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.

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