Monthly Archives: January 2009

Google Ditch

Google Street View continues its march across the landscape; it now has most of Wayne County in its sights. It’s interesting to look up some of the old Erie Canal locations I’ve visited in the past. Here is a view of one of the oldest remaining sections of the original Erie Canal (aka “Clinton’s Ditch”), which was cut off from the rest of the Canal around the 1840s. This is probably one of the longest remnants of the original Canal anywhere in the state, although there are no historical markers indicating what it is. It’s the scruffy looking area on the right side of the road (a little more interesting when you’re there in person, if you’re into that sort of thing — this is one historically significant gutter.)

A “head-on” view can be seen here. It is much narrower today because of the enlargement of the road (formerly towpath) next to it.

At the Purple Gate

Now that Obama’s inauguration is over, criticism has inevitably begun — starting with the inaugural festivities on Tuesday. As has been reported locally, thousands of “lucky” attendees were inexplicably kept from their promised places — “silver” and “purple” ticketholders. This has produced an outcry — on the Internet, at least; the Facebook groups are a-flyin’.

One unfortunate couple posted a brief photo essay of their experience. This is sad; these folks spent money to go down there, with high hopes, and wound up trapped in a tunnel for four hours.

But I’m afraid that these pictures tell a bigger story than just a bad day at the Inaugural — and it’s nothing to do with Obama himself, or even Bush (some are blaming the outgoing administration for the poor crowd control). It’s about how we got to this point at all. It’s the story of how we got into this mess in the first place, how we got into Iraq and Afghanistan with barely a struggle, how we wound up on the brink of a global depression with banking CEOs still snagging multimillion-dollar bonuses as ordinary people lose their entire lives.

Too sweeping a metaphor, too much of a generalization? I don’t think so. For many years, the American public has been far too trusting and too willing to be herded. Life has gotten so complex that no one has any inclination or energy to question where they are being asked to “wait” — to wait for benefits that are due them, to wait for an end to the wars and for their loved ones to come home, to wait for what has been promised. Yes, good Americans are “glad to see all the security” parked about. They believe the security forces are there to protect their faraway dreams and to smooth their path to the realization of those dreams. They don’t know the lay of the political land, the map of power, so they trust. They go where they are told. What else can they do?

They wait patiently, quietly, in the closed tunnel.

Another group of wait-ers, not the ones who took these pictures, posted of their experience at the head of the line, just at the threshold of the Purple Gate:

I got in, but only because my wife took over the gate from the cops who were standing there bewildered in a little sheep-like cluster discussing where to run when the mob finally pushed the fence over.

And sadly that is also telling. Too few people at the head of the line took control of their own destiny in an assertive but civil manner. If more people had done what they did, maybe many more of those footsore and cold people stuck in the tunnel might have gotten past the gate. But there was no mob scene, no tunnel stampede (thank God); just tired and dispirited people who not only quitted the tunnel, but quitted the whole transportation system, walking miles back to the airport themselves, feeling bewildered and angry. Beyond them, far above them, on the other side of the Purple Gate, a new president spoke. They didn’t hear him.

I don’t understand how thousands of people can stay backed up in a tunnel, unless they wish to be. There is such a thing as being too orderly. People really have to learn how to effectively speak up for themselves, in the face of police even, or else this is how they’re going to end up. But I believe that next time “justice is denied,” people aren’t going to be so nice about it. “Crashing the Gates” has been a popular slogan, co-opted by enterprising online political profiteers for the past eight years (and they have kept would-be activists neatly penned up in a similar, albeit virtual, manner). But in real life, it has yet to reach expression.

I don’t blame the individuals taken off guard and tired and in the cold like this, but there is a sobering lesson in these pictures nevertheless. What will happen the next time?

A request for President Obama

President Obama would like to stimulate the economy by investing serious amounts of money into infrastructure projects. If he’s looking for a top-priority public works project that needs a lot of attention (and cash)… here’s one he can’t fail to consider: New York City’s aging water system.

Please. It needs help. Badly. There are aging reservoir dams that could cause catastrophic property damage and even loss of life, and conduits that are leaking millions of gallons of water a day. Millions of people depend on this system for their water, and thousands more further Upstate are affected as well. This New York Times article from last year talks about even more of the problems faced by the system.

The turning point?

New York State’s population loss rate has officially slowed.

