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NYT visits Erie Canal

Is this thing on? Testing, 1, 2, 3…

Just a quick note that the New York Times has a nice article in its Sunday magazine about canoeing through the ruins of the Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley. I don’t consider the Beech-Nut factory in Canajoharie a “ruin” – it’s still too recently the workplace of a bunch of people – but the article is respectful and appreciative of the area.

I was on the Thruway passing next to the Beech-Nut factory just yesterday, after a quick trip downstate. I keep forgetting how “real” the I-90 portion of the Thruway is compared to many other interstates in New York, which have been carved through convenient corridors of nothing. Lots of trees and rocky outcrops with drill bit traces to look at — evidence of human habitation, not so much. But as the NYT article notes, the I-90 Thruway is just another overlay on two centuries’ worth of travel. As dead as it may be economically, at least you can be sure there are still some people around.

First draft finished

The first draft of NYCO’s Blog is now completed.

What does “indigenous” mean?

I have blogged a lot here in the past about our local indigenous people, the Haudenosaunee. But I’ve also been interested in considering “indigenousness” as it relates to other peoples living in the same space – Central New York, or upstate New York as a whole – and how people see or don’t see that concept applying to themselves or to other people. Many native peoples around the world who are called “indigenous” have not actually “always” been there (have migrated from other regions in the distant past, and so on). So, when and how do people become part of the land (indigenous) — with the implication that there are “other people” who are not?

This article about a fight between a local landowner and the Adirondack Park Agency caught my eye because the landowner used the term “indigenous” to refer to himself and his own interests. The first impulse may be to scoff at the guy for cynically co-opting the term. But while he may not be willing to go even further and identify himself as a member of an “indigenous group” living among other indigenous groups who have been here longer, I feel he is probably applying the term to himself sincerely, albeit unthinkingly.

During the NYRI controversy a couple years ago, I saw the proposed power line represented a sort of land grab directed against the land and its people, who were a different people than the downstate people who needed the power line. (Or at least, the corporate types who stood to profit from it). The people living along the proposed line – in my view – were discovering what other indigenous people discovered 200 years ago: that they were now invisible people, part of the landscape to be exploited.

People who self-identify as “indigenous” typically have difficulty communicating to the “non-indigenous” that indeed they do consider themselves part of the landscape in a way that most Americans probably don’t really grasp. Whereas Americans, particularly those living within the dominant culture, tend to see the land as being something they own or deal in. It is something that can be traded away without it affecting their sense of self. This is the tension that causes so many problems when eminent domain is invoked. Eminent domain assumes that land has no meaning or value beyond its economic value. You should be able to exchange it for fair market value without suffering any real loss. Why should you want to save that sad little house or Main Street along the power line? Just take the money, move away and place yourself and your values in some other congenial but interchangeable landscape…

I actually don’t know if the gentleman up in the Adirondack Park really feels on a gut-level that he is “indigenous” to the land beyond all conventional economic consideration. Still, the unprompted use of the word by a white man is intriguing; especially in a time when many people feel economically and socially that they have their backs up against a wall. Our portable American values are supposed to overcome any squeamishness we may have about moving elsewhere, even if coerced to move elsewhere by eminent domain. In America, you’re not supposed to have values, or a state of being, that is not portable.

So, what is an indigenous state of being, and can you become that way? Or, if you can’t “become” indigenous, can new indigenous peoples be born from older, colonizing ones? We’re used to hearing the term applied to native American tribes, but can it be plausibly applied to other groups of people as well? And is the growth of new senses of “peoplehood” (or a return to old senses) a good or bad thing?

As for my own opinion, I’m not sure that such an evolution in personal identification in America, necessarily means strife and bigotry. It could also mean the formation of new and mutually beneficial alliances between peoples who are newly realizing that they are not who they used to think they were.

A Fair day…

The State Fair has been taking its share of lumps in recent weeks — from investigations of both how Peter Cappuccilli and Dan O’Hara have been running things, to an infestation of Justin Bieber fans. My Fairgoing has become spotty over the last few years, mainly because there always seems to be something crazy happening around this time lately. But I made it there today (and what a beautiful day it was) and thoroughly enjoyed myself, and also got to finally see some of the recent changes in action.

The good:

-It seems as if purveyors of tacky goods and services have been sent packing from many of the main Fair buildings, including the Center of Progress and International Pavilion. I think they’ve been shooed down to tents near Restaurant Row. The Center of Progress building seems easier to navigate now and features more New Yorky type stuff — booths for different counties and communities trying to sell themselves, and more historical societies — not just pols bragging about their good deeds.

