Friday, September 2, 2011

September 2011

Septemberalways a jolt to the system. After a month with a calendar so empty that its very existence has been questioned, September is back to school, back to work, back to activities and appointments that often seem to continue non-stop through year’s end.

Unless you were the top city and business leaders in urban renewal-era Syracuse, when September meant three-week vacations "oblications" to Europe! 

Forty-two Syracusans will leave Hancock Airport at 4 p.m. today for a three-week trip to Europe where they will study urban development programs in four countries.  The group, participating in a tour sponsored by the Metropolitan Development Association (MDA), will visit Denmark, Sweden, Finland and England to see new town developments and other urban development programs. (Post-Standard, September 9, 1970)

Wanna get away? Post-Standard, September 28, 1963
In the days before Google street view, or, apparently, access to the New York Times, city leaders routinely browsed European countries in person for inspiration for Downtown Syracuse. Between 1963 and 1974, the MDA arranged four European tours, each trip lasting between 16-20 days. The first trip, in October 1963, brought Mayor William Walsh, 18 city notables and their wives to England, France, Germany and Amsterdam: 
Old World hospitality was the fare for members of the Metropolitan Association's European tour when the Burgothe Burgomaster of Rotterdam, hosted a state luncheon in the great banquet hall.  Women members of the tour agree that this was a high point of the entire trip. There were 60 seated at the table where footmen waited on the assembly. Five thousand chrysanthemums were used in riotous colors, an organ was played during the luncheon and all present toasted the Queen of the Netherlands and the President of the United States. While the Rotterdam occasion was an outstanding event, Mrs. William F. Walsh, wife of Syracuse's mayor, also remembered another state luncheon in London, where she had a British Peer Lord Farrington sitting beside her. As in Rotterdam, the Lord Mayor of London feted the American visitors at a formal luncheon.  "We weren't entertained by royalty, but we certainly were accorded the royal treatment by every city visited on the tour," Mrs. Charles N. Howard was quick to report. (Post-Standard, October 24, 1963)
Almost 50 years later, this still seems outrageous. No, not because took first trip at same time the city was torn up by the tearing down of the 15th Ward,  or that six years later, when the city had suffered even greater decline due to this decision, the focus of the trip had shifted from downtown observations to “gather ideas for the new town being constructed near Baldwinsville by the MDA and the State Urban Development Corp.,” (September 9, 1970), or that the city paid $1,100 ($8,114 in 2011 dollars) for Mayor Walsh’s trip (other members paid for themselves, with the mayor’s wife travel “privately financed” (Post-Standard, September 22, 1963)).  Rather, after spending a total of 78 days abroad, in cities such as London, Coventry, Rotterdam, Bonn, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Paris, Stockholm, Berlin, Zurich, Vienna, Budapest, Salzburg, Munich, Copenhagen, Bergen, Oslo, and Brussels, where is the European influence in post-urban renewal Syracuse?

Because of her position as councilwoman, Maria (Mrs. Richard) Farr played sort of a “divided role” on the European trip. Despite her businesslike interest in slum clearance, rebuilding of war-torn cities and attendance at all the briefing sessions and lectures, Mrs. Farr evinced a very feminine interest in shopping centers—”malls,” as they are called. “They really are a shoppers paradise,” she said. (Post-Standard, October 24, 1963)

While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation. Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter. (New York Times, June 26, 2011)
Clearly, when it comes to transit, few similarities exist between European cities and Syracuse today. Yet even back in 1963, Mayor Walsh could not envision a city not shaped by cars and interstates:
The mayor reported an amazing thing was that 22,000 of the workers [at Philips Electric Company in Eindhoven, Holland] ride bicycles. It was a sight he confessed he had never seen the equal of when these workers left the plant.  He remarked to one of the officials what the situation would be like when eventually the workers put aside their bikes and drive cars to and from their work. (Post-Standard, October 12, 1963)

While some of these Philips’ jobs disappeared in the late 1970s and 1980s when production moved to Asia, the bicycles did not. Eindhoven currently has “140 km (87 miles) of cycle paths and many additional km of cycle lanes.”

Meanwhile, by year’s end, Syracuse should have its first half-mile “cycle track”!

While in Königswinter, Germany, MDA President Kenneth Bartlett wrote a 14-page letter to the Post-Standard, reprinted in the newspaper over the course of two days. At its conclusion, Bartlett highlighted key observations that he thought could be of great service to developing downtown. 48 years later, these ideas are still discussed as mere possibilities—if that in Syracuse:
We have, of course, seen only 'the best,' " Dean Bartlett continues in discussing the rebuilding of several European cities. "But even from it, some conclusions may be drawn:

The European city values land so highly that it places the most severe limitation on the development...Simply because a man owns land is no reason why he should be allowed to desecrate a city that will live a thousand years.

