The latest census enumerations show that the city of Syracuse’s population has fallen to a new low of 139,000. This, as Phil points out, leaves Syracuse dangerously close to “small city” status in New York. As a suburbanite, I think of “Syracuse” as the entire metro area, however. No doubt the metro area is shrinking as well. Josh wonders if we should concentrate on keeping the existing population and not just attracting new people. In that spirit, here is a purely speculative post. It may seem negative on its surface, but is not intended to be. It’s just a look at one person (me) as a theoretical “flight risk.” I may be a strange example, because I haven’t got any current plans to move — but if I can think of reasons that might possibly make me leave, these reasons probably would apply to some people who are going to end up leaving Syracuse before the next census.
First of all, what keeps people in Syracuse? A variety of reasons, but family connections and/or obligations are a biggie. We just don’t know how big that “biggie” really is, but it’s probably significant. Also, another big reason is that Syracuse is a conveniently located area for natural beauty that hasn’t been snapped up by the super-wealthy. Housing is affordable here, if you have a stable job (big “if,” for some people) and your personal lifestyle spending doesn’t outpace the ever-rising property taxes.
Let’s pretend the family or other personal connections are no longer there. Why then would someone like me — a “local yokel” if there ever was one — ever entertain the thought of leaving?
A lack of decent new job opportunities for older adults that don’t require extensive (read: expensive) retraining. And we’re not just talking about ex-factory workers. Even if you had gotten a serviceable college degree, chances are it isn’t very serviceable any more. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of systemic support in Syracuse for the retraining of adult workers. There are a few special initiatives for this, but a lot of adults don’t qualify for this or that particular program. Even someone who is financially holding their own, but unhappy or unfulfilled in their current job, usually can’t just make a lateral adjustment to a different workplace that does the same sort of work; any changes tend to be huge ones requiring onerous financial outlay and time commitment, with uncertain outcomes. Compared to other more vibrant cities, here there’s less of a margin for experimentation and personal exploration; and, paradoxically (given these small margins for error), less counseling and less support for adult workers trying to make transitions and make a continuing go of Syracuse.
This is the sort of thing where having a support system, a supportive zeitgeist if you will, even without ready job openings, is key. Because when someone who feels unsupported and devalued does finally decide to go back and upgrade their credentials — fighting through it and doing it without the community’s support — their emotional connection to Syracuse is going to be a lot weaker, even if a job opens up that they’re now qualified for. They’ll take that other, similar job in Ithaca or Albany (if they stay Upstate at all). They’ll have internalized Syracuse as the place where they struggled and nobody thought they were worth investing in.
Make that 138,999. (Or, one more newcomer you’ve got to find to replace them.)
Because people leave their hometowns for emotional reasons, not just financial ones, emotions are worth considering. I remain amazed at both how happy and satisfied and “I’ve got mine” people are in the Syracuse area, and how miserably unhappy. How can they live on such different planets? The sharp dichotomy between suburb and city is depressing and frustrating — even when it’s coming from urban boosters, who I tend to feel sympathetic with. Then there are the endlessly racist and sexist and “city vs. suburbia” insults on Syracuse.com comment boards; if the goal with these comment boards is to reveal Onondaga County’s ugly side warts and all, and to demonstrate that no moral authority has influence over the greater community’s consciousness, it’s succeeding. I hope Greg Munno’s CNY Speaks project takes off, and I do hope people read Sean Kirst’s column about city life too, but it’s going to have to be sold to the peanut gallery at Syracuse.com. For better or worse, that is Syracuse’s most active “e-commentariat.”
When the urban-suburban dichotomy isn’t hostile, it’s indifferent or lacking in imagination. Sometimes that you can’t blast some of the long-standing progressive action groups out of the city or the University area or Dewitt (the suburbs, even older suburbs, never figure into their overall vision, except as a negative example); and you can’t coax the suburban mommies into the city (Eleanor Roosevelt would have had something to say to them). There is a lot of impassioned preaching to the choir on both sides. But there is still less willingness to venture outside of the comfort zones. The stances are essentially defensive, especially among our elected leaders (although Joanie Mahoney has less of a problem with that). If we’re bound and determined to have flag-waving and/or trash-talking contrade in Greater Syracuse, the least we can do is have a big colorful horse race twice a summer for the tourists, like they do in Siena!
Small town life, farther away from a city, might be more homogeneous and narrower in scope, but there might be a better sense of civic unity and more politeness; and maybe at least a handful of people listen to and respect the mayor, the constable, the local poet and the village idiot, all.
That’s a thought that might go into the “Cons” column of someone imagining a life beyond Syracuse… next to the many firm and enduring “Pros” which have been described in great detail here on this blog and others over the years.