-The International Pavilion has gotten a pretty fab interior re-do (shame about the restaurant fire there this year though). I never had a problem with it before, but it was so hard to navigate the food court area and find seating. Now there are attractive round wooden tables with benches, and elevated seating areas including a wine and beer area. This is probably the biggest actual facelift the Fair has seen in quite some time.

-Llamas every day now.

-The horse shows in the Coliseum seem to run better and move along more quickly, with pleasant music to accompany all the cantering and trotting. I don’t know about you, but plopping down in the Coliseum for a midday snack break to watch a random horse show is one of my personal Fair traditions. (I still wish they’d bring back the jumping competitions to the main venue, but possibly there were safety reasons for that.)

-Wine flowing a bit more freely at the restaurants. I didn’t have any today, but bought a bottle like a good patriotic New Yorker.

The bad:

-Chevy Court (I still can’t stop calling it Miller Court, which severely dates me) used to be a pretty laid-back venue, but is now a deadly serious musical happening. That’s not “bad,” but I’m not sure how I feel about all acts only doing one show a day now — the wildly popular Peter Noone could have packed in a second show on Senior Day, for example. I walked through the empty Court this morning and saw crowd control gates. Whoa.

-Centro’s shuttle buses insist on traveling on 690 and slowly plowing their way through main drag traffic when they could just quickly pop over there through Solvay. (I guess Solvay is having none of it.)

-Nobody is stepping up to make the Energy building (or whatever that place is now called – where the big corporations like Time Warner hang out) very interesting. Years ago, Niagara Mohawk packed in the crowds with annual documentary presentations on their weather emergency heroics like the North Country ice storm and the Labor Day Storm. Not any more. Snooze.

-Did I see $10 parking?!?

The Fair has definitely changed since I used to go every year… and I think mostly for the better. It’s a good sign when you can’t get to the main gate at the end of the day because a huge and lively crowd has gathered around a lone juggler.

Maybe the Fair-runners should keep that in mind when they are pondering their million-dollar concert bookings. It really doesn’t take much to amuse most people.

“Because we can…”

Paging Barbara Kopple (director of Harlan County USA and American Dream)… why not come to Wayne County and make it an even trilogy?

In Mott’s Strike, More Than Paychecks at Stake

The story in a nutshell: Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, the company that owns the Mott’s apple juice plant in Williamson, says that their unionized workers make too much, even though the company is enjoying record profits this year. Apparently, Mott’s workers are supposed to be embarrassed that they’re not being paid like peasants, like the rest of their working-class brethren in harder-hit industries. (This attitude can also be found among bitterly unemployed master’s-degree holders as well, I’ve noticed.)

Kopple’s first film, Harlan County USA, was about labor struggles in an industry where the workers had yet to partake of the pay and security that other American workers enjoyed in the 1960s and ’70s. Her second film, American Dream, was about the confused Hormel plant strike where American workers began to lose their grip on what they’d won. This would make a great final chapter: the Mott’s workers as the last men standing, the tall poppies, with no one in America left to cheer them on in a clear fight that the coal miners in the first film would have well understood.

Dr Pepper Snapple has vigorously defended its stance. “The union contends that a profitable company shouldn’t seek concessions from its workers,” the company said in a statement. “This argument ignores the fact that as a public company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities.”

It would be interesting to parse what this corporation really means about “generating jobs” (are they saying they will be generating more, but lower-paying jobs for the community? Highly doubtful – they just want to pay the same amount of workers less) and “building community” (maybe they’re talking about building a company store).

However, Dr Pepper Snapple is, on another level, being honest. It is the duty of a profitable corporation to screw its workers over as much as possible. And it is the duty of a union to resist a blatant and open screwing. If you can get more than $14 an hour (or one billion dollars) for whatever work you do, it is self-evident that you are worth that much to someone powerful enough to pay it. It’s a fact of life that many Americans (despite their college educations) still don’t understand: you don’t get to be adequately paid just because you possess a piece of paper that says you’re in the club. If you must rely on a piece of paper, rely on a contract – and even then, not too much.

This is war, and it always was, despite many decades of niceties that are now past. Whose side are you on?

FailFaire CNY

I think Central New York needs one of these maybe more than it needs Forty Below, Biz Buzz or other such gatherings!

