Monday, July 21, 2008

July 24, 1981

While NBC would have you think that 8-8-08 is the greatest day in sports history, let's not overlook 7-24-08: training camp begins for the New England Patriots. Or how about 7-24-81, opening day of the National Sports Festival III, hosted at twenty different venues throughout Syracuse?

Though the Carrier Dome hasn't seen too many victorious sports moments recently (the lacrosse team won in Gillette Stadium, after all), on July 23, 1981, it was home to the opening night ceremonies of the National Sports Festival, a multi-sport competition created by the United States Olympic Committee to showcase Olympic sports in Olympic off-years. The festival took on a greater significance in 1981, as the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow had been boycotted by the United States. While Syracuse now gains notoriety for busting washed-up B-listers, Syracuse then hosted future superstars such as a 21-year old Greg Louganis at Nottingham Pool, 22-year old Scott Hamilton and teenagers Brian Boitano and Paul Wylie figure skating at the War Memorial (as well as a 16-year old Bonnie Blair on speedskates), 20-year old Dot Richardson playing softball at Meachem Field (who would go on to captain the first women's Olympic softball team in 1996), 19-year old Hershel Walker running track Sunnycrest Field (competing in the 4x100 relay, even though he was fresh off a Sugar Bowl win as a University of Georgia running back), and an 18-year old Patrick Ewing at Manley Field House (of course, Syracuse would see plenty of him in the next four years). 2500 athletes competing in 33 sports spent six days in Syracuse, housed in dorms at Syracuse University and transported via Centro to sites in every corner of Syracuse. The Sunnycrest track at Henninger was built especially for the festival (with $250,000 of federal grant money and the same amount of city funds), and the county legislature allocated $33,000 for renovations at Liverpool's Griffin Park. How exactly did the city of Syracuse come together for such an singular feat that did not involve the construction of a shopping mall?

A Sunday, July 19, 1981 Post-Standard article outlines the nearly three-year process in great detail. In 1978, the USOC decided to move future National Sports Festivals from the USOC home city of Colorado Springs to cities throughout the country, in an effort to showcase amateur athletes prior to Olympic appearances, and draw attention to sports that otherwise received little fanfare during the Olympic games--or were not even part of the Olympic Games at the time--such as badminton and windsurfing. Syracuse was one of 14 cities that received letters from the director of the USOC, inviting the city to be a potential host for the 1981 games. Mayor Lee Alexander asked the Commissioner of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, Frank Kelly, to look into the possibility of hosting the festival. Syracuse did have experience with sports festivals, as it had just hosted the inaugural Empire State Games. In the end, the competition came down to Syracuse and Orlando, and despite Orlando putting together a much more polished presentation to the USOC, Syracuse was ultimately awarded the games due to the close proximity of all venues necessary for the festival, as well as the availability of the SU dorms and dining halls for the athletes' village. (And yet, one thinks that if the USOC had seen all the empty seats in this video supposedly promoting Syracuse sports, they might not have realized that "it's all here.")

What is particularly interesting is that while a headline in the Sunday, July 19 Herald American boldly proclaimed "Festival to generate $4.7 million in revenue," the reality was that Syracuse entered the agreement to host the festival knowing that, in the short term, it would probably be a financial loss. In 1980, the Common Council approved a $500,000 guarantee against the festival -- a requirement by the USOC, in case the festival was a financial disaster. In the final contract between the Syracuse Organizing Committee and the USOC, the SOC would be responsible for transporting, housing and feeding all athletes, but would earn ticket revenue only. But to put it in retail terms, the festival could be considered a loss leader - 2500 athletes, their coaches, family and friends would spend six days throughout Syracuse. ABC would cover the festival for six hours, including three hours of coverage on Wide World of Sports. Over 400 journalists from 81 newspapers, 16 magazines, 10 television stations, 18 radio stations and 2 wire services would set up shop in a press office on the 10th floor of the Hotel Syracuse. And even when news came halfway through the festival that only 6-16% of the tickets had been sold outside of the Central New York Area -- which meant fewer hotel reservations and related tourist business--the festival was still considered profitable by both the city and USOC in the sense that it was an organizational success. There were scheduling problems here and there, and heavy showers that came mid-festival completely rained out some events, but 3000 full and part time volunteers came together to assist the games, and approximately 150,000 spectators ($457,000 worth of ticketholders) saw the entire city of Syracuse on display. Though the festival fell 100,000 spectators short of their pre-festival expectation of 250,000, as Boston Globe sports columnist Joe Concannon stated via an August 18, 1981 Syracuse Herald-Journal column: "Say what you will about Syracuse and its dreadful winters and drab appearance, but its people warmed up to the festival and made visitors feel at home...National Sports IV will be conducted next summer in Indianapolis...until then, let it be said that NSF III was a qualified success."

