Thursday, July 9, 2009

July 8, 1910

After I sort through all of the ridiculousness that is Destiny USA, I find myself asking one simple question:

Did Syracuse really think that a Dave & Buster's was its ticket to economic fortune?

As someone who currently lives 15 minutes (walking distance) from a Dave & Buster's, I've never heard of anyone visiting my city solely because of the possibility of playing skeeball at a Chuck E. Cheese for grownups. The fact that Dave & Buster's chose to be here suggests they view this city as a viable market, but they certainly aren't the backbone of its economic or tourism prospects. Therefore, I always find myself a bit confused when I read some of the entries on Post-Standard Store Front Blog. I understand perhaps wanting a Cheesecake Factory or Cabela's in Syracuse for the sake of personal convenience, but in discussions regarding Carousel Center/Destiny USA, there still remains this sentiment that having Dave & Buster's or any other number of retailers would draw visitors to Syracuse from far and wide:

"Anyway, we've watched Pyramid grow over the years, borrowing things it created in its mall "lab" at Carousel and taking them to their projects downstate and in Western New York. Then doing cooler things at those locations.

"Let's start with Buffalo, and its Walden Galleria. They had a rather smooth transition with an addition. So what do they have that Carousel doesn't? This: Bachrach, Bar Louie, Bravo Cucina Italiana, Brighton Collectibles, The Cheesecake Factory, Christopher & Banks, CJ Banks, Giorgio Brutini, Hugo Boss, Hyde Park Steakhouse, Jos. A. Banks, Tim Hortons and Urban Outfitters, to name a few.

"How about Palisades Center? Granted, it is the 10th largest mall in the U.S. parked in West Nyack, minutes from Manhattan. Still, Carousel was the prototype for Palisades. Why not share the wealth? That includes Armani Exchange, Barnes & Noble, BJ's Wholesale Club, The Home Depot, Brooks Brothers, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chili's Bar & Grill, Dave & Buster's, Desert Moon Cafe, Jessica McClintock, LEGO, Lucky Strike Lanes, Outback Steakhouse, Palisades Ice Rink, Q'doba Mexican Grill, Thomas Kinkade Galleries, United Colors of Benetton, White House / Black Market.

"I haven't done the math, but all of those combined and some others I didn't include would nicely fill the expansion, don't you think? Pyramid already has these folks on board. Why aren't there any leases for the expansion here and if there are, why not shout those names from the expansion's rooftop?''

Sure, these stores could fill the expansion, but then what? The most unique feature of Syracuse is that it has a central location for all the chain retailers that you can find in thousands of other cities, not to mention online? The fact that both Outback Steakhouse AND Chili's chose to locate at Destiny meant Syracuse had finally arrived? What I still can't get my head around: if the expansion had been fully leased, and even brought in shoppers "as far away as Canada and Pennsylvania," would it all be okay? Would a giant mall be the centerpiece of Syracuse postcards, and is this the picture of Syracuse that would be sent out to all corners of the world? Syracuse as a destination solely because of "destination shopping"?

"Parks form the most permanent investment a city can make. Other things wear out, parks remain indefinitely." - George Kessler, in an interview with the Post-Standard, July 8, 1910

Long before the Syracuse Chamber of Commerce invited visitors to its website to Explore the Exciting Wonders of...China

they were far more interested in exploring the exciting wonders of...Syracuse:

The Committee on Home Ownership of the Chamber of Commerce last night took up the question of a system of boulevards and parks and recommended that the Board of Directors secure legislation necessary for the naming of a Boulevard and Park Commission to provide what the city needs in that line.

