Tuesday, December 16, 2008

December 13, 1959

Well, this blog has been looking a bit like a time capsule, hasn't it? Unfortunately, a busy fall with work and school required me to put it on hiatus for a few months. Let's see, what did I miss? Studies of Downtown? Studies of Downtown? Studies of Downtown? As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Of course, a few blogs on syracuse.com took on the look of a time capsule these past few months as well. Memories of Elmwood and Skunk City have flooded the site since late summer. Not only is it refreshing to see any 200+ comment blog on Syracuse.com that isn't dominated by 199 crude and ignorant statements, it's wonderful to get caught up in all of the remembrances of Syracuse past, especially those of the Downtown holiday season. South Salina Street crowded with shoppers! Department store Santas! Lest we think that these memories are just sentimental nostalgia, let's read from a December 11, 1959 Herald-Journal article about downtown Syracuse:

At Edwards crowds of children and grownups gather to see and hear the Chipmunk Trio sing with Santa at the gail[y] decorated piano. The Christmas-at-home setting features a green tree decorated in monotone red balls; and in a miniature apartment, the waltzing mice fascinate the children...Across the street, Chappell's facade is festooned with evergreen ropes between two giant candelabra. The windows are decorated with white snowy branches against a background of red velvet curtains....Continuing along Salina Street, Witherill's windows have red candelabra entwined with rosettes of pine needles and red Christmas balls...Dey's marquee is decorated with giant red and white striped candy canes and a colorful Christmas tree, and the windows are framed with silver ferns. The smashingist is the window filled with imported mechanical puppets...Grant's marquee holds a giant neon candle with the words 'Good Will,' banked with Christmas trees. A white fairy queen tops the turntable loaded with toys of every description..."

And that's just the half of it! Flah's, Addis Co. and many more were festively decorated for the holidays! By golly, it's enough to make me want to jump into the Edwards rocket and fly straight back to the 1950s Syracuse!

But as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Or, "What Happens to Business Happens to Everyone."

Advocates of the "why worry about Downtown" and "let Downtown solve its own problems" philosophies should ponder the General Electric Company's well-known phrase about what happens to business.

Downtown is a complex, multi-faceted necessity. It creates the great business radius which extends across Central New York and into Canada.

Syracuse in December 1959, was, in many ways, the exact opposite of Syracuse in December 2008. The Syracuse University football team had an undefeated season and was named the top team in the nation. Merchants expected a "crackerjack of a Christmas" with record holiday sales, due to people earning and saving more than 1958, little inflation, and easier credit (Syracuse Herald-Journal, December 1959). Edwards, Chappell's, Witherill's, Grant's, Dey's, Flah's and the Addis Co. actually existed. And yet, sprinkled in among the ads for $14.95 holiday dresses at Flah's and $20 combat rifles at Dey's in December 1959 was a very different type of holiday ad: strongly worded warnings from the Downtown merchants to save downtown before it was too late.

What happens to hurt our Downtown -- through neglect, through deliberate action, or through indecision -- affects every taxpayer, every parent, everyone who draws his livelihood from anywhere in our great community.

