Monday, August 23, 2010

August 14, 1945

"You've lost. You just don't know it."
"I've lost? Look at the board."
"I have."
scene from the film Searching for Bobby Fischer

On August 14, 1945, upon the news of Japan's surrender in World War II, "crowds of persons streamed downtown as if pushed by an avalanche":

Post-Standard, August 15, 1945

Downtown Syracuse was the centerpiece of a celebration, not only of the end of the war but of the prosperity to follow: one year earlier, General Electric announced the construction of Electronics Park, the main manufacturing center of the General Electric electronics department. The 10 million dollar project covering 155 acres and 1 million square feet of floor space was so massive that "nothing in Syracuse [could] touch it for size and modernity." (Syracuse Herald-American, September 23, 1945). On June 23, 1945, a Syracuse Herald-Journal editorial addressed the "bright days ahead for our city":

Remarks of District Manager Mason of the War Production Board in his address before the Advertising Club are profoundly encouraging from the standpoint of all citizens interested in postwar prosperity for Syracuse.
Not only are some of our largest industries planning broad expansion but new industries promise beneficent results from the standpoint of the community as a whole. For example, the General Electric Electronics Park development, which promises to become the world center of the electronics industry, will mean employment for thousands in postwar years.

These are bright days ahead for Syracuse.

Yet on the very same page, one column to the right, another Herald-Journal editorial glimpsed a possible shadow on this glowing future:

In planning for the postwar progress and prosperity of Syracuse, thoughtful consideration must be given to the problem of providing more adequate parking facilities in or near the business heart of the city.
The parking situation undoubtedly will grow progressively worse as more gasoline becomes available and new cars come into the market.

In its report covering the Central District of Syracuse, the Syracuse-Onondaga Postwar Planning Council remarked that "assurance of ample parking facilities is a matter of public responsibility. It does not make sense to provide public highways and streets for moving vehicles and make no provision for them at rest..."
We are aware, of course, that the parking problem is present in exaggerated form in practically every American city. Syracuse is not unique in that respect: it is in the same class as the majority of American municipalities.

But if we could solve this problem, it would be a momentous development from the standpoint of the city's future. Then we would be unique among American cities.

They most certainly would be unique among American cities, as they would be achieving the impossible: fitting thousands of cars within steps-only walking distance of every downtown shop, while still trying to maintain the existence of downtown. By the mid-1940s, editorial writers realized that that even the high-tech innovations of Electronics Park couldn't solve the low-tech issue of downtown parking: 

There is not much use in trying to find more parking space at curbs in the business section of the city. There are five cars now for every space (at 45-minute intervals) and before long there will be 10 of them.

They also glimpsed what the success and growth of post-WWII Syracuse could mean for downtown:

The traffic laws are badly misused. But we should realize, too, that it is largely a result of desperation. There are many more cars than there are parking spaces.

If we do not solve the problem, we'll have stores scattering to different parts of the city. We'll lose heavily. (Post-Standard editorial, February 20, 1946) 

In the years and decades ahead, downtown would experience that loss: loss of business, loss of buildings, loss of the very institutionsthe grand movie palaces and theatersthat could have offered the city center a competitive edge over the suburbs.  Indeed, when we think of what could have been, it's easy to imagine touring Broadway shows at RKO Keith's or the Strand Theater, drawing Wicked-sized crowds to Downtown on a monthly basis. But just think: there may also have been no Connective Corridor or Clinton Square fountain use to debate; no Urban Outfitters or O'Brien & Gere grand openings to gush over. Not because downtown would have been such a glittering jewel that we wouldn't need year-long orientation sessions for its newest employees, but rather, had certain Syracuse citizens not been victorious in their own personal battles for downtown, Forman Park, Clinton Square and Armory Square today would be supersized parking lots.


