Starting over

Give me your fresh young ones, your highly-trained,
Your exceptional creatives yearning to sip tea,
The splendid cream of your teeming graduating classes.
Send these, the fêted, fashion-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the green Showtel…

There has been a media press of sorts lately from both Forty Below (they’ve announced a new director) and the local booster group Come Home to Syracuse. I share the optimism of these groups that younger people are going to come back to the Syracuse area over the next decade.

The hope is that young Syracuse natives will start realizing that they are homesick for all the amenities that Syracuse has to offer, that Syracuse is cooler than the Sun Belt (isn’t it?), and that they are sure they can find happiness and a living wage in a revitalized downtown. Many first-wave returnees are realizing just these things. Still, I have to wonder if it’s unwise to gloss over the other reasons why people return home, especially as we are about to enter a non-trivial national economic downturn.

When the going gets tough, stressed populations tend either to scatter, or to return to their places of origin. During the Great Depression, some Americans (naturalized and native-born both) even packed up their families and went back to the Old Country if they were able, where at least they had a familiar culture and family connections waiting. (Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, is a famous example of this, but many return emigres had considerably better luck than his family did, at least until WWII struck.) It’s a part of the American story that is often glossed over, and with good reason: in our country’s master narrative, going home implies failure, a reversal of the American dream. It normally happens all the time in American life, but is never really acknowledged (at least not since Welcome Back, Kotter — and that was low comedy).

There’s now a local development juggernaut firing itself up to join the fight to attract the Creative Class, with world-class shoppertainment and higher ed as twin centerpieces for the projected economic engine. What if something unexpected happens and the revolution is not quite what was anticipated? Syracuse has a curious habit of hanging behind the curve, furiously trying catch up to trends that have already burned themselves out elsewhere. (For example, my suburb now has — at long last — a Target with a Starbucks in it, but Starbucks is so 2003, and Target isn’t doing so hot lately either.) I had a front seat for what happened locally 15-20 years ago when college enrollments dipped nationwide, and it wasn’t a fun time at all (although typically, higher education is among the last industries to be impacted by economic slumps). I think Syracuse is lucky to not be so dependent on homebuilding-for-homebuilding’s sake as other cities are, but changing conditions need to be paid heed.

Emma Lazarus would not have recognized my distortion of her famous poem — but haven’t such ideas formed the bedrock of progressive civic thinking in Syracuse over the past several years? And it’s obviously not a bad thing to want to grab the cream of the crop and convince them that Syracuse is a great place to live and work. However, if the economy should happen to turn especially sour over the next few years, I wonder how many will come back, at least temporarily, to escape the wreck of boom housing markets in places like Las Vegas, Florida or California. To be with Mom, Dad, sis and Aunt Marcia, maybe move in with them for a while. These newcomers (perhaps a second wave of returnees) may be educated and talented, but not at their financial or psychological best: prematurely used-up young people, deep in college-loan and credit-card debt, and short of energy and inner resources. Not the kind of young adults that local planners and entrepreneurs might be hoping for, but maybe the ones they’re going to get.

It’s not as if such a scenario is inherently disadvantageous. There is a special kind of joy, and spirit of meaningfully starting anew, when people return home to their families, even if it sometimes goes hand in hand with psychological stresses that nobody prepared them for. But it’s also possible that returnees will be spending more time working very long hours, with less time and money for leisure, than may be anticipated by those who plan to roll out the downtown welcome mat for this all-important demographic. Those who aren’t working may be spending more time doing odd jobs for Mom and Dad, or taking Grandma to the hospital for a medical procedure. And there are others who will have difficulty getting over the stigma of imagined failure, and difficulty getting off the couch.

I think this is probably being taken into account by Forty Belowers and other civic booster groups; no one knows the state of their peers better than they do. But this may be a bigger part of the reality of “Coming Home to Syracuse” we all need to take into account, as we imagine the region’s future. Tough, clear-eyed honesty will be required for — and I think, welcomed by — such returnees, to get them back on their feet and contributing to the community in a way that makes both them and Central New York whole again.

