Category Archives: Featured

FailFaire CNY

I think Central New York needs one of these maybe more than it needs Forty Below, Biz Buzz or other such gatherings!


FAILFaire features projects using mobiles and ICTs in international development that have, to put it simply, been a #FAIL. Busted, kaputt. Tongue firmly in cheek, we take a close look at what didn’t work and why the projects failed amidst the ICT4D hype we all are subjected to (and sometimes contributors to). We believe that only if we understand what DOESN’T WORK in this field and stop pushing our failures under the rug, can we collectively learn and get better, more effective, and have greater impact as we go forward.

See more at this NYT article about the most recent FailFest.

Instead of technology failures, FailFaire CNY could be an honest, open hashing-out of failed local initiatives and redevelopment schemes. (I suppose in order to avoid hurt feelings, there would have to be a moratorium on discussing any projects that failed less than ten years ago.) Syracuse B4 could be our keynote speaker!

Seriously, I’m not just trying to be snarky. Why should these discussions just be kept on the blogs?

The nations of CNY

I never thought I’d see the day when major media outlets like CBS News were writing about the Haudenosaunee and talking about sovereignty issues, but I guess that day is finally here. Because these issues are bigger than all of us, it seemed futile to try and write about them while the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team passport issue was in the news last week. (I hope everyone has taken time to read the Sports Illustrated story about the team that was published in the most recent issue.) It was also a little surreal to search on the word “Iroquois” on Twitter and see dozens of tweets a minute about the U.S., the U.K. and Haudenosaunee passports. I’m not sure the Internet peanut gallery really grasped the gravity of the issues over passports and sovereignty, but the response seemed mostly outraged… possibly because we just got done with a World Cup that was triumphantly played out in Africa for the first time; and sports and post-colonial national identity were maybe still entwined in the back of people’s minds.

Now that this difficult week for the team has come to a conclusion (the team arrived back in Syracuse today), hopefully we here in Central New York can also “come home” to this issue as it pertains to us. The national media will quickly lose interest in the subject, leaving us to confront something that was always on our doorsteps, whether we wanted to think about it consciously or not. What does “nationhood” mean? Can you overlay nations on top of each other, like you can overlay area codes? Is it possible that the official, black-and-white, cut-and-dried American motto “Out of many, one” is actually “Out of many… still several?”

I don’t know how to tackle these weighty questions (and neither, I suspect, will the national media), so I will address the most pressing issue for us here locally: What would it mean to live in a New York that is also Iroquoia? Or an Onondaga County that is also a territory called “Onondaga”? What does it mean to grow up in, and live in, a Syracuse that is next to and part of a sovereign nation? All just people living here, but not the same people. All in the same boat, but not.

At this point, you come up against the first mental barrier. Either you accept there is (or even just may possibly be) a sovereign nation besides the U.S. here, or you don’t. Either you can look at it a different way than the history books may say – or you cannot, or do not. So the following isn’t meant to argue for Haudenosaunee sovereignty… just to describe what it’s like for those of us who are at least endeavoring to get our minds around it.

Sovereignty is kind of strange to contemplate anyway. No one extends this status to any group of people, although some nation-states or international organizations pretend that they do or don’t. What is clear that sovereignty, once acknowledged by a people themselves, has to be continually defended. (As Benjamin Franklin might have said to his own people, “A Republic… if you can keep it.“) I won’t go into the history of different kinds of measures the Haudenosaunee have taken to defend sovereignty over the years, except to mention some times and places that should be already known to informed Central New Yorkers — Route 81 in 1971, the Kinzua Dam, Ganienkeh, Oka, and of course the passports that are now world-famous.

To imagine a reality different than the one given in our own history books almost feels like science fiction. It’s funny, because I watch a current TV show that deals with two alternate universes that occupy the same ground — and when I think about it, it’s kind of a helpful metaphor. The two universes don’t just quietly exist separately in separate realities; they share a history. One fateful day, a door was opened between the two, and relations didn’t start off on the right foot; someone from one side stole something precious from the other side, not understanding the implications of what they were doing and the huge disruptions it would cause. On the show, the two worlds are currently readying for war on one another. But the situation is complicated. It turns out that some characters can come and go freely between worlds, and feel some degree of allegiance to both. There are also places where the boundary between universes is particularly thin because of events that happened in the past; and there, confusing things happen that defy the laws of physics. “Reality” is not an either-or thing any more, but encompasses both sets of realities.

