Three ways of looking at the new tax agreement

Quite allofasudden, an agreement has been reached (and passed) on a new Onondaga County sales tax distribution deal. If you have been following the news, some weeks ago, Joanie Mahoney and Stephanie Miner came forth with a proposal that pretty much baldly proclaimed Onondaga County to now be a “college town” (or an “eds and meds town”). Mahoney continues to go off the Republican script in interesting ways. Predictably, the Legislature was having none of it and last week Miner started talking tough about a commuter tax. I have to wonder if the compromise reached today was always the real intention. If so, everyone performed their parts very well. Bravo.

I’m all for busting the status quo, even though I have my doubts that “eds and meds” are going to be the eternal economic engines that so many people assume they will be. Higher education is probably the next bubble to burst, and once the baby boomers really start to age, healthcare will be not far behind. Both of these elegant and highly complicated systems will start breaking down under their own weight in my lifetime. But these are the assumptions we’re now accepting, and needless to say, Onondaga County’s suburbanites are probably not gonna like it. At all.

Yesterday’s musings on “source and sink” – how organisms migrate and prosper, or don’t – got me thinking about what suburbanites originally were, compared to what they are now. (Disclaimer: I’m a born-and-bred second-generation suburbanite, so if any angry suburbanites are reading this, I’m one of you. Peace. No Kill I.) I feel that our local suburbanites are imperfectly understood. We’re supposed to believe that originally, they were gullible, greedy airheads who were easily seduced by subdivision developers to abandon a pretty good city and set up ludicrous shop in remote, isolating, disempowering enclaves. And that many of them are just knee-jerk haters of all things urban.

Well, many of them in fact are knee-jerk haters of all things (and most people) urban. These are second- or third-generation suburbanites we’re hearing this from. But the first generation of suburban pioneers came from cities — if not Syracuse itself, then some other city. Who were these people, what happened to them to make them want to leave the city, and what attitudes came from these experiences that got leached into their children and grandchildren who hang out on comment boards today?

Speaking only from personal experience, the stories I was told about why my grandparents left Syracuse bear little resemblance to the explanations commonly offered by urbanites/urbanists. I never heard anything much about cute little houses and lawns, or about not wanting to live around black people. The most vivid story about it, told with the most passion, is the one where the landlord on Herkimer Street would not allow my mother and her sister to have a puppy. The story goes something like this: One day, some way or another a puppy found its way into the yard at the house my grandparents rented. It was discovered by my mother and aunt, who were having fun playing with it until the landlord got wind of it and was mad. My grandfather was obliged to literally tear the puppy out of my mom’s hands, and they never saw it again. I don’t think he was happy about having to do that, but I doubt he had much choice, since my grandparents were both factory workers and probably didn’t have much ability to stand up to the landlord or find a better place to live in the city.

To me, that story is the heart of why former urbanites became suburbanites, and thinking about people as organisms in an ecology reminded me that there are winners and losers in any habitat. I suspect that by and large, most (though not all) people who became suburbanites in that generation were the (white) people who were never going to make it into Syracuse’s power elites. These powerful, well-connected people were not just the professors, the lawyers, the politicians, but also the working-class elites such as those in the inner circle of the labor unions or among the cops – the people you had to know in order to secure better jobs; and also the gossipy circles of the city’s various ethnic enclaves. Syracuse in the 1950s was very much an “I’ve got mine” place – which is ironic, because suburbanites are today the ones judged to be most guilty of that attitude (and many of them do now have it, to be sure).

I have to be honest: sometimes when I hear urbanists talking about how wonderful city neighborhood living is, I roll my eyes. No matter how smoothly an urban paradise runs, there will always be cliques, and I think a major contributing factor to the desire to get out of Dodge had to do with that. Decades upon decades of cliquishness, clannishness, under-the-table favors, smug complacency among the well-employed — it’s the dark side of any social ecosystem, including dear old Syracuse (even today). It’s why the first colonists left Europe, it’s why the first Central New Yorkers left New England, it’s why the small farmers got tired of farming and went to the city, and it’s a big reason why the suburbanites left the city, and why the children of suburbanites are anxious to get out of CNY’s ingrown suburbs today.

