Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 7, 1940

Yes, the blog has been on a bit of a summer break. I haven't taken any major summer vacations myself, although earlier this month I did travel to Syracuse for a weekend for the 75th Anniversary Celebration of my alma mater school district. While I always anticipate a visit to Wegmans on a return trip home, it seems Syracuse is currently enamored with the business just across the Fairmount Wegmans parking lot: Five Guys.

I am not in the Five Guys target market (neither having lived in Syracuse nor eaten a hamburger for almost two decades), but I nevertheless read the Store Front blog extensive coverage of Five Guys recent opening with great fascination. Even more astonishing were the pictures of Black Friday-length lines for the opening of Cici's Pizza in DeWitt. Although some of the fastest-growing franchises choosing Syracuse suggests confidence in the area as a consumer market, what does it mean when the area's landscape is chained to establishments that can be found in any city in the country?

Certainly, a Faimount-based Five Guys is convenient if you live in the area and have a hunger for a 920-calorie bacon cheeseburger. But celebrating
even championingthe arrival of a chain restaurant operating 250 locations in 19 states also seems somewhat reminiscent of the Herald-Journal’s 1940 search for Syracuse’s most typical family:

Will you help us find the most typical family in Central New York?

Maybe it is yours?

At any rate once this family is discovered, the father, mother and two children will be treated to the finest vacation you could possibly imagineand the entire trip will not cost them one penny.

The opportunity for entrance in this unique contest will be over at midnight next Saturday so if you have a family that you think is average in this section of the state, enter it today! (Syracuse Herald-Journal, June 22, 1940).

Ninety-five families wrote letters to the paper in this competition of commonplace. A panel of five judges, including T. Aaron Levy, Reverends Walter D. Cavert and J. James Bannon, Welfare Department Commissioner Leon Abbott and Syracuse University professor Dr. Frances Markey Dwyer, sought to find the most ordinary, conventional family to represent Syracuse in a national competition of "the All-American Family," to be held at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York:

No one knows exactly what an average Central New York family should be. That will be the duty of the committee to decide. But if a family far from average in one or two respects and near average in all their other qualifications, the sum total of all their qualities would approximate the normal living standard of this section of the State and they might be chosen as the winning family.

Don't forget that the family that comes closest to what the judges believe is normal for this section of the State will be awarded the free trip to the fair. (Syracuse Herald-Journal, June 26, 1940)

Thirty-one families were chosen via similar newspaper contests around the country, and all winners were treated to a prize vacation:

As soon as the lucky family has been named by the contest committee plans will be made for a glorious week's vacation free at the World's Fair for the typical Central New York family.

A new Ford car and chauffeur will roll up to their doorstep a week from tomorrow and transport them leisurely to New York City and their FHA home residence on the fairgrounds.

The family will be the guests of the Ford Motor Company to and from the fair and will be guests of the exhibition management during their week's stay.

Early next week they will be taken to Sears Roebuck Company where they will be allowed to select $100 worth of clothing for their vacation. Sears Roebuck furnished the model home in which the family will reside at the Fair, and the local retail store will supply the typical family with vacation clothing.

Every penny of expense on the entire trip will be paid so the family will be able to enjoy a grand vacation free from any money worries.

At the Fair the family will be free to choose its own amusements and plan its own itinerary. No stiff luncheons or formal dinners are slated for the typical Central New York family who will enjoy themselves as they would on any private vacation jaunt. (Syracuse Herald-Journal, July 6, 1940)

Being as families have humiliated themselves on reality shows in recent years and not won prizes this substantial, one can only imagine how valuable this opportunity sounded to Central New York families at the end of the Depression.  So the Cramer family of 302 Dewitt Road strove to sound as simple as can be:

"A quiet evening at home with the family grouped about the fireplace, the children playing on the floor with their dog, Freckles, Dad reading his favorite magazine, mother sewing, each of us with a dish of popcorn and the radio playing in the background is our idea of the perfect winter evening. We also like to play a family game of Chinese checkers, parcheesi or rummy. Once a week we try to go to a good movie. Sundays, after church and Sunday school, we plan a picnic or an outing in the family car, perhaps to grandma's or the airport, which the children enjoy.

As we are buying our home, there isn't much extra money for luxuries and expensive entertainment, so we have built our life around our home and each other and as parents, hope we can always share the confidence and companionship of our children." (excerpt from letter written by Alice Cramer, in Syracuse Herald-American, July 7, 1940)
Seventy years later, Alice Cramer's words seem to reflect the enduring image of families from that era. While they may have been considered most typical at the time, the winning Cramer family was far from ordinary: Husband Kenneth Cramer co-owned a turkey farm in Baldwinsville, where wife Alice managed the bookkeeping. Kenneth's brother Leonard was a well-known pilot who, in August 1940, traveled to Britain "to train youthful British fliers for the anticipated German blitzkrieg upon England" (Syracuse Herald-Journal, August 7, 1940).  Uncle Peter Cramer "passed nine years and six days in [a] trip around the globe traveling principally as a fireman or oiler on freighters...ranched in Australia and the West, been in the crew of fishing vessels off the Russian Arctic coast months at a stretch out of sight of land, seen Hawaii, England, Ireland, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, Mexico and [had] a new home under construction in California having lost his last in a flood" (Syracuse Herald-American, September 15, 1940). But for the World's Fair, conceived in part as an opportunity for corporations to present domestic-related products to a specific audience, individual achievements mattered less than ideal consumers.  For fair sponsors, who wished to sell cars and washing machines to a newly emerging middle class, the "typical families" of the United States all looked exactly the same:

Winning West Texas family, from Big Spring Daily Herald, May 13, 1940
Winning Florida family, from Syracuse Herald-Journal, June 20, 1940

The Cramer family, from Syracuse Herald-Journal, July 7, 1940

Not unlike, say, chain restaurants.