1959 Downtown Syracuse was also a Downtown in decline. The $14.95 dresses at Flah's were sold at both the downtown and Shoppingtown locations. Witherill's may have celebrated 71 years in business with an expansion of their Downtown store in 1959, but would open an additional branch in Camillus Plaza five years later. A proposal for an elevated highway through Syracuse had been revealed one year earlier. All the while, Syracuse city leaders responded much like the children in Edwards department store: fascinated with every new idea that waltzed into their view. At the same time plans for the new Community Plaza were being unveiled to the public (highlighted by a new Public Safety Building, because nothing says "community" like making your new city centerpiece a jail), city council leaders were taking field trips to Toledo and Kalamazoo, only to return and declare that a pedestrian mall would save Syracuse: "With the same sort of co-operation and enthusiasm [as Kalamazoo, Michigan], I feel sure we could have a mall on Salina Street that would not only add to the attractiveness of our downtown, but would act as a stimulus to our core area business." (Councilman-at-large Allen F. Martin, Syracuse Herald-Journal, November 10, 1959). Another group visited Pittsburgh, and declared skyscrapers and parks were the answer, noting "the amazing thing about the Pittsburgh renaissance is that there never has been a construction master plan." (Syracuse Herald-American, November 1, 1959). Still others felt Syracuse should look a little closer to home, declaring that Rochester's Midtown Plaza would result a similar rebirth of our downtown. Out of this chorus of opinions grew the the Downtown Syracuse Association, a group of downtown merchants focused solely on "emphasizing the importance, availability and facilities of Downtown Syracuse as a place for shopping fun and services." (The Post-Standard, July 12, 1959). Members included such businessmen as John Fitzgibbons, president of Dey Brothers, Ralph Brucker, general manager of Grant's downtown store, and Charles A. Chappell, Sr., president of Chappell's.


Downtown is people. Not just stores. Not just banks. Not just real estate. If you take the people out of Downtown (for instance, by making it much easier and cheaper to build office buildings in a dozen other places), you effectively empty not only Downtown office buildings, but stores, restaurants, theaters, all the facilities which help make our community "metropolitan."

The merchants who formed the Downtown Syracuse Association perhaps knew better than anyone the problems facing Downtown Syracuse. November 1959 saw the opening of the "Oswego Boulevard Expressway," a 14-mile stretch of Interstate 81 leading north from Downtown. While suburbs such as Bayberry initially touted its proximity to Downtown Syracuse via the expressway as a selling point ("Bayberry is now just two traffic lights away from South Salina Street!" a November 1, 1959 Post-Standard ad proclaimed), these same suburbs quickly realized that they could build their own shopping centers, complete with free parking. So it is understandable that the issue the Association took up as their cause, the one that brought the group and Mayor Henninger to verbal blows and prompted the Association to place a series of pointed editorial-style ads in a newspaper in December 1959, was the fear of the creation of a second downtown. What is slightly more perplexing is that they thought this new downtown would be located on James Street.

When you depopulate Downtown of its daily office force, you first eliminate or endanger jobs. Fewer customers and clients mean few sales, fewer business transactions. This in turn means fewer salesclerks and stockbrokers, fewer stockmen and fewer waitresses. The thousands of men and women who work Downtown today see their jobs threatened, as others have seen them go.

In October 1959, the Downtown Syracuse Association expressed their vehement opposition to the rezoning of a three-block area of lower James Street from residential to commercial. While the merchants supported the construction of new apartment buildings in the 500, 600 and 700 blocks on the street (such as a proposed 6-million dollar, 21-story apartment building on the corner of James and Lodi, the present Regency Tower), as it would create a residential inner ring around Downtown, they expressed concern that if offices were allowed to build in the area, a "new downtown" would be set up that would detract from the real downtown, especially considering that tax assessments for office space on James Street would be dramatically lower. As Charles Chappell stated at an October 1959 hearing about the issue, "It is rare indeed to find a city with two downtowns and for good reason...You cannot destroy or duplicate downtown either by accident or on purpose and let the city survive." (The Post-Standard, October 8, 1959).

What particularly offended the merchants was that it was the city itself that was proposing the rezoning. Attorney John T. Smith, representing the Association at a December 15, 1959 hearing, said "Syracuse is the only city in the United States that is deliberately flouting and disregarding the views of its merchants," explaining that the "city administration constantly makes statements of what it is doing to revitalize downtown...at the same time it is setting up an office district to help its deterioration and break down its tax base." (Syracuse Herald-Journal, December 16, 1959). At the same December hearing, Charles Chappell urged the City Planning Commission to take a "longer look" at the rezoning proposal, and to consider the larger picture: "What we do now will influence us for many years to come; if downtown is no good, the rest of the city will be no good. We're going too fast. Too many things are going too fast. I'm worried that we'll do the wrong thing in the wrong place." (Syracuse Herald-Journal, December 16, 1959)

One week later, the Common Council approved the rezoning.


