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?)