Sunday, January 4, 2009

January 12, 1963/January 12, 1976

For some, New Year's Eve evokes images of Times Square or Auld Lang Syne. For me, it's sinking cruise ships. Back in the nineties, The Poseidon Adventure was the It's a Wonderful Life of the New Year's Eve holiday: search the cable channels, and you would likely find one with an all-night marathon of the disaster film. I spent the last 2 hours of many of those years watching the Reverend Scott lead a group of passengers through literal hell and high water to their hopeful rescue at the overturned bottom of the boat. The suspense and terror guaranteed that not only would you stay awake until midnight, but also for the next several nights after.

Now, on the eve of a new year and new president, I find myself recalling the Poseidon Adventure and its disaster film counterparts when reflecting upon the Bush presidency. From The Towering Inferno to Hurricane, the past eight years have been like the 70s disaster film heyday in 00's real time. In the next few weeks, reporters will make feeble attempts to sum up the Bush White House years. And yet, where does one start? How does one explain, when every one bad decision led to dozens of even more catastrophes? And most importantly, how does one end, when crises are still unfolding, and the total damage has yet to be seen?

This is why I hesitate to write anything about Syracuse in the 60s and 70s, aka the urban renewal years. How exactly does one capture a period of time that went from the headline "Tremendous Future Envisioned for Syracuse" (January 12, 1963) to "What to do with hole [left in ground after razing Edwards' department store]?" (January 12, 1976) within a little more than a decade?

Maybe we can start with this:

If you want a path, a road, a bisecting elevated highway through which to follow the exploits of urban renewal in Syracuse, look up: not only to the MONY/AXA towers, but also at this labelscar on the roof of the building at 400 South Salina Street. In 1963, the Metropolitan Development Association paid $232,000 to consulting group Barton Aschman Associates, led by former executive director of the Chicago Planning Commission, Frederick Aschman, to develop a "comprehensive action plan" for Downtown Syracuse. While Aschman said that the "signs for opportunity are very clearly here," he also warned that it wasn't his job to to do any actual planning for a rebuilding of downtown:

"Our job will be only to create opportunities for civic action which will provide opportunities for growth and development. The real force for every opportunity is obviously private enterprise, characterized by drive and imagination." (The Post-Standard, January 12, 1963)

So, for $232,000 (same buying power as $1,589,761.29 in 2008), the MDA got the friendly advice to "think big." And in what can only be described as a defining moment for Syracuse, the city conjured up the most creative idea it could dream: a department store. On the day of the announcement, Kenneth G. Bartlett, president, and John R. Searles, Jr., executive vice president of the MDA, issued a joint statement:

"We congratulate Mayor Walsh and his administration on the successful negotiations which will bring Sibley, Lindsay & Curr to downtown Syracuse...This indicates what a city administration can do by the judicious use of urban renewal and public parking." (The Post-Standard, November 22, 1964)

And thus began one of Syracuse's biggest urban renewal sagas. In the years that passed between the announcement and grand opening of Sibley's in October 1969 (two years later than originally scheduled), Camillus Plaza was constructed, Fairmount Fair was enlarged and enclosed, and plans for Fayetteville Mall and Penn Can Mall were on the drawing board. Not to mention, of course, the many buildings that were razed on the 62-acre site, including RKO Keith's and Paramount theaters ("it is most likely that the owners will welcome this opportunity to be rid of these 'white elephant' structures, with their acres of waste space" - November 22, 1964 Post-Standard editorial), so that Syracusans could have another option to buy clothes and housewares Downtown, in case they couldn't find what they were looking for at Edwards, Grant's, Witherill's, Dey's, Chappell's, Addis Co., Flah's, Wells & Coverly, Woolworth's or Kmart all of which were operating in Downtown at the time. One can only imagine the expectations that one would have for a department store five years in the makingmoving carpet escalators! sidewalks that melt snow! but when Sibley's opened with the typical shopping environment, it was left to Edwards to destroy their century-old building and construct a new onealso with urban renewal fundsto provide a department store with these bells and whistles (as promised in a January 22, 1967 Syracuse Herald-American ad). City leaders contended the "(former) Edwards block will present a particularly attractive location for retail and office development." (Syracuse Herald-Journal, March 3, 1966). And while the lengthy demolition ("she's built like a battleship and was made extra strong," according to the wrecking crew (Syracuse Herald-Journal, March 7, 1973)) of the original Edwards may have left a hole in the hearts of some Syracusans, it left quite a literal hole—football field sized, in fact in the ground of downtown Syracuse, particularly attractive to no one.

