Monthly Archives: May 2010

How the world gets smaller

This weekend, we’re now hearing (the truth) that BP’s latest effort to stop the Gulf oil spill has been mostly a failure. President Obama has been down to visit and to claim that the Gulf Coast “is not alone,” but since our captains of industry and elected officials seem to be powerless to actually stop the gushing oil, I’m afraid that it may signal that the opposite will happen. It’s sad but true: after a certain point, people protect themselves from unmitigatable disaster by ceasing to deal with an area where the disaster has occurred. It gets shunted off to a dark spare corner of their mental world map as a place they don’t choose to ever think about again, like sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti, the countryside surrounding Chernobyl, and (to some extent) New Orleans.

When economic disaster happened to the Rust Belt (in slow motion), the same process took place. Gradually, our region and other neighboring Rust Belt areas and cities, such as Detroit and Buffalo, fell off America’s mental map. The locus of the American imagination is mostly centered around the big coastal metro strips and the South and West. Where New York used to be a big-cheese state culturally and politically, it’s mainly important today to the American story only because of its large and regionally lopsided population. Cities like Syracuse and Rochester have been forgotten, just like the Gulf Coast will be once it’s covered in oil (even though life there will continue, and fish may even continue to get caught).

This means that, over time, our collective knowledge of the “known world” gets smaller – by our own choice. It seems strange that this could happen in a world where every corner has now been explored and is part of a global economy. But as the years go by, these mental blank spots on the map get papered over with generalizations and assumptions instead of actual knowledge of the area. Our modern, progressive minds can only take so much uncertainty, after all. Given a choice between uncertain fears and willful ignorance, ignorance usually wins out.

State park update

What is happening at the closed state parks? It seems to depend on where you are and who you know…

A group of about a half dozen volunteers were asked to leave Wilson-Tuscarora State Park (east of Niagara Falls) by park police as they brought in mowers under the direction of Wilson town officials. (The Town of Wilson wants to take over the park, so it appears that park police don’t take kindly to grandstanding, maybe?)

The Buffalo News reports that several towns in WNY want to maintain their closed local parks, including Woodlawn Beach, Knox Farm and Joseph Davis parks.

Bowman Lake State Park is seeing a jump in reservations, possibly due to the closure of nearby Oquaga Creek and Hunts Pond parks. Bowman Lake is on the “secondary closing list.”

The Post-Standard notes that Clark Reservation is not “really” closed.

Kirsten Gillibrand wants Newtown Battlefield to become a national historic park. (This would be in addition to, not instead of, the state park that is there.)

The closure of Thacher State Park is becoming a political issue.

New York’s entire state parks system has been named to “America’s Most Endangered Historic Places” list this year.

Birth of a burb

These aerial photos from the Cornell University Library may represent the last visible link between the eras of farming and of suburbia in Fairmount Hills.

The first photo was taken in September 1938, and shows that the Fairmount Hills area was laid out for modern suburban tracts before World War 2 (note the curvier streets compared to Old Fairmount’s straight avenues, at top of photo).

This photo probably shows the borders of the Geddes family farm, even though they had been gone from the area for several decades. One of the tree lines on the left side of the picture seems to conform roughly to the border of Lot 38, much of which they owned. (Without further research I couldn’t tell you exactly where their holdings were, though.) It also shows the Brockway Tavern (aka Whelan’s Funeral Home, circled in red) and one of the Geddes farm’s outbuildings (which still exists in back of Fairmount Animal Hospital, circled in yellow). The purple X is approximately the location of the house George Geddes lived in later in his life (son James Jr. lived in the big family mansion on Fairmount Corners). The blue X is my street.

It’s interesting to walk through the neighborhood these days and understand a little more about what was what back in the early 20th or even the 19th century. It’s easy to find out the location of the Geddes family’s ice pond (hint: it’s still a swamp). But everything has changed visually – the only thing that hasn’t changed is topography. So if you want to figure out which route the farmers of yore took to get to their back forty, you can get insights by walking, more than you can get from consulting a map of streets invented for cars.

The Syracuse Herald’s report on the demolition of the Geddes mansion (December 1929, part 1, part 2) discusses the upcoming development of the land into residential and business space, so this photo shows streets that were likely laid out even earlier than 1938, with their development probably stalled by the Depression. Still, this fancy and oh-so-suburban configuration (for prewar) begs the question: who did they expect to live here? It’s not as if they could have been fully anticipating postwar baby boomers.

Let’s jump ahead to 1951:

The war is long over, and Fairmount Hills (aka “Lake Lawns”) is on the verge of a building boom. Fairmount Fair is still a gleam in Eagan’s eye, but already the streets off Onondaga Road have started to see some action, and within five years the rest of the neighborhood will be filled with ranch houses and Cape Cods built by Liverpool’s Bud Stanley.