Will we be ready to take them in? (Who — us?)

21 Replies to “Starting over”

  1. I am 59, married with no children, live in a western suburb. I have lived my entire life in Central New York. I would like to see Syracuse and the surrounding suburbs thrive, especially with the arts and culture. However, what I have seen, and see now, is a steady deterioration toward mindless satisfaction with second-rate entertainment, arts & culture, and media. One plus factor in this area is that our schools appear to produce well-educated young people. Another plus factor for our area is the relative high quality and affordability of residential housing.

    Let me elaborate. As far as entertainment goes, we have movie theatres in the suburbs, a pretty good zoo, second-rate museums, and I do put the Everson in this category, having been there quite a bit, a fairly good symphony for a city this size, opera, dance and theatre companies that are good a city this size. But these sources of entertainment and art and culture cannot compete with cities larger than ours. One of the biggest impediments to creating and maintaining a thriving, positive environment for Syracuse is the local print and television media. Watching the local news in the morning and evening, I cannot help but wonder what an out of town visitor might think: shootings, robberies, fires, and accidents take the lead in most television newscasts. They are definitely not positive or uplifting. I especially condemn WSTM for having cute graphics, such as “Developing Story” or “New Information”, but this station appears to specialize in broadcasting stories that are meant to make viewers even afraid to drink water from their kitchen sink. The PostStandard, in my opinion, has the worst group of local reporters and local columnists one could ever imagine. And oftentimes, their front page stories bemoan the decline of this area, instead of printing stories about what’s right, good, and positive about our community. If bad news sells, the PostStandard must have a great profit margin. Although our children may achieve high test scores and our suburban schools have high graduation rates, this does not necessarily translate into vast numbers of students who have a well-rounded education in various subjects and who are informed about the world and can be enlightened citizens and voters. All too often, I have seen younger people, especially in their 20s and 30s, who have no knowledge of the world across the Atlantic, Pacific or the Isthmus of Panama; have little knowledge of the workings of government; and have little interest in the arts or culture. However, they know all the intricacies of technology and have the desire to have the McMansion, the two kids, the two SUVs, and who wind up with more debt than they can handle, after blowing their paychecks at Congelville. Are these the young professionals that will give Syracuse its thriving future? Perhaps, and perhaps Syracuse will settle for mind-numbing mediocrity.

  2. I think if you read any local paper or watch any local newscast anywhere in America, “if it bleeds, it leads.” It doesn’t seem unique to Syracuse, just to corporate media with too much time to fill – does Syracuse really need 90 minutes of local news each night? (If anything, sometimes I wonder if local news is too fluffy and forced) The biggest problem I have with local news is that they sometimes report on negative things without having the guts to name names and uncover more of the actual reasons why things are bad.

    A point I’m trying to make – not a big condemnatory point – is that you can’t merely cheerlead your way through a population crisis. In fact , people are migrating all the time, just not in hugely visible waves. Though I think a bad nationwide economy can only accelerate such migration. It’s one thing when a region has a crappy economy, but another when the entire country falls into a recession. My sister came back to Syracuse a few years ago, but I don’t know if a group like 40 Below would have been interested in her (although she was below 40 at the time, college-educated, etc). There’s a specific profile which is being presented publicly at least, of who is a desirable returnee. (I know there is a difference between PR and what actually goes on within a support/booster group.) So this isn’t a complaint, just an observation. Many returnees do not come back with high energy and a business plan; they need practical help, not social events. (That said, my sister is doing very well for herself in a job she likes – although she would have no time for wine and cheese parties downtown – she works way too many hours looking after the beloved “children” of the wine and cheese set.) Also, as these people return to the area, much of their time and energy will be taken up with negotiating family arrangements – and not just having to do with their own children. This seems to me to be never mentioned in the prevailing talk about “returning young professionals,” so I’m bringing it up.

