Wrapping up…

Over 2 years ago, the reUtica project was lauched with a home-grown film that presented a showcase of ideas.  While the time has come for me to move on from this endeavor, I hope reUtica continues to inspire others to explore the possibilities of a greener, prosperous and just future for all of us.  reUtica was never meant to be a total solution – rather it was a showcase of potential solutions and succeeded in sowing the seeds of some grassroots efforts illustrated in this blog.

If anyone has any additional questions about this project, I’d be glad to offer any insights.  Please contact me at reutica @ gmail dot com.

A final parting vision from last years’ Tour d’Utica series.  I hope people keep riding Utica’s streets and discovering all the good things about living here.  Bon voyage!

– John

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joe cart project featured on Utica Firefly

The Utica Firefly “is part live performance, part oral history project documenting the history, places and voices of Central New York.”  As I see it, this project is working to create a new narrative about the place we call home by lifting up the voices and stories of the people who live here.  I was really flattered when Ryan and Geoff approached me about featuring the joe cart project.  Although I consider the joe cart project to be in its infancy, Ryan and Geoff were willing to spend a great deal of time and energy to tell this emerging story on Utica Firefly.  They even sponsored a joe cart run themselves, and provided some local Utica Coffee Roasting goodness to a bunch of folks in West Utica.

With my thanks for the Utica Firefly project and the efforts of Ryan Miller and Geoff Storm, I’m pleased to share their telling of the joe cart story:

The Joe Cart – Utica’s Instant Neighborhood Cafe from Utica Firefly on Vimeo.

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joe cart: Utica’s NEW Instant Neighborhood Cafe

joe cart leaves the garage for the first time, headed out on the streets of West Utica!

On October 15th, Utica’s NEW Instant Neighborhood Cafe, affectionately named “joe cart”, took to the streets for the first time.  joe cart strives to be a grassroots, pedal-driven platform to showcase Utica’s local small businesses, non-profits and causes. As the name implies, “joe” cart is a coffee cart pulled by a bike.  In celebration of all things Utica, joe cart will offer Utica Coffee Roasting Company Coffee.  (For the maiden voyage, the folks at Utica Coffee Roasting were kind enough to donate all the coffee for the run.)

joe cart was constructed out of mainly reused materials, some new things and lots of local time and energy. Here’s a listing of what went into making joe cart:

Reused Materials:

  • reused wood and hardware (free),
  • previously used cart frame built from an old bed frame, hospital bed and two front forks from old bikes ($20 from a farm in northern NY),
  • “awning” frame adapted from a child’s toy lemonade stand ($4 at a thrift store),
  • one wheel from an old bike (the other wheel came with the cart) (free),
  • other supplies thrifted or bartered (around $15).

New Materials:

  • new wood trim ($15),
  • vinyl table cloth ($10),
  • whiteboard tabletop ($10),
  • paint, adhesive, various bolts, screws and other supplies (around $25)

Local (West Utica) Talents:

  • John Ossowski, Jr. (concept, procurement and construction);
  • John Ossowski, Sr. (engineering assistance)

joe cart is FREE…private donations to offset operation costs are accepted, but not required.

Want more joe cart?  Be a sponsor!

Q: Who can sponsor?

A: Anyone!  You can be an individual, a non-profit or a small business.  The only requirement is that the idea, product or service you promote must support the quality of life of EVERYONE in our community.  (No negative advertising or bashing or any kind.)

Q: How do I sponsor joe cart?

A: Sponsoring a joe cart run is as easy as:

1. supply coffee, goodies, etc. to give away to neighbors
2. supply some signage and literature
3. supply a volunteer or two (ON BIKE) who will represent you, help serve coffee, and make good conversation

Contact John to get the cart rolling: reUtica@gmail.com

joe cart at the Polish Community Club for the October 15th West Utica Meet and Greet Event

joe cart is a simple, clean, effective and fun way to make neighborhoods more livable – and safe.  Safe neighborhoods are neighborhoods where neighbors know each other, look out for one another and have a regular presence on the street. joe cart provides an instant, free, outdoor café venue where neighbors can gather and enjoy each other’s company over coffee or tea. In doing so, joe cart supports the social fabric of our neighborhoods, which is essential to public safety.

