Syracuse: built by engineers

Dick Case’s Post-Standard column today is about Route 81:

Syracuse’s historical response was different from many cities’ responses. Goals of “slum clearance” and redevelopment in town converged with national planning that included money for transportation to eliminate congestion and improve mobility. Urban freeways were seen as vehicles to achieve those goals, according to [Joe] DiMento. “Furthermore, few of the influences in cities where interstates were rejected, mitigated or blocked were strong in Syracuse,” he wrote.

Also, “Major decisions, or at least important steps in decisions, had been made in Syracuse and Onondaga County well before these changes were introduced and understood.” Local planning, DiMento concludes, was “ambiguous and rudimentary in city government in the 1940s and 1950s. Syracuse’s planning department was made up mainly of engineers. The planning commission was not a distinct entity until 1953.”

Well, yes. The city of Syracuse was built by engineers. There wouldn’t be a city in this spot if it weren’t for engineers. If anyone had sat down and thought about it, nobody would have found this a congenial spot for a city. It’s a salt industry and Erie Canal boomtown – an artificial city on an artificial river. It grew like a weed, and its roots are fairly shallow. It developed problems (or perhaps, “problems”) of transportation, sanitation and (later) congestion faster than people had time to think about the long term. Some of the people who were instrumental in building the Erie were the only people around who had the wherewithal and expertise to tackle the problems the canal and booming settlement created. And when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

In my last post I mentioned George Geddes (son of James Geddes, one of the architects of the Canal). The only time I’ve seen Geddes mentioned in the newspaper was in a Dick Case column that dismissively noted him for wanting to pipe the crap out of Syracuse via Onondaga Creek. As distasteful and polluting as that was, it was considered highly progressive and eco-friendly back then. A quick, thoughtless fix? Fixes needed to be quick in an age of cholera. There would be no city today for us to champion if everyone had died in an epidemic.

Syracuse historians focus so much on muttonchopped abolitionists from the center of town, when much of the zeitgeist that we are still dealing with today is the legacy of engineers from outside the city who saw themselves as forward-looking problem-solvers trying to accommodate explosive growth. And these were not ignorant men of narrow interests. Syracuse was blessed with prominent men who had very active imaginations, who could both envision expanded rights for women and organic farming, and also epidemic disease and flood disasters lurking around every corner – fears which demanded progressive solutions. (One potential boondoggle that never happened was the draining of the Montezuma Swamp – Mr. Geddes ran out of money on that one and quickly gave up, but not before creating the island at Jacks Reef.)

The Syracuse community’s inclination to listen to energetic outsiders with schematic drawings is hardly new. We can’t get a grasp on why old patterns continue to manifest without a very clear picture of how the patterns got started, and how “progressivism” in the Syracuse area became less about man’s triumph over nature, and more about man’s triumph over other classes of men (a situation that George Geddes, being sympathetic to socially liberal causes himself, might have found distasteful and polluting).

Today, progressivism means the shrinking of Syracuse and the footprint of its metro area: should we tear down houses? Should we knock down 81? Again, we’re considering all this without a deliberation that breathes, although some people and organizations are trying to create one. There’s a historical human and social element in Syracuse that is unique to the area and involves the “artificial” nature of this young settlement in the first place – which is why it’s not profitable to keep comparing our story to that of other cities. And no doubt, if he were alive today, George Geddes would have a brilliantly progressive plan for long-term sustainability.