Tuesday, August 12, 2008

August 18, 1975/August 13, 1976

(Please note: the comments setting has been corrected!)

I am a child of Syracuse's overmalled '80s. One look at photos of me from those years and it would be quite evident: my outfits matched the styles of the day, regardless of how silly or absolutely wrong they appeared. Should the girl who was always shortest in her class by a foot have worn oversized sweatshirts that fell to her knees? No, she should not have, but did she own several in every color of the neon rainbow? Yes, she did, because that is what we did in Syracuse in the 70s and 80s: we spent so much time --good times--at the malls that we had to bring part of it home with us. You bought an outfit knowing that it would be out of style in another three months (and therefore never to be worn again), but you didn't care because not only was it your parents' money, but for that moment of time, you were on top of the trend (which, for Syracuse, meant a year behind New York, LA and the other big cities).

Given this, I understand why Syracuse has a history of attention deficit disorder-type behavior. When a city has continually placed its faith in retail, to the point of having seven major malls by the end of the 80s, it is no wonder that it started to adapt behaviors like the shoppers themselves. Yet instead of having a closet full of stone-washed jeans and shaker knit sweaters, Syracuse has amassed a collection of "studies." Just as I one time bought pink neon telephone earrings, Syracuse once dropped $50,000 (federal funds) in 1979 to study building a monorail from SU to downtown. I didn't question slouch socks, and apparently neither did Onondaga County when it spent $23,500 ($12,000 covered by the state) in 1966 to study recreational facilities (including the possible relocation of the Burnet Park Zoo to the northwest section of Onondaga Lake, between Route 690 and the Thruway). And while we will examine all of these in due time (the plans, though maybe the fashions as well), let's start with the study that has experienced more comebacks than jelly shoes: The SyracUSA report.

News of the SyracUSA study first hit the newspapers in late 1972. A December 28, 1972 Post-Standard editorial outlined the $100,000 study, commissioned by the Metropolitan Development Association, and prepared by the architect-planning team of McAfee, Malo, Lebensold Affleck and Nichol, and economic consultants Barton-Aschman and Hammer, Green & Silver. John R. Searles Jr., executive vice president of the MDA, referred to the study as a "call to action...positive steps to turning the tide for downtown." The main points of the study, as listed in the Post-Standard editorial, are as follows:

1. Convert Salina Street downtown into a transit mall for buses only, giving priority to pedestrian traffic and thereby making the main shopping center of the region more attractive.
2. Renovate Clinton Square by re-routing Erie Boulevard to the north and south of the Square in a one-way pair.
3. Build housing downtown for families of all incomes.
4. Complete the Civic Center.
5. Build a structure near the Civic Center for parking and other commercial and entertainment uses.
6. Favor the pedestrian by breakthroughs between adjacent stores and attractive weather proof underground or overhead walks.
7. Run a pedestrian-oriented minibus on downtown Salina Street.
8. Institute an East-West Way to provide easy access from the University complex to downtown.
9. Building the proposed Transportation Center.
10. Save old attractive buildings.
11. Give long-range consideration to the opportunities for outstanding developments in the Warren-Washington Street, Onondaga-Salina Street, and Clinton Square sectors.
12. Give long-range consideration to the Southwest sector - beyond the tracks.
13. Establish a SyracUSA Corporation, to believe in downtown, keep it going, and put it all together.
(The Post-Standard, December 28, 1972, p. 4)

Looking at the report in this form, the plan doesn't seem like something that should be resurrected, especially when you consider that variations of many of these ideas were eventually carried out, with unfortunate results. Skybridges (number 6)? The Salt City Trolley (number 7)?. Yet a Post-Standard article written when the final report was unveiled nine months later, on September 19, 1973, discusses these ideas in the context of the bigger picture for downtown:

"The chief focus of the study is to give the city an 'image' or identity that is exciting and unique - termed in the study as 'SyracUSA'...[the study] advises stressing the city's historically interesting assets, such as its Indian heritage, the Erie Canal, old buildings and even the trains that once plied Washington Street...functional areas [should] be highlighted through creative developments, such as reconstructing an Erie Canal atmosphere (with water) at Clinton Square, and making Onondaga Creek into an all-weather park and amusement area."
(The Post-Standard, September 20, 1973)

Report author Fred Lebensold, an architect who also designed Place Bonaventure in Montreal, Quebec, said at the presentation that the study was less about construction than conviction: "Lebensold emphasized the study is aimed...at the infusion of a downtown spirit...downtown is psychological and physical-- and the attitudes with which people regard it give it meaning." (The Post-Standard, September 20, 1973). As mentioned in an earlier post, Lebensold later stressed the importance of uncovering the canals, and architect Paul Melo encouraged the glass roof/canopies over streets. John Searles wished to turn Onondaga Creek into an area similar to San Antonio's Riverwalk. But, unfortunately, what Lebensold, Malo and Searles didn't fully take into account was that this was a plan that was being presented to a downtown that still couldn't see beyond department stores. Rather than requesting a further study of the canals or the canopies or the creek, the city thought it could "infuse a downtown spirit" in a much more direct and simpler way.