    Lastly, a word on higher education: Just in today’s Post-Standard there’s a syndicated article on how prestigious colleges are giving away their educational content for free because they are no longer afraid to openly admit that a college degree is not about learning, but mainly about credentialing (in short, pay-to-play). Glad we got that out in the open.

  3. Very interesting ideas here, as I always find these discussions of upstate solutions fascinating. But I keep finding myself returning to the question: what if all the people with the “get up and go” got up and went a long time ago? And where does that leave us?

  4. what if all the people with the “get up and go” got up and went a long time ago?

    Then they’re probably busy spreading their obviously superior Ubermensch genes around Nevada or North Carolina or wherever it is they go, leaving the rest of us to rot in social and cultural irrelevance, like the assorted, still-existing European countries that modern Americans, spawn of their long-emigrated superior specimens, can’t get enough of visiting and romanticizing.

    I’m kind of not too broken up about that possibility, oddly enough… (although of course I think we could stand to manage our own house better than we have been lately).

    I do understand your question and admit I have thought it myself at times. However, “getting up and going” is not the only possible dignified or intelligent response to adverse circumstances. Indeed, I wonder if America has become a nation of “get up and goers” and not so much “stay and fighters.” Both can be ennobling responses to a situation. I’m not inclined to apply social Darwinism to migration patterns, though, particularly in a country like this where so much is being run by corporations and financiers that we and our government have less and less power over (despite our ongoing faith in the democratic process).

  5. I moved to Syracuse last summer. I’m originally from California and my husband is from Binghamton.

    We were living in Toronto most recently and decided to move back to the states. We have contacts in California and New York state and had to pick one to concentrate the job search and we picked NY because it’s easier to live here. In LA or San Francisco you have to fight for a place to live and it’s very expensive. Every apartment you look at you are competing with many other people. You end up feeling like you are spending half your life on the freeway in LA and in San Francisco it’s amazingly expensive and you live in an apartment the size of a closet. Here, we got a great house with no problem, and it’s close enough my husband can commute to downtown.

    We have so much space here, and a basement gym and attic storage, and it’s a beautiful old house. We wouldn’t be having this in San Francisco.

    A lot of people are scared of the snow, but I’m really happy to be living somewhere that I can walk to the park and ski, or take a short drive for some great skiing. I like all the waterways here for kayaking and just being in an area where you can get out to the countryside very easily. I love the changing seasons, especially the fall leaves.

    What I miss from Toronto and San Francisco is being able to walk more places. Most of Toronto is geared towards pedestrians in a way that Syracuse just isn’t. Even autocentric LA is more pedestrian friendly. It would be nice to revitalize downtown and areas like Eastwood with more businesses. There are so many cute storefronts that are vacant. I also miss the great public transportation.

    I could care less about big shopping malls, I just can’t see that many people getting excited about going to Syracuse to shop at a mall full of chain stores. I think with the credit crisis we are starting to go through in this country, shopping in malls as entertainment is not going to be too popular. People can’t use their houses as ATMs any more.

    So to me, Syracuse’s assets are great low cost housing, affordable living, greenspace, winter sports, cool old buildings and some good Irish bars. The downside is winter driving, not pedestrian friendly, really bad public transit.

  6. PS to Paul: Sorry, I just noticed your assessment of the PS’ reporters and columnists… I don’t agree. If anything, I think they don’t have enough opinion columnists and the ones they do have are covering practically everything (that is to say, they are pretty well-rounded, even Kramer the humor columnist who sometimes is the only one who says what can’t be said.) I think the ones they do have are quite literate as well as “fair and balanced” (in the non-Fox-News sense) although it might make some local readers happier if they had some columnists who were more obviously on the right.

    Now I will admit that the editorial page doesn’t always set me on fire (I recently wrote a letter to the editor because I thought they completely missed the point on a subject near and dear to my heart), but maybe that’s because it’s kind of faceless and they never seem to get into the scrum of things except when it’s safe to do so. However, they’re better than they used to be years and years ago.