Have some ideas for joe cart’s next run?Contact John at reUtica@gmail.com.

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Moving Planet Tour d’Utica Recap

Tour d'Utica visits the green initiatives at Johnson Park Center

Utica participated with cities world-wide on Moving Planet Day, September 24th.  A bicycle-powered Tour d’Utica kicked off with a rally at the Tramontane Cafe on Lincoln Ave.  Riders learned about the day’s purpose: to move beyond fossil fuels.  One key goal towards that end is to reduce the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million (a concentration many scientists believe is a ‘safe’ upper limit – see www.350.org for more information).

After the rally, the Tour moved on to three Utica venues that feature sustainable solutions to our climate change threat.  First, riders biked to the LEED certified Hage building on Genesee Street.  The building was restored from an existing structure and features commercial use of geothermal heating and cooling systems.  Next, the Tour continued at the Utica Public Library.  The library itself is a sustainable solution because it encourages the efficient sharing of resources among community members.  The library was also kind enough to host SUNYIT’s portable solar roof demonstration.  Despite the cloudy weather, riders were able to enjoy some Saranac root beer that had been chilled using power generated from the sun.  After that, the Tour moved on to Johnson Park Center.  The center is building affordable green housing employing both geothermal and solar technologies to reduce energy costs.  Johnson Park Center also hosts a community garden and is planning on creating a green jobs training center.  (You can learn more about Johnson Park Center at www.johnsonparkcenter.org.)

The Tour continued down Genesee Street to Cafe Domenico’s community meeting place, The Other Side (http://www.theothersideutica.org/).  Riders got off their bikes and took a seat for a climate reality talk by Dr. Frederic Joyce.  The talk illuminated the scientific evidence for human involvement in the climate change crisis.  Dr. Joyce also focused on solutions at the individual, community and legislative levels.  A small group of riders expressed an interest in holding other Tour d’Utica events to promote active lifestyles, involvement in the local community and climate change solutions.  If you are interested in planning another Tour d’Utica, please email John at reutica@gmail.com.

Moving Planet Tour d'Utica Rallies at the Tram before the ride.

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Moving Planet: Utica

Utica joins the rest of the world on September 24th for Moving Planet –

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Community: reUtica style

reUtica focused on a number of strategies that could build our community while protecting our environment. The idea is that sustainability doesn’t have to be just environmental or economic – we can reap social benefits alongside environmental benefits. (This author believes that sustainability is inherently social anyway, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

Knowing about strategies is helpful when moving towards a goal. But what about the goal itself? I starting thinking about what would motivate people to invest in the reUtica strategies. And it goes a little something like this:


So community can be thought of as a relationship between individuals and a larger group.  The individual has wants and needs – as well as contributions to offer.  Same with the community.  Every community needs something and gives something.

Now consider this: Is more focus placed on one side of the street than the other?  I think so.  Given the way conventional economic development happens, the focus is placed on what the individual wants and what the community can provide.  Just check out advertisements for neighborhood developments.  (Like this one: http://www.gallerybuckhead.com/neighborhood.html  I just love the tagline at the end of the description – “Experience all it has to offer.”)

Welcome to another shade of consumerism:  the consumption of place.  In my mind, ‘place’ is not a commodity that individuals can purchase to ‘experience’, use up and move on.  Granted, we all have things we need from a place:  water, shelter, safety, fun, etc.  But is that all there is?

What about ‘place’ as a home?  A home where we can develop into active participants that make a meaningful contribution to schools, libraries, parks, hospitals, government and our families and friends.  The diagram below describes the problem as I see it:


What would things in Utica look like if we placed more emphasis on the relationship in the green boxes?  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we should totally ignore the relationship in the white boxes.  What I am saying is that we need to consider our contributions to the community on equal footing with the community’s contributions to us.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to explore this theme a bit further and the reUtica project will be entering a new phase.  Stay tuned…

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At Utica College with the Young Scholars LPP

Over 100 Young Scholars students filled MacFarlane Auditorium at Utica College for reUtica’s third local screening. These students represent a diverse and bright group of middle school students from the Utica City School District. As part of their experience as Young Scholars, students entering grades 7, 8 and 9 are expected to attend Utica College over the summer for classes to prepare them for the upcoming school year. Students are also expected to participate in community service projects in addition to having strong academics.

reUtica was received well by these young people, despite being a pretty heady film at times. I was gratified that I somehow retained a junior high sense of humor in making the film…the students laughed and giggled at all the right parts. They also had some pretty intelligent things to say about the film and why ‘recycling, reusing and reducing’ made sense to them. We even had some candid conversations about values surrounding consumerism, community and the environment.