The planner holds a position of high regard, at least he is not thought of as a bureaucrat whose motive is to slow up growth. The planners we have met are men with vision, courage and the ability to articulate their plans. In Coventry, for example, they showed what they were doing by maps that showed, separately, (a) a schematic theme or principle; (b) pedestrian traffic; (c) car park; (d) roads, and finally (e) a model. Anyone may see it, it is on permanent display. 

Eindhoven is one of the few cities where we were told they want not new industry, and, further, they want no new suburbs—preferring to develop ‘a totality.' The latter term is, in fact, one heard many times. 

Flowers are everywhere. One really can not sense how barren our downtown is until one sees for himself the flower boxes in London, in Rotterdam, Coventry, Amsterdam and Utrich. (Post-Standard, October 21, 1963)

Then again, some observations were taken to heart immediately:

They also will see a town in Gothenburg, Sweden...Gothenburg contains the largest enclosed shopping center in western Europe. (Post-Standard, September 9, 1970)


In 1974, after returning from a 20-day MDA trip, William G. Morton, chairman of the Onondaga Savings Bank, “gushed images of the places he’d seen”: 

The group arrived in Bergen on Constitution Day to  find a riotous celebration going on in the square outside their hotel, Morton remembered. 

Food and paper had been mashed by hundreds of feet so that it coated the street. 

Morton rose early the next morning to find the square spotless. He said he noticed the same concern for appearance everywhere in Europe. 

"I don't know how you can transfer it here," he said.

"Education?" he asked, then let the question alone. (Post-Standard, June 8, 1974)

In this same edition of the June 8, 1974 Post-Standard, there was an educational lesson of a different sort:

South Salina Street between Water and Onondaga streets has seldom looked worse than it did yesterday afternoon. 

The messiest block yesterday was that, between Fayette and Jefferson, where both sides of the street are lined with big new planters, set up in former bus lanes. 

Sidewalks on each side were littered with trash, including a considerable pile of cigarette butts in front of Woolworths, which had been there for at least 24 hours. Apparently some oblivious citizen had emptied the ashtray of his car on the sidewalk beside one of the planters. 

Out on the street, buses were weaving in and out of traffic, with several cars parked double in the second lane beside the planters, drivers gone. Other cars were tucked into curb areas between planters, all apparently immune to parking violation tickets. 

Incidentally, when we got back to the office we had a telephone call from a former president of MDA who had returned Thursday evening from a 20-day MDA trip to Europe. He was shocked at the appearance of Salina Street and had some blunt comments about the planters blocking traffic. 

It would seem our local planners and beautifiers are still a long way from transforming Syracuse's Downtown in the European pattern. (Post-Standard, June 8, 1974)

The following September, the MDA stayed home, using their newfound knowledge of European government to help aid the city, albeit New York City (in the New York Times, which by then must have become available in Syracuse!). However, a grad student at SUNY-ESF arranged a far more productive tour: studying how outsiders view downtown Syracuse.

Some of downtown's finer spots to people watch were given the once over by a group of urban scientists, city planners, managers and designers the other day. 

By the time participants had filled out the 10-page questionnaire and finished the tour with lunch at a local restaurant, the Everson, MONY Plaza, Plymouth Square, Salina Street, Lincoln Plaza, Vanderbilt Square, Clinton Square and Hanover Square, in that order, had been scrutinized by experts from across the U.S. and Canada. (Syracuse Herald-Journal, September 8, 1975)

The tour members—” a meteorologist from Washington, D.C., a professor from University of Toronto's faculty of forestry, a member of Syracuse City Planning Commission,  and an  internationally recognized ecologist from University of Quebec”—were not as enthusiastic about the city as their counterparts had been in Europe. Regarding Lincoln Plaza:

"Bank windows reduce sense of privacy. Too busy. Too much going on in the immediate area," one questionnaire said. 

"Too much heat source. Concrete paving," another participant wrote. 

"Sitting near the art form, it feels warm and somewhat uncomfortable," said another questionnaire. "Aware of high noise levels," another respondent wrote.

MONY Plaza:

"Too much money has gone into pavement patterns, too little money into human needs. No congregating areas have been provided for outside the building," one participant commented.

"No place to sit except for seats in the front of the plaza placed unaccountable to people," another said. 

"The plaza is quite largedoes not encourage the average person to enter the complex," was the comment of the third participant.
Also as part of the study (and a slightly distasteful way to force tourist dollars in downtown), participants were “instructed by their questionnaire to buy something for someone on the tour along South Salina Street”:

Among gift items exchanged were a pair of ladies bikini briefs, a bag of mixed nuts, a book called "The Art of Living," a key chain, a bandana and a pot holder.
Save for the keychain, none of these items could probably be purchased today on South Salina Street.

You could, however, buy them at Syracuse’s lasting European tour souvenir: the mall.

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