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?

A lack of decent new job opportunities for older adults that don’t require extensive (read: expensive) retraining. And we’re not just talking about ex-factory workers. Even if you had gotten a serviceable college degree, chances are it isn’t very serviceable any more. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of systemic support in Syracuse for the retraining of adult workers. There are a few special initiatives for this, but a lot of adults don’t qualify for this or that particular program. Even someone who is financially holding their own, but unhappy or unfulfilled in their current job, usually can’t just make a lateral adjustment to a different workplace that does the same sort of work; any changes tend to be huge ones requiring onerous financial outlay and time commitment, with uncertain outcomes. Compared to other more vibrant cities, here there’s less of a margin for experimentation and personal exploration; and, paradoxically (given these small margins for error), less counseling and less support for adult workers trying to make transitions and make a continuing go of Syracuse.

This is the sort of thing where having a support system, a supportive zeitgeist if you will, even without ready job openings, is key. Because when someone who feels unsupported and devalued does finally decide to go back and upgrade their credentials — fighting through it and doing it without the community’s support — their emotional connection to Syracuse is going to be a lot weaker, even if a job opens up that they’re now qualified for. They’ll take that other, similar job in Ithaca or Albany (if they stay Upstate at all). They’ll have internalized Syracuse as the place where they struggled and nobody thought they were worth investing in.

Make that 138,999. (Or, one more newcomer you’ve got to find to replace them.)

Because people leave their hometowns for emotional reasons, not just financial ones, emotions are worth considering. I remain amazed at both how happy and satisfied and “I’ve got mine” people are in the Syracuse area, and how miserably unhappy. How can they live on such different planets? The sharp dichotomy between suburb and city is depressing and frustrating — even when it’s coming from urban boosters, who I tend to feel sympathetic with. Then there are the endlessly racist and sexist and “city vs. suburbia” insults on comment boards; if the goal with these comment boards is to reveal Onondaga County’s ugly side warts and all, and to demonstrate that no moral authority has influence over the greater community’s consciousness, it’s succeeding. I hope Greg Munno’s CNY Speaks project takes off, and I do hope people read Sean Kirst’s column about city life too, but it’s going to have to be sold to the peanut gallery at For better or worse, that is Syracuse’s most active “e-commentariat.”

When the urban-suburban dichotomy isn’t hostile, it’s indifferent or lacking in imagination. Sometimes that you can’t blast some of the long-standing progressive action groups out of the city or the University area or Dewitt (the suburbs, even older suburbs, never figure into their overall vision, except as a negative example); and you can’t coax the suburban mommies into the city (Eleanor Roosevelt would have had something to say to them). There is a lot of impassioned preaching to the choir on both sides. But there is still less willingness to venture outside of the comfort zones. The stances are essentially defensive, especially among our elected leaders (although Joanie Mahoney has less of a problem with that). If we’re bound and determined to have flag-waving and/or trash-talking contrade in Greater Syracuse, the least we can do is have a big colorful horse race twice a summer for the tourists, like they do in Siena!

Small town life, farther away from a city, might be more homogeneous and narrower in scope, but there might be a better sense of civic unity and more politeness; and maybe at least a handful of people listen to and respect the mayor, the constable, the local poet and the village idiot, all.

That’s a thought that might go into the “Cons” column of someone imagining a life beyond Syracuse… next to the many firm and enduring “Pros” which have been described in great detail here on this blog and others over the years.

12 thoughts on “Reasons for leaving Syracuse

  1. sean

    a point you’ve often made that i think rings very true: some of the neighborhoods just beyond the city borders, particularly in places like the the north side and in westvale and nedrow and dewitt, are essentially city neighborhoods, with the same atmosphere and dynamics i mentioned in the column. what separates them from the city is much less some invisible municipal border than the very real wall between school districts. i still believe the profound change that might address many longstanding problems would be metropolitan school district ‘quadrants’ in the county, which would change little in terms of neighborhood schools – but would equalize resources.


  2. Bob Marino

    Please allow me to first introduce myself.

    I am 55, a 1975 grad (BA/Maxwell concentration) of SU, and now reside outside of NYC (lived in Manhattan 27 years until a few months ago). While at Syracuse 1971-75, I supported myself by working multiple jobs including selling shows in the bargain basement of Sibley’s Department Store on South Salina Street.

    I walked from East Genesee and University Place my senior year. Prior to that, I shared a place at Ivy Ridge south of Colvin Street.

    Unlike most students then -and from what I read, students now- I knew and used downtown and the environs. We’d snack at 3 am at Abe’s Donuts (long gone), treat ourselves when we could afford at Danzinger’s (their original and then present locale), and would go for fresh Italian bread at a north side bakery whose name I am sorry to have forgotten.