On nearly every street in the business section of Syracuse there are vacant lots once occupied by business blocks that are now torn down. These are mostly used as parking lots.
All over the city the same condition prevails. At the rate business buildings are being torn down, it will not be long before the entire downtown district will be one vast parking lot. (from a letter to the editor, Syracuse Herald-Journal, May 5, 1944)

In 1947, Mayor Frank Costello named a five-member commission (Charles Chappell, Henry Menopace, president of the Syracuse Real Estate Board, Frederick Norton, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, Jerome Rusterholtz, automobile dealer, and G. Frank Wallace, businessman and former state senator) to solve the city's parking problem.  The announcement of the new authority came in conjunction with the release of a report of an off-street parking program prepared by the City Planning Commission, which made several suggestions for permanent parking facilities:

View 1947 Parking Solutions in a larger map

Although subterranean parking lots were then being constructed in other cities, the report declared the proposal of building garages under streets or parks downtown "impractical."  Yet, really, none of the suggestions in the report could be considered practical, as the city had neither means nor method for advancing this plan. After a year of much talk and no action, perhaps the Syracuse Herald-American could be forgiven for not believing the Authority's announcement of a new potential solution as particularly newsworthy:

"Parking may replace park." January 18, 1948

Clinton Square had once before been used solely for parking, in the years immediately following the paving-over of the Erie Canal. In 1933, the city embarked upon the "beautification of Clinton Square," based on plans submitted by architect Dwight Baum:

Perhaps it is easier to understand how the Strand Theater and similar historic landmarks could be sacrificed in the 1950s when you read that a mere decade after this landscaping makeover, Clinton Square was offered up for an 62-car parking lot. Sensing a battle, neighborhood garden clubs immediately voiced their disapproval:

To the Editor of the Post-Standard:

Enclosed is a letter sent to Mayor Costello.

Alan F. Burgess (President, Garden Center Association)

Recently some publicity has been given to a proposal to convert the southern half of Clinton Square to a parking lot, as a partial solution to the need for off-the-street parking.

I wish to inform you that at its regular monthly meeting today, the Garden Center Association, which represents 27 Garden Clubs in Syracuse and Central New York, voted unanimously to go on record as opposing this proposal, and to inform you of its action.

While we realize the need for increased parking space in downtown Syracuse, we believe that the proposed change in Clinton Square would actually provide space for a mere handful of cars, while detracting considerably from the appearance of this park, in the heart of our city.

There are already too many unattractive areas in Syracuse, without creating one more where thousands of tourists pass through annually.

(Post-Standard, January 25, 1948)

The Syracuse Society of Architects protested the proposal, declaring the scheme "inadequate and would only serve to increase the traffic problem downtown and destroy one of the most prominent aesthetic areas of the city." (Post-Standard, January 30, 1948) Even a Post-Standard editorial decried the plan:

The garden clubs of Syracuse are right in fighting a proposal to give Clinton Square over to off-street parking.

We can't afford to give away any beauty.

Such a proposal is an admission of defeat. There are, or ought to be, plenty of other places to park cars. It is a question of going ahead and doing the thing right. (Post-Standard, January 22, 1948)

Within six months, the Parking Authority seemed to lose interest in Clinton Square, as they had arrived at at new possibility: razing a full city block to build a giant parking garage:

The new Syracuse Parking Authority is seriously considering purchase of the block bounded by S. Clinton, S. Franklin, Walton and W. Jefferson Streets as a parking lot.

The authority met yesterday afternoon and afterward (authority chairman) G. Frank Wallace said that if this plan proves successful a building of several stories to provide parking may be erected on the lot. The proposal would involve razing all buildings in the block excepting the Jefferson-Clinton Hotel. (Syracuse Herald-Journal, June 19, 1948).

Post-Standard, June 21, 1948

While the Jefferson-Clinton Hotel would be spared, other buildingsoccupied with tenantswould be condemned and demolished for the structure, which offered the promise of being one block away South Salina Street:

The proposal was termed "ridiculous" by Charles H. Kaletzki, Syracuse advertising man and owner of the Bohanon Company, an occupant of Wood's building.

Kaletzki said the frontage was valuable and questioned the advisability of ripping out a revenue-producing building for the comparatively small revenue that would be produced by a parking lot. (Post-Standard, June 21, 1948)

On July 8, the Syracuse Parking Authority stated that in "about two weeks" they would take "concrete action to acquire the property and demolish buildings." (Post-Standard, July 8, 1948). One week later, the property formerly housing the St. Vincent Orphanage at Madison and Montgomery Streets, was offered to the city for purchase for a parking lot. Thus ended the plan to bulldoze this particular block, though once again the news was buried on the inside pages:

But when the Parking Authority announced their next proposed site, the plan sounded so audaciousor ineptthat headlines would be splashed across the front page of the Sunday paper.

Coming soon: Part 2
The Post-WWII Emerald City: Razing parks but recycling ideas!