Thursday, February 11, 2010

February 8, 1947 / February 8, 2010

To the Herald-Journal:

They can't DO this to me! For the last 20 years, I've been away from Syracuse, living in Honolulu and California and bragging about the "The Empire City of the Empire State," and suddenly, I get lonely for it and fly "home"—but where—oh WHERE—is ye "Empire City"?

What has happened to make the bright, hustling little metropolis I used to know, look like a shabby, broken-down old harpy in a soiled wrapper?

The dinky depot was the first shock; the eerie, abandoned old post office was the next, the ridiculous "Toonerville Trolley" postal substation near the mellow old Yates—was so unbelievable I looked twice to make sure I wasn't in Podunk!

And what had (or rather, hadn't) happened to the business section? Not a new department store in 45 years! Shabby, unsafe office buildings with elastic floors—dreary store-fronts, like bleary-eyed tramps, crowded with cheap merchandise. And I DO mean crowded! One almost smelled the dust of centuries in some of the shops. Cheerless, airless and sometimes, downright dirty. The few new, smart shops only accentuating the shabbiness of the older ones.

Because I am interested in going into business here myself, I gazed upon the run-down interiors with horrified eyes. And good heavens! Do the waitresses at the various lunch counters ever wear a clean uniform? Or ever wait on a customer?

And hasn't anyone ever noticed that the overhanging trees have been allowed to make a jungle of the streets—shutting out the sunshine and air and darkening the already too-dark homes?

Does anyone here ever raise a house shade so you can tell there is a sky overhead? Has anyone washed a window or painted a building since I went away?

The one bright spot is the transit system with its bright, shiny buses and its courteous drivers. Los Angeles could use some of those!

Oh, I know there has "been a war on." But do the garbage and trash-strewn streets here need to look as if Syracuse has been bombed with it? Doesn't Syracuse ever wash its municipal face?

I love the people in it—but oh, my poor, dilapidated old home town, what has Time done to you?

I am going to buy a lovely, shabby old building here and show you what can be done with it.

Hopefully yours,
Mrs. Florida Childs

Editor's Note: While it is, of course, true that Syracuse and other cities in the Northern snow belt are not at their best in winter months, this lady's picture of the appraisal here hardly seems justified. Actually, the appearance of Syracuse has greatly improved of recent years. The old grade crossings have been eliminated; the trolleys are gone; contradicting the lady's assertion, there are new stores and new buildings and more on the way. Our correspondent ought to wait until after the spring cleanup and THEN see how we look. Perhaps she gave us the once over during a blue Monday blizzard.

(Syracuse Herald-Journal, January 24, 1947)

If I have learned one lesson from my eighteen months of searching through Syracuse Newspapers' archives, it is this: if online commenters want to craft critical zingers about Syracuse, they should look toward the masters, the early to mid-century 20th century letter-writers. And, if two lessons: history always repeats itself. While I may tend to focus on big ticket items like elevated highways and urban renewal, I am ultimately more fascinated by the simpler elements of social history. Sure, the significance of a city that hoped to become the "sports capital of the northeast" and "the sports city" rejecting the established sports capital idea of building a baseball stadium downtown because of "muggings, cars towed away, a long walk to reach the stadium" (Syracuse Herald-Journal, April 12, 1993) may be intriguing, but the notion that there has always been a conflict about the role of the former Syracuse resident in current Syracuse opinion is downright remarkable.

To the Herald-Journal:

For the 20 years Mrs. Florida Childs was away from Syracuse, I've lived here.

I agree with her and cannot side with your "Editor's Note."

True, we have elevated the railroads. That is a step forward! We also have a new station but the old one still stands to mock our advancement. So do trolley tracks remain where not so long ago trains ran.

The out-of-towners I know have remarked on walking down Salina Street, "What a shabby main street for a city the size of Syracuse." I have heard many versions but it amounts to that! Cast your eyes above the "modern" glass fronts of the average building. What do you see? Certainly for the most part the upper parts look like the Sunday rotogravure pictures of the dear dead days.

And those department stores! "Elastic floors," Mrs. Childs so aptly expresses it. The interior remodeling looks as though Rube Goldberg had full say. The outside shows the same trend. One department store has good displays. I quote from Mrs. Childs' letter again—"dreary store-fronts, like bleary-eyed tramps, crowded with cheap merchandise. And I DO mean crowded!" You know what she means.

No, no, Mrs. Childs, to all appearances the waitresses on those lunch counters do not change their uniforms. I sat timing three of these slovenly creatures one noon while they discussed whether one of them had worn her hair "up" or "down" when she came to the counter that morning. The answer to my question in a polite manner "Will you take my order?" was "Whatchwant?"

Coincidentally the girl who couldn't remember whether her hair was up or down should have worn her hair down. Down over her face to hide the layers of make-up and mascara that looked as though she piled it ever on without once removing the old paint job.

There are other joys in store for you, Mrs. Childs. You'll go to the double feature movies in the first-run houses. You'll go because there is no legitimate theater in this city. You'll sit surrounded by gum snapping, noisy cellophane wrapped candy bar eaters, gabby popcorn eating individuals who discuss most personal affairs while the best of the two movies is on screen.

