to support the work of other organizations and programs dedicated to strengthening the community through art.
In 2015, Cathe Bullwinkle of the Oneida County Health Department met Levitt Foundation executive director Sharon Yazowski at a conference, where they were both presenting, and learned of the Levitt AMP opportunity. Upon returning home, she, Mishalanie, Truett and other forward-thinking community-builders began brainstorming ways to bring the Levitt AMP program to Utica. Kopernik Park in Oneida Square surfaced as the ideal location for Levitt AMP concerts, given its central location in the city center and reputation as one of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods, with close proximity to the refugee center, minority-owned businesses and working families.
Upon winning the grant, the Levitt AMP Utica team focused all their efforts on making the inaugural Levitt AMP Utica Music Series in 2016 a success. Together with a dedicated team of volunteers and Levitteen interns, the music series has taken off, reclaiming Monday nights as a time for community members of all walks of life to come together to enjoy free, high-quality arts experiences. The Levitt AMP Utica Music Series is the city’s only ongoing summer event that brings together people of all ages, neighborhoods and countries of origin, creating a space that’s not only diverse, but inclusive. Weekly concert attendance has grown from just over 100 people for the very first Levitt AMP concert in 2016, to more than 1,000 people in 2019. And not only are people showing up, they’re interacting with one another. “It’s amazing to see people making relationships and dancing next to each other and losing the stress of the day…and just being there together and enjoying something they have in common,” explains Truett. Each week, audiences enjoy acclaimed touring acts like funk hip-hop group Sophistafunk, guitar virtuoso Brandon ‘Taz’ Niederauer and heavyweight Arfro-Latin band La Misa Negra, as well as intermission acts featuring local youth performers.
Working in partnership with nonprofit and municipal partners across the community, the Levitt AMP Utica Music Series has a robust team who is intentional about their approach to programming talent that reflects the city’s rich diversity, welcoming concertgoers with marketing materials in multiple languages and actively “bridge-building” to build relationships and trust throughout the entire community.
While contributing to the success to the Levitt AMP Music Series, Utica Monday Nite has found new meaning, purpose and energy. “Levitt was a catalyst to resurrecting that nonprofit,” says Truett. She went on to share that the nonprofit has entered a brand-new chapter, bringing on a new board of directors—under the leadership of board president Alyssa Spina—who will create a new strategic plan for the organization. “We’re going to pay homage to our legacy, and keep it going…this nonprofit is going to live on,” shares Truett.
‘One World’ placemaking in Kopernik Park
Beyond reviving a meaningful community arts organization and popular Monday night tradition, the Levitt AMP Utica Music Series has injected new life into Kopernik Park, and sparked several ‘One World’ placemaking projects to make it a more welcoming space for all of Utica’s residents.
Once an overlooked passthrough, the Levitt AMP Utica Music Series has highlighted the potential of Kopernik Park’s centrally located green space. Surrounded by a census track with the highest poverty rates and lowest high school graduation rates in the city, the park and neighboring area had suffered from social and economic challenges and overall disinvestment prior to the series. Truett explains that the physical change that can be seen since the start of Levitt AMP concerts in Kopernik Park is “like night and day.” The park now boasts a repaved street; new sidewalks, curbs and crosswalks; pruned trees; replanted grass; weekly maintenance; and donated flowers. “Levitt has transformed the park.” Truett continues. “People in that neighborhood—walking though it or living in it—feel like there has been care and love and attention paid to their neighborhood.” Residents and visitors are now engaging more with the park, as well as nearby businesses, increasing foot traffic and sales.
The improvements continue to take place, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just this month, a colorful site-specific piece has some to life—transforming the bollards throughout the park into mosaic-covered artworks that celebrate the many origins of Utica residents. Spearheaded by local Armenian sculptor Vartan Pogosian, the project is being brought to life with the help of two young Burmese artists and installer Cathy Marsh. Pogosian and Marsh are no strangers to site-specific work for the Levitt AMP concert site. The two recently teamed up with designer Amy Creedon to create a custom-made mosaic bench, featured in short film “Side by Side,” that will be installed in Kopernik Park.
The overwhelming success of the Levitt AMP Utica Music Series, coupled with the intentional revitalization efforts happening throughout the city’s downtown, have paved the way for lasting positive change in Utica. In 2019, the City was awarded $10 million through the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant competition. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo congratulated Utica Mayor Robert Michael Palmieri saying, “You feel that energy on Genesee Street is turning around and you feel the future come, and your downtown revitalization played off that.”
Bridging the onstage and offstage work through a Levitt AMP Bridge Grant
Visions for the 2020 Levitt AMP Utica Music Series had included another stellar lineup, as well as a new goal to share the work that the Levitt AMP team is doing beyond concert production—from nurturing young talent through paid performances and Levitteen internship opportunities, to coordinating public art projects in Kopernik Park, to launching a musical initiative to improve relations between law enforcement and youth. Though disappointed they can’t gather the community to enjoy free Levitt AMP concerts each week, the team is thrilled to be able to share their work in another way. With funding from a Levitt AMP Bridge grant, they have partnered with local ABC and NBC affiliates to broadcast “AMP the House!”—a two-hour televised program featuring local performers and special behind-the-scenes segments about the Levitt AMP team’s offstage work (and a few guest appearances by other Levitt AMP grantees!). “I am so thankful we were able to keep a presence in our community this year and have the opportunity to talk about these projects that we’re doing behind the scenes,” shares Truett.
Tune in to tonight’s Levitt AMP virtual concert for a taste of this one-of-a-kind broadcast. Enjoy the soulful vocals that inspired Seven Days Magazine to dub Isaac French the “Best Pop Artist” of 2019; a fresh new track from Utica-based musical collaborative Tree of Life; the clever lyrics and high-energy melodic beats of Leeky XIV featuring Eric Armitage; the award-winning blues, rock and R&B fusions of New York Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Jimmy Wolf; and a chance to take a deeper dive into the impact of the Levitt AMP Utica Music Series. The fun begins tonight at 8pm ET/5pm PT at levittamp.org/virtual!