Joe Cicero

This post requires some background reading. Go read some recent posts on Sean Kirst’s blog about downtown (here and here), and all the comments. Then, when you are done with those, go to Syracuse B-4 and read her latest, and all the comments there. (Make a cup of coffee or pot of tea, because the discussions are long, but I think they are getting somewhere.)

Okay, did you really read all those? (Really?) Then it’s time to talk about that mysterious, perhaps misunderstood figure; the fly in the ointment who isn’t part of any of the discussions about downtown or city living but whose shadow hangs over all; the proverbial Man Who Wasn’t There: Joe Cicero.

I’m not going to try and turn Joe Cicero into a too much of a character sketch of modern suburban living. We know he’s married, probably with kids, working either in the city or out in the suburbs, in a house with the sort of front yard and square footage you just can’t get in Strathmore or Sedgwick. We know (or think we know) what he wants from Syracuse, and we believe he doesn’t want much but parking, chain stores and I-81 to get him back and forth from work, and maybe the odd SU game at the Dome. He has a lot of spending money, but we’ve given up on Joe where the future of Syracuse is concerned, because we believe he’s irredeemable.

If Mad Max-style peak oil was going to happen any time soon, Joe could possibly be “scared straight” back into town, leaving his dead SUV by the 481 roadside. But peak oil probably isn’t going to happen that suddenly, so forget about that kind of rapid reconditioning. But with the right initiatives, and smart planning, and a little bit of funding, we can have downtown Syracuse well-stocked with fresh new fish from somewhere else. Joe can stay out in suburbia; with some luck, city living might snag his kids.

Syracuse B-4 makes a very important point about downtown and malls (the places where Joe Cicero “likes” to go):

Let’s face it: as long as Downtown has the slightest hint of despair or decay, like the dying Fairmount Fair all those years ago, only the toughest of souls will want to venture its streets. Camillus Commons or Fayetteville Towne Center may be aesthetically depressing, but they don’t make you feel the weight of the world at every turn. And isn’t that what this is really all about?

It’s a big part of what it’s all about. If downtown has no pull of memory or spiritual pull (beyond memory, which is why architectural aesthetics are important), there is no reason for anyone to be drawn there.

But I also have to be honest and say that memories of the Edwards monorail probably mean nothing, spiritually, to Joe Cicero. It maybe meant something to Joe’s father, but Joe grew up under different circumstances. He grew up at a time when downtown Syracuse was already dead. To him, this is the normal state of affairs. How do you “re-citify” someone as far gone as that? Should you even try? Isn’t Joe just a lost cause? Shouldn’t we just import new Syracusans from the colleges or the Creative Class (and hope they don’t turn into Joe when they get pregnant?)

The “import new Syracusans” movement has been humming along, or at least not utterly spinning its wheels — but the looming “decession” (or whatever it’s now being called) very likely means that there is going to be less seed money available for this very expensive social re-engineering effort (and it is frightfully expensive here in dysfunctional, business-unfriendly New York). So perhaps that needs to be filed in the “Pending” folder along with peak oil. Any other approaches?

It’s no secret by now that I think “revitalizing downtown” gets a little too much focus in the community discussions about how to pull the Syracuse metro area back together in a way that will help downtown come back. I think the framework of the current discussion is skewed and is still at the shouting-match stage, as you can see in almost every thread about 81 or downtown on Syracuse.com. What the Syracuse area needs is a sort of Truth and Reconciliation movement that addresses the whole metro area, the history of the whole area (and I mean, the whole history), and one that identifies and reaches out to all the players in the cause of making this metro area’s footprint smaller for everyone’s benefit — not initially focused on creating a dense downtown again with an Edwards’. Being an inner-ring suburbanite, I see colors and shades in the journey to where we got to today. And I believe that you can’t merely put in a new system (such as the dreaded gentrification process), you have to reverse what happened.

How you do that, and how you attract Joe Cicero (and his downtown-centric counterpart, who I don’t have a cutesy name for yet) to that discussion, I’m not sure. I do know one thing: right now, fruitful peace talks, brainstorming or decision-making cannot take place at Fayetteville Towne Centre or at the Warehouse. We should look at the map and find a more reasonable place.