Thanks goes out to the Young Scholars LPP students, teachers and staff for all the time they devoted this summer to watching and discussing the film!

(Readers can learn more about the Young Scholars LPP at Utica College by visiting http://www.utica.edu/academic/yslpp/)

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March 9th Lesson from my Polish Grandparents

You don’t need to be an environmentalist to arrive at a formula that leads to a humane, healthful, happy and sustainable existence.

It’s been rainy in Portland today (go figure) and I was feeling under the weather, so I had some time on my hands to blog again. Searching for inspiration, I came across the original sketches I did for the opening sequence of reUtica. The “Global Climate Change -> Death” drawing was done in my brother’s truck, in the parking lot of Our Lady of Lourdes School (just before filming the opening and closing sequences). The above sketch is the original; I inked out the one for the film with a Sharpie.

While Matt and I made a nod to larger issues surrounding global climate change, we didn’t want the film to be about that. In fact, when I think about the ethics of recycling, reusing and reducing, I see a recipe for a more humane society – at least more humane than one dominated by rampant consumerism and fueled by a media-industrial complex that makes us feel less than who we are. After all, I knew that everyone watching reUtica would not feel as strongly as I do about environmental issues. And I don’t care if I’m right or wrong about all that anymore. (In fact, I’m hoping I’m really wrong.) What I do care about is this: The same forces that (in my view) are causing global climate change are the same forces that perpetuate social injustices. Even if you are not an environmentalist, you are probably observant enough to notice that our society is broken.

The culprit is our economy and our treatment of the economy as an immutable, inevitable, thing-unto-itself. Our economic activity has simultaneously replicated social inequalities and harmed the environment because at its heart is an essential flaw.

Let me explain: The way I see things, there are three essential REAL forms of capital that should be driving our economy: Human Capital, Social Capital, and Natural Capital. Below is a very brief definition of each.

Human Capital – refers to the health, well-being and capacity of a person. This includes things like education, personal experience and talents.

Social Capital – refers to connections in a community. What can we do together? “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Natural Capital – refers to the air we breathe, the land we live on, the water we drink, the other living creatures we share this world with.

But do these Capitals drive the economy? Or are they in the back seat? Are they the ends of economic activity? When they are, is everyone invited to share in the gains?

The words “economy” and “capitalism” in our culture have become synonymous with another word: Money. Money is an abstraction. It is not real. Humans, their social relationships and the environment are much more real than money is. Yet we behave as if an abstraction of our time, our resources, our commitments IS actually real and accurately prioritizes those real things for us. To make matters worse, money has become an end in itself. Since when have you seen a Profit and Loss statement that measured things like human health and well-being or community impacts of business activity? To be fair, this practice is starting to gain some momentum, but there’s a long, hard road ahead. For the most part, there is a single bottom line: that bottom line is an abstract figure (one that makes that most sense – by design, mind you – to those who have the most money).

But what if the value of money was solely predicated upon Human, Social and Natural Capital, inclusive of all people and the environment? What if Money was really just a tool to maximize these capitals – a means to make transactions efficient instead of being an end in itself? While I might sound a little pinko-commie here, I’m really not against capitalism. I’m just stressing that we’ve missed the boat on what capitals we should really be valuing. I’m also not saying that Money itself is evil. Rather, I’m just reiterating the old adage: THE LOVE OF MONEY is the root of all evil. (Emphasis added.)