My grandmother wanted to move out of Syracuse for several reasons (having to do with following certain members of her family), but she also did want her kids to be able to have a puppy. Today, she would have been just the sort of aspiring homeowner who would have been targeted by predatory lenders and steered toward a house too big for her family. But in the 1950s, at least for some people, the banking system worked pretty well. Even more importantly, the banks sold the kind of trust and respect that people like my grandparents couldn’t get from actual human beings — their supposed family, friends, landlords, co-workers and neighbors — in the city of Syracuse. (Obviously, the banks didn’t extend this sort of relationship to everyone, since invitations to join the suburbs were not extended to blacks and other minorities.)

I don’t recall my grandparents carrying a lot of resentment toward urban elites, or toward minorities – if it was expressed, it wasn’t vehement. They were Democrats, although for a long time my grandfather had registered Republican for political (not ideological) reasons, which illustrates my previous point about the sort of getting-along-to-go-along lifestyle that discontented urbanites hated. I suppose I could have turned out like the commenters on, but the attitude I received from my working-class family was very informed by the Sixties, and it was that the economic interests of working-class whites and the economic interests of minorities were similar (i.e., “what happens to them, happens to YOU next”).

Anyhow, I don’t think we have a complete picture of what’s broken in Onondaga County unless we acknowledge the complete roots of why people left the city in the first place. We already know that we have to be honest about the people who are struggling at the bottom of the system. But I also think we must include an honest look at urban elites — then and now — their past behavior, current behavior, and the distrust of them that festers among some in the suburbs. This is a real, historical distrust buried in unique ways in personal and family histories. It’s also a distrust that over a couple of generations got distorted, in some households and families, into a misdirected resentment against minorities and the poor.

Unfortunately, I also don’t get much of a sense that today’s urban elites in Syracuse really see the return/reconciliation of suburbanites as part of the plan. They seem to want to import young people — newly recruited members of an urban elite — from elsewhere to generate economic activity. Or, at best, suburbanites are expected to come in to watch college sports and hang out downtown for a while. The official urbanite line is still that suburbanites are dumb, gullible, greedy, lazy, and that Syracuse can only be saved by bringing in fresh blood in the form of college students. An exception to this has been the plan to give college education to any city resident. This should have been framed as a lure to get suburbanites to come back to live in the city (not just drink there) and receive this gift along with the poorer city residents who have been there all along. But I’ve not gotten the sense that this potentially revolutionary, reconciliatory concept has been seriously communicated to the people outside the city.

I’ve read some triumphalistic comments today about the new tax agreement from people who maybe ought to know better. This attitude is not helping Onondaga County on its journey to wherever it’s going. We need a three-way reconciliation in this county (at least). I believe the new tax agreement might do something important by at least changing the status quo and clearing the air for a new conversation. But there has to be a serious examination of why so many people left Syracuse and are still out there on the horizons in the suburbs. We can’t just talk about this like it’s a two-sided war, when it’s actually a multi-sided, multi-generational dislocation of community.

11 thoughts on “Three ways of looking at the new tax agreement

  1. Brian Cubbison

    You’ve written some profound things before about working-class generations, but I love this one. You should write books about this (maybe after you finish the history of Fairmount). Seriously, you’re a treasure.

  2. syracuse b-4

    Timely post, as I am currently reading Crabgrass Frontier, a history of the suburbanization of the United States. You can read several of the chapters online via Google Books

    And 50 years later, landlords still don’t want to rent to people with dogs. The ironic thing is, dog owners are usually the most tuned-in to the community and the neighborhood, as we are walking the sidewalks every morning and evening.

  3. Phil

    As usual, an amazing rumination on what’s going on here. I’m going to digest this a little more and respond more in depth later. Ironically, my wife and I bought our first home because we couldn’t have a dog at our apartment in the city–and we had already adopted the dog. But our home purchase was also in the city!

  4. Phil


    As for the city’s elite white power structure, they were the ones who collapsed like a ton of bricks on Rhinehart and got the County leg. to vote unanimously for a bill that seriously damages the finances of the towns and villages. I think a bunch of the pow3e rstructure now lives outside the city though–Fayetteville, Caz, Skaneateles.