FAILFaire

FAILFaire features projects using mobiles and ICTs in international development that have, to put it simply, been a #FAIL. Busted, kaputt. Tongue firmly in cheek, we take a close look at what didn’t work and why the projects failed amidst the ICT4D hype we all are subjected to (and sometimes contributors to). We believe that only if we understand what DOESN’T WORK in this field and stop pushing our failures under the rug, can we collectively learn and get better, more effective, and have greater impact as we go forward.

See more at this NYT article about the most recent FailFest.

Instead of technology failures, FailFaire CNY could be an honest, open hashing-out of failed local initiatives and redevelopment schemes. (I suppose in order to avoid hurt feelings, there would have to be a moratorium on discussing any projects that failed less than ten years ago.) Syracuse B4 could be our keynote speaker!

Seriously, I’m not just trying to be snarky. Why should these discussions just be kept on the blogs?

Even a stopped clock…

…is right twice a day. The state Senate passes a bill supporting an 11-month hydrofracking moratorium. The Assembly will have a crack at it next month.

Such are the benefits of Upstate New York being last in line for all the latest innovations. Sometimes, you get to smell the crap coming.

Dejobbing society

99 Weeks Later, Jobless Have Only Desperation

Facing eviction from her Tennessee apartment after several months of unpaid rent, Alexandra Jarrin packed up whatever she could fit into her two-door coupe recently and drove out of town. Ms. Jarrin is part of a hard-luck group of jobless Americans whose members have taken to calling themselves “99ers,” because they have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits that they can claim.

Without the checks, many like Ms. Jarrin, who lost her job as director of client services at a small technology company in March 2008, are beginning to tumble over the economic cliff. The last vestiges of their former working-class or middle-class lives are gone; it is inescapable now that they are indigent… Ms. Jarrin had scrabbled for her foothold in the middle class. She graduated from college late in life, in 2003, attending classes while working full time. She used to believe that education would be her ticket to prosperity, but is now bitter about what it has gotten her.

“I owe $92,000 for an education which is basically worthless,” she said.

I don’t know why the NY Times keeps finding women of a certain age to talk to. Maybe it’s because these women are truly desperate and agree to talk, and men won’t. But over and over, the profile is the same: fiftysomething, single/divorced, usually with more than two kids, in debt because of mortgages, vacations, new cars or pricey graduate degrees. They’re intelligent, well-educated, and have plenty of job experience, but no one wants to hire them.

I don’t know what to say, because chances are these women are never getting anything resembling their old jobs back. In fact, employers find them attractive layoff prospects even in good economic times. The closer she gets to the age she can take early retirement, the more apt the company is to dump her. And companies also don’t want to pay out the health benefits, so it’s easy to cut off the aging woman who hasn’t got young kids to raise any more. Is it a female thing? Maybe not, but women also tend to network less in the workplace and carry more of the water, which may get some of them to a certain point on the corporate ladder, but might not serve them well enough when cutting time comes.

What is troubling to me is how many women don’t get this picture. It’s scary how many nonmarried (single/divorced) women lose sight of how expendable they are in the eyes of society, though, and enter their last real earning decades amassing more debt than they should. I won’t comment on the mortgages and Caribbean vacations, but the bright shining lie of “more education” in the form of expensive post-baccalaureate degrees is something that needs to be shattered. The woman in this story now has $92,000 of non-dischargeable educational debt. She’s very probably never going to be able to pay that back.

There might be a serious lesson for the younger single (nonmarried) woman here: These are effectively your best earning years. Don’t squander them. Don’t waste your money on things that will have no long-term return. Strengthen your finances and especially whatever personal relationships you have. Prepare for what you know is coming. Always know what time it is. This is Logan’s Run, and forget your biological clock — that flashing crystal on your palm has to do with money.

Modern feminism ought to be speaking to this. I don’t pretend to know what happened, but in the beginning, feminism was about making it easier for women to make choices – not to “have it all,” which is what the message is today. Early feminism sought to liberate single women from servitude not of their own choosing. It sought to give single women the tools and confidence to live with dignity and self-reliance, if they so chose. It was about living smart as a single woman, not about living large. Early feminism also had much to say to the married woman. This is why the institution of American feminism is so beautifully represented by the statue in Seneca Falls, of the married Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the single Susan B. Anthony first meeting in friendship.

So what happened? It’s sad to see how alone these older women are in these anecdotal news stories. Many times, their children are not helping them. It isn’t too late for women of a certain age to make a better future for themselves, but it’s going to involve turning away from a society that has pretty much shown its true colors in a time of stress, and has rejected them. In the Middle Ages, widows had the same problems, and in some parts of Europe they banded together and formed lay communities. Some of these communities became surprisingly big “players” in the wider community, much to the consternation of the Church. In American life today, this is a missing institution (as is traditional feminism).