Like you, Mrs. Childs, I too have love for the folks here. But why don't they recognize the fact this is an ever-growing large city and begin to think as city people should.

We—I must include myself as a Syracusan, live in the atmosphere of a small town.

Unfortunately, I cannot buy a building as you have done, Mrs. Childs, but I shall continue in my small way to bring this city up to nineteen forty-seven.

Thank you for your letter, Mrs. Florida Childs. I hope it starts a movement to make us look and act our size.


(Syracuse Herald-Journal, January 28, 1947)

To be certain, Syracuse has never had any problem with drawing connections to famous figures who once lived in the city and using them for publicity purposes. The reviewer at the Post-Standard didn't care for Wicked, but this didn't preclude the paper from mentioning every last Syracuse tie, including a "correction" after the show left town to apologize for omitting the director, whose most direct link to Syracuse appears to be acting in a production at Cortland Rep two decades ago. But for those former Syracusans living in relative obscurity in other parts of the world who care to share their opinion about their native city after a visit home, the reception is much more mixed.

To the Herald-Journal:

Always interested in Readers' Viewpoints, I read with surprise, not to say shock, the letter signed Mrs. Florida Childs. I have never been a resident of Syracuse, but have visited your city over 500 times, mostly pleasure trips during the past 20 years. I have always noted the many changes and improvements.

Does not Mrs. Childs consider the "dinky depot" a wonderful improvement over the old one? Did she miss the trains going through the city at grade? To go back inside the years she mentioned, vast changes have taken place. How about the odoriferous Erie Canal running through the city? It has now been replaced by a modern boulevard. How about Clinton Square with its beautiful monument? What about the sumptuous Hotel Syracuse, State Tower Building, Post Office, Chimes and Central New York Power buildings, to mention only a few? No new department stores? How about the Addis Co., the Lincoln Store, Sears-Roebuck, to mention only a few? Why should this lady expect department stores such as Edwards, Dey's, and Witherell's to change? The very fact they have been doing business for so many years recommends their service to the community.

Syracusans may well be proud of its stores and beautiful display windows. No city within 200 miles has store fronts to compare favorably with those of Syracuse. One wonders what kind of a "lunch counter" she patronizes. After all, you do not look for or expect the same immaculate attire at a "lunch counter" you would see in a restaurant of the Child's character.

Incidentally, this lady says she is planning on a business venture in Syracuse. She is taking a peculiar method of obtaining a success by trying to degrade a lovable city. If she found some things not to her liking the same would be true in any city. Even as a non-resident it made me feel indignant that anyone would publicly and unjustly vilify your city and its people. However, I feel sure Syracuse during Mrs. Childs' absence, got along very nicely.


Seneca Falls
(Syracuse Herald-Journal, Jan 29, 1947)

There are some current residents who apparently feel that those who don't live in Syracuse "have no right to open their mouths with suggestions on what Syracuse should do at all." Besides the standard first amendment argument, one could also safely say that if all those who had no official involvement in Sean Payton's onside kick decision or Peyton Manning's interception kept their opinions to themselves on the day after the Super Bowl, ESPN and sports radio on Monday would have been nothing but dead air. And why is it that those of us that spent our formative years in Syracuse—the years instilled us with the dreams that would come to shape our lives—should be considered turncoats if we leave to follow those passions? Should Mike Hart not be living and playing football in Indianapolis? Should MPH grad Carrie Manolakos, standby for Elphaba in the 2nd National Tour of Wicked, be doing local theater instead? No city can be all things to all people, and therefore there are Syracusans all over the world who had to depart their hometown for their own personal, career, family interests. In the spirit of the Girl Scout song, we've made new homes, but kept the old, one is silver and the other gold.

To the Herald-Journal:

Mrs. Florida Childs has painted a rather gloomy picture of Syracuse, Herald-Journal, January 24.

A lady was seated beside Noah Webster at a dinner party; during the conversation she suddenly exclaimed, "Oh, Mr. Webster, I must say your new dictionary contains some of the most horrid words."

To which Webster casually replied, "Ah, Madam, you've been looking for them."


(Syracuse Herald-Journal, January 28, 1947)

But maybe for the city that lost its chance at the Sports City moniker because "where Syracuse was gunning for the title "amateur sports capital of the Northeast, ambitious Indianapolis want[ed] the national title" (Syracuse Herald-Journal, July 18, 1982) (what with its baseball, basketball and football stadiums downtown), silver and gold designations are far from equal.To stand atop the podium requires a certain degree of sacrifice, which may be why one Syracuse revitalization plan is formulated on the pioneer concept. While this may appeal to the recent college graduate with less-rooted personal and financial commitments (although somehow doesn't correlate with high rent condos downtown), the older expats with spouses and children require more guarantees. The MDA addresses this concern by inviting them to "Come Home to Syracuse" with (debatable) promises of available jobs and, more significantly, the same Syracuse they left behind.
"Growing up in Central New York is a privilege. How lucky we were to grow up here! And now you may be elsewhere, giving thought to returningperhaps to share your childhood experiences with your spouse, or your children," the website exclaims.
If stifling lack of change is the reason a Syracusan moved, would the promise of a repeat childhood be an incentive to return? Before inviting us to Come Home, shouldn't we be asked why we left?

