Three ways of looking at the new tax agreement

Quite allofasudden, an agreement has been reached (and passed) on a new Onondaga County sales tax distribution deal. If you have been following the news, some weeks ago, Joanie Mahoney and Stephanie Miner came forth with a proposal that pretty much baldly proclaimed Onondaga County to now be a “college town” (or an “eds and meds town”). Mahoney continues to go off the Republican script in interesting ways. Predictably, the Legislature was having none of it and last week Miner started talking tough about a commuter tax. I have to wonder if the compromise reached today was always the real intention. If so, everyone performed their parts very well. Bravo.

I’m all for busting the status quo, even though I have my doubts that “eds and meds” are going to be the eternal economic engines that so many people assume they will be. Higher education is probably the next bubble to burst, and once the baby boomers really start to age, healthcare will be not far behind. Both of these elegant and highly complicated systems will start breaking down under their own weight in my lifetime. But these are the assumptions we’re now accepting, and needless to say, Onondaga County’s suburbanites are probably not gonna like it. At all.

Yesterday’s musings on “source and sink” – how organisms migrate and prosper, or don’t – got me thinking about what suburbanites originally were, compared to what they are now. (Disclaimer: I’m a born-and-bred second-generation suburbanite, so if any angry suburbanites are reading this, I’m one of you. Peace. No Kill I.) I feel that our local suburbanites are imperfectly understood. We’re supposed to believe that originally, they were gullible, greedy airheads who were easily seduced by subdivision developers to abandon a pretty good city and set up ludicrous shop in remote, isolating, disempowering enclaves. And that many of them are just knee-jerk haters of all things urban.

Well, many of them in fact are knee-jerk haters of all things (and most people) urban. These are second- or third-generation suburbanites we’re hearing this from. But the first generation of suburban pioneers came from cities — if not Syracuse itself, then some other city. Who were these people, what happened to them to make them want to leave the city, and what attitudes came from these experiences that got leached into their children and grandchildren who hang out on Syracuse.com comment boards today?

Speaking only from personal experience, the stories I was told about why my grandparents left Syracuse bear little resemblance to the explanations commonly offered by urbanites/urbanists. I never heard anything much about cute little houses and lawns, or about not wanting to live around black people. The most vivid story about it, told with the most passion, is the one where the landlord on Herkimer Street would not allow my mother and her sister to have a puppy. The story goes something like this: One day, some way or another a puppy found its way into the yard at the house my grandparents rented. It was discovered by my mother and aunt, who were having fun playing with it until the landlord got wind of it and was mad. My grandfather was obliged to literally tear the puppy out of my mom’s hands, and they never saw it again. I don’t think he was happy about having to do that, but I doubt he had much choice, since my grandparents were both factory workers and probably didn’t have much ability to stand up to the landlord or find a better place to live in the city.

To me, that story is the heart of why former urbanites became suburbanites, and thinking about people as organisms in an ecology reminded me that there are winners and losers in any habitat. I suspect that by and large, most (though not all) people who became suburbanites in that generation were the (white) people who were never going to make it into Syracuse’s power elites. These powerful, well-connected people were not just the professors, the lawyers, the politicians, but also the working-class elites such as those in the inner circle of the labor unions or among the cops – the people you had to know in order to secure better jobs; and also the gossipy circles of the city’s various ethnic enclaves. Syracuse in the 1950s was very much an “I’ve got mine” place – which is ironic, because suburbanites are today the ones judged to be most guilty of that attitude (and many of them do now have it, to be sure).

I have to be honest: sometimes when I hear urbanists talking about how wonderful city neighborhood living is, I roll my eyes. No matter how smoothly an urban paradise runs, there will always be cliques, and I think a major contributing factor to the desire to get out of Dodge had to do with that. Decades upon decades of cliquishness, clannishness, under-the-table favors, smug complacency among the well-employed — it’s the dark side of any social ecosystem, including dear old Syracuse (even today). It’s why the first colonists left Europe, it’s why the first Central New Yorkers left New England, it’s why the small farmers got tired of farming and went to the city, and it’s a big reason why the suburbanites left the city, and why the children of suburbanites are anxious to get out of CNY’s ingrown suburbs today.

My grandmother wanted to move out of Syracuse for several reasons (having to do with following certain members of her family), but she also did want her kids to be able to have a puppy. Today, she would have been just the sort of aspiring homeowner who would have been targeted by predatory lenders and steered toward a house too big for her family. But in the 1950s, at least for some people, the banking system worked pretty well. Even more importantly, the banks sold the kind of trust and respect that people like my grandparents couldn’t get from actual human beings — their supposed family, friends, landlords, co-workers and neighbors — in the city of Syracuse. (Obviously, the banks didn’t extend this sort of relationship to everyone, since invitations to join the suburbs were not extended to blacks and other minorities.)

I don’t recall my grandparents carrying a lot of resentment toward urban elites, or toward minorities – if it was expressed, it wasn’t vehement. They were Democrats, although for a long time my grandfather had registered Republican for political (not ideological) reasons, which illustrates my previous point about the sort of getting-along-to-go-along lifestyle that discontented urbanites hated. I suppose I could have turned out like the commenters on Syracuse.com, but the attitude I received from my working-class family was very informed by the Sixties, and it was that the economic interests of working-class whites and the economic interests of minorities were similar (i.e., “what happens to them, happens to YOU next”).

Anyhow, I don’t think we have a complete picture of what’s broken in Onondaga County unless we acknowledge the complete roots of why people left the city in the first place. We already know that we have to be honest about the people who are struggling at the bottom of the system. But I also think we must include an honest look at urban elites — then and now — their past behavior, current behavior, and the distrust of them that festers among some in the suburbs. This is a real, historical distrust buried in unique ways in personal and family histories. It’s also a distrust that over a couple of generations got distorted, in some households and families, into a misdirected resentment against minorities and the poor.

Unfortunately, I also don’t get much of a sense that today’s urban elites in Syracuse really see the return/reconciliation of suburbanites as part of the plan. They seem to want to import young people — newly recruited members of an urban elite — from elsewhere to generate economic activity. Or, at best, suburbanites are expected to come in to watch college sports and hang out downtown for a while. The official urbanite line is still that suburbanites are dumb, gullible, greedy, lazy, and that Syracuse can only be saved by bringing in fresh blood in the form of college students. An exception to this has been the plan to give college education to any city resident. This should have been framed as a lure to get suburbanites to come back to live in the city (not just drink there) and receive this gift along with the poorer city residents who have been there all along. But I’ve not gotten the sense that this potentially revolutionary, reconciliatory concept has been seriously communicated to the people outside the city.

I’ve read some triumphalistic comments today about the new tax agreement from people who maybe ought to know better. This attitude is not helping Onondaga County on its journey to wherever it’s going. We need a three-way reconciliation in this county (at least). I believe the new tax agreement might do something important by at least changing the status quo and clearing the air for a new conversation. But there has to be a serious examination of why so many people left Syracuse and are still out there on the horizons in the suburbs. We can’t just talk about this like it’s a two-sided war, when it’s actually a multi-sided, multi-generational dislocation of community.