Has the institution of higher education grown too large and usurped other institutions in importance (real or perceived)? I’m inclined to say yes. It’s not that there is anything wrong about higher education. But American higher education now purports to be all things to all people — the Great White Hope that, morally and practically, stands all alone against our corrupt financial institutions and a democratic system that is largely pay-to-play now. It doesn’t pass on knowledge, quite so much as it dispenses “educational treatments,” as Ivan Illich pointed out in his radical book Deschooling Society – inoculations of frankly questionable value, rather than necessary healing; an obligatory sheep-dip through which all the wayward flock must be herded. (“Take this shot of Education, or you will surely wind up in an economic hell from which there is no escape. Dominus vobiscum, suos cultores scientia coronat, oolee oolee oo.“)

When you put all your eggs in one basket, and all your trust into one social institution, that’s a recipe for disaster. Our society isn’t there yet, but with the decline and stress on so many other institutions — K-12 education, religious life, labor unions, the military — it’s getting dangerously close. It certainly was a disaster for the lady in this story.

Maybe someone also should write a treatise on Dejobbing Society – since the jobs are going away for all demographics. Is it possible that in the end all our former institutions will have to be upended and alternative ones formed, or re-formed?

Food

I was expecting a little more from these Red Norlands. Oh well.

Updated: So I ate those potatoes, and now their picture has mysteriously disappeared off the server. (Shrug)

The nations of CNY

I never thought I’d see the day when major media outlets like CBS News were writing about the Haudenosaunee and talking about sovereignty issues, but I guess that day is finally here. Because these issues are bigger than all of us, it seemed futile to try and write about them while the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team passport issue was in the news last week. (I hope everyone has taken time to read the Sports Illustrated story about the team that was published in the most recent issue.) It was also a little surreal to search on the word “Iroquois” on Twitter and see dozens of tweets a minute about the U.S., the U.K. and Haudenosaunee passports. I’m not sure the Internet peanut gallery really grasped the gravity of the issues over passports and sovereignty, but the response seemed mostly outraged… possibly because we just got done with a World Cup that was triumphantly played out in Africa for the first time; and sports and post-colonial national identity were maybe still entwined in the back of people’s minds.

Now that this difficult week for the team has come to a conclusion (the team arrived back in Syracuse today), hopefully we here in Central New York can also “come home” to this issue as it pertains to us. The national media will quickly lose interest in the subject, leaving us to confront something that was always on our doorsteps, whether we wanted to think about it consciously or not. What does “nationhood” mean? Can you overlay nations on top of each other, like you can overlay area codes? Is it possible that the official, black-and-white, cut-and-dried American motto “Out of many, one” is actually “Out of many… still several?”

I don’t know how to tackle these weighty questions (and neither, I suspect, will the national media), so I will address the most pressing issue for us here locally: What would it mean to live in a New York that is also Iroquoia? Or an Onondaga County that is also a territory called “Onondaga”? What does it mean to grow up in, and live in, a Syracuse that is next to and part of a sovereign nation? All just people living here, but not the same people. All in the same boat, but not.

At this point, you come up against the first mental barrier. Either you accept there is (or even just may possibly be) a sovereign nation besides the U.S. here, or you don’t. Either you can look at it a different way than the history books may say – or you cannot, or do not. So the following isn’t meant to argue for Haudenosaunee sovereignty… just to describe what it’s like for those of us who are at least endeavoring to get our minds around it.

Sovereignty is kind of strange to contemplate anyway. No one extends this status to any group of people, although some nation-states or international organizations pretend that they do or don’t. What is clear that sovereignty, once acknowledged by a people themselves, has to be continually defended. (As Benjamin Franklin might have said to his own people, “A Republic… if you can keep it.“) I won’t go into the history of different kinds of measures the Haudenosaunee have taken to defend sovereignty over the years, except to mention some times and places that should be already known to informed Central New Yorkers — Route 81 in 1971, the Kinzua Dam, Ganienkeh, Oka, and of course the passports that are now world-famous.