When you evacuate Downtown--and make it difficult for people to drive, ride or walk Downtown, too--you begin to drive stores out of business, or at least out of the city. First little vacancies show up. Then medium-size businesses go. Finally Downtown's "big stores" are alone in their trouble. They, too, must go where there are people to buy. They must earn enough to pay the rent, to pay for goods, to meet payrolls, to pay taxes, even return a small profit. Today many Downtown Syracuse businesses do not.

While there may have been Christmas cheer for the downtown stores, there was not much cheer for the political and economic views of their owners. In a December 1959 television report focusing on the deteriorating Downtown, Mayor Henninger warned downtown merchants "Get off your seats and do something about your own situation." (Syracuse Herald-Journal, December 21, 1959). Ironically, this came on the same day as the Planning Commission's rezoning approval, prompting the Association to release a statement charging the mayor with a conflict of interest. Public support wasn't much better, as evidenced by several letters to the editor at the time:

"This is the first time the writer has ever written to a newspaper, so please excuse my 'English,' however the attempts of certain selfish, downtown store owners to stop the progress of Syracuse makes my blood boil. The attempts of this self-interested group to prevent competition to increase the value of their own property or increase their own business by asking the city of Syracuse to prevent other property owners from developing their own property is clearly unconstitutional...All cities are extending outward, and new business areas are developing, but not in Syracuse. If the downtown property owners had their way, there would never be any new buildings in Syracuse, unless they sold their own real estate at an excessive profit..." (The Post-Standard, December 31, 1959)

"The 'Downtown Rejuvenation' or whatever the merchant-inspired politicians choose to call it is more than I can swallow. It would appear that we have some pretty ignorant citizens in Syracuse, for it couldn't be more obvious that the taxpayer is literally subsidizing the downtown merchants. I'd like to know whether I could ask the public to move my hot dog stand (if I had one) because the location and parking facilities were outdated or inadequate? I firmly believe that business is business and that if the merchants downtown can't make a go of their businesses, it's not up to us to remodel the city so they can. The shopping centers seem to do all right." (The Post-Standard, September 1, 1959)

This last letter touches upon what was the greatest concern of the Downtown Syracuse Association: taxes. According to the City Planning Commission's annual report, "Downtown area assessments have had to be raised steadily since 1946 by a larger percentage than for the rest of the city...Despite downtown Syracuse's ideal location, it has benefited little or not at all from the growth in the metropolitan area. It is true that downtown still attracts many retail customers, but unfortunately, not many more than 10 years ago. In a word, downtown Syracuse is static." (The Post-Standard, November 1, 1959)

As more businesses closed Downtown, the properties became less valuable, and the assessed values should have decreased. However, this was not the case, and in November 1959, eighty-seven downtown merchants started legal action against the city in an attempt to get their assessments reduced by 40 percent (after asking for a 10 percent reduction earlier in the year and being told by city officials that "it couldn't be done."). As the group itself stated, "The taxes being assessed [on] land and buildings have little or no relationship to their real value in today's market...We may be in error, because nobody really knows what Syracuse taxes should be now. There hasn't been a comprehensive evaluation of properties here in umpteen years, although other cities our size provide for either continuous or regularly scheduled reassessments. We urge again that this revaluation program be started without delay. Today would be fine." (Syracuse Herald-American, December 20, 1959). Yet in the face of increasing taxes, decreasing income and a "today" that seemed nowhere in sight, it became much easier for many downtown merchants to simply relocate to the suburban shopping centers.

As your city decentralizes, the transit crisis intensifies. For people who must work in areas [far] from the center of the city, this is an immediate and personal problem, for Downtown is the easiest one place in town to reach. Soon transportation will be everyone's problem, for the prediction has been made that Syracuse will be without mass transit in a decade. A strong Downtown is essential to efficient transit operations.