    Sibley’s is long gone as is their then competitor Dey’s across the street. Edward’s department store had just built it’s new structure a few blocks north but it soon failed and was turned into a mini-mall.

    Carousel Center was not even a dream back then. Bob Congel first was known to me when I was involved in student government at SU and his Pyramid Companies built Skytop I and II. I was one of those displaced when phase two failed initial inspection and I lived at HoJo’s motel on Carrier Circle for one semester.

    Syracuse can come back. It will never return to the prominence it had when New York State was the nation’s most populated and influential. But it has enormous potential.

    Viable downtowns require 24 hour activity. The university should continue its novel programs to bring departments downtown, but it should also work with national retailers to find affordable spaces at the bases of these buildings.

    Wall Street is still seeking a secondary location as a backup in the event of another terrorist attack or emergency (hurricane, blackouts, etc.). Portions of Pennsylvania are competing for the tens of thousands of jobs these facilities would generate.

    My first proposal is that our state and national representatives should work CLOSELY with Wall Street corporations to scatter these jobs between Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. Create a necklace of upstate cities prepared to backup downstate companies. The four cities have the infrastructure required for these companies. There are airports, trains, electric networks, water and sewers, and other costly systems already in place. Local housing is a bargain compared to much of the country.

    And, the four cities each have major universities that could serve as “farm teams” and incubators for these corporations. For locals, there would be jobs and retraining to compensate for lost manufacturing jobs.

    The efforts being made by SU to integrate itself into the community are vital since the university and surrounding institutions are not only the largest employers in the region but are also the most likely to bring in new blood to help initiate needed changes.

    To start, the small train system should be expanded to reach South Campus and nearby communities. There should be an easy way for students and staff to reach the downtown. Sadly, the few students and hospital employees near the Stadium station do not comprise a substantial enough portion of the Hill’s population.

    The University of West Virginia uses a monorail system to transport students. While Syracuse could not afford a similar system, the geography and meteorological conditions warrant further consideration of some sort of system to connect the Hill to the city.

    Why is this beneficial to all? The downtown cannot handle the number of cars the Hill would likely generate. Those on the Hill are less likely to drive to out skirting areas such as Manlius and Liverpool to shop but if downtown is too difficult to maneuver, they will. But the Hill has the potential to generate millions of dollars in local spending. Spending produces investment and investment produces jobs.

    Decades ago, Noredo Rottuno, a notable local landscape architect, created intriguing plans to expand the Hotel Syracuse, create pedestrian malls downtown, and to expand the campus to Erie Blvd. with Euclid Avenue park stretching to the former canal area. While many of his ideas were unworkable, his brilliance showed how the campus and city might integrate themselves so students and city residents could interact.

    Crime, housing, and other issues isolated the campus from the City. There were virtually no retail establishments catering to young professionals (whether in or out of college) downtown. Armory Square had yet to be gentrified. Route 81 served as a barrier between housing for the poor and the university and hospital campus’s. Today, hopefully, we are learning that the poor are not inferior- they are just economically deprived. They are good people seeking safe, affordable homes for their families. They have to be included in any plan for downtown.

    Today, the university is again expanding. Sadly, the new dorm is being built on precious open land next to Dell Plain Hall when it might have been built closer to downtown (or perhaps in Downtown) and designed for graduate students and families.

    Viable downtowns require 24 hour activity. The university should continue its novel programs to bring departments downtown, but it should also work with national retailers to find affordable spaces at the bases of these buildings.

    New York State must operate as a single unit with shared goals. It can no longer be upstate vs. downstate, city vs. rural, or white collar vs. blue collar. We are facing global challenges that will only grow as China, Brazil, India, and other nations rise economically. We can no longer discard cities and the infrastructure taxpayers built over the decades. The idea of fleeing to postcard perfect suburbia failed and now we are coming to realize that the costs related to sprawl are economic, environmental, and even psychological.

    I graduated from Syracuse and have called NYC my home. I love NYC but a large portion of my life was formed by working alongside and with the incredible people who called Syracuse home. I say never give-up and do not hide from the tough questions and challenges ahead. If you can handle Syracuse snow, you can deal with anything.

    Sorry for being so verbose. Just my ideas.. now rip me apart :)

  3. NYCO Post author

    Sean, barring any almost unimaginable change in how the county administers school districts, can you think of any “under the table” measures that would overcome those barriers within one of these imaginary quadrants? Is there some kind of educational activity that’s underfunded in all the districts in a particular quadrant that would benefit from ad hoc cooperation? (Also, have you ever drawn a diagram of the “pie slices” – even just on a napkin?)

