Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Boiling Frogs In Syracuse

My Rust Belt reference point, the landscape of my childhood, runs from Erie, PA to Schenectady, NY (1974-1984). My father worked at General Electric in both cities, getting out of Erie before the layoffs really ravaged that town. Of course, Schenectady was stumbling down the same path. The annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage along the New York Thruway passed another GE plant in Syracuse. That was my first lesson in globalization. I remember vividly my dad pointing at the complex and remarking that the production of televisions had ceased. The company of Edison, my old man's hero, was dying.

For those of us who grew up during that time, the Rust Belt was a place you left. Japan was better at everything. The Soviets were going to annihilate America. I was reminded of all of that each time we passed the Electronics Laboratory just outside of Syracuse.

Today, the Rust Belt is a place where I want to raise my children. The rebuilding and revitalization have been so slow that no one seems to notice. For those of us who know shrinking cities intimately, our memories are fraught with contradictions. The negative dominates:

As I started, I remember growing up in the west side suburbs not far away, and recalled the smell in nearby Solvay, an overwhelming odor of , well, cleanser. These factories were primarily responsible for nearly killing  the lake. And that was kind of the memory for me in 70s Syracuse; a lake that smelled like Borax, a decaying downtown, one largely there for boozy nights watching the likes of Cheap Trick and Foreigner at the War Memorial, a crumbling hulk of a football stadium , and a baseball stadium with, remarkably, no seats behind home plate (due to a fire, it stayed that way for 30 years). But it was the lake that symbolized Syracuse , a beautiful resource destroyed, broken, and in true Syracuse fashion, like the hole in the baseball stadium, it just sat there for years.

My childhood Erie is similar. Lake Erie was a cesspool. The bumper sticker of the resident sea monster was made of tires and other discarded manufactured items, junk. But there is also the Rust Belt of awe and wonder that you bury below the story about Love Canal:

But, (I argued with myself ), the fact remained that downtown IS unique, there was no place like it in the region. Downtown was an exciting place when I was very young, a portal to a strange and compelling world out there, one very different from my secure suburban home. In those times, downtown visits were a treat, even if they were just a trip to the dentist. But just as often, a visit to Mom or Dad at work, an exciting downtown lunch, or maybe a trip with my grandmother to buy shoes.

Then it all came back when I came upon the old State Tower Building. In my oft-exaggerated  memories,  it IS a soaring 50 story edifice, not, the modest depression era office building one sees often in cities of this ilk. But with slender proportions, it did soar to the 5 year old. It was home to my dentist, who was one thrilling ride up its art deco elevators. The tallest building for miles!

And you can go back and revisit the splendor. Much of that Rust Belt still exists. It is the core of a different kind of community, one that is ascendant:

A few years ago, I came down here with my Dad. Like me, he had his own memories of the place, but much deeper. He also grew right here- on the Near Westside, right across the creek, in a dirt poor Irish Catholic household of 12 kids.

On this day, his old neighborhood not seen for 30 years, was unrecognizable to him. The area had been to war and back, sort of. It was re-emerging, with new housing being built near downtown for the first time in decades- block by block.

He was startled to see this. I could tell he couldn’t quite compute it all, it rustled the recall of his own palaces. He knew it was a good thing, as change came often to inner city neighborhoods, but still.

The Rust Belt refugee comes full circle. One generation works desperately to get out of the city and move to the suburbs, the geography of success. The next generation grows up in the suburbs and yearns for the authenticity of an urban neighborhood. Offspring moves back to the place their parents left behind.

Syracuse is changing, slowly. But our geographic aesthetic has flipped, almost overnight. The rejection of suburbia has been around awhile. More recent is the preference for Pittsburgh over Portland. "Emerald city" is a pejorative. "Rust Belt" is chic.

Lagging are geographic stereotypes and economic conditions. The former is a barrier to return migration, a lake that smelled like Borax and a decaying downtown. Syracuse is dying. The latter is a diverging Innovation Economy. You need to live where the jobs are.

On a recent visit to your hometown, it hits you. You remember the palaces of Syracuse, "built to last." The attraction is rekindled. What about employment? The world is getting flatter. The economy is converging. You can keep your San Francisco job and live in your dad's old neighborhood near downtown. Each year, you notice exponentially more people making the same return migration. Kiss the frog.

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