The true debate of 1959 wasn't between the Downtown Syracuse Association and the City Administration or residential and commercial taxpayers. The real conflict could be defined by how one felt towards Charles Chappell's statement at that December zoning hearing:"if downtown is no good, the rest of the city will be no good." The merchants of the Downtown Syracuse Association believed that Downtown was the heart of the city: without it, the city could not survive. And yet, for many others, Syracuse was a community of suburbs: Downtown was a mere vestigial organ that evolution had rendered obsolete. Since 1959, Syracusans -- and its natives located elsewhere-- have fallen into one of these two camps. It is with some amazement that I have read recent comments about the recent recession not noticeably hitting Syracuse as quickly as other cities. What exactly does this mean -- fewer foreclosure signs in the suburbs? Or is it because there have already been hundreds of vacant properties the center of the city for the past 30+ years? Or how about the building that once housed my grandfather's West Onondaga Street pharmacy -- the one he proudly owned and operated from 1937-1970 -- that eventually became a corner store notorious for drug sales of a different sort, closed by the city in mid-90s as a local nuisance, only to reopen and burn down in a suspicious fire in 2001? This is a Syracuse that is beyond foreclosure; save for the trips down memory lane, it has simply been forgotten.

These Downtown problems can be coped with, but only if there is a new realization in Syracuse that what happens to business really does happen to everyone...not just to "Downtown"...not just to "businessmen." If you read this newspaper, you, too, have a personal stake in Downtown Syracuse. (Downtown Syracuse Association Advertisement, Syracuse Herald-American, December 13, 1959)

The Downtown Syracuse Association had hope for Downtown Syracuse, and perhaps this ultimately caused their downfall. On December 18, 1959, the Association placed another editorial advertisement in the Post-Standard, headlined with "Why Emphasize the Down in Downtown?" The downtown merchants wanted to be a positive voice for Downtown, claiming "people--people who shouldn't--have asserted the city's central business district is beyond help, and they've taken some actions which indicate they believe what they say....One thing needs to be clear: we didn't ever say it. We don't believe Downtown Syracuse is headed for disaster, and we're through being attacked every time we try to prevent further erosion of Syracuse's great economic asset....Downtown Syracuse is due for a revitalization and a greatness which will make the current city look like Cossit's Corners...We are for Downtown Syracuse -- We think it's great, and can be greater."

So there was hope when Downtown merchants did have a crackerjack of a holiday season in 1959, with Edwards Department Store having their most successful year ever. Post-Standard business columnist Bernard S. Newer claimed that "downtown needs some vitamins...it would be foolish not to admit it. But there is still plenty of life and charm left in the main drag." (The Post-Standard, December 25, 1959). There was hope that the 1959 razing of three "century-old buildings" (the Metropolitan Building, the Malcolm Building, and the Fobes Building) and the construction of the First Federal Savings bank on the lot would prove "Downtown Syracuse is the greatest shopping center that could possibly be built...Syracuse has a bright future. It will continue to prosper and grow, and with full coordination and steam ahead it can't miss" (The Post-Standard, January 3, 1960) . The new bank building barely survived a decade, torn down to make way for the new Edwards store, which went bankrupt two years later, but fear not! Because now there was hope in the new Syracuse Mall, pedestrian malls (again), and, after the failure of the Syracuse Mall, another new shopping mall. So maybe now, with the recent foreclosure of the Hotel Syracuse project, we're at the best place we could possibly be, which might be to say, hopeless. As Charles Chappell Sr. warned, we've done the wrong thing in the wrong place countless times, in the hope of turning Downtown around. We've learned, as a city and a country, that gimmicks fail. But we also know that if idea is smart enough, determined enough, exciting enough, and most importantly, well-executed enough, hope can rise again. And, for once, win.