    Bob, as anyone could probably tell you, Verbosity is my middle name. So, thank you for your thoughts! As for SU, they’re doing a lot of great things, but they’re also running into some problems that they apparently haven’t run into in places where the model they’re using has worked (Kentucky, Pittsburgh, etc). The on-the-ground politics here are really formidable.

  4. Bob Marino

    I know what you mean about local politics. This site is excellent!

    I look forward to sharing more of my crazy ideas. I have long believed that determination usually wins out… keep on blogging..


  5. Robinia

    Bob– thanks for sharing, would not dream of ripping apart such excellent ideas. Sean, you have got it for what divides us, Syracuse and US-wide… don’t know how it could be done, but, your solution would really help.

    NYCO, insightful as usual– good thought exercise.

    Bob, if you consider inter-city passenger rail as a means of accomodating that “Wall St. West (or Northwest?)” job-growth idea, the extension of a passenger loop from NYC-Poconos-Scranton-Syracuse (and West and East) helps spread it. Have been working on that kind of thing some.

  6. sean

    you’re bringing me back to reality, ellen. the truth is, politically, that consolidated school districts aren’t going to happen in ‘the cny’ (i love that expression. it’s how the local ‘lost boys’ refer to their new home) and that consolidation isn’t close to happening. so if flailing at dreams is a hopeless exercise, what’s next?

    i guess the next best alternative would be ‘blurring’ the borders, which would simply demand making city neighborhoods desireable enough that people might move back. the thing is, we ought to be there right now. as witnessed on the ‘cny speaks’ site, however, fear of the city schools, particularly the high schools – often irrational fear – takes on a life of its own and ascends into the realm of urban (or in this case suburban) legend.

    still, there’s hope. my kids go to corcoran, where a child can get an international baccalaureate degree or credits – powerfully respected by many universities – for free. there are already kids in the school who live in nearby suburbs but want a shot at the ib, and there is a large population of students who left private schools to come back to corcoran for the program. by next fall, thanks to ‘say yes to education,’ seniors at corcoran with decent – as in 85 or so – grades will automatically receive free tutition to many major regional univerisities. on top of that, you can get a lot of house in the surrounding neighborhood for relative peanuts.

    so think of that: a family moving into this section of syracuse can get a fine house in a stable neighborhood for the low 100s, or less; save enormous amounts of gas by slicing the daily commute to almost nothing; send the kids for free to a high school offering an internationally respected, high-achieving academic program; get services such as garbage collection for no fee beyond normal taxes; and then have access, incredibly, to free college tuition for the children. those aren’t just incentives; those are life-changing savings. what is sought in return is the investment of day-to-day lives in stabilizing neighborhoods, and by extension maybe – through nothing beyond a quiet, workaday presence – helping to stabilize the lives of children at risk.

    if the city somehow got the word out, in that fashion, i think you might see a little ripple, a little migration, back into the city. and maybe, gradually, painstakingly, as perceptions shift or alter about the realities of attending city schools, maybe the dream of consolidated school districts would move just a bit closer.


  7. Ellen Post author

    Robinia, the only problem with expansion via rail is that people downstate have to feel there’s something to come up here TO… chicken and egg problem?

    Sean, re drawing on napkins… there is something both populist and subversive about it that a prepared graphic can’t communicate, and sometimes visuals are more provocative than words to many people. Maybe you could go to the Little Gem, get a napkin and then post it on your blog.

    Re the free college tuition for city residents deal, that is (was?) the one thing I’ve heard in all the years of people talking about the city, that was really a paradigm-blaster. I knew this by all the cries of “No fair!” from the exurbanites, and the way my own mother, when asked, looked thoughtful when I asked her if she would have moved back into the city to take advantage of it for my sister and me.

    PS- I don’t know why my comments keep being left under “NYCO” lately, it has to do with how I am logged in.

  8. sean

    well, for better or worse – i think for better – you are nyco. it’s an identity you obtained at a moment when a lot of us were just understanding blogging, and to me it’s inseparable from who you are, like sam clemens and mark twain … which in a way really isn’t a nutty comparison.


  9. sean

    as for napkins, here’s a great syracuse story: post standard sportswriting legend jack andews remembered danny biasone and leo ferris drawing up formulas on a napkin for the game-changing 24-second clock at danny’s bar and bowling alley in eastwood, a magnificent time capsule …

    which, in classic syracuse fashion, was torn down.


  10. Ellen Post author

    But what if I want to change my brand?

    I was thinking of calling this “The Emerald Blog”…

  11. JS

    Or maybe rebrand yourself as the “Creative Blog Core”? Then proclaim yourself the “Most Sustainable Blog-ography in the World!!”

    Then it must be true!

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