To the Herald-Journal:

Aren't people fascinating!

On Friday, January 24, you printed my facetious wail about my old home town's impression on me after being away twenty years in California.

Soon I was being deluged with phone calls from people whose general reaction seemed to be "It's about time someone stirred us up!"

Then on Tuesday you printed two replies to my letter. One from a tolerant, gentle lady—written more in sorrow than in anger (and bravely daring to differ with the editor) signed "Syracusan"—the other a short and cleverly subtle reproach from a gentleman who signs himself "Wilhelm."

Then on Wednesday, an intense lady from Seneca Falls steps into the picture to do battle for good old Syracuse. No, she didn't sign her name (I wonder why?), but she did indicate that she feels all "het up" and indulges in some questionable personalities along with some amusing misconceptions.

Let us hope that when she is on her joyous trips through some of the stores she mentions (and I didn't) she will not be caught in one of the veritable fire-traps I've noticed if some careless smoker drops a cigarette into a pile of blankets (which I saw recently) and she can't escape.

Oh yes! I was missed while I was away!...And the lady from Seneca Falls forgets I left two of the garden spots of the world to come back here to live. So I still say—people are fascinating—and I'd like to know them all—even the lady who only signs her initials "HMS."

And I think "Wilhelm" would make a charming dinner partner and I'd love to have the nice lady who signs herself "Syracusan" as a very close neighbor.

I must try eating in Childs someday—it looks nice. One of my war sons has already taken me to a delightful dinner at Hotel Syracuse—lovely atmosphere, exceptionally well-served and marvelous food. Why of course Syracuse has some metropolitan features! Let's have more!

Still hopefully yours,
Mrs. Florida Childs, Syracuse
(Syracuse Herald-Journal, February 8, 1947)

More to the point, why the concern over an unpaid letter writer or blogger when Syracuse has routinely rewarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to outsiders who have no connection to the city for their "expert opinion"? Why is it that so many of the notable planning decisions made in Syracuse during the past 50 years50 years during which the voter turnout for the mayoral race declined to this past year's all-time lowinvolved a third party that had no personal knowledge of the city's history? Could it be because what splits the opinion in Syracuse isn't liberal vs. conservative, city vs. suburbs, pragmatic vs. idealist, but rather, the role and interpretation of history? Does one fully accept the history that transpired, and believe that history unfolded along an inevitable path? Or, as Harvard historian Michael McCormick contends, is "the past a whole, a three-dimensional object that we [can] look at from different windows, and see different facets depending on what window you’re looking from"?

And because my own Syracuse history is viewed through window shopping at Fairmount Fair, Camillus Mall, and Carousel Center, is this why I feel that the community has reduced its former residents to nothing more than potential customers? Offer a sales pitch, wait for the sell and when it doesn't come, walk away? Did Syracuse forget the power of word-of-mouth advertising? Has the city focused so long on getting everyone back near and close that they never imagined the possibilities of having ambassadors spread far and wide?

As I stated last year on this blog, my family roots go back in Syracuse for over one hundred years. Do I want this tradition to come to an end like so many other century-old pieces of history in Syracuse? But how can I return when the city itself doesn't seem particularly concerned with how this lost past shapes its future? Though I know I've gained several new readers in the past year week, the main motivation of this blog remains the same: these entries are my attempt to provide an answer. If only for myself.


Anonymous said...

Curious as to whether you've looked at efforts elsewhere to use educational progress and incentives as a way to win "expats" back - the Say Yes to Education model seems to me like our town's last great hope for revival.

Rich Finzer said...


I had a bit of trouble following the thread of your post. If there were complaints about the condition of Syracuse in 1947; just as the city would enter its "golden age", it should not surprise you that 63 years later now that the infrastructure is in ruins, the industrial base has had the guts run out of it and downtown has effectively been "hollowed out" that the complaints have only grown louder.

I grew up in Rachacha during the late 40's, 50's and 60's. It was a time of unparalleled prosperity. I was last in Roch over Christmas. It's shot to pieces. Factories are shuttered, the housing stock is in deplorable condition and like Syracuse, the place is filthy. And just like Syracuse, Rochester had more than its share of stupid, short-sighted decision makers. Like the ones that 1st built and then tore out the subway system.

The punishing taxation of the last 40 years has driven the factories out and with them, a big slice of the skilled workforce. And I'm not speaking just about Roch & Syr. The industrial base of the entire state is gone forever.

I don't live in Rochester anymore, just like you don't live in Syracuse. And sometime in the next few years, I'll be leaving NY for good. The mass exodus of the boomers is just beginning. And once we depart, those that remain behind will lack even the basic skills needed to read your insightful postings.

Rich Finzer
Hannibal, NY