Wednesday, January 20, 2010

January 15, 1976/January 14, 2010

Providence is one of the most beautiful cities we've been to on this tour. A sweet little gem. tweet from @albinokid, aka Anthony Rapp, actor, Original Broadway Cast/current touring production of RENT

I live in Providence. I don't know if I have ever explicitly stated this in any blog entries, though I have lived in Providence for the past four and a half years. Prior to this, I lived in Boston for seven years, and have also spent time in New York and Utah (Salt Lake City, Park City). Despite living five minutes from both historic charm and urban renewal horror in Boston, or walking to work through blizzards in Utah, I never gave much thought at all about the hometown I left behind until I stepped off a train in 2005 for a job interview and saw this:

which immediately reminded of century-old images I had seen of downtown Syracuse:

Once I moved here, and learned more about the revitalization that had taken place in downtown Providence over the past thirty yearsincluding the unearthing of previously paved-over riversI became intrigued about the possibilities for Syracuse. When I discovered the online Syracuse Newspapers archives in 2008, and read that many of the actions taken by Providence had been discussed and dismissed in Syracuse decades ago, I became that mix of emotions that can only be expressed in a personal blog.

That said, I don't do any specific comparisons between the two cities or hold Providence up as the shining example because even with a revitalized downtown, Providence still has many of the same problems as Syracuse, if not worse: high unemployment, public school issues, unshoveled sidewalks. Providence may have escaped the wholesale razing associated with urban renewal, but being spared Brutalist architecture doesn't mean an influx of jobs or young people. What it does mean is that if you attend a show say, Wicked on a winter evening, you can go to a theater that dates back to 1928, though fully restored and modernized. You can leave at the end of the show say, close to 11 pm and walk three blocks among many other people to the taxi stand, located opposite the Haven Brothers diner, a tradition that dates back to the late 1800s. A few days later, you can spend your lunch hour at the downtown gym, and see, working out among the usual mix of businesspeople and students, one of the lead actors of the show you attended at the theater, as the gym is located right by the taxi stand, which is three blocks away from the theater (not to mention three blocks away from your office, though in the opposite direction). Sure, you can walk home that evening and find litter strewn about on the sidewalk in front of your house, but at least you have a sidewalk in front of your house. And that sidewalk can also lead you to a train station, to a commuter rail to Boston, to a Greyhound bus that takes you to see the same show in a different downtown, the downtown which is this blog's main character.

Hello all! Since I spend a lot of my life living out of a suitcase these days I wanted to start a blog giving props to some of the great places I have found along the way...My arrival in Appleton began with WICKED-mania everywhere! The city seems so excited about the show. And SCENE magazine has plastered my press photo on the cover of its corner magazine. So everywhere I was going I kept seeing myself in green. It felt so strange to me! LOL — from the blog of Donna Vivino, Elphaba, Wicked, 1st National Tour

In 1973, when Syracuse found itself deep in the doldrums of urban renewal (quite literally), it decided to do perhaps what it should have done prior to knocking down buildings, changing zoning laws and generally approving of every sparkling new idea that came across its path: asked itself, "What is Syracuse?"

"Syracuse probably never had a sense of being a city," [James Harithas, director of the Everson Museum said], "and no attempt was made to perpetuate the city's culture. What do we need here to make people proud of Syracuse?"

Others joined the museum director in his concern. Businessmen, residents and heads of committees to study the revitalization of the downtown couldn't actually pinpoint the city's soul.

Joseph Golden of the Cultural Resources Council said a free association test he conducted revealed that when he said "Syracuse" the most often repeated responses were Syracuse University football, Upstate Medical Center and the names of various industries located here.

The university's urban expert, Dr. Alan K. Campbell, agreed.

"Without the medical-educational complex, Syracuse is really a red-brick industrial community, period," Campbell said. (Post-Standard, April 24, 1973)

So, when Syracuse dug deep (again, quite literally) in search of their identity, they came up with red-brick and industry. This may explain why when construction got underway the same month on a new performing arts hall for Syracuse, the resulting $24 million dollar Civic Center was "the only such center on the North American continent to combine office space with performing areas." (Post-Standard, January 15, 1976) Or why when center opened in a gala celebration on January 15, 1976, there were no marquee names, as Ella Fitzgerald headlined the premiere performance in a theater built without a marquee, save for the building identification in a dated typeface. Or why when I waited in the lobby with my mother three decades later, on January 14, 2010, for a matinee performance of the 1st national tour production of Wicked, there was no evidence of the center's theatrical history, of past shows or the theater itself. No plush carpet; no ornate, period chairs (no chairs, period). Just the soul of 1970s Syracuse: industry concrete and red brick.

Doesn't explain the people, though. The women, men, teens, toddlers who occupied nearly every one of the 2,117 seats of the Crouse-Hinds Theater on a Thursday afternoon in Downtown Syracuse.

At each stop on the tour, Schwartz said she likes to map out the city and its public transportation system, find a local yoga studio and visit the local farmers market. "I'm really looking forward to the tour stop in Seattle. That's a great city I want to explore more." - interview with Chandra Lee Schwartz, Glinda, Wicked, 1st National tour

Syracuse is the smallest city the Wicked tour has visited, and the Crouse Hinds Theater the smallest venue. The only difference this seemed to make in the performance I saw last Thursday was that it was arguably stronger than the one I saw in Providence just one month earlier. Perhaps the cast spotted the line of school buses from towns such as Phoenix, LaFargeville, Geneva and sensed that this could be the biggest show these kids had ever seen. Theater always has the power to inspire, but in this city, with its downtown stuck in time like the clocks in the scenery, such a performance could change lives. In the words of Elphaba and Glinda:

It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend...
Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good.

The energy in the Civic Center at the curtain call might have been one of Syracuse's most thrilling moments not involving Coach MacPherson or Jim Boeheim (and let's be honest, most theater g(l)eeks aren't sports enthusiasts). Given the Post-Standard has been known to see transformative power in a Panera Bread opening in the suburbs, this spark of life in downtown should have been front-page news: Urban Renewal, At Last!

Instead, this:

Suffice it to say that if you are a die-hard “Oz” fan (I’m not), you’ll love “Wicked” (I didn’t).

I certainly would have no issue with a negative critique of Wicked; the New York Times has viewed the show with a harsh eye. Heck, some veteran theatergoers consider Wicked the Panera Bread of Broadway. But how is it that the newspaper's official reviewer states he "didn't like" the musical, and then offer no substantive reason why? Especially when the rest of the review remarks quite favorably about the both the acting and technical aspects of the production? An editor responded to perplexed readers that "reviews draw on the writer’s experience and expertise but are, by nature, one person’s opinion. Other people have different opinions. Thank you for sharing yours." Are the journalistic standards the same for newspaper reviewers as commenters? Or is the publication of this review indicative of same laziness that allows sad Christmas wreaths to hang on street lampposts three weeks after the holiday, making downtown look all the more sad and forgotten? Or the laziness that doesn't have a full-blown pr campaign tying Wicked's visit to the "Emerald City."? (NiMo green lights? Nice gesture, but because of the forgotten Christmas wreaths, could easily be mistaken as another holiday leftover). Where are the educational reminders of Emerald Salt City's rich theater history? The Shubert Brothers? The Wieting, the Strand, the Empire and all other grand theaters and movie houses that once lined the blocks of South Salina Street, torn down for the laziness of drivers who swore off downtown unless they had parking garages?

And when the laziness causes the city to require a pick me up, its leaders take the laziest (in)action of all: hire an outside consultant. Syracuse has gotten quite a few laughs from their failed relationship with consultant Richard Florida and his promise of revitalization of downtown via "the creative class." The idea that bohemian artists would move downtown into empty lofts and invigorate the city with their arty spirit is not unlike the plot of RENT, which could have been seen for a $20 front-row lottery ticket rather than a $250,000 consulting fee. However, this is not to say that the creative class idea is without merit. The true punchline of Richard Florida is that he scammed cities by acting as a consultant for the creative class, when cities should have realized that the creative class are the consultants.

in case i haven't said much about the gym here in syracuse. it'sa BAD. its a ymca. but not the fun loving kind we all like to sing about. tweet from @jaredzirilli, Ensemble/Fiyero understudy, Wicked 1st national tour

Historically, actors and other artists have traveled from city to city, relating stories of audiences and locales to fellow performers:

English novelist Charles Dickens performed March 9, 1868, at Wieting Hall. He read for two hours from "A Christmas Carol" and from the trial scene in "Pickwick Papers." Reserved seats were $2 each.
His response in a letter to his sister-in-law was that "This (Syracuse) is a very grim place in a heavy thaw. The hotel is also surprisingly bad. We had an old buffalo for supper and an old pig for breakfast. And still, we have taken on 300 pounds (well over $1,000) for tomorrow night." (Post-Standard, July 5, 1976)

With Twitter, Facebook and blogs, the casts of current touring theater productions share their opinions of cities and their attractions in real-time to their followers throughout the world. Andy Señor, Jr., cast of RENT, has a blog offering photo/video restaurant reviews from his tour stops. Actor Andrew-Keenan Bolger, in the cast of the Mary Poppins National Tour, has created a series of "urban shorts" for the various locals he's visited. Check out his video for another downtown rebuilding after urban renewal, Cleveland, or his ode to the green transportation (and greenery) of Minneapolis. Keegan-Bolger's videos are such well-done capsules of city life that he won the Lonely Planet "My Journey" filmmaking contest. I don't like Mary Poppins, but I would love to see this production, if it also meant this amazing free publicity for the town.

Providence has its share of artists, but the downtown here wasn't revitalized because of renovated loft space. (In fact, condos are still a tough sell in downtown Providence. The most recently built project is now serving as a Johnson & Wales dormitory). In the 1970s, when downtown Syracuse aligned itself with retail, downtown Providence held fast to the one commodity the suburbs couldn't sell: culture. From their revival of waterways and waterfront to sparing its own Loew's theater from the wrecking ball in the '70s and transforming it into the Providence Performing Arts Center (home of the Providence run of Wicked), Providence placed its future in the class and character that comes with creativity. New Haven (one of the "comparative shopping" stops on the 1965 Urban Renewal tour) has also based its downtown revitalization on the arts (though my only familiarity with the city is comparative shopping at its IKEA). In December, thousands of people waited in line at the Everson Museum to see the Turner to Cézanne exhibit, and in January, thousands are flocking to the Civic Center to see Wicked. While there may not be any department stores or movie theaters lining its streets (due, in part, to their being bulldozed for the construction of the Everson Museum and Civic Center), there are now children of this generation who have cherished memories associated with downtown Syracuse. As they might say here in New England: that's wicked awesome.


sean said...

i would disagree with harithas. syracuse had plenty of sense of being a city; it just never felt it needed to announce it until civic leaders took that 'sense' in the years after world war II, ripped it to shreds, threw it around the floor and then said: what's the matter with this town?


Anonymous said...

The caliber of local theater and music in this town has long deserved some support in the way of a proper theater or theaters from which to perform. Syracuse Opera, the Symphony and a myriad of local theater companies provide excellent art, but the Civic Center is a brick lunch box. Talent Company put son fine productions in a catle barn at the fair. Joe Lotito's Salt City Playhouse, one of the first community theater companies to integrate in the US was given a run down temple to perform in. But hey, at least they have $2000 a month lofts in downtown Syracuse for struggling artists to rent...

Kathy said...

I miss having department stores downtown. I remember taking the bus to downtown with my friends, taking in a matinee, lunching at Dey Brothers and shopping at Sibleys, and stopping at the Peanut Shop for roasted nuts to bring home. We would dress nicely for this and feel very "grown up" even though we were only about 12 years old.

Jim said...

I remember the monorail train for kids at EW Edwards in their downtown store. It was a holiday tradition for thousands of Syracuse area boomers. I, too, miss the locally owned stores that made Syracuse unique: Dey Brothers, Edwards, Witherills, The Addis Company, Flahs, Wells and Coverly, Chappells and so many others. Even now, as I walk into JC Penny in Shoppingtown, I remember it as one of Edwards first efforts at suburban expansion. I appreciate the image of Providence and the post card image of Syracuse during the canal days. The comparison is most insightful. This is my first exploration of your blog and I am impressed with your efforts. Please continue to post your ideas.