Category Archives: Urbia

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.

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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UPDATE: On being over…

Last June, I made note of a statement by Rem Koolhaas…

Famous Architect Rem Koolhaas is disappointed with American cities:

“Don’t tell anyone… but the 20th-century city is over. It has nothing new to teach us anymore. Our job is simply to maintain it.”

Today: Unfinished 40-story Beijing hotel designed by Koolhaas goes up in flames in a mere 20 minutes:

Yo, Rem! Maybe the 20th century city could teach you something about not designing perfect firetraps. (What the heck did they use for the framework, magnesium?)

(Rest of original post below the flip)

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How low can you go?

Apparently, a lot lower than Syracuse

Hunched on the eastern edge of the Monongahela River only a few miles from bustling Pittsburgh, Braddock is a mix of boarded-up storefronts, houses in advanced stages of collapse and vacant lots.

The state has classified it a “distressed municipality” — bankrupt, more or less — since the Reagan administration. The tax base is gone. So are most of the residents. The population, about 18,000 after World War II, has declined to less than 3,000. Many of those who remain are unemployed. Real estate prices fell 50 percent in the last year.

This year, the town will be featured in the film version of another work of art, Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Road.” Set in a post-Armageddon America where food is so scarce that many survivors turned to cannibalism, “The Road” was shot partially in Braddock.

They do, however, have a mayor who has tattooed onto his arm the date of each murder in Braddock that has occurred under his watch. His (mostly symbolic and largely personal) efforts to hold the place together are worth a read (and watch).

I have to laugh at those who look at the wider economic collapse and imagine all kinds of post-apocalyptic scenarios for America. As if that all just started this year.

Reasons for leaving Syracuse

The latest census enumerations show that the city of Syracuse’s population has fallen to a new low of 139,000. This, as Phil points out, leaves Syracuse dangerously close to “small city” status in New York. As a suburbanite, I think of “Syracuse” as the entire metro area, however. No doubt the metro area is shrinking as well. Josh wonders if we should concentrate on keeping the existing population and not just attracting new people. In that spirit, here is a purely speculative post. It may seem negative on its surface, but is not intended to be. It’s just a look at one person (me) as a theoretical “flight risk.” I may be a strange example, because I haven’t got any current plans to move — but if I can think of reasons that might possibly make me leave, these reasons probably would apply to some people who are going to end up leaving Syracuse before the next census.

First of all, what keeps people in Syracuse? A variety of reasons, but family connections and/or obligations are a biggie. We just don’t know how big that “biggie” really is, but it’s probably significant. Also, another big reason is that Syracuse is a conveniently located area for natural beauty that hasn’t been snapped up by the super-wealthy. Housing is affordable here, if you have a stable job (big “if,” for some people) and your personal lifestyle spending doesn’t outpace the ever-rising property taxes.

Let’s pretend the family or other personal connections are no longer there. Why then would someone like me — a “local yokel” if there ever was one — ever entertain the thought of leaving?
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