Syracuse held a sidewalk sale.

Now, to be fair, the SyracUSA Festival, held August 18-24, 1975, was more than shops opening their doors to pedestrians on a closed-off four-block strip of South Salina Street. In fact, as it was promoted, SyracUSA Festival Week was "the biggest Festival/Shopping Spree/Carnival/Sale-a-thon/Fun Fair/Celebration since the Canal went through!" (Syracuse Herald-Journal, August 17, 1975, p.22). (Once again, you have to wonder, if a 10-day street festival was the most fun since the canal went through Syracuse, what would happen if the ACTUAL canal ran through Syracuse again year-round, for the rest of time, as suggested by the ACTUAL SyracUSA report?) The festival's stated purpose was to "reaffirm downtown as a people's place for meeting, buying, setting the fashion place and just having fun" (The Post-Standard, August 15, 1975, p 12). As one can imagine, if you provide a parade, ferris wheel, carnival games, hot air balloon, movies, a petting zoo, bands, fashion shows, arts and crafts booths, flea market vendors and, yes, free parking, crowds might gather in downtown Syracuse for ten days. Harold H. McGrath, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Downtown Promotion Committee (which sponsored the SyracUSA festival), said mid-way through the festival that "we've proved people will come downtown if there's something to come down here for, and that's what we wanted to prove" (Syracuse Herald-Journal, August 21, 1975, p. 31). Well, true, but the same could be said about the Fairgrounds during the State Fair. If visitors aren't flocking to the Fairgrounds on the Tuesday after Labor Day, why would the city expect any differently for downtown after the festival? Mr. McGrath seemed to realize this, stating "this is just a start, not our last hurrah," and pointed out that the Downtown Committee had several other events planned to lure people downtown.

While McGrath did not name any planned festivals at that time, we know that in fact many festivals have been held downtown since SyracUSA--New York State Blues Festival, Taste of Syracuse, Winterfest. If you build it, they will come, but they will also go as soon as the stages/booths/tables are dismantled. After the second SyracUSA festival in 1976, several merchants complained that not only was there no noticeable increase in sales, but the street fair actually turned away their usual customers. A "Warren Street jeweler" said that "the carnival atmosphere was an injustice to intelligent shoppers" (The Post-Standard, August 24, 1976). One Dey's merchandise manager openly wished that the festival have "less honky-tonk and more charm and sophistication." These thoughts were also echoed by "Shopper" in a letter to the editor printed in the Syracuse Herald-Journal, August 28, 1976:

"To SyracUSA promoters: The way to make downtown attractive to shoppers is not to fill it with carnival noise and screaming lower life....If you would use the money wasted on such projects and continue the subsidized three-hour free parking to several days a week, shoppers would come downtown to spend money...You had better do something soon or no one will patronize downtown. SyracUSA was almost a fatal illness this time, bury it, and realize you have to appeal to decent, intelligent shoppers who appreciate an attractive downtown to go to and spend their money."

The Downtown Committee did in fact bury SyracUSA festival after 1976. The SyracUSA report, however, lived on, creating several other spin-off studies, such as the $48,200 Transitway study (to create a more detailed plan regarding a Salina Street pedestrian mall), a $4,500 study about skybridges (paid to Fred Lebensold), and even the monorail study was seen as a modification of the report's proposed link between Drumlins and Burnet Park (The Post-Standard, November 17, 1978, p. 13). And while perhaps we should be grateful that we didn't end up with a people-mover downtown, we also don't have any more people downtown, either.


When it came time to buy an outfit for my high school yearbook photo, I skipped the floral prints and acid wash and opted for plain, blue blouse. It wasn't particularly cutting-edge or fashionable, but my thought was that plain, blue blouses had always been on the racks at the mall stores, holding their own through all the other silly trends. Future generations could not point and laugh at a plain, blue blouse and say it looked dated. Granted, I'm only sixteen years out from my experiment, but so far, my theory has held true.

Therefore, it's a bit of a shame that Syracuse, with its similar shopper mentality, has never stopped to look at what sells throughout the seasons. It's quite possible that the "Warren Street jeweler" quoted above is the same Warren Street jeweler that has not only been around for 118 years, but one of the few remaining retailers downtown. Instead of throwing a literal dog and pony show on Salina Street back in 1975-76, perhaps some of the city officials behind the SyracUSA festival should have wandered one street over and asked the handful of shoppers at that jewelry store what brought them there. Chances are the answers would be an engagement ring, a wedding gift, an heirloom to last for time. Which is, to say, exactly what was said in the heart of the SyracUSA report: if the redevelopment of Syracuse focuses on the historical legacy of Syracuse, then it can never go out of style.

1 comment:

NYCO said...

Just when I thought your Syracuse flashbacks couldn't get any more nightmarish, you bring up '80s fashion! :-)