To imagine a reality different than the one given in our own history books almost feels like science fiction. It’s funny, because I watch a current TV show that deals with two alternate universes that occupy the same ground — and when I think about it, it’s kind of a helpful metaphor. The two universes don’t just quietly exist separately in separate realities; they share a history. One fateful day, a door was opened between the two, and relations didn’t start off on the right foot; someone from one side stole something precious from the other side, not understanding the implications of what they were doing and the huge disruptions it would cause. On the show, the two worlds are currently readying for war on one another. But the situation is complicated. It turns out that some characters can come and go freely between worlds, and feel some degree of allegiance to both. There are also places where the boundary between universes is particularly thin because of events that happened in the past; and there, confusing things happen that defy the laws of physics. “Reality” is not an either-or thing any more, but encompasses both sets of realities.

Now that I’ve lost 9 out of the 10 people reading this far… let’s return to the real world, or at least, the slightly unreal world that is upstate New York, where real people deal with confusing issues every day. I can only say that I find it easier to explain a convoluted science-fiction TV show, than I find it to explain the twists and turns of Haudenosaunee/New York relations to someone who isn’t from around here. What is the deal with all those weird lawn signs in Cayuga County? Why is the gas at some stations in Oneida County so cheap? Strange phenomena also continue to manifest right here in Syracuse, such as wildly painted billboards along the interstate, and historical markers that are periodically blocked by posters, or disappear altogether without explanation (the corner of Erie and Oswego Boulevards being a particular nexus for such weirdness lately.)

Maybe the best way to characterize it is that we are living in a “thin spot” that defies history-book reality, even as some of us feel or insist that it does not, or should not. It seems that only one nation can occupy a space, but it also seems there might be two nations here anyway. It seems fantastical, but — depending on your vision, experience, knowledge, and perspective — it also seems as if it might be so.

The author of the 1892 U.S. Census Report, The Six Nations of New York, briefly entertained some of the same thoughts, treating the idea of “a nation within a nation” as a then-current issue to be examined rather than peremptorily swept away. It’s pretty amazing that the even the theoretical consideration of two nations in one land made it into an official U.S. document over a century ago, but even more so that the situation described by the report — “too many partial and conflicting laws are nominally in force, but without coherence and general application” — still exists. Clearly, the Haudenosaunee have been somewhat successfully asserting their sovereignty in the interim, and various other overlaid governments and municipalities have been asserting theirs right back. The author of the Census report, back in 1892, recommended “a higher and equally consistent principle of international law” as the “wholesome remedy” to any such confusion (albeit, with an eye toward making the Indian more like the white man), and were reluctant to recommend imposing U.S. citizenship in any case. Oddly enough, that’s still the issue today with those Haudenosaunee passports. (If the Haudenosaunee and other indigenous nations were recognized by the United Nations, as they have been long expecting, maybe they would have allowed to join in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and would have been able to more speedily update their passports to comply with these regulations.)

But here in Central New York and in other parts of the state, we are left to grapple with the implications of more than one nation. We might not just “live next to” each other; we might occupy the same place. We might be more than just neighbors; we might be enemies, or allies. We might not be the same people (and this idea may be very hard for melting-pot Americans to accept), although the same place may have a personal claim on us. (And who are “we” anyway? Who in Washington, in an age of eroding personal rights and Kelo v. New London, defends our sovereignty anyhow? Are we even considered full citizens of our own nation, or do corporations have those rights instead?)

Once you have considered and accepted an alternate view of the Six Nations’ status, you are left only with more questions. These are not new questions. A long time ago, the Dutch and the Mohawks tried to figure out what to do about them. The Mohawks came up with an agreement that is known today as the Two Row Wampum, whose concepts of how two nations ought to relate to one another became the basis for all subsequent agreements between various peoples living together in this “thin spot” known as upstate New York. Including these same British who just refused to recognize Haudenosaunee passports. (The Two Row Wampum was last used as a basis for agreement a few years ago when the Lafayette School District had to decide what to do about Onondaga students’ request to wear regalia at graduation.)

Because we live in a special place, we here in Central New York have to live and work with the fact (or contention, as others say), of another nation’s sovereign existence. So in the end, it doesn’t matter what someone in Britain, or even Washington, says about Haudenosaunee passports. Those of us here in Central New York have to chart our own course about this, by our own lights. And we have been, in ways that may seem strange to non-CNY’ers. The purple flag of the Iroquois League flies over the city square. Native students wear their regalia. Our elected representatives speak on behalf of people who will never vote for them. None of this came about because of a master political plan. It came about because we are making decisions based on our lived experiences confronting “alternate reality” every day.

To those Central New Yorkers who see it this way, it’s very confusing, and sometimes frightening, and very different. But it could be that this is the sort of difference that eventually sets people apart, and makes them a nation… however small.