While home in Syracuse, I saw a commercial for the Creative Core air repeatedly on local stations. After each viewing, I found myself more confused as to the point of the ad. Initially I thought the ad was promoting tourism and/or relocation, but if so, why the repeat local airings? Or is it solely a local ad, presenting a new outlook/brand for the region to those who already live there?

Perhaps my confusion is the same when I read the store front blog with its frequent excitement for chain restaurants locating in the Syracuse area. Is this enthusiasm simply about eliminating a road trip to get that chain's signature meal? Or is there the hope that tourists and new residents will now flock to Syracuse? And if they do, what will they see when they arrive? In the week prior to my visit to Syracuse, I took day trips to Foxborough, Massachusetts and New York City, where I also spotted Five Guys locations. Walk out of Five Guys on Bleecker Street and find yourself in the West Village; Five Guys in Patriot Place is steps away from Gillette Stadium. Exit the Creative Core Five Guys and enjoy...the equally-celebrated chain Panera Bread?

But where else would Five Guys be in the Syracuse area? Not downtown, with Five Guys real estate requirements of "minimum 35 dedicated parking spaces (if not a high pedestrian area)" and avoidance of co-tenants such as "low-volume retail and businesses that close on the evenings and weekends." Olive Garden? 7,500 – 8,500 building square footage, 1.7-2.4 acres of land, and 125-145 parking spaces. Longhorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze, two restaurants on commenters' wishlist to replace the vacant Hooters space at Carousel Center? 5550 building square footage, 1.38+ acres, 116+ parking spaces and 7000 building square footage, 1.9 acres and 140-160 parking spaces, respectively. And Panera Bread?

• 3,500– 4,500 square feet of mostly rectangular vanilla box
space plus patio area for 35 + seats 

• Proximity to morning, afternoon and evening traffic generators
• Prefer high visibility in-line or end cap locations in  shopping centers or malls, free standing or pad site locations
• Traffic count of 20,000 cars per day
• 10,000 people within one mile ring
• 30,000 people within two mile ring
• 40 feet of visible store frontage 

• 50,000 people within three mile ring
• One parking space per 3 chairs, a minimum of 70 spaces
• Minimum of 110 seats
• 70% of population within one and two mile rings within the top 1/3 Prizm clusters
• Ten year primary term with three five year options
• Convenient ingress and egress
• Business employment count of 10,000 within one-mile ring and 20,000 within two mile ring
• Visibility from all directions 

• Median household income of $ 50,000

Celebrating the arrival of more chain restaurants in the Syracuse region may confirm that the area has the population and median income requirements
a worthy distinctionbut also perpetuates the pattern of suburban growth presented at the World's Fair seven decades ago.


When this future(ama) came to pass, city centers (in Syracuse and elsewhere) attempted
to recreate themselves in the pattern of suburbs. Now, as Downtown Syracuse continues its revitalization efforts from this mistake, it too has seen a recent spate of restaurant openings. However, in a step away from suburban development, the new downtown restaurants are independently owned.  These establishments, as well as the many other non-chain restaurants in Syracuse and surrounding areas, are the unique institutions that must come to typically define Syracuse.

Just some locally-grown food for thought.


damian said...

Great timing, I've just been campaigning against a Subway restaurant opening in my Westcott neighborhood. There has been a very strong response to chain stores here, but I'm afraid not all sections of the city would rally against this type of project.

Justen said...

Regarding all of the new restaurants opening downtown, I think it's telling that those entrepreneurs all independently came to the conclusion that now was a good time to start a business downtown. Particularly in light of the broader economy.

It's possible that I'm seeing everything through rose-colored lenses, but it feels like there's a real energy downtown (as much energy as there can be when unemployment is at 8%). The fact that businesses like Urban Outfitters want to be downtown is lagging indicator; independently-owned small businesses, like the above-referenced restaurants, have done a lot of the hard work of transforming small pockets of the city into dense centers of activity.

Of course, this being Syracuse, I suppose it's possible some snake-oil salesman will come along tomorrow offering to bulldoze Armory Square to make room for a mall, so I'm not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

An interesting aspect about the GM Futurama presentation is that when one viewed the city of 1960, virtually all traces of that community's former identity have been erased. Nothing remains of its past--no historical building or civic monuments, no churches--nothing. The glorious future with soaring glass towers is all that mattered. Secondly, the Futurama city was bisected by mammoth highways and devoid of mass transportation. This is not unusual in that the pavilion and the Futurama ride were built by General Motors. All of this makes sense because it had been a long and difficult decade and the Depression had not quite let go in 1939. Americans wanted to believe that their tomorrow would be much better than the present day and in their haste to reach the future, the past was jettisoned. This image of America in 1960 pointed the way toward urban renewal and interstate highways. These were not bad ideas per se, but in the mid-Sixties, it became an all or none proposition. In Syracuse, so much of the past was demolished in order to build the future (much of which was never constructed) and expressways, the transportation networks of the future, easily and quickly bisected the city. It was all as the Futurama predicted minus the problems this "futuristic" planning created, of course.

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