Utica’s hottest new drink may be green like a Shamrock Shake, but it doesn’t taste like one. Katie Aiello-Martin owner of the hip new Character Coffee on Genesee Street in downtown Utica asked me if I wanted my matcha latte with or without sweetener.
“Some people say it can taste a little like grass,” she cautioned.
“WITH sweetener!” I insisted.
Katie Martin who is running for Utica Common Council, balances motherhood, community activism, running a business and making complicated coffee drinks with aplomb
While she ground up the brightly colored tea with a mortar and pestle. I pulled up a stool next to Steve Keblish who was writing down observations, ideas, and plans in a journal. I was curious what Keblish, the visionary community activist who is also running for one of the at-large positions on the Utica Common Council might be thinking about while I was busy wondering how “green” a matcha latte was going to taste.
“What are you writing?” I asked. Then I backtracked. “No! Let’s wait until Delvin gets here before we talk.”
Delvin Moody says on his website DelvinMoody.com that he is “running (for Utica Common Council) to encourage all to believe again, in change, justice and equality.” On his social media page Facebook.com/DelvinJMoody, he discussed being how being “Reared in church… called (him) to the service of others and helping his community."
Moody arrived, ordered his non-green drink and the four of us headed upstairs to a room with a beautiful view overlooking Utica’s bustling downtown.
“I don’t come with all the answers,” Martin said. “I’m doing this because I’m mad. I’m mad for the people here. I talk to them every day. I hear their struggles. Their voices aren’t being heard. Am I being heard?”
“Are you being heard?” I asked.
“Not by the people who are supposed to represent me,” she answered.
Steve Keblish says that he’s “seen how government works and doesn’t work” on his social media page www.facebook.com/SteveKeblish. He says that he sees great opportunity in Utica.
Keblish served 15 years in the National Guard, during that time was deployed three times in the Middle East including Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Qatar. On the home front, Keblish interned for Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, served on the West Canada School Board, and was, before moving to Utica, elected to the Herkimer County Board of Legislators.
“There are a lot of problems to fix, but I see solutions,” Keblish insists.
“When I talk about getting mad, I mean it in a productive way,” Martin said. “Our leadership doesn’t reflect the fact that this is a city of 42 languages.”
“I got involved in politics early on in high school,” Moody nodded his head in agreement.
“I’ve always been involved in activism and advocacy, and in dealing with racial politics.”
“We need more people with ‘skin in the game’,” Martin agreed.
On her social media page Facebook.com/KatieForUtica she lists her goals as “clean and safe streets, easily accessible neighborhoods, awareness of local organizations, showcasing businesses old and new, and…creating a budget with our people in mind.” All things that would be of paramount importance to a downtown businesswoman, as well as a wife and mother of two young children.
“I hope to bring inclusiveness and diversity to the conversation,” she says.
“I offer progressive leadership to the conversation,” Moody added. “There are policies that need to be addressed.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“When it comes to the downtown hospital,” Moody said. “The conversation is about location, but to Cornhill, location doesn’t matter. The conversation should be about jobs. How can I get the people in Cornhill skilled, trained, and educated for jobs at that hospital?”
“Cornhill’s one of the most populated areas of the city,” Martin pointed out.
“It’s populated and diverse,” Moody said. “There are black folks, new Americans, refugees, veterans, a high needs population including a lot of disabled and elderly. These conversations need to be elevated to a city-wide level.”
I asked Steve Keblish what he would bring to that conversation being gay.
“Having come from a minority experience, whether your visibly or invisibly different, there’s an enhanced conscientiousness,” he answered. “Are we giving everyone a chance to say something? A chance to be seen and to be heard?”
Keblish explained how he brings awareness and sensitivity knowing how “the system” and the culture can be a barrier to participation.
“We need to make sure someone is holding the door open for people who feel like they’re locked out,” Keblish said. “Utica has so many opportunities now. I give so much credit to the people who got the city moving again, but they’re not the right set of leaders to ‘steer the ship,’ that takes different skills. Delvin [Moody] is right that when it comes to talking about the hospital there is more than one question and so many opportunities for as many people as possible.”
“Opportunity has to do with race, gender, poverty, things that are systemic and institutional,” Moody nodded. “It takes leadership and a social understanding to even have those conversations.”
“We have to remind ourselves this a place for people,” said Keblish. “We don’t build cities for the sake of cars, or for the sake of anything but for people to build a good life. Things need to be close by, work needs to be close by, opportunities to grow and develop and flourish need to be close by. That’s why cities are tall, that’s why cities are dense, we have to put people together.”
Moody nodded and said, “Utica is a place where if you put a little work in you can actually see the proofs of your labor.”
“What about all the potholes?” I asked only half-jokingly, having dodged quite a few on my drive into the city.
“I struggle to get to the conversation about potholes,” Keblish briefly glanced down at his journal. “This is about young people trying to find a place where there’s economic opportunity and a sense of community.”
“This is about more than potholes, it’s more than downtown, it’s more than the hospital,” Martin gestured toward the window that looked out over part of the First Ward. “There are so many people in the district who just want to be represented. They live here, they pay taxes, they vote, but it’s the businesses who get all the attention from the people who should be representing them.”
“We talk about potholes, [but it’s also] poverty, absentee landlords, all of those things impact Cornhill even more so than in other districts,” Moody added. “There are a lot of people in Cornhill with ideas and projects. Cornhill needs somebody to be its champion and leader, in the same spirit the Bill Phillips was. We need that again.”
“OK, I see that you’re all focused on the bigger picture!,” I laughed. “What’s matters is growth and change, and moving forward. Maybe potholes are just a symptom of complacency and stagnation? Maybe the city needs ‘new’?”
“But, there’s so much to be learned from the people who stuck it out for the hardest years,” Martin described how she enjoyed walking down the block to talk to the owners of Freemen and Foote Jewelers. “There’s a lot of wisdom to be had.”
I pointed out how Utica is known for its brutal, lately even violent, politics. I told the three candidates how impressive it was to see a Republican, a Democrat, and an Independent drinking coffee together talking about how to work together. I asked them what they thought of that.
“That’s what’s been great about this conversation,” Martin enthused. “If we can just remember that Utica is the goal then government can work like this.”
“You just got lucky that you found three people who put the city first,” Keblish laughed. “Making the city better is our chief priority. If you’ve got that at the heart of things, it’s easy to work together.”
“Even if you disagree, you can disagree on the issues, not the people,” Moody nodded his head.
“It’s okay to disagree,” Martin said as we got up from the table. “We just need to keep talking. This is such a unique time for Utica. There’s a lot that you can do here. Now we just need for people like us who live everyday lives to get government.”
As we headed down the stairs, Character Coffee was bustling. I noticed no one else was brave enough to try the green matcha latte. They didn’t know what they were missing. It wasn’t a Shamrock Shake, but I really enjoyed it.
Steve Keblish looked around and took it all in.
“Utica grew up as a city that held opportunity for people who came here,” he said. “Up until the 1950s you could find a job, you could find opportunity, you could find the life you were looking for. The Genesee Trail ran through here, the Erie Canal came here. Now after half a century of decline it’s a place of opportunity again.”
Devlin Moody and I both dashed out on our way to other jobs.
“This is a great city that has tremendous potential!” he said as we shook hands and headed off in different directions on Genesee Street.
As I walked to my car, I thought about something Katie Martin told me before the interview started.
“We’re all candidate who aren’t going anywhere no matter what happened on Election Day,” she promised. “I see us as a team who’ll be knocking on doors, kicking stuff down, and making things happen for Utica.”
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo.