Saturday, January 9, 2010

January 4, 1941

You may wonder why I continue to focus on the urban renewal years of Syracuse. Sure, there's plenty of material there, but it's all rather cheap and easy, isn't it? I mean, the individual details may be unique, but the general truth is the same: in the late 50s-70s; most metropolitan cities accepted the same federal "slum clearance" funds to "modernize" their downtowns in the same haphazard manner:

Syracuse public officials and business leaders today are more confident than ever that they are moving in the right direction after spending a full day in viewing what has been accomplished in Connecticut's two largest cities.

John R. Searles, Jr., executive vice president of the Metropolitan Development Association, sponsored the fact-finding trip to Connecticut which he termed a "comparative shopping tour."

Mayor William F. Walsh and County Executive John Mulroy were among the 35 Syracusans who investigated the urban renewal accomplishments [via a chartered plane].
Interstate highways are knifing their way through the hearts of both cities just as Interstate 81 bisects Syracuse. These systems of express highways provides easier access to the revitalized downtown business areas.

All of this moved Mayor Walsh to comment, at the end of the day-long tour.

"Now we can go back to Syracuse and say if Hartford and New Haven can do itwe can do it. They are a little ahead of us because they had an earlier start. But we will catch up with them and whatever they have done, we can do better." (Syracuse Herald-American, May 9, 1965)

While there would be the occasional prescient letter to the editor or astute criticism, these cities, for the most part, apparently could not fathom abandoned downtowns, let alone that their actions would be the direct contributors to the ruin. Should their decisions be mocked? Or forgiven, for they knew not what they were doing?

Either way, they certainly know what they've done, and for a city torn down by urban renewal, Syracuse doesn't seem particularly torn up by the results. Despite the fact that elevated highways contribute to the blight of citieseven Eisenhower said he never imagined his highway system bisecting vibrant downtownssupport for removing the elevated section of 81 is lukewarm, at best. There are no proposals to reintroduce a streetcar or light rail system (the OnTrack debacle notwithstanding). Syracuse has no downtown, no progressive means of public transportation, no master plans for revitalization of either, but by and large its residents seem rather okay with this, as long as they have their 'burbs and their carsno different than fifty years ago. Even City Hall openly admits it won't penalize property owners who don't shovel their sidewalks because of 1960s-era laws. It's almost as if Syracuse today is just a few crinoline skirts and cartons of cigarettes short of an episode of Mad Men (except even Don Draper commuted by train).

Which is ironic, given how in the early days of urban renewal, Syracuse embraced the future. Less than a decade after the atomic bomb, in a city growing exponentially because of electronics industry, the future wasn't a battle to be fought, but a ride to take (preferably in one's own personal automobile, heading out of the city). Provided it didn't obliterate Syracuse to pieces, the future could do no wrong. Of course, at the time, the future meant moving away from all those obsolete necessities from the past, like walking:

[Architect] Gilbert Tilles says that women's preferences account for the fact that modern store centers are built with front and rear entrances to prevent a needless walk on high heels from the car lot to the front of the store. (Syracuse Herald-Journal, December 30, 1952)

Or, for that matter, standing:

My husband is busy and I do the family banking. When I go, my two children must be taken in our car and, if I have to park, it makes it necessary for me to carry the younger one. The Merchants Bank Drive-In will certainly make it easier for me to do the family banking. Mrs. Genevieve Sherpa, 1120 S. McBride Street (in an advertisement for the new Merchants Bank Drive-In, Syracuse Herald-Journal, December 14, 1948)

While air-conditioned shopping centers and drive-in banks may have been at the technological cutting edge, catering to car culture was not so much about progress, but rather, convenience. Could Americans win the arms race or the space race if they were racing down the streetcar that just passed their stop? (Never mind that the original Syracuse pioneers managed to build a city with horses, rickety wagons and their own two hands and feet.) But given that this convenience is now at a point where we don't even need to get off the couch to go shopping or banking, why is it that retail is still being viewed as a savior for downtown?

Last month, in the wake of the tragic death of Joel Kidder, Sean Kirst posted some remarks on his blog from real estate developer Bob Doucette, who stated he's "always said there are 3 pieces of retail infrastructure that we really need downtown: a movie theater, a supermarket, and a bookstore." As I commented directly on Sean's blog, two of those three necessities are available online, and three out of three are in the suburbs, where Syracuse has clearly decided it wants to be. I mean, if we are going to look for retail businesses downtown, how about one which can't be done online and might reverse the health damage done by decades of car culture laziness, such as a gym? (Urban renewal, indeed.) The truth is that Syracuse may want a healthy population, as we've finally reached the point when the generation that fled to the suburbs is finding itself trapped there.

In Syracuse, an automobile is a necessity. With every new suburban lifestyle center built, with every suburban office park relocation, Syracuse sends the message: if you don't have a car, don't bother. Not only are environmentally-conscious people who choose to go car-free not welcome in the Emerald City, but neither are the very residents who remain in Syracuse as the youth leave. As the population of Syracuse ages, does it have any plans for their transportation other than sending them out on unshoveled sidewalks? To walk to bus stops that require crossing multiple lanes of heavy boulevard traffic? And how is it that the same generation that became defined by their fight for freedom limited their own to their ability to drive? Or were they willing to make the sacrifice just so they could marvel at the technology of this:

Not to mention the promise of even more futuristic inventions:

A flying crane would provide a solution for getting a wrecked car off Onondaga Interchange quickly. A like type service, if put into effect by the medical profession, could speed the removal of an injured person to a hospital.

What's all this? Well, it's just a look ahead to the future into some of the problems that could well arise when the interchange is opened and traffic begins free-wheeling all over it!
A point [Syracuse Traffic Commissioner] Joseph F. Rice emphasized was that every precaution must be taken into account in plans for getting cars on and off of the interchange in safety and without becoming involved in what he termed as "a whole mess of stuff."
"We don't want to make things too easy or too many will go through Syracuse without stopping," said Rice somewhat jokingly. (Post-Standard, March 22, 1968)
Unfortunately, after razing and rebuilding the city in the spirit of "convenience," Syracuse has run out of time. Any infrastructure initiatives started today would still take years to implement. Portland's much celebrated light rail entered its planning stages in the mid-70s, and opened its first line in 1986. Similarly, in the mid-70s, Syracuse entered its planning stages for a downtown mall, and in 1985, started construction of the Galleries. Portland now has the status of a youth magnet despite the economic downturn (as well as the country's largest independent bookstore); Syracuse has memories. And Urban Outfitters.

This blog entry is dedicated to the Syracuse trolleys, 1860 (horse-drawn) - January 4, 1941.

Syracuse Herald, June 19, 1924


Josef Lorenz said...

nicely worded.

it's pretty much true: everything that happens at say, the intersection of routes 31 and 481 in clay, has a direct effect on downtown syracuse - not only economically and on its infrastructure, but just as a message that we send to ourselves as a community. it shows that, whether we own one or not, we love cars. it shows that, whether we live there or not, we like our sectioned-off mchousing developments. it shows that, whether we want a downtown bookstore, or movie theater, or grocery store, we love where they are now and are adjusted to using them. it's aggravating because as a downtown syracuse lover (yes, there aren't that many of us!) there's no stopping this "development" or how it's planned in nearby suburbs. and when a new movie theater pops up in say cicero, it only brings that much less of a chance that one will pop up on salina street.

sure, the population of syracuse has drastically changed over the decades, but the population of onondaga county has more or less remained the same since 1960. so (hypothetically) if we're all spending the same amount of money and going out to our retail stores just as much now as we did then, there's only so many stores you can have before things start leveling off. there's only so many theaters, or bookstores, or grocery stores you can have before it starts to become needless for the entire community as a whole. sure, one could open up in downtown, but i feel like one would have to close out in the suburbs. and honestly, syracuse does not have the upper hand in this fight (if you want to consider it a fight) because it just keeps loosing its residents.

it all starts with reversing the population trend but i'm not sure if downtown can win it. especially given its track record and how policies, laws, pedestrian asthetics, street grids, and building practices essentially haven't really changed all too much in 50 years.

jed waverly said...

We need to talk. I, too, am a former Syracusan, now living in Providence. I, too, write a blog (The Penultimate Word) which can be found at I, too, have fallen in love with Providence, but still love Syracuse. Sounds like we have lots of common threads in our backgrounds.