How would you like to have trash baskets with hippopotamus heads along Salina Street?
Do you suppose this would cut down the litter?
This is a device used in a playground in Copenhagen. Prof. Noreda A. Rotunno, chairman of the Advisory City Planning Commission, last night told members of the Citizens' Council on Urban Renewal.
"Children love to stuff their waste into the hippo's gaping mouth," he said. "I didn't see a single piece of waste paper anywhere." (Post-Standard, December 12, 1963)
During the urban renewal years, Syracuse leaders fancied themselves with the notion they were rebuilding themselves as a European city. Though they tore down a century-old brick church, the concrete wall for the new downtown steam plant—in their minds—resembled a European cathedral. As more buildings were razed and an empty pit became a defining feature of downtown, one could ask if they were recreating the bombed-out Europe that they may have seen as veterans of WWII. Rather, it was quite the opposite: in 1955, when downtown and the 15th Ward were still relatively intact, Mayor Mead stated the city shared "the same problems" as a war-ravaged West Germany:
Mayor Mead, who returned Friday from a 26-day tour of West Germany, reported last night that municipal officials in that country are faced with just about the same problems as encountered here.
The mayor said German officials are concerned with housing as the major problem of the post-war rehabilitation. He said the problem is critical in German cities which suffered from 30 to 90 percent destruction during the war.
But Germany and Syracuse did differ in one respect:
One thing the mayor noted, drawing again on problems faced here, was that the Germans do not appear to be taking advantage of the chance to modernize their cities while they have the chance.
He said the war damage requires almost complete reconstruction in most areas yet there is no tendency to widen streets or take other planning steps to guard against future problems.
Instead, the mayor said, streets are patched and new buildings are erected on the exact site of the old. "The people appear to want the old Germany and are reluctant to make changes," Mead said. (Syracuse Herald-Journal, September 25, 1955)
The international travel continued into the 1960s, with Mayor William Walsh, members of the City Council, MDA, City Planning Commission and Chamber of Commerce traveling to Ottawa, Canada to visit Sparkes Street Mall ("If we decide to build one in Syracuse we shall have considerably more money to spend on the project than what was spent in Ottawa"—Post-Standard, July 30, 1963); Mayor Walsh, "30 prominent civic leaders and their wives" on their own 16-day trip through Europe to "inspect methods of reconstruction and redevelopment resulting from the devastation of World War II" ("The mayor forecast 'more green spaces' in the redevelopment of downtown Syracuse as a result of the trip."—Post-Standard, October 22, 1963). One frequent member of the Syracuse delegation was chairman of the Advisory City Planning Commission and later chairman of the Syracuse Planning Commission Noreda Rotunno. Rotunno, a landscape architecture professor employed by Syracuse University as instructor, planner and architect at the same time as he held this advisory post—a seemingly huge conflict of interest apparent to only one astute letter writer in 1963 ("Why does the city of Syracuse tolerate the obvious conflict of interest which exists with Prof. Noreda Rotunno on Syracuse University payroll and as Chairman of the Planning Commission of the City of Syracuse?"—Post-Standard, August 20, 1963)—not only traveled to Ottawa with Walsh, but to pedestrian malls in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio (Post-Standard, October 30, 1959), looking to rebuild downtown Syracuse as a pedestrian mall. His greatest inspiration came from a trip made wearing his SU hat, as one of two American delegates sent to Poland for an 11-day conference of the International Federation of Landscape Architects. Ever mindful of his city planning cap, he and his wife spent an additional four weeks in Europe, studying the community facilities in eight cities in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Poland:
This past week, Professor Rotunno showed more than 100 color slides of community facilities in European cities to members of the Citizens' Council on Urban Renewal and several guests.
Council members exclaimed with delight and satisfaction over many features the slides showed. Some of these features were:
1. Satisfying Scenic Vistas—wide boulevards, tree-lined or flowered, forming the approach to public buildings, themselves set off by fountains or pools, or by grassy swards with beds of flowers.
2. Open spaces in abundance. Besides parks, plazas and playgrounds, these included pedestrian malls with colorful beds of flowers in the midst of shopping areas.
3. Cleanliness, everywhere.
"I never saw so much as a cigarette butt," the professor commented. (Post-Standard, December 15, 1963)
Rotunno saw many more wonders, including "pavements so beautifully patterned...it would hurt you to litter them," "exciting use of color," and "appealing, eye-catching detail." (You know, those same design tips that Nate Berkus recommends for your home.) One could argue that this had been present on historic James Street (which Rotunno advised the City Planning Commission to rezone to allow apartments and office buildings) or the Syracuse University campus (on which Rotunno razed classic late 19th century buildings for reinforced concrete boxes). In what seems like an architectural bait-and-switch, Rotunno advocated that all new urban renewal buildings "should be complimentary to the natural beauty of this area" (Syracuse Herald-American, February 19, 1967) and then presented this redesign plan for Syracuse University (yes, while still on the City Planning Commission):
Further inspired by visions of seemingly limitless growth, and empowered by the mandate to modernize, the University, the City, and the hospitals were remaking the face and character of University Hill. This process reached its apogee in 1966 with the unveiling of a University Hill General Neighborhood Renewal Plan, authored by Professor Rotunno. Conceived in the modernist spirit of contemporaneous New York State developments such as Albany's SUNY campus and that city's Empire State Plaza, the plan proposed an expanded series of quadrangles, set into a landscape radically remade to accommodate the automobile. The plan included expressway ramps leading directly into plinth-like underground parking garages with new groups of residential and academic towers built atop the parking plinths as far north as East Adams Street.