  7. I moved here almost 30 years ago from the PNW. ‘Cuse has little to compare with most cities in its SMSA, for example: the restaurants are bland not that interesting, you have mostly drek in terms of local concerts (I don’t mean the so-called rock n roll commercial stuff at the Carrier Dome), live theatre or an interesting artsy scene.

    We’ve stayed for a variety of reasons (mostly financial) but at this point we’d rather be back in the PNW. We’ve thought about moving closer to Ithaca or Albany — but all in all — we’d rather be back in the PNW; so our current plan is to try and move there within the next 5 years.

    Actually the best thing that ‘Cuse has going for it is an import — i.e., Wegmans.

  8. I had to google Taylor Made’s post to figure out that PNW meant Pacific Northwest and SMSA means Southern Maryland Sailing Assn. (or standard metropolitan statistical area).

    These kind of posts always remind me of the Elvis Costello line: “Oh, I used to be disgusted/now I try to be amused…” People can live in a place for 30 years and still hanker for someplace else? Fine. But why slag us on your way out the door? But, I’ve finally figured out that it’s the cognitive dissonance of the posters struggling to get out. They can’t admit to themselves that they’ve been slothful and unable to act on their true desires so they lash out at the region instead of their lack of get-up-and-go.

    So, by all means, go. I know what I have here and treasure it. I didn’t waste half my life in a place so obviously inferior to my refined tastes. Ha Ha. Sucks to be you.

  9. Driving home just now I caught a little of the Diane Rehm Show on NPR where she was interviewing Eric Weiner, author of “The Geography of Bliss” (http://wamu.org/programs/dr/08/01/02.php#18530). I wasn’t all that impressed with him – but he did coin an interesting phrase, “hedonic refugee”: a person who realizes they were born in the wrong place and bound off in search of a better “cultural fit.” Sounded like a good description of many CNY expats; while the “returnees” you describe sound more like “economic refugees”.

  10. P.P.S. to Ellen –

    Regarding the PostStandard and its staff, while they may be more to the left than a large motion of the readership may desire, I still contend this newspaper and its writers could use some remedial English and composition classes. It may well be that most of Central New York life is mundane, but gee whiz, couldn’t we put some nice clothes on it? My personal preference for news is to read it online where I am usually not subjected to advertising, which I can pretty much do without. Local news is of little interest to me because during my lifetime I have read or seen little of the local news that would improve my quality of life, educate, enlighten or inform me to a high degree so as to qualify me to be an Oxford don. I may write an occasional letter to the editor about a matter that concerns me, but other than that, I use the PostStandard only for its Sunday coupons, and to line my birdcages.

  11. Al: My sister said she wanted to come back (in part) because we have Wegmans here and in Albany they only have Hannaford’s. If that isn’t hedonistic, I don’t know what is…

    But, your point reminds me of one of my own peeves, which is the “search for culture.” No, what people tend to look for are “cultural consumption opportunities” – such as museums, theater, concert halls etc that can offer them the opportunity to partake of touring artists who bring (often-imported) culture with them. Say, the chance to see the touring exhibit of King Tut’s treasures, or Tuvan throat singers, or a really big national recording artist. Which is fine, but don’t confuse that with “culture” which is something that all places have.

    Melsky: I have a new neighbor who is originally from California by way of the South. He seems to be in the “happy to shovel every inch of his driveway immediately” stage. :-)

    In any case… whatever their motivation, people have to live and work somewhere where they feel they have some dignity; I think that’s the bottom line. And, if there’s an economic downturn, people will be returning to their places of origin all over the place, in any state, so it’s not like this region would stand out in that way statistically.

  12. Well I must say that Phil’s comment remind me of the oddly Theron Ware smug quality that seems to be endemic among the local wannabe bourgeoisie.

    His comment and dismissal of my quick note reminds me of one of my first WTF CNY moments (some 30 odd years ago) in which a local matron was gassing on about how CNY had the finest restaurants in the world. I remember turning to my wife and quietly asking her if she knew of a term for someone who is insularly parochial – her quick response was “Yeah hick.”