    I always thought of Say Yes as a “come home to the city” plan for the low/middle income families living in the County–folks that I’ve always referred to as The Lost Tribes Of Syracuse. But you’re right–it was never explicitly marketed as such. Even folks in the city refer to it as mainly a city entitlement program. But the sub-text is all about luring folks back to the city–folks with jobs and a demonstrated and active interest in their children’s education. More tax dollars, more active PTA’ers.

    Can we all come up with a handy term for those “who hang out on comment boards?” H.L. Mencken called them the “booboisee “

  5. Ellen

    Lost Tribes of Syracuse! Useful term. I think I must come from that stock…

    As for Fairmount: George Geddes, though a country gentleman, was an urbanist — though “not as we know it, Jim”. As today’s urbanists gaze outward at the suburbs and have big ideas about how suburbs should be (if they are even allowed to exist any more, which most urbanists don’t think they should), some of yesterday’s gentleman farmers gazed inward at the new cities and had big ideas about how they should be developed – but they were ideas framed by 19th-century concerns which are no longer valid to 21st-century minds.

    Of course, some of these big ideas were bad ideas and recognized as such even back then. If there had been a “b4 Syracuse B4” blog, it would have been all over these grandiose plans to nowhere – like George Geddes’ own plank roads scheme, which was probably Onondaga County’s very first boondoggle.

    There may well be material for a whole raft of book chapters on this stuff…

  6. Lisa

    Interesting, but only one story. Migration did not just occur from the city out to the suburbs, i.e., within the metro. People moved out of the city to other growing metros (economies were expanding beyond those city boundaries that could no longer grow as they should have) and moved from other areas into the metro, like my father who moved from rural PA to Syracuse to work at Solvay Process. At the time housing was very tight and my parents had to look to the fringes. Cars and numerous government policies enabled this, rightly so, because housing was tight. Plus, my rural parents were not real keen on diversity, another plus for living on the fringe. Hindsight is 20/20, city boundaries needed to expand to accept the growing economy and population influx, government policies needed to stop enabling populations to segregate (politically and otherwise) and move to the fringes when population was no longer growing, black people needed to be given a prayer of success, which they were denied, and for which we are now paying dearly for with an overbloated health care system, not to mention the ensuing environmental degradation, i.e., Onondaga Lake. The face that we’re having this discussion at all, that is revenue sharing, is the result of really, really, really bad Federal and State policies and the car which totally blew out any notion of scale.

  7. kate

    My family is of “the lost tribes of Syracuse” (love that term). We lived in a flat on the near West side– Herkimer St. actually. The noise, the muffler-less racing cars down the street (these were actual souped up cars from a neighbor up the street)– next to Porter School no less — it was nuisance (dangerous) and of course, the frequent reports of violence. Our neighbors were selling crack or at least smoking it 5 feet from my child’s open window on summer nights. We would see the vials in the morning. Oh, and the randum junkie wandering Burnet Park panhandling pretty much was a major buzzkill for a nice morning walk at the city park.

    We also moved for a better school district. I have no doubt the city school teachers work very hard but my son’s kindergarten class were treated like convicts at lunchtime. When we arrived at his new school district he was woefully behind in his first grade class. Not only was he already expected to know how to read– rather than be “ready to learn t0 read” but there were other skills that he was never introduced.

    Our decisions actually had nothing to do with diversity or minorities. In fact, we were very happy to decide on a home in a neighborhood in Liverpool that is very diverse.

    If Syracuse would like to increase it’s city population, my suggestions are to decrease violent crime, address domestic crime issues appropriately, address nuisance problems, and improve their physical and academic structure in their schools.

    I would really like to live in the city, I lived there as a child in Strathmore and as a teen in Eastwood. I graduated from Henninger. I lived in Bellevue area as a college student. The school systems stopped me. Also, the city isn’t what it used to be. As a young girl I used to enjoy Saturdays taking the bus to downtown, shopping at the dept. stores, the Economy bookstore, lunching at Dey Brothers. Downtown is pretty dull despite the Armory development. Nothing is connected efficiently. The stadium is by the Gulag mall. The transportation center– that should have been more central. There is no mass transit connection from the airport to the transportation center or the city. It’s just easier to negotiate all these places with a private vehicle from the suburbs using the highway system than trying to do this from a residence in the city where I have a higher risk of my car getting broken into and stolen (my mother’s car was stolen when she stayed with us on Herkimer St.) Parking can be problematic downtown, unnecessarily so. This would not be a problem if there were more options on mass transit, but there is not. There is no alternative urban supermarket in the major neighborhoods along the line of Nichols in Liverpool (with the exception of the Real Food Coop in Westcott).