In what may prove a silver lining in the latest economic black cloud, New York lost fewer residents to other states in 2007-8 than during any year in at least a generation… Between July 1, 2007, and July 1, 2008, New York recorded a net loss of 126,000 residents to other states — meaning 126,000 more people moved out than moved in — according to an analysis by demographers at Queens College. Some 257,000 people moved away during those 12 months, the analysis showed, about half the peak of 521,000 in the same 12 months spanning 2005-6. It was the first time the number dipped below 300,000 since the Census Bureau began measuring the annual flows in 1982.

This was something one might have guessed would eventually happen because the economy is crashing everywhere, but it’s a little surprising that it happened so soon. Is it a blip, or a trend?

It appears more Upstaters are staying put (whether they like it or not), while more people from out of state are moving to NYC.

But NYC is probably set to face steeper job losses in the coming year than here in Upstate, as the full impact of the crash of the financial services industry has yet to be felt on its local economy. (Are there going to be jobs for those newcomers?) So it would continue to be in Albany’s interest to re-balance and re-integrate the state’s economy, and to get some of those newcomers to come up here to live and work, so that the state won’t lose more than a couple Congressional seats by 2010.

I was pleased when Matt Driscoll recently had the guts to say it out loud: that New York State has put all its economic eggs in one basket — Wall Street — and is now paying the price.

Mayor Bloomberg wants to “re-train Wall Street workers for new careers.” Maybe the new Upstate Majority Caucus can think of some ways to take that little job off his hands. After all, he’s got a city to run.

Crossroads

Last month, I came up with a list of what I thought were the top 10 New York State stories in the very eventful year of 2008. Item No. 7 concerned the State’s moves to collect taxes from Indian-owned businesses. It could have surprised no one that the Senecas were going to communicate their alarm by playing the Thruway card again. This has inspired a lot of comment even outside of western New York, such as this long thread at Syracuse.com.

The history of New York and Indian taxation is a long and tangled one. There is no broad public support tipping toward either side of the taxation debate. This is in part because New York’s government avoids bringing up the issue in front of the public at all. But for every few forum commenters you can find who say that the they should pay taxes “just like we do,” you can usually find someone who feels New York’s tribes ought to be given some rein because they were screwed over “just like we are.”

One wonders if the Upstate man-on-the-street is suffering from an identity crisis of sorts. When he no longer feels in control of his own economic destiny; when his own people have thinned out and lost influence (with all those high school and college grads who move South); when his former livelihood is disappearing in front of the relentless march of globalization; when politically he doesn’t have much to bargain with; when he’s feeling controlled by corporations, or by Albany, or by unions (or by whichever group he believes has too much power)… really, how far away is his own situation and his own experience now, from the past experiences of the Senecas (or the Oneidas or the Cayugas or the Onondagas)? Reading these comments, one sees hostility, but also detects an undercurrent of sympathy, even if it is grudging.

Whatever their views, New Yorkers seem far more willing to talk about Native American relations than their government does. Some weeks ago, Sean Kirst wrote an excellent column on Gov. Paterson’s signing of a tax collection bill (as yet unenforced by the state) and asked the key question: What is New York’s official policy toward the nations within its borders, and when is Paterson going to reveal it?

Apparently, Governor Paterson had prepared remarks about this planned for his State of the State speech, but never spoke them:

The state of New York and the Indian tribes of this state have suffered for far too long from a debilitating and unproductive relationship. Together, we can forge a fundamentally different government-to-government relationship, one grounded in mutual respect and with common purpose. I intend to work together with the tribal nations across this state so that together we can create a brighter future for all of our citizens.

This is an unprecedented almost-statement, but not surprising: only those with no sense of history at all are enthusiastic about the prospect of state troopers marching onto the territories of the Six Nations to collect taxes. However, Paterson has yet to stand up in front of all New York and say his position out loud. Whatever the political consequences to him personally, he owes it to every New York resident touched by this ancient controversy to move the conversation forward.

There’s the possibility that an already-existing, racism-tinged hardliner attitude will spread, if the Senecas follow through on their Thruway plan. But at a time when people are beginning to feel that our government is not living up to its social contract with its own citizens, some might become more inclined to re-examine the troubled state of our government’s contracts with Native nations here in New York. If we’re not at a crossroads in public attitude on this issue now, it appears we will be soon.