So how does that relate to my last post on Lessons from my Polish grandparents? Certainly, grandma and grandpa weren’t hippies living off the land. They worked difficult factory jobs and were very careful with what little money they did make. However, they managed to live within their means. They did not take on much, if any, debt. In a practical sense, money was a tool to maximize on the human and social capitals around them. (For them, environmental capital was maximized as a by-product of lifestyle choices resulting from their focus on the latter capitals.) They saved for their modest retirements and made sure there was enough to keep the household healthy in the meanwhile. They practiced the strategies of recycling, reusing and reducing to help ensure that living within their means was possible. From grandma and grandpa I learned that living within ones means could be a path to a humane existence. From the sustainability movement, I learned that the environment has limits and living within its means is a matter of utmost importance. Grandma and grandpa would hardly consider themselves ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ but they had the essentials right anyway – long before their punk-ass grandkids made a film about it.

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Lessons from my Polish Grandparents

Grandpa and Grandma, circa 1948

reUtica the film opened with a dedication to our grandfather, John Ossowski. As a figure in my life, Grandpa was a bit like the sky – ethereal, somewhat distant but always present. He was born in a different time, a different place, a truly foreign set of circumstances I was fortunate enough to have been spared. Grandpa turned 16 in the Nazi-occupied Poland of 1940. He came of age just in time to be conscripted into slave labor. From what little was shared to me about his life during that period, I came to understand that he (and many men like him) were separated from their families, forced to dig trenches at gun point, and barely ate enough food to survive. I am truly humbled when I consider my own problems at age 16. I just wanted to fit in with the boys at school who had nice cars.

My grandfather died about a year after I moved to Portland, OR. During the week leading up to his death, it became very clear that the end was near. On the morning of the day he died, my father left me a cryptic voicemail and said he was heading to the hospital. Unable to reach my father, I called my brother. He got the word, too, and was heading to the hospital. I sat and cried for a moment in my downtown Portland office. There was simply nothing I could do but wait. I started looking for flights home. The day passed by with no news and I decided to go for a run after work. I thought it would help me gather my thoughts and strength for what was most certainly bad news to come. I remember the end of that run in particular.

My mind often wanders when I’m doing something repetitive, like running. Sometimes I have delusions of grandeur – like running with the elite runners at the Boilermaker. Sometimes I imagine that I’m on a horse, blazing through the forest. This day was no different, my run was full of grandeur and horses, just until the very end. As I cooled down to a moderate walking pace, turned off my music and removed my ear buds, I remember a sense of peace coming over me. In my mind’s eye, I saw my grandfather smiling at me. He then gave me a small velvet satchel that clinked a little as I cupped it in my hand. I wondered what it could be. Grandpa was a man of very modest means, and never handed over velvet satchels of anything. Still, it was comforting at that time to believe that I had been gifted by his presence, even being 3,000 miles from home.

When I returned to my desk, another voicemail was waiting for me. While I was on my run, Grandpa died.

My mind has returned to that last imagined moment time and time again. I’ve come to understand that the precious metal in the satchel is really the wisdom Grandpa imparted to me through witnessing his lived experience. He knew about what was really important in life. He survived the collapse of the Western world of his time. Moreover, he knew how to survive with his humanity intact. His efforts sustained the lives of 4 generations of my family – from my great-grandmother who lived with us when I was a child, to me, his son’s son. The nuggets of wisdom inside the satchel were lessons about living within your means, growing food at home, collecting rainwater, making your own wine, reusing things until they are really worn out, being creative with what you have, being kind to your family…and these are just a few of the lessons from my Polish grandparents. Our family is still fortunate enough to have grandma with us, so the lessons still have a living teacher.

When I look to the future, with all the dire reports on political, social, economic and ecological fronts, at best I can say that things are uncertain. The lessons from my Polish grandparents were forged during a time of great upheaval and proven themselves to be useful in maintaining a basic, humane and healthful existence. They transcended the aftermath of World War II in Europe, remained stable through the ramping up of the consumer era in America during the 1950’s, rode through the tumultuous 1960’s and 1970’s, stayed calm during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and provided a modest sanctuary during the first decade of the 21st century. Now more than ever we need to relearn and live these lessons. Making reUtica put me back in touch with this legacy. After all, the strategies espoused by the sustainability movement align remarkably well with the practices of generations past. Moving forward, I’d like to use this blog to reflect on these lessons and welcome readers to share your stories – the wealth of wisdom gleaned from your own families and people. And let’s make these stories come alive again by exploring ways to move forward with them.

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Watch reUtica now…

WATCH MATT’S INTERVIEW HERE.

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