Rotunno was hardly the first planner to be enamored of European design only to enact a plan representing the antithesis. Viennese-born Victor Gruen also found his inspiration for his architecture in the cities and towns of his past:
Gruen often lamented how Americans flew to Paris, Rome, Florence or Vienna simply so that they might stroll through the city. He wondered, "What is it—what makes Europe the aim of millions of American tourists every year?" His response: "It is the unity between human and habitation and nature which are married happily to landscape," along with Europe's "rich public social life." American tourists—"who at home are usually not willing to walk from the garage to the house"—loved walking in Europe's picturesque cities.
In one speech, Gruen denigrated American cities as "seventeen suburbs in search of a city." "In contrast to the hearts of American cities, the core areas or inner cities of European towns...are still filled, morning and evening, day and night, weekdays and Sundays, with urban dynamism," Gruen wrote. On another occasion, he compared Los Angeles' Ventura Boulevard with Le Gran Boulevard in Paris. Paris' streets possessed "the character of real cities, urban qualities and urban functions." "I haven't seen people sit at sidewalk tables on Ventura Boulevard because there is nothing to look at," Gruen complained. "I haven't seen the kind of life and vitality and intermingling of very many human functions and urban functions." Americans, he lamented, gave up community and chose to live "detached lives in detached houses." (excerpt from Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream, by M. Jeffrey Hardwick, p. 133)
Victor's Gruen's solution for bringing the charm and vitality of European cities to America? The enclosed suburban shopping mall.
Victor Gruen's idea of recreating European cities in American fit in perfectly with an America that was looking to recreate its downtown in suburbia:
The shopping center would be clean, safe and ordered, whereas downtown seemed dangerous and dated. "Eliminate the noise, dirt, and chaos, replacing them with art, landscaping and attractively paved streets" and you had American's shopping malls, one magazine explained. Likewise, the shopping center's commercial density, pedestrian environment, cafes, and civic art suggested the aura of urbanity that suburbanites had lost. In addition, it was hardly a secret that the suburban experience, and especially the shopping center, was premised on creating a separate, private space for whites. Southdale's court provided a secure, predictable space from which white suburban men and women could feel a part of a larger civic world. (emphasis added)(excerpt from Mall Maker:Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream, by M.Jeffrey Hardwick, p. 152)***
Litter has been a problem in downtown streets since there have been downtown streets. 1890:
"Let us first abate our own nuisance of allowing contractors to dump garbage in the street. Consistency is a jewel, and we should set an example for others. The dumping of garbage in the highways has been a reprehensible custom. We have laws which ought to be enforced." (Syracuse Daily Standard, April 11, 1890).1906:
The Council of Clubs is much disturbed concerning the scattering of papers in the streets, especially in the downtown section...while our minds are taken up with larger enterprises in the beautification of Syracuse, we must not forget the lesser things which add so greatly to the appearance of the city. (Syracuse Herald, March 2, 1906).
For many years, Syracuse sponsored an annual "clean-up week," complete with business sponsors getting in on the action:
While the windblown plastic bags and takeout containers on the sidewalk today may look awful, one has to think that in the days of horse and streetcar travel in a downtown where the train ran through the heart of the city, the litter problem of a century ago assaulted the senses. And yet, the ladies of Strathmore and Sedgwick Farms still journeyed downtown on a regular basis, at the department stores which grew as fast as the renowned architects could build the stores. Litter appeared to be an ordinary, if annoying fact of city life—like honking horns or snow-covered sidewalks—until post-WWII, when it became another symbol of downtown "blight":
Litter had suddenly transformed from an eyesore to epidemic:
Health Commissioner C.A. Sargent called on every citizen for his fullest cooperation during Clean-Up Paint-Up Fix-Up Week from April 29 to May 6.
One thing to look out for especially, he said, are breeding places for flies, rats, mosquitoes, and other germ-bearing insects.
He emphasized that trash piles and dump heaps are not only eyesores and blights in a neighborhood but also constitute a menace to family health.
Because in this community, as in all others, residents live intimately with each other, it follows that such circumstances breed danger of disease or epidemics, Dr. Sargent said, and for this reason, community health and safety depends on everyone's practicing rules of hygiene. (Post-Standard, April 23, 1950).
Had Noreda Rotunno lined South Salina Street with hippo head trash receptacles during the time of urban renewal, downtown still would have failed. Not only because gimmicks never work, but the connection between downtown and trash had already been established. Did Syracuse (or, more specifically, the Syracuse Herald-Journal) not see the absurdity of "Mayor Henninger express[ing]...concern over lack of an aggressive agency in the city to concern itself with bringing new business into the Syracuse area" in the very same edition of the paper (one page apart) which stated "it is difficult to imagine how a highway could cause further depreciation or deterioration [of S. Townsend Street area]. It's almost like saying the construction of a highway—an elevated highway, if you will—through the city's "Big Moe" dump would depress real estate values"? (Syracuse Herald-Journal, April 27, 1958, p. 49 and p.50). What business would want to locate to a city being presented by its own newspaper as a "dump"?
Conversely, thirty years later, the city supported the construction of a shopping mall on land contaminated with toxic soil, next door to a sewage treatment plant, on the banks of one of the most polluted lakes in the nation. Not only was the opening of the mall celebrated by shoppers and press alike with nary a mention of dirt or grime, Syracuse considers it one of the greenest jewels in their emerald city.
The litter problem downtown is not just downtown litter, it's the association between the two that city leaders dumped on the post-WWII public and allowed to rot for the next six decades. By even highlighting the problem today, the connotation is again reinforced. It's important to remember that before urban renewal planners could build their highways and high-rises, they had to tear the city down. Unfortunately for Syracuse, this is the one area in which they succeeded.