  13. Taylor Made:

    We’ve had some decent discussions on this blog’s comments section on the food scene here in CNY, so I know that you’re not totally against our poor little burg.

    The point I was trying to make, perhaps too flippantly, was that people are always pointing out CNY’s shortcomings and making elaborate arguments about how we just don’t measure up to whatever grass-is-greener metro scene. I refuse to take the bait anymore and feel bad because my hometown doesn’t “measure up.” I like it here. I’ve been elsewhere, both big and small cities and have made the decision to stay here. Not because CNY’s the best, but because it’s the best for me.

    I guess I still have work to do on my sanguine state of mind, because I realize that both of my responses to your posts were reactions to your smug labeling of our region as backward, insular, hick. We are not Mencken’s “boobocracy,” but people who are proud of where we live–shortcomings and all.

  14. Phil,

    I still think that Harold Frederic was on to something about the region. I keep my sanity around here via the ‘Net, my friends who are scattered outside of CNY, and of course the joy of satellite TV — Latin Grammys last night were a real joy.

    I just find the space between Rochester and Albany to be really dead. The dryness of human intercourse round these parts always astonishes me. I love NYC and the weirdness of Albany always is a special delight. I can’t wait to make the State of the State Speech tomorrow. I actually love New York — but this area really is filled with a sick strangely zombie-like quality which is not very healthy.

  15. Taylor Made:

    Don’t exactly know how to respond to that last one. Agree with you on NYC and I’ve been hooked on Albany since reading all of William Kennedy’s books-especially the non-fiction “O Albany!”

    CNY is fascinating to me, occasionally infuriating, but fascinating nonetheless. I love poking around its less traveled corners and I’m hip deep in the city of Syracuse thanks to my work.

    I hope you find what you’re looking for. When you make it back out to PNW, while savoring a Weinhardts and some fresh salmon, give at least a small toast to the ‘Cuse. 30 years, can’t all have been a drag.

  16. C’mon, this blog goes way beyond “trivial entertainment”… as this very post and its comments show, this blog can engage diverse people from the community in storytelling and problem-solving. That, if I am not wrong, is indigenous culture-making.

    And, to think, we can do that without DestiNY, any other mall, or even Wegman’s! A place with a culture is not defined by what can be purchased there. It is what the people who live there think and value.

    Ellen, you have quite a point– if people “return to Syracuse” to be with family, that will be an indication that they value family. My son, daughter and grandson have plans to “return” to NYS in early 2009. From Ithaca and Little Falls and Chicago respectively, they will settle in Albany to be closer to family. They qualify as the profile for the “under 40” groups– we used to call those folks yuppies before it gained a derogatory taint. When they leave Chicago for Albany, it will be to spend more time with family, not to recreate Chicago’s entertainment opportunities in NYS. I hear them sounding very, very similar to Melsky above.

    As ever, true economic development (and attraction of population) are about building on the unique resources of a place– its assets and comparative advantages. Wannabe places are just insecure Nowhere– like teenage girls copying celeb hairstyles instead of being themselves.

  17. I agree that Central New York is a nice place to raise a family. Here are some of the reasons this is so: affordable housing, four distinct seasons and the activities they offer, superior elementary and higher education (in the suburbs), activities for young children – such as the MOST, the zoo, Open Hand.

    However, is this a great place to be over 40, and to grow older and retire in? If you only want to read, garden and take care of your grandchildren, it may be a great place to do those things, but if you want more (whatever that may be depending on your interests), is Central New York the place to be? I’d like to read the opinions of others posting here.