Flash forward to 1966, and the transformation is almost totally complete:

Not shown in this picture is the now-fully-developed Terrytown area in back of swinging Fairmount Fair, where the dots (er, houses) are spaced out more than they are in Fairmount Hills. They figured out that people wanted bigger homes, bigger lots, and that they wanted a shopping mall with plenty of parking — even though, for a suburban mall, FF is bizarrely easy to walk to.

The whole Fairmount area is really like a suburban history laboratory, where you can trace fine gradual developments in the whole concept of sub-village and sub-urban housing. (I say “sub-village” because I suspect Old Fairmount, laid out in the 1890s, was really meant to be a suburb of the village of Solvay.) The last major building spurt in Fairmount happened in the 1990s, so conceivably you could take an hourlong stroll through one hundred years of suburban history. (Yes, there’s still one guy finishing his new mini-McMansion up on Jane Drive, but he’s very late to the party.)

And that’s really the oddest thing of all: a history of suburbia that you don’t need to drive through!

For further reading on the characteristics of prewar vs. postwar suburban development: Interpreting Post-World War II Suburban Landscapes as Historic Resources.

More fantastical Upstate landscapes…

Some time ago, I commented on the ABC special Earth 2100 and how, like other dystopian sci-fi visions, it at the end embraced Upstate New York as some sort of idyllic promised land for people to escape to in the event of asteroids, global warming, nuclear war, etc. Nobody else will be living up here, and it will be the perfect place for brave urban castaways to settle down and build new lives.

I can’t help noticing that more TV shows seem to be using Northeastern locales. The shows occasionally include Upstate in their geographies, such as The Office and its “Road Trip” episode which stopped at “Utica Branch.” Sometimes the geographies are fanciful or downright demented, however. My latest guilty TV pleasure in the Boston-set Fringe on Fox, which mostly stays in Massachusetts (or “Massachusetts,” ahem), but whose central dramatic event occurred at a fictional frozen lake west of Albany, somewhere north of Westerlo. Pretty cool… except that the lake is allegedly located just near an ocean beach. Okay, whatever! And this map from an alternate universe in Fringe seems to indicate something horrible has happened in the greater Buffalo area. (Wait, maybe that’s our universe.)

I used to assume that General Hospital‘s Port Charles, N.Y. was meant to be on Long Island. With ship’s bells and so many unsavory characters hanging out at “the docks,” wouldn’t you assume so? Nope, apparently it is supposed to be Rochester – on the rough and tumble coast of Lake Ontario. (Not that Rochester is on the coast…) All righty then!

Any other fantastical Upstate locations or landscapes out there in popular culture? (I’m thinking maybe it’s not worth discussing Slap Shot for the umpteenth time and instead focus on the probably far greater number of TV and movie productions that just make stuff up.)

Into the wild

Today, the original list of 55 state parks and historic sites slated for closure were officially shut. For a while it looked like the legislature was going to get its act together and “save” them for another year, but everyone in Albany is so busy trying to make each other look bad that the parks just fell through the cracks. As Norbrook points out, you might as well kiss some of these facilities goodbye.

While certain concerned parties such as Novisuccinea chittenangoensis may be relieved, some other New Yorkers are going to attempt to pretend that this all never happened and use the parks anyway:

At Knox Park In East Aurora, the park is technically closed but that didn’t stop park goers like Sue Guindon from showing up. What did she encounter? “Not a thing, peace, not a problem…no gates closed, a regular day. I was hoping for that, I don’t want anything but a peaceful walk in the park as I do every single day when I come here myself, my friends or with my family.” Guindon says she will not back down and plans to keep coming to the park.

A lot of people know back routes or unofficial entrances to the closed parks. (I know a discreet route into one of my favorites, and admit I am tempted.) How hard is the state going to enforce no-trespassing rules? When do the drug dealers start to show up?

Does privatization come next? A Republican state senator is now push-polling about that. But on Long Island they already have a savior in the form of Citibank, which is coming to the rescue and playing out exactly what I feared — the haves will have their parks, and the have-nots will just have to sneak in like animals.

Every government, no matter what way it gains power (via elections, or just brute force), has to engage in what are known as “legitimizing activities.” Every president, king or emperor since the beginning of civilization has eventually had to come up with bread and circuses, pleasure parks, and other ways of keeping the people happy within the system and in awe of their largesse and majesty. To the people, the failure to keep providing these perks contributed to a sense of “legitimacy fail.”

The park closures are of course not the most serious thing we’re facing. But it makes you wonder. If the entire legislature and the governor are this impotent that they could not stop this from actually happening, then their days of legitimacy as a government are that much closer to the end. When do the people who are still living in New York (and not fleeing elsewhere) just simply stop paying attention to them, or to their successors?

For Ms. Guindon, I guess the answer is “now.”