Monthly Archives: May 2009

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.

Camillus aqueduct restoration


The long-anticipated $2 million restoration of the Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct at Camillus Erie Canal Park is a “go.” This was what it looked like on Saturday. They are now just starting to place the watertight layer of boards on the floor. When it’s finished in October, it will be the only fully navigable canal aqueduct in New York (there are two others, in Pennsylvania and Delaware). The Camillus aqueduct was exceptionally made even by the standards of the day (1844) and had relatively few structural problems since it fell out of use early in the 20th century, making it a good candidate for this kind of project. The book Camillus, Halfway There by David Beebe, mastermind of the Camillus Erie Canal Park, describes some of the long road to restoration since the park’s establishment in 1972. There probably hasn’t been a moment since then when some sort of preparatory work wasn’t being done (by volunteers) to make the aqueduct and the park ready for this project.

I’ll miss the picturesque view of the aqueduct in its derelict state — where history was left up to the imagination — but the smell of the fresh lumber at the construction site is no less delightful. There is not the sense of pointlessness I get when I see them building DestiNY USA. For one thing, the benefits of the aqueduct project are clear. It will immediately double the size of the canal usable for boats and kayakers, which will attract more people to the park. It will also bring more people to the less-used eastern half of the towpath, which leads to Route 173 (Warners Road) and the Allied waste beds beyond, where the canal once ran. If this proximity to sad reality inspires some kayaker, biker or jogger to say I wish this trail went even farther…, and gets them dreaming about how to un-do the mistakes of the past, that will be a great service to the Syracuse area.

DestiNY USA, with its promise of jobs and greenery, is still in the end all about consumption. The aqueduct project is all about restoring connections.

Odds and ends

NYRI won’t stay dead.

Phil posts on gay marriage. He thinks some Democrats are batting for the other team.

Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation is trying to get the Syracuse Common Council to adopt a Resolution of Respect for and Reconciliation with the Onondaga Nation.

The location of Mordor having already been discovered, here are the Mines of Moria (and another view).

Cougars confirmed by DEC in the Adirondacks?

I didn’t know that Waterloo is the birthplace of Memorial Day. (Heck, I didn’t even know that Waterloo was more than just Waterloo Outlets…)

SyracuseB4 on enclosed shopping malls. I drove by the Great Wall of Congel the other day and felt like the future was finally coming into the present. That is, the future boondoggle many of us imagined years ago is playing out before our very eyes. A gargantuan tax-free edifice with no tenants, and the consumption-killing “crash” we all felt in our bones was coming, is finally here. It was supposed to be better than Dubai, remember?

Here’s what’s happening in Dubai these days. (Another article in the Independent is even more revealing.)

Back home, a sign of the times (via Capitol Confidential):

The New Yorks that ate New York

Wolfram Alpha is a new site that advertises itself as a new way to search for data in a computational manner. You can input natural-language queries in a variety of subjects, including Census data. Since secession is all the rage these days, I thought I’d plug some questions into the system and see what resulted. And here are the population stats for the three New Yorks – soon to be our 11th, 51st and 52nd states:

Upstate (excluding “downstate counties”): 6,656,251
Long Island: 2,795,000
Downstate (NYC including “downstate counties”): 9,854,000

(The “downstate counties” used for this purpose are Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess and Putnam.)

But wait! What about these Three New Yorks?

Upstate: 8,296,000
Long Island: 2,795,000
New York City: 8,143,000

Hm, Upstate is bigger than New York City if you let Westchester in…

But why stop there? Let’s add a 53rd state – the State of Western New York, which consists of all counties west of the soda-pop line. And what the heck, why not just make the Downstate Four (aka “Commuterland/Secondhomia”) into the 54th state while we’re at it.

Western New York: 2,772,172
The Upstate New York Where They Don’t Put that Silly “The” in Front of Highway Numbers: 3,884,079
Commuterland/Secondhomia: 1,640,000
Long Island: 2,795,000
New York City: 8,143,000

There! I don’t know about you, but I feel enlightened and refreshed.

Starting over, again

On New Year’s Day 2008 I posted about what sort of young people might be coming back to the Syracuse area in the future. In yesterday’s New York Times was a revealing look at what is happening to real families during a real economic fading, and what it’s like when economically broken young adults return to their hometowns. The last subject of the story, 35-year-old Rhoby – who apparently was fired from her last job for the crime of being too good at it – is struggling to keep up her morale.