  18. My Syracuse and Our Syracuse. I am one of those that have joined the mass exodus. I am 34 and now in Phoenix, AZ a city of nearly 5 million. I came here to seek a better life, and job opps. I have only been here two weeks, and very home sick, hence my stumbling upon this site, as I sought out info on my home, and pics to ease my mind. I miss my family already, and extended family of friends. Phoenix is full of transients and has a hard time defining itself, but Syracuse is like its own country, very well defined and even has its own accent. I left knowing that I had to succeed, so that I can return when needed to take care of my elders, and Syracuse did not have jobs that I could get ahead in and make a decent amount.

    My promblem is that I am a dreamer, I always dreamed of ways I could make my city better.. since I was kid. But thought I had to be rich to make my visions come true. I dreamt of hitting the lottery, and giving back to my community, make houses look better on the southside, starting programs that engage youth in the arts, and more. I even daydreamed of building a super-entertainment complex off of Erie boulivard that would have had a mega-nightclub with 4 clubs inside, and all night pop-culture diner-cafe…..but without the money to do so.. I am just a dreamer..that had to wake up to the reality, that Syracuse is falling apart, companies are leaving, 30 somethings that are not married or have kids, are exiting.

    I thought of joining 40-below, but just never got up the energy to due so. I tried to give back as an artist by doing decor for nightclub events. But had to stop, becuase I always put in way more money than I was making…why because I would do anything to bring a great atmosphere to a deserving crowd. I cared …

    But at nearly 35 , I can longer stay in Syracuse as a starving artist.. I need to get a job that pays more than the Syracuse basic 8.50 an hour.. so I left…but I want to come back, and feel that I have a lot to give, and energy to spare..

    I hope DESTINYUSA does really get the city going.. Becuase so many things have started and failed..like the domestic peace corps Year Round Syracuse, The train from SU to the mall, The filling of the Erie Canal, The Stadium.

    For now I will stay here in Phoenix, watching and waiting..for the Syracuse Rennaisance to commence, and when it does I shall come home.. to my home.

    Syracuse, is special, Lovely all year except for the dark and grey months of jan-feb, a great place to make great freinds,a hot spot for creative minds, a great place to raise a family, and settled down…and has the best little grocery store in america GREEN HILLS FARMS..

    ..but for the young generation of free and single progressives 20-40 it provides very little more than hope and a dream………..I am too close to 40 myself to take that risk.. so I encourage the below 30’s to stay and focus your energies towards making the city great.. i just hope the city embraces you back.. becuase it sure did not accpet the visions of my “generation X” people 31-36.. we were always told NO! NO! NO! or ok go for it… but we wont pay you for what your worth instead we will suck all your energy out of you.. collect the benefits.. and then send you on your way… that whats happend to us in the 90’s.. and Syracause wonders why we all left, as it tries at the last momment to recover us now….

    so for those of you still there.. and with great ideas …if Syracuse is finally ready to let the past go, and leap into future.. go for it.. just be leary of those who will use you for show, make sure you get what your worth.. and dont be affraid to be cutting edge. Syracuse has a habit of waiting for it to be trendy to do things.. by that time its already a “has been” other places..

    I miss you Syracuse, and cant wait to see you this summer.

  19. I will be 60 this summer and have lived here since 1974, and in Central New York all my life. I have seen Syracuse in various stages of progress and decline. At this juncture, I believe Syracuse is trying to re-invent itself, but isn’t quite sure how to do it. In my opinion, what hampers positive change in Syracuse in large part is the local media, especially the PostStandard, which seems to specialize in negative news stories. Rarely does positive news about Syracuse make the front page. If were an out-of-town visitor to Syracuse and picked up the daily PostStandard, I would pack my bags and run screaming back home. Also, it appears that many of the movers and shakers in this town have put too much faith in the promise of DestiNY and the promise of a revitalized downtown.

    The very first thing that has to happen in Syracuse is the trumpeting of what is good and positive here. The PostStandard and WSTM, WTVH, and WSYR should broadcast positive stories about Syracuse every day – I believe they are there if one digs deeply enough. To focus on crime, accidents and other negativity does not uplift our community. I’m not saying we should be Pollyannas, but can’t we say something good first before we launch into our usual negative tirades?

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