Members of th
e committees expressed it as their belief that the city had arrived at a point in its career when a general plan of boulevard and park improvements should be mapped out. In the matter of natural advantage, namely, the lake to the north and the hills to the south with a stream connecting, Syracuse is far ahead of most cities of the country. (Post Standard, October 13, 1905)

A movement for park development had started in large cities some fifty years earlier, with an emphasis on securing open spaces for city dwellers to take a break from the chaos of urban life. Reflective of the transcendentalism ideas taking hold in New England at the time, parks—and the nature they provided—were viewed as necessary for human development:

Now, if urban scenes and influences can make that which is best of the human body, mind and heart, then the whole problem might be solved by widening our streets into convenient promenades. But experience has proved in the past, and it is probable that it will remain true in the future, that purely urban conditions cannot produce that which is best in mankind: that only through country freedom and country influences can the best in man be developed. Therefore, parks are absolutely essential to city life, if those who are born and bred in the city are to be kept free from degenerating. (from the wonderfully-titled article Trend of the Park Movement: The Superintendent of Parks of Hartford, Conn Has Led in the Movement to Humanize Public Parks in America—He Is a Rebel Against the Old-Fashioned Ideas Which Would Run a Park With as Little Life in it as there Is in Plush- Covered Parlor Furniture or in the Potted Plants of An Undertaker's Shop, by George A. Parker, reprinted in Syracuse Herald Magazine, February 24,1907)

Syracuse appeared less concerned with spiritual or moral issues when it came to their own park development, and more driven by the need to play catch-up:


As we have repeatedly said, the strongest practical argument for an enlightened and systematic policy of civic improvement in Syracuse is found in the fact that the most prosperous and progressive cities in the country have already adopted it, and that in every instance it has been justified by results...

One of the cities that have made large expenditure for park purposes is Philadelphia. Yet it is far from being content with
what has already been accomplished, and it is now discussing the advisability of a heavy loan for park extension. In giving its editorial approval to the project, the Public Ledger of that city says:

"There is nothing upon which Philadelphians can congratulate themselves more heartily than upon the foresight that preserved Fairmount Park and the Wissahickon valley and such other green spots and open spaces...Appreciation of the great value of parks and pleasure grounds came to us but slowly. Ever since our gradual awakening we have allowed many opportunities to pass, and each year these opportunities grow fewer." (Syracuse Herald editorial, Sept. 24, 1906)

Syracuse had apparently made its own attempt to pursue park development in the past, but perhaps because it was the (18)80s, they suffered from Wacky Wall Walker Syndrome:

"To prove that the present system is wrong, take Burnet Park. Work there was started nearly twenty years ago and the park is not half completed. Instead of completing the park the city started on Onondaga Park and expended about $10,000 on it. Onondaga Park work was given up and about $7,000 was then spent on Round Top Park. Only a little has been accomplished in this park. Before the work on Round Top Park began about $6,000 was put into Lincoln Park. This work was also abandoned. Not one of the larger parks has been finished. We should have at least one park that we could take pride in." (David Campbell, superintendent of parks, quoted in Syracuse Herald, Jan 15 1906)
The Chamber of Commerce, as well as other city officials, including Mayor Fobes, felt that the best way to pursue park development would be the establishment of a Park Commission. As David Campbell, superintendent of parks, explained:

"The great advantage of a park commission is that in case of a change in administration of the city affairs the commission will continue in service and carry out the plans as formulated. Even with the amount of money appropriated here now parks improvements would be apparent if we worked in a practical and systematic way. And more could be accomplished. As it is now money is scattered all over the city and the people cannot see any direct benefit. And they can see little improvement. A park commission will take up one park and finish it instead at dabbing all over the city to suit certain localities or individuals." (Syracuse Herald, Jan 15 1906)
As independent of the mayor, the commission would have final say in all decisions regarding "the parks, squares and trees. It can employ expert advisers to study Syracuse and its environment and map out plans for the development of parks, squares, parkways and playgrounds." (Syracuse Herald, May 7, 1906) The commissioners were to serve terms of one to five years, and receive no compensation.

After formally approved by the state legislature, assembly, governor and finally Syracuse common council, Mayor Fobes appointed five individuals to the Syracuse Parks Commission on July 27, 1906. The commission, led by James Pennock, met that day for an "informal talk" and in a scene that I can only dreamily re-enact in my head, promised to bring good design to Syracuse:

"Mr. Pennock, speaking for the work of the commission, said that one of its first duties would be to interest itself in the bridge to be built on North Salina Street and see if the state could not be persuaded to make the bridge an ornament to that section of the city and at least to prevent such an ugly structure as that over the Oswego canal on James Street. Bridges can now be built so that they will be ornamental as well as useful, and it is hoped that the new bridge will be made an illustration of this fact." (Syracuse Herald, July 27, 1906)
Of course, opinion will only get you so far, and the park commissioner felt their first priority was to hire a world-class landscape architect to plan a park and boulevard system:

It is the opinion of the commission that the right way to go about its work is to place itself under expert guidance and determine what Syracuse should strive to accomplish in the next ten years in the matter of park and boulevard intends to bring to the city a landscape architect of experience and acknowledged ability to determine this question (Syracuse Herald, August 3, 1906)
Uh-oh, this sounds familiar: pay for studies from outsiders that lead to, evidently, a boarded up concrete prison as the first visible Syracuse landmark to any visitors from train, bus or Thruway Exit 36. Yet a century ago, there was a transparency to the process from the start. Pennock anticipated opposition regarding this move, and addressed these concerns from the outset:

"The first thing we must do is to engage a man who has made systematic municipal improvement his profession, who has acquired wide experience in this line and who has demonstrated by results that he can do what we want. The members of the Park Board are businessmen, who know that a thing of this kind should be done by a man who makes it his profession, and they have after deliberation decided to engage such a man. Nothing further will be done until we have procured a satisfactory expert." (Syracuse Herald, Aug 6, 1906)

While the directness of Pennock is admirable, so too is the cynicism of Alderman Walter Hinkley:

"From what I learn through the press," said Alderman Hinkley, "I understand that this expert is to receive $3500 for the first year just for thinking the matter over, and the following two years he is to produce plans. Perhaps to those who understand such things this may seem good business, but I can't see it that way. I would require something more substantial than thoughts for that $3500, because the thinker might stop thinking for a long's the old story: A prophet has no honor in his own country. An outsider who is unknown except what we hear from him from afar can get anything he wants and we ask no questions." (Post Standard, September 18, 1906)

These days, these two speeches go hand in hand. It is understandable that Syracusans can't believe in before and "after" pics of 81:

when they are faced with this "after" and after:

Yet early 20th century Syracuse was a city where architects like Archimedes Russell were setting the design standard. James Pennock himself was considered a pioneer in the real estate development of the East Genesee Street section of the city. Syracuse pride didn't mean cheerleading any new project that came along:

But there's more to this story than a mall. Carousel Center is the centerpiece of a development that will have a profound impact on the kind of city Syracuse will be well into the 21st century...

...To be sure, Congel stands to make a great deal of money from this project, but what's wrong with making money? That's how things have been getting done in this country since it's been a country.

And there will be money for a lot of people to share — Carousel Center and Franklin Square will bring it here. (Syracuse Herald-American editorial, October 14, 1990)

but rather, putting its best face forward to the world, and knowing that this responsibility rested solely with Syracuse itself:

The decision of the Park Commission to recommend that George E. Kessler of Kansas City be engaged to map out a system of parks and boulevards for Syracuse means that this important part of the work will be a landscape architect who stands as high in his profession as any man in the country. Mr. Kessler has given evidence of his ability in many cities, and as landscape architect of the World's Fair at St. Louis his work attracted widespread attention...

It will be understood, of course, that all Mr. Kessler can do here is suggest. He can study the city and its environment, the tendency of its growth and its resources, and out of his experience tell us what we should aim to do. He can give encouragement, no doubt, by pointing out the material benefits which other cities have reaped from courageous and energetic work of this character. But when he has done all that he can do and said all that there is to be said it will remain for Syracuse to decide for itself whether it will continue to drift, improving itself in haphazard fashion as the whim or fancy strikes some municipal administration, or whether it will grasp the situation boldly, masterfully, and determine to have a hand in the shaping of its destiny. (Syracuse Herald editorial, Aug 14, 1906)

George Kessler made his first official visit to Syracuse on January 8, 1907. Although his contract was to last three years (and three years salary), the city ran low on funds after the first year. Rather than demand payment, Kessler "willingly agreed to release the city, stating that he had an abundance of work in many cities of the country which had caught the park and playground spirit. He said he would enter the employ of the city any time there was actual need of his services." (Syracuse Herald, April 4, 1909) (He was engaged by the city once again in 1909 for additional consultation.) However, in this brief time, Kessler made a monumental impact on Syracuse, providing the city with plans for the Frazier Playground, Onondaga, Lincoln and Schiller Parks, and suggestions for Burnet Park. He was instrumental in negotiating the purchase of Kirk Park, and spurred the Park Commission to pursue the acquisition of Thornden Park. The New York State Fair Commission sought his insight about redesigning the Fairgrounds; he visited Syracuse University to see if the campus could be worked into his park and boulevard system. Not only did he inspire Syracuse to act, but long after he received his final payment, he continued on as an unofficial public relations official for the city, as the city now became part of his portfolio. Syracuse hosted a city official from Dallas, Texas, who was "attracted to Syracuse parks by reason of the fact that George E. Kessler [was] soon to be engaged in a similar advisory capacity in Dallas." (Post Standard, July 1, 1910). Kessler gave an interview to the Kansas City Star, praising the natural landscape of Syracuse:

"Syracuse is already a beautiful city, resting in a pocket surrounded by hills," said Mr. Kessler. "It has something we can never have, of course, a pretty lake on the north, which can be seen from the higher levels. Tree planting began many years ago. Now magnificent elms line the streets and make canopies with their branches. In this respect Syracuse has at its maturity what Kansas City hopes to have several years from now." (reprinted in Syracuse Herald Magazine, February 24, 1907)

On one of his later visits to Syracuse to view the city's progress, he once again emphasized the point, this time stating that Syracuse had the potential to become a great travel destination:

"Syracuse should capitalize its natural advantages and attract thousands of visitors as a result of adequate expenditures for park improvements," said George E Kessler."Denver has given the cities of the country a great object lesson in the winning of material benefits by the beautification of the city and development of its park system. By this policy it attracts thousands of visitors and these visitors make extended stays there...Syracuse has fine natural advantages and a splendid should be made a stopping point rather than a mere passing point for travelers. There is much which is attractive about Syracuse at present. With a finely developed park system I believe the city would win wide fame and draw hosts of visitors. The money expended in this manner would not be for the visitor alone. Syracuse's own people would enjoy the benefits all the time." (Post-Standard, July 8, 1910)

In the early 1900s, Kessler looked at Syracuse as a blank slate, focusing on nothing but its natural landscape. One hundred years later, everything that Kessler saw is still there. Sure, that "pretty lake to the north" is polluted thanks to the actions taken back then (even Kessler himself suggested "the refuse of the Solvay Process Company could be filling in the sections [of shoreline] which would be desirable for park lands, after which a covering of two or three feet of earth would be placed over the refuse"- Post Standard, April 8, 1907), but one ugly mall has done nothing to affect the appearance of the parks that Kessler envisioned. This is not to say that the landscape hasn't changed, however:

What surprises the English writer H.G. Wells, who has been traveling about America and writing up his observations and reflections in Harper's Weekly, is the way the American city calculates so confidently upon the certainty of growth. "All cities," he urged..."do not grow. Cities have sunken."
...His doubts fell on stony ground. All America knows is that every favorably located city must make preparations for increasing population....The day isn't far off when the progressiveness of a growing American city will be estimated by the intelligence it shows in laying out the area of its future...
Before Mr. Pennock's term as commissioner expires it will doubtless be seen that the work of our newly created Park Commission has a wider meaning than the beautification of the city as it is, namely, the laying of the plans for the Greater Syracuse of 1950. (Post Standard editorial, July 21, 1906)

What the Post Standard editorial writers, or Mr. Pennock himself, could not have imagined was that as Syracuse grew exponentially in the 1950s, the city center itself would sink. The park system which they felt held the key to the city's future would not only fall victim to this phenomenon, but also to Syracuse abandoning the promise of recreation for re-creation.

COMING SOON: PART 3 (of 3, I think)
August 2, 1956
Movin' on up to the (Far) East Side!