Between the lines

Last spring, residents of the near western burbs of Onondaga County had a little problem with something they called “The Noise.” After many months of forum-based fretting, angry phone calls, e-mails, and media coverage, the annoying sound finally disappeared (for the most part). Syracuse Energy Corp. (Suez), the co-generation plant in Solvay, traced the sound to an out-of-sync fan and replaced it last May. The situation didn’t improve immediately, but it was a pretty good outcome for a difficult problem.

Over Memorial Day weekend, to the dismay of many, the original oscillating sound returned in full force. More e-mails and phone calls to town and village officials followed. I talked to the Town of Geddes code officer, who was patient but sounded a little frazzled (and just as in the dark as the residents as to what was wrong now). I could only imagine the irate calls he, the Geddes guy, was getting from people who didn’t even live in his town, yet he was very helpful. As it turned out, the new reign of throbbing terror only lasted a few more days and it got around through informal back channels that Suez was installing new energy-efficient equipment that was temporarily making the fan go screwy again and that they intended to recalibrate it.

Unfortunately this whole little reprise just makes me more reflective (and depressed) about how poorly we citizens on the ground are served by the arbitrary lines on a map that some bewigged clerk drew up 200 years ago. When the Suez plant gets a-whumping, those arbitrary boundaries become meaningless and the real community lines become clear. Solvay, Westvale, Fairmount, Taunton and Split Rock have always had more to do with each other socially, industrially and historically than they had with neighboring areas, from the days of the salt works on down. Yet this area is divided by three town boundaries (Geddes, Camillus and Onondaga) and even the City of Syracuse border gets in the way. Unfortunately an atmospheric noise problem does not respect these imaginary borders, it only respects the topography. At times like these, people sitting in their homes don’t know which official to call and this time around it was rather like reinventing the wheel.

Then there are the fire department wars (Fairmount vs. Camillus). And the library wars — Solvay vs. Fairmount/Onondaga/Camillus, whose residents voted down money for the Solvay library (which makes me feel guilty about going to Solvay library now). And the enduring mystery of the boundaries of the Westhill school district. (To be fair, some people also find the existence of Fairmount Community Library a mystery, not to mention its location.) At the rate this is going, I am expecting bloody pogroms between Holy Family and St. Joseph’s to begin any Sunday now.

Simply put, the problem is much much worse than town vs. village governments, or city vs. county turf wars. As things continue to break down in the economy and as New York State’s traditional complexity becomes less manageable, actual communities that are trapped between the lines of multiple artificial borders will suffer. The problem doesn’t seem to be in the people or the politics, but rather the sense of duty to these old borders that everyone still has. What’s depressing is that I know darn well that nothing will be done about it in my lifetime. So much of what we still accept in American political life makes no sense any more.

I am interested in the “ancient” history of our area, but not for fun. When the present arrangements finally break down, all we will have to fall back on is what was. Both interpersonal history (the people you know personally and trust from past experience) and the currents of history that happened before we were born and will continue after we die. People who stand on shaky ground (as we do today) need to know what happened and what sort of community they really have got once the artificial borders disappear. Willful blindness isn’t going to cut it.

A couple years ago I had gotten into researching the history of Fairmount and of the Geddes clan. (If no one is going to write a book about this illustrious but inexplicably forgotten family, so prominent in Central New York and in the founding of Syracuse in particular, I guess I’ll have to do it). I recently came across an 1860 survey of everything you ever wanted to know about Onondaga County agriculture, written by Mr. George Geddes for the annual publication of the New York State Agricultural Society. The survey begins with an exhaustive history of the Iroquois. It is history filtered through the 19th century American view on Native Americans, of course; but the author’s view is clearly also personal, and not entirely in sync with imperialism.

The introduction isn’t fascinating so much for the facts, legends and multifaceted attitudes of 19th-century whites towards Natives that are in evidence, but because it was included at all. Geddes apologizes in his preface; he knows it doesn’t belong there, but he can’t help himself. In his mind, the claim of history on the present was too strong, the lessons too valuable not to be noted and shared. The editors of the Society bulletin grudgingly allowed this digression to be published, probably because Geddes was such a BMOC in ag circles. (The irony is that Geddes’ report, drawing mostly from previously published sources, does not note traditional Iroquois agricultural practices. Their method of growing corn, squash and beans together might have fascinated Geddes had he known of it, since he was a champion of what we might call early “organic” farming, concerned with using less fertilizer and more intelligent crop rotation – ideas that made him one of the leading farmers of the day.)

When I write about George Geddes writing about history (history as he understood it), that too is a “digression,” so I understand his impulse. For me to claim, using a historical perspective, that four or five localities in three different towns ought to be considered as a more coherent entity even in the present, would probably be just as exasperating to serious politicians, as Geddes’s report was to serious agriculturalists. He colored outside of the lines. We can always do more of that.