    Compared to downtown Nashville (Davidson County has about the same population as Onondaga County), we could do much better. My opinion is that the city planners were inept over the past 40 years.

  8. sean

    beautiful piece. i think one of the things you’ve always nailed is that it isn’t really the wonders of city living … it’s the wonders of neighborhood living. and that can happen in eastwood, or elmwood, or fairmount, or westvale … when it’s lost is more a matter of design (physical or philosophical) than of city-suburban rivalry, or municipality.

    i also think you’re dead-on about suburban movement. in syracuse, for instance, one of the early waves consisted of italian-americans from the north side shifting out to liverpool, salina, north syracuse and eventually cicero and clay. from the stories i’ve been told, some of that consisted of servicemen’s families after world war II, folks who wanted to stay in the city and had literally no room, this ‘birthing’ what we know as mattydale; and some of it consisted of folks just eager for space after generations of living on top of their neighbors. was race – and thus the schools – sometimes a factor throughout the city? of course. but to blindly judge is foolish and simply wrong.

    the goal, it seems to me, is not to dream about reverting to something unattainable. the goal is community, for which you serve as an oracle.


  9. Rich Finzer


    Intesting post. After WWII, when the GI’s all started families, they wanted a new home as well. Post-war, there was a serious housing shortage that the cities couldn’t address. The suburbs were the logical solution to this.

    As far as Syracuse’s decling population goes, there are numerous reasons. High state taxes drove mfg out of the entire NE, and most Co’s moved South, not to China. Many of the remaining factories moved out of the city to be closer to their workers, take advantage to tax incentives, and get away from crime. As I have posted to Sean’s column on many occasions, only mfg, process, mining, and agriculture produce wealth through “added value”. “Eds and meds” cannot do this.

    It is now quite possible for a person to be born, grow up, earn a college degree, find a job, shop, get married, buy a house and never have to set foot in Syracuse. The city has become like the hole in a doughnut; just airspace with no substance.

    Additionally, a professionally trained young doctor, lawyer, accountant, can practice their profession in places where the tax/regulatory burden is much less onerous than in NY/Syracuse. IMHO, they’d be crazy to endure living in Syracuse when warmer, more tax friendly venues await. Keep in mind that there is nothing particularly noble about paying high taxes.

    Another issue is violent crime. Recall if you can the last stabbing/shooting in Lafayette, Cazenovia, Pompey, or Marcellus? Now, when was the last shooting/stabbing in Syracuse? How many days ago? Who was involved and what was the cause; a bad “look”, money, drugs, gang turf war, or just old-fashioned random violence for its own sake?

    According to the last figures released by the Census Bureau (1997-2006), NY lead the nation in population loss, almost 2 million. People are voting with their feet!

    Syracuse has an entitlement attitude relative to tax revenue. I’ll wager most of the sales taxes generated in Onon Co. are generated in the suburbs. Yet Syracuse, which continues to view itself as the center of the known universe, seems to think it “deserves” a certain slice of the sales tax pie.

    Lastly is the state of the city schools. Graduation rate below 50% and declining. This despite the fact that the city spends more per pupil than many of the suburban towns and still can’t seem to get the job done. Why would anyone subject their child to that environment when a better, less expensive education awaits them in the suburbs?

    Like most othe upstate/NE cities, Syracuse will continue to spiral downward. And a tidal wave of generational migration is about to begin. Over the next 5-10 years the boomers are all going to retire. They’ll be moving to tax friendly states like TN, DE, NH, FL, or the Carolinas.
    NY has overtaxed and over-regulated itself into a position of irrelevance. After the 2010 census #’s are complied, we’ll lose 2 more seats in Congress and our ability to influennce national policy will decline as well. To paraphrase the great sage, Yogi Berra; “If people don’t want to move back into the city, nobody is going to stop them.”

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