So yes--as any Boston Globe columnist or Patriots fan can tell you---then, there was Indy.

In 1982, when Syracuse was back to its familiar turf of demolishing buildings for shopping malls, Indianapolis was gearing up to host National Sports Festival IV. Actually, it had been in full planning mode for over one year, sending city representatives to Syracuse in 1981 to hand out press packets of their event the following year. A two-part article in the Syracuse Herald-Journal on Sunday, July 18 and Monday, July 19, 1982 details, point by point, how much Indianapolis showed up Syracuse: a projected $1 million dollars in ticket sales, two more national sponsors, 4000 more volunteers, a unique mascot (Sneakers the Squirrel), Bob Hope as grand marshal for the evening portion of the nine-hour opening day festivities (complete with 600 homing pigeons, 883 marching band members, 70 hot-air balloons, two groups of WWI-vintage biplanes, 55,000 American flags, 30,000 helium balloons, fireworks and 50,000 expected spectators), billboards and advertising in 23 cities in four states, and the 60,000-seat acoustical wonder Hoosier (later RCA) Dome. While Indianapolis has since demonstrated a pattern of throwing money at pretty things to look good , in 1982, Indianapolis desperately wanted an NFL team that would be routinely get decimated by an AFC rival from the Northeast. They desperately wanted figure skaters and swimmers and cyclists to hold national competitions there, and to that end, not only built the Hoosier (RCA) Dome, but also created a permanent organizing committee whose sole purpose was to attract sporting events to the city. Indianapolis has since not only become home of the Colts, but also known as
"Amateur Sports Capital of the World," given the large number of sporting venues in the downtown area, including Victory Field, home of the Indianapolis Indians, Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. When it comes to downtown Syracuse revitalization plans, residents repeatedly mention the desire for a downtown stadium, referring to their experiences in cities like Denver and, yes, Indianapolis.

Certainly, new stadiums are one of the biggest political boondoggles out there, but when any city revitalization plan is discussed, sports must be a central consideration in some context. As I know from my experience with running, sports inspire a certain obsession. If you want to run a marathon course known for its high percentage of Boston qualifiers, you'll travel to Scranton, PA or Lowell, MA despite the fact neither is known as a tourist destination ("The Office" fans, notwithstanding.) 10,000 runners visit Utica every July for the Boilermaker. One would hope that if the National Sports Festival were held today (unlikely, as the last NSF was held in 1995), an overflow crowd of 1,600 would still come to Meachem Field despite last week's headlines. That thousands would still watch the track and field events at Sunnycrest Park without thinking about random teenage assaults. That suburban parents would put aside their judgments of city school system and watch the Greg Louganis of tomorrow at Nottingham. True, at the end of the six days, there would once again be a quick retreat to the suburbs (and crude comments on the forums), but it would be a start. Such a valuable start that the city once had--just like Indianapolis--back in 1981. But instead of analyzing their performance and reworking their routine and setting their sights on the gold, Syracuse left the competition as if that was the win in and of itself, and settling not even for silver or bronze but its very own medal -- a token souvenir pin, now available on ebay.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

July 10, 2008

These blog entries require a bit of research. You would think that the City of Syracuse website would be a helpful resource. However, attempting to link to the website through Google produces this message:

What exactly does this mean?

As Google warns, "please be aware that malicious software is often installed without your knowledge or permission when you visit these sites, and can include programs that delete data on your computer, steal personal information such as passwords and credit card numbers, or alter your search results."

Way to welcome visitors to Syracuse, Syracuse.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

July 8, 1949

Syracuse has always had a bit of a retail fetish. I mean, who needs DestiNY when tourists already flock to the area due to its elite status among dead mall cities? But long before the DestiNY saga, there was a similarly drawn-out battle for a shopping mall in DeWitt. Fifty-nine years ago today, an architect who wished to build a $500,000 shopping center on a 46-acre parcel of land opposite DeWitt Cemetery (the Dadey farm) for a then-unnamed developer submitted his plans the DeWitt Town Board. The shopping center would be a one-story, half-circle shaped building housing twenty-four stores, with enough parking for 650 cars. Also included in the deal was a plan to construct 45 homes on the site, which would sell for about $15,000 each. The plan drew quick protest from Orvilton Park residents, who brought the matter to court, citing that they built their homes when the area was zoned residential, and the change in zoning would cause the value of their houses to drop. If you find it hard to imagine Erie Boulevard as a residential street, so did the judge who ruled in favor of the shopping center on May 27, 1950: "It is found that Erie Boulevard by reason of heavy vehicular traffic with resulting noise, dirt, odors and hazards is unsuited for residential purposes. One is not required to theorize to reach this conclusion." Furthermore, as the judge pointed out, five of the plaintiffs weren't even disgruntled homeowners, but rather businessmen who had recently sold their property located on the corner of East Genesee and Erie Boulevard to a competing shopping center developer (what would become the "DeWitt Stop and Shop Shopping Centre"). A shopping center on the site would be "in accord with a well-developed plan to promote the general welfare of the community," the judge stated.