There's got to be a morning after, and for the city, the hole initially held the promise ofin the words of then-Mayor Lee Alexander"Syracuse's own Rockefeller Center." (December 28, 1973). Syracuse had attempted to create a downtown skating rink earlier that year, by flooding West Water Street between Clinton and Salina Streets (then the idea was "Skating on the Old Erie Canal"), but a winter heat wave cancelled the event. Alas, Syracuse's Rockefeller Center didn't fare much better: unable to afford an artificial ice rink like the original, the city merely filled the empty pit with water and hoped for a cold snap. However, it turned out that the hole was too deep for freezing to occur, wind blew snow down into the rink, and therefore the rink did not last beyond the season. Three years later, the hole sat untouched and, sadly, forgotten. When asked about creating a temporary use for the site in a January 12, 1976 Syracuse Herald-Journal article (that itself was buried in the paper's Lifestyle section, between Hints from Heloise and an ad for unwanted hair removal), Mayor Alexander said "You're talking about many thousands of dollars...there are many other demands right now." Erwin Schultz, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, admitted to the reporter that "he hadn't been by the site in a while, and wondered aloud about the condition of the wooden fence" around the pit. David Mitchel, Commissioner of Commercial Development, admitted there was no interest in the site for commercial development, and turning it into a park was not possible, as there was the question of maintenance and security. Someone in the Mayor's office suggested turning the pit into a sunken garden complete with trees, flowers and cobras. Yes, cobras"to release at night and use them as security guards."

Needless to say, you have to think that when city leaders envisioned a "tremendous future for Syracuse" via urban renewal thirteen years earlier, a downtown highlighted by a deadly snake pit wasn't what they had in mind.

These days, the former hole is filled in and the site of the Downtown Farmer's Market in the summer, a real skating rink has been created in Clinton Square in the winter, and the old "new" Edwards Deparment store is home to a satellite campus of SUNY Oswego (minus the moving carpet escalators and snow-melting sidewalks, but the Edwards store apparently never got those, either). For all the current complaining about Downtown, it would appear more promising today than three decades ago. This perplexing reality is not unlike my own, which, when contemplating if I am better off now than eight years ago, surprisingly find myself responding yes: eight years ago, the only marathons I could endure were on cable movie channels, now I've run three of the real thing. Even more disturbing is that this awkward realization made me wonder if there was some truth to this gem of a September 10, 1961 article published in the National Sunday Magazine (
a supplement to the Post-Standard) entitled "Girls, If You Want to Be Happy, Be Female":

She couldn't care less who's President. Or what's going to happen to the city charter revision proposal. ..In some strange way woman is a thousand years older than man, and knows instinctively what he does not — that politicians come and go, cities burn and die, democracies replace dictatorships and vice versa, and that there'll be a new kind of society along any minute, like a streetcar. (by Candy Jones, the famous '40s model who later claimed to be part of a secret mind-control program)

But when you think about it, maybe that's the true horror of disaster films such as Poseidon Adventure: that we are always pushing forward, simply as a matter of survival. At its best, it's still being here after eight long years to have the opportunity to see Barack Obama being sworn into office in two weeks. At its worst, it's being perfectly happy with the elevated portion of 81 as is because it allows you to commute to/from the suburbs all the faster (and avoid all the unsavoriness of the city below). It's measuring the success of Syracuse largely in terms of retail chain stores in your suburban neighborhood. It's despite all the history that survived urban renewal, seeing—and apparently selling—Downtown Syracuse as nothing more than a place to get your nails done.

For me, this blog is not an exercise in nostalgic research; after all, "remember when" is the lowest form of conversation. As it stands now, a family that has chosen to make their home in Syracuse for over one hundred years will not continue in the city beyond my mother's generation. And sure, Syracuse will keep plugging along if my family line doesn't continue there, just like Reverend Scott and the gang kept heading towards the hull. But it seems to me that instead of inviting its former residents to come home, Syracuse should be asking its natives why they left. Consider these entries as my attempt to provide an answer. If only for myself.


Josh said...

Great post. Good to see/read you back.

Anonymous said...

Syracuse still hasn't learned from its mistakes. For all the buildings that have been torn down in Downtown over the years with promises that something better would be built soon on the site, they're about to do it again. They're going to tear down an older building at the corner of Warren and Fayette, to make a park until somebody can be found to build a new structure there (despite the fact that outside of Armory Square, there's been no new structure in Downtown in over 20 years). Shades of the Edwards debacle you wrote about. And the Kinney-Primex pit that sat empty for a few years and has been a parking lot ever since. Or the Yates Hotel that's likewise been a parking lot since the 70s. I can guarantee that the "temporary" park that they plan to build on the lot will still be there in 20 years. Why don't we cut to the chase and just turn Downtown into one giant parking lot?