Now that I’ve lost 9 out of the 10 people reading this far… let’s return to the real world, or at least, the slightly unreal world that is upstate New York, where real people deal with confusing issues every day. I can only say that I find it easier to explain a convoluted science-fiction TV show, than I find it to explain the twists and turns of Haudenosaunee/New York relations to someone who isn’t from around here. What is the deal with all those weird lawn signs in Cayuga County? Why is the gas at some stations in Oneida County so cheap? Strange phenomena also continue to manifest right here in Syracuse, such as wildly painted billboards along the interstate, and historical markers that are periodically blocked by posters, or disappear altogether without explanation (the corner of Erie and Oswego Boulevards being a particular nexus for such weirdness lately.)

Maybe the best way to characterize it is that we are living in a “thin spot” that defies history-book reality, even as some of us feel or insist that it does not, or should not. It seems that only one nation can occupy a space, but it also seems there might be two nations here anyway. It seems fantastical, but — depending on your vision, experience, knowledge, and perspective — it also seems as if it might be so.

The author of the 1892 U.S. Census Report, The Six Nations of New York, briefly entertained some of the same thoughts, treating the idea of “a nation within a nation” as a then-current issue to be examined rather than peremptorily swept away. It’s pretty amazing that the even the theoretical consideration of two nations in one land made it into an official U.S. document over a century ago, but even more so that the situation described by the report — “too many partial and conflicting laws are nominally in force, but without coherence and general application” — still exists. Clearly, the Haudenosaunee have been somewhat successfully asserting their sovereignty in the interim, and various other overlaid governments and municipalities have been asserting theirs right back. The author of the Census report, back in 1892, recommended “a higher and equally consistent principle of international law” as the “wholesome remedy” to any such confusion (albeit, with an eye toward making the Indian more like the white man), and were reluctant to recommend imposing U.S. citizenship in any case. Oddly enough, that’s still the issue today with those Haudenosaunee passports. (If the Haudenosaunee and other indigenous nations were recognized by the United Nations, as they have been long expecting, maybe they would have allowed to join in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and would have been able to more speedily update their passports to comply with these regulations.)

But here in Central New York and in other parts of the state, we are left to grapple with the implications of more than one nation. We might not just “live next to” each other; we might occupy the same place. We might be more than just neighbors; we might be enemies, or allies. We might not be the same people (and this idea may be very hard for melting-pot Americans to accept), although the same place may have a personal claim on us. (And who are “we” anyway? Who in Washington, in an age of eroding personal rights and Kelo v. New London, defends our sovereignty anyhow? Are we even considered full citizens of our own nation, or do corporations have those rights instead?)

Once you have considered and accepted an alternate view of the Six Nations’ status, you are left only with more questions. These are not new questions. A long time ago, the Dutch and the Mohawks tried to figure out what to do about them. The Mohawks came up with an agreement that is known today as the Two Row Wampum, whose concepts of how two nations ought to relate to one another became the basis for all subsequent agreements between various peoples living together in this “thin spot” known as upstate New York. Including these same British who just refused to recognize Haudenosaunee passports. (The Two Row Wampum was last used as a basis for agreement a few years ago when the Lafayette School District had to decide what to do about Onondaga students’ request to wear regalia at graduation.)

Because we live in a special place, we here in Central New York have to live and work with the fact (or contention, as others say), of another nation’s sovereign existence. So in the end, it doesn’t matter what someone in Britain, or even Washington, says about Haudenosaunee passports. Those of us here in Central New York have to chart our own course about this, by our own lights. And we have been, in ways that may seem strange to non-CNY’ers. The purple flag of the Iroquois League flies over the city square. Native students wear their regalia. Our elected representatives speak on behalf of people who will never vote for them. None of this came about because of a master political plan. It came about because we are making decisions based on our lived experiences confronting “alternate reality” every day.

To those Central New Yorkers who see it this way, it’s very confusing, and sometimes frightening, and very different. But it could be that this is the sort of difference that eventually sets people apart, and makes them a nation… however small.

Lake stinks less

“Places consist of everything that has ever happened in them. And to feel good in those places is to feel the reality of those things.” — Adam Nicolson

Sean Kirst brings up the Onondaga Lake aroma in a blog post related to his interview of Upstate Freshwater Institute’s Steve Leffler. Being from the 690 side of the lake, I can report that the smell we got riding by was definitely not only sewage. It was a sharp, choking smell that seemed to be equal parts chemical and crap. Not quite as sulfurous as a skunk spray — and while very unpleasant, it didn’t seem noxious. In the morning, it was an excellent indicator of how hot a summer’s day was going to get. The lake always seemed to know first.

I say “was” because the lake really does stink less now. Not just physically, but morally and politically — yesterday’s announcement of a new push for local control of the lake cleanup is very welcome news, especially the detail that the Onondaga Nation gets the equal seat at the table that it deserves.

I do have to