With this decision, in June 1950, Eagan Real Estate announced their plans to begin construction of the Town and Country Shopping Center on the disputed site, though the year of legal battles had given Eagan the opportunity to expand their vision. The center would now contain 40 stores, and cost an estimated $3 million. These days, this shopping center is not only better known as Shoppingtown, but also as a favorite stop on the Dying Mall Tour. Plans are being discussed to redevelop the mall into a "lifestyle center," i.e. a strip plaza, not unlike the Dewitt Stop and Shop Shopping Centre (now better known as 4473 East Genesee Street), which still has storefronts to this day. In fact, all of the earliest shopping centers/strip plazas in Syracuse --Nottingham Plaza (1951), Valley Plaza (1952), Shop City Plaza (1952), Westvale Shopping Plaza (1950) and Mattydale Plaza (1950)--have remained intact and occupied, even while the neighborhoods around some of them have (sharply) declined. So as Syracuse continues to be seduced by new shopping centers, perhaps we should look at why these vintage plazas may be much more valuable.

When it comes to city revitalization, those who subscribe to the Richard Florida theory suggest that transformation begins with members of the "creative class" inhabiting--and rehabbing-- the city's downtown. 40 Below would not only like me to Come Home to Syracuse, but preferably move into a renovated loft or condominium downtown. But what does a call to live in a luxury condo in the abandoned blight of downtown Syracuse rather than an older house in an established neighborhood--albeit a neighborhood that has seen far better days--really say about the city that you're trying to revitalize? When Nottingham Realty Corporation built Valley Plaza in 1952 (with Eagan Real Estate serving as managing agents), the site was selected "after a detailed survey revealed that 55,000 persons in the immediate area can be conveniently served" (The Post-Standard, November 16, 1952). As Eugene W. Kilts stated in a letter to the Post Standard on January 17, 1972, when he moved to Syracuse in 1920, he "made many inquiries as to the best sections of the city to make my residence and 9 out of 10 recommended the South Side." His walk home from work (at 2 am!) involved "walk[ing] home via the then beautiful West Onondaga St. with its maple trees on both sides of the street...down South Ave. to Bellevue to Hudson Street." Mr. Kilts then adds "In those days you never feared being mugged at that time in the morning, but as of today...I would be frightened to walk that section in the daytime." Thirty-six years later, this sentiment has not changed. Given that the Syracuse of today is a direct result of the urban renewal actions of the 1960s, how exactly does establishing a neighborhood of young professionals and empty nesters downtown address the problems of these historic neighborhoods that are in desperate need of revitalization themselves? Is it perhaps easier to settle in condos in the abandoned downtown, because you are creating a neighborhood where none exists?

Also significant is that all of the above-named shopping centers were originally anchored by a supermarket (or in some cases, two supermarkets - but that's a whole other blog entry). Most still contain a grocery store today. While perhaps not aesthetically pleasing, these strip plazas did provide all of the amenities - food, pharmacy, department store - for the immediate neighborhoods surrounding them. And because each of these suburbs was located on the early trolley lines (which had all become bus lines by the time the shopping centers were built), sidewalks made the area walkable. If Syracuse is trying to "go green," then why not promote these neighborhoods with smaller houses (less energy/heat), sidewalks and short distances to the supermarket (less gas)? There is usually the assumption that "downtown living" means less driving than the suburbs. However, given that not only is Syracuse years away from a real mass transit system, but also has most of its offices currently based in the suburbs, downtown living in Syracuse is probably less of a green choice than settling in one of the inner-ring suburbs.

Lastly, it is important to note is that the sites for these older plazas were considered in relation to the proximity to the top Syracuse employers at the time. A January 25, 1955 Post-Standard article discussing the proposed expansion of Shop City mentions that the center "has ample parking space, an attractive feature to the thousands of workers from plants at Industrial Park...Carrier Corp., General Motors, General Electric Co. and other firms have plants in the area, one of the most rapidly developing sections in the U. S." L.T. Eagan of Eagan Real Estate cited the rapid growth of Syracuse as the main factor for JCPenney's 1952 decision to open a store in Shoppingtown:

"East, west, north, south, Syracuse grows beyond its borders...Carrier Corporation, Bristol Laboratories, U.S. Hoffman, Oberdorfer Foundries and other Digney interests, the new Western Electric upstate service and supply center to employ 500, mean nearly 10,000 industrial employees along one axis developed largely since the war...small wonder that national concerns look to Syracuse for outlets and Syracuse interests think in terms of branches around the great golden circle of the city." (The Post-Standard, October 12, 1952)

In other words, the jobs in Syracuse created the shopping centers; the shopping centers did not create the jobs in Syracuse.