Excerpted from City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town by Susan Hartman (Beacon Press, 2022).
For decades—starting in the 1970s—Utica was a city on fire.
There were church fires, store fires, apartment fires. But mostly there were fires in the abandoned homes around Cornhill, which had been a middle-class neighborhood of Welsh, Polish, Italian, and Irish—and in lower East Utica, which was predominately Italian.
As white people started fleeing Cornhill in the 1970s, Utica’s small Black community, which had been limited to public housing projects downtown, began moving in.
“Fire was a huge issue for the city,” said Scott Ingersoll, fire chief of the Utica Fire Department. At the height of the crisis, in the mid-1990s, there were over 300 fires a year. “Sometimes guys came in and worked three, four fires a day.”
Just walking around the city, “you couldn’t help but smell the smoke,” said Nancy Ford, a photographer, who grew up in Cornhill and covered fires during the mid-1990s for the local paper, the Observer-Dispatch. Every night before going to sleep, she laid out her clothes and keys—just as the firefighters did—so she could quickly get out the door. “You could hear the sirens—Utica’s not a big city.”
Fire trucks raced down Genesee Street. They headed toward streets— Rutger, Bleecker, Blandina, South—where vacant frame houses had been set ablaze.
These fires did not spring up overnight: A vibrant industrial town in the 1950s, Utica was home to General Electric; the UNIVAC division of the Sperry Rand Corporation, a computer manufacturer; and Chicago Pneumatic, a power tools manufacturer. Griffiss Air Force Base was in nearby Rome.
These companies—and Griffiss—provided thousands of good jobs.
Then in the 1960s, things began to change: “We started to hear about dads being laid off,” said John Zogby, a national pollster and former history professor, who grew up in Utica. His father, a Lebanese immigrant, owned a grocery store, but his friends’ fathers worked at GE and Univac, which were downsizing.
Mr. Zogby, 72, recalled a day in elementary school when boys were supposed to bring in a dollar for a basketball T-shirt. Instead, kids told teachers, “Here’s a note from my mother.”
In a narrative unfolding in old manufacturing towns across the country—in Cleveland, Detroit, Dayton, Chicago, and St. Louis—plants began to close. General Electric pulled out of Utica in the early 1990s. Griffiss Air Force Base closed in 1995.
Genesee, the city’s gracious main street—lined with a canopy of elms, before they got wiped out by Dutch elm disease in the 1960s—was a commercial hub: It had a large Woolworth Co.; Wicks & Greenman, a fine men’s store; and The Boston Store, a nearly block-long department store. The Imperial Restaurant, a beloved, New York City–style steak- house, was nearby.
But as Utica’s population, which stood at about 100,000 in 1960, started to plunge, Genesee began to fill with empty storefronts.
“You had a city laid out for 150,000,” Mr. Zogby said, “anticipating that the population would grow.” Within years, “you have a lot of deteriorating buildings with no hope someone will buy them, fix them up.”
Uticans had been proud of their town. And they had a gallows sense of humor about their notoriously corrupt politicians—and their volatile mayor, Ed Hanna, a wealthy businessman, who served in the 1970s and was twice elected in the 1990s. In a CBS interview taped in 1999, Mayor Hanna walked around a rubble-filled lot, looking disgusted.
Laughing, he told the interviewer he had a nightmare: “I dreamed I was the mayor of the city of Utica.”
Now out of work and demoralized, residents turned against their city. “You started seeing a funk,” Mr. Zogby said. “People said to each other, ‘I told you this place is no good. The politics are dirty. I hate to tell you this—I don’t want you to go. But you gotta get out of here.’”
Many houses were now worth less than their annual taxes; it had been decades since there had been a property reassessment. A house in Cornhill worth about $10,000 in 1947 was now worth about $1,000.
“People just walked away,” Mr. Zogby said. “They left their stuff” behind—furniture, rugs, and other possessions. Many moved to North and South Carolina, Ohio, and Oklahoma, following their companies, or looking for similar work.
Some residents still remember the bumper sticker: “Last one out of Utica, please turn out the lights.”
Absentee landlords bought houses at auction—then hired people to burn them so they could collect the insurance money. And some owners torched their own homes.
“Arson rates just skyrocketed,” Chief Ingersoll said. In the mid-nineties, 45 percent of all structure fires were ruled arson, twice the national aver- age, and three times the New York state average.
The arsonists were relentless: “We’d put out a fire in a vacant building,” said Lieutenant Phil Fasolo, who joined the fire department in 1990. “Then a few hours later, we’d be called back to the same burning building.”
His older brother, Acting Deputy Chief Michael Fasolo, was fighting a fire on Neilson Street when he looked to his left: Another fire was burning on the same side of the street.
Firefighters could see the signs: Milk containers filled with gas at the top of stairs. Balloons filled with gas. Gas thrown down sinks and spilled along hallways.
At a third-floor fire on the corner of Columbia and Fay, Captain Anthony Zumpano, then a firefighter, opened his hose, accidentally dis- lodging a big container. “Fire just exploded, curled around us,” he said. It was only afterward, standing outside, that he realized he was covered with liquid gas.
Arson was difficult to prosecute, partly because the investigative process was cumbersome. The morning after a fire, a fire marshal would start investigating. By the time a fire was determined to be arson, wit- nesses, occupants, homeowners, and landlords may have disappeared.
“You’ve lost a lot of time; you’ve lost the potential to secure evidence,” said Lieutenant Fasolo, who became a fire marshal in 1994. There was rarely closure: Investigations into about 350 suspected arsons in Utica from1988 to 1993 produced only a handful of convictions.
The police lost control of neighborhoods: Drug dealers and gang members from New York City started moving onto blocks that had been extremely close-knit.
“At one time, everyone knew everyone else on the block,” said Sergeant Robert Di Pena, a veteran Utica police officer who investigated arsons, in an interview with the Observer-Dispatch in 1998. “Now you have a neighborhood of strangers. Anyone can walk into a neighbor- hood and commit a crime, and no one knows if he belongs there or not.”
Instead of using guns to settle turf wars, drug dealers often set fires. And drug users accidentally set fires, trying to keep warm as they crashed in abandoned houses.
Just walking around could be dangerous: Azira Tabucic, 26, a Bosnian refugee—on her way to an English class—was crossing South Street when a pack of dogs ran out of an abandoned garage. One hung onto her leg, biting it, before they all ran off.
Other Rust Belt cities had a similarly bleak landscape.
Buffalo lost over half its population between 1950 and 2010—and gangs, squatters, and young people frustrated by the lack of opportunity burned down hundreds of houses a year. On virtually every block in East Buffalo, there were boarded-up and burned-out buildings. By 2000, there were vast stretches of no-man’s land—about 8,000 abandoned structures and about 10,000 vacant lots.
In Youngstown, Ohio, which had been a steel giant, everything changed on September 19, 1977, known as Black Monday: Youngstown Sheet and Tube abruptly laid off 5,000 workers. Within 10 years, 40,000 manufacturing jobs were gone. In the 1960s, the city bustled with about 170,000 people. By 1997, the population had declined to about 70,000, and many neighborhoods burned.
Uticans are tough and used to taking blows. Yet when the Kanatenah—a once-elegant, historic apartment building on Genesee Street—went up in flames in 1994, the city was stunned.
It was the magnitude of the loss: An enormous seven-story Victorian building of dark red brick, the Kanatenah was a reminder of what Utica had been in the 1890s, when it was built.
It was designed by Richard George, a German-born architect and builder, along with local developers Milton Northrup and Seymour Dewitt Latcher, as townhouses for Utica’s wealthy doctors, lawyers, and merchants. In recent decades, it had fallen into disrepair; its tenants were mostly working class and poor.
“It was one of the biggest fires of that era,” said Peter Caruso, then deputy chief of the department. Starting within the walls of the second floor, flames quickly shot to the seventh through the building’s hollow walls and shafts. Ten fire trucks and 50 firefighters arrived, every re- source the department had.
At 2 a.m. on an icy March morning, firefighters banged on 93 apartment doors. For hours, people streamed from the lit-up building. “There were squatters, guests, transients,” said Lieutenant Fasolo, then a 24-year-old firefighter on duty. “Nobody knew how many actually lived there.”
People fought their way out of exits and fire escapes taped with sheeting to keep out the cold. Smoke detectors had failed. Some emergency exit doors had been nailed shut.
Many had already survived fires: Sherman Green had moved to the Kanatenah the previous year, after being burned out of his apartment on South Street. Grover Smith, asleep in front of the TV when he heard sirens, had recently been burned out of his James Street apartment.
Hundreds lined up to watch. “People came from all over the city,” said Ms. Ford, who covered the fire for the Observer-Dispatch.
On the fifth floor she spotted a man, poking out from a window, wearing a Panama hat. “He was teetering on his stomach,” she said, as smoke billowed behind him. “I thought he was going to jump.”
She pointed him out to Deputy Chief David Paul, who said they had to wait for the next ladder truck.
“The guy pulled himself over the ledge, still wearing his hat,” she said. As soon as the ladder reached him, he started climbing down, head-first.
Lieutenant Fasolo was below. “We climbed up and grabbed him,” he said.
Lieutenant Fasolo heard that an elderly woman was trapped on the seventh floor. “There was an orange glow coming from that area,” he said. He carried the fragile, 90-year-old woman out like a baby, wrapped in a flowered bedsheet.
When the Kanatenah collapsed, its seven floors toppled to the ground floor. And the city began to absorb the loss: About 150 residents—now homeless—were taken in by various social service agencies around the city. Three were hospitalized for smoke inhalation, including Bill Knief, a stocky, gray-haired man known as Bill the Poet, who handed out his poems downtown.
Later that night, Ms. Ford saw the man in the Panama hat. He was taken to the hospital but had returned.
He was leaning against a car repair garage across the street, just staring at the burning building.
“It was as if nothing had happened,” she said. “He looked unaffected. But his nostrils were smoke stained.”
Excerpted from City of Refugees by Susan Hartman (2022). Used with permission from Beacon Press.
Click here to read a conversation about City of Refugees between Susan Hartman and Marisa S. Budlong.
Susan Hartman has written about immigrant communities for over 20 years, with stories appearing in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and Newsday. The author of two books of poetry, she was educated at Kirkland College and received an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she now teaches.