Category Archives: Suburbia

The garden of good and evil

I am sorry to report that one of my tater tots has died. I don’t know what caused the problem, but it doesn’t look like the dreaded late blight (especially since the one right next to it is doing fine). It all started after a heavy rain which flattened the plant. Some of the stalks and leaves never popped up again and turned yellow. Because this is an Experimental Potato Station, I did nothing but observe this time around — I seriously wasn’t expecting to get anything edible out of the plants this year.

I’m conducting cruel experiments on potato plants partly for sentimental reasons. This spring it occurred to me that the only person who never tried to dissuade me from growing vegetables was my grandmother. Where other people would respond to my “let’s grow [something]!” by peppering me with doubts (“You can’t grow [something]! It’s too hard! The soil’s not right!”), my grandmother would just shrug and say “OK, let’s.” I still have fond memories of the scabby and inedible marble-sized potatoes I dug up one fall from the yard under her watchful eye. Gee, growing stuff is really hard.

Next year, I hope to do better — in an environment without deadly fungus lurking. The New York Times has a new report on the ramifications of this year’s outbreak in the Northeast. In addition, Paterson has moved to have 17 counties declared “agricultural disaster areas” not just due to the late blight, but due to the crappy summer weather in general. Organic farmers are really in trouble: playing by the rules, they can’t use any effective fungicides. Growing stuff organically — it’s hard.

I have to wonder if, for a lot of middle-class Americans (even those with some gardening experience), the expectation of “getting back to the land” and supporting one’s family with backyard gardening or even small farming might be as — dare I say — childish as my potato experiment? If farming was easy, why are so many farms failing? Farms do not exist in a self-sufficient vacuum, as any farmer can tell you. It’s all part of an economic and social web that is and has always been directed by people way more powerful than you. During the 1940s, my grandfather owned one of the largest poultry farms in western Pennsylvania, and all it took was one or two years of disease to wipe him out completely. (Urban Buffalo chicken farmers, be warned!) He moved back to Utica, bitter about the tainted feed he suspected was the cause, and especially about the people who ran the feed supply chain.

Backyard gardening alone cannot feed a family efficiently (or without a great deal of risk — see: the current outbreak of late blight, or just read your history books about the Irish famine since oppressed Irish farmers were forced to essentially “backyard-garden” with potatoes.) If you squint at it just the right way, the suburbanization of former farmland looks an awful lot like the land-enclosure process in old Ireland. Absentee landlords (developers) wrung profit from the land and subdivided it into tiny parcels for exorbitant rents (mortgages), and politicians and other powerful interests eventually forced the Irish to potato-garden (tomato-garden) on those little plots for subsistence. How far we’ve come since the bad old days, huh?

But in a way, agriculture itself created this situation. Agriculture can only feed people most efficiently when it is large-scale (up to a point). And large-scale agriculture requires specialization of social roles, i.e., modern complex society. And when you have specialized roles, you have differing levels of social status. We’re all still wrestling with the ramifications of that every day. Agriculture pretty much created civilization as we know it — including nearly all of its successes and injustices.

People today who dream about self-sufficient backyard farming are also maybe dreaming about the kind of personal independence, peaceful habit and social egalitarianism that really only exists in hunter-gatherer societies. So, if that’s what we really want, better start looking for local nut and berry patches, even to go along with our tomato gardens. Consider how much of them it takes to make one meal, and how far you will have to travel from your home (i.e., spend energy) to gather them. Now you understand why hunter-gatherers tend not to have permanent villages — much less walkable ones. Are we sure we want to pay the real price for peace, independence and egalitarianism?

Sad to say, if this summer’s blight is as bad as is being reported, more than a few marginal farmers are going to either abandon organic practices, or go out of business altogether. I wonder how that will affect the back-to-the-land narrative in certain middle class circles. I also marvel at how many aspiring middle-class small farmers don’t seem to be very up on the political struggles of today’s farmers, except in a very general “down with evil Monsanto” way.

Just remember: for two weeks in July at least, blackberries are free.

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.

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.
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We need our space

Now it finally comes out — suburbia’s terrible secret:

Forget hot tubs beckoning sybaritic adults, garages brimming with impressive cars and families frolicking on verdant lawns. From their clutter-strewn garages to their mostly lovely but abandoned yards, busy Southern California parents who own their homes rarely use residential outdoor spaces for the purposes for which they were designed, said a UCLA anthropologist who participated an in-depth study of how the average dual-income family really lives in Los Angeles.

“Middle class families in Southern California don’t live the way you might expect,” said Jeanne Arnold, an anthropologist with UCLA’s Center for the Everyday Lives of Families and a UCLA professor of anthropology. “Most parents in dual-income families never spend leisure time in their yards, their children play outside much less than expected and most cars can’t fit in garages because they’re too full of clutter from the house.”

I’m reminded of the films of Steven Spielberg, which initially treated suburbia with great realism — remember Richard Dreyfuss’ awesomely cluttered family home in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? (“Toby, you are close to death!”) But soon his films degenerated into a cleaner, more sterile and more molded vision of suburbia in E.T. and Poltergeist, where the clutter was just mainly identifiable (product-placed?) children’s toys.

Adults were barely recorded in their backyards during the observed times, and when they did step through their backdoors, they did chores. In fact, 13 of the 24 families – or slightly more than half – did not spend any leisure time at all in the backyard during the four days of observation. This finding included both parents and children. Interestingly, researcher logged little or no use of the priciest improvements (pools, play sets, and formal decks and patio spaces).

So, those would be the larger, more expensive homes that everyone just had to have (even if they couldn’t afford them without wonky loans)…

Blodgett School

The Post-Standard writes on the fate of the run-down Blodgett School on the West Side. My mom tells me that her aunt (who was only just a few years older than her) went to Blodgett School in the early ’50s or so, when it was even back then deemed a “scary old” school “full of juvenile delinquents.” My grandmother did not want her kids to go to such schools, so a couple years later she packed up the family and followed her other relatives out of the city. And that’s how they became suburbanites.

So, this school’s needs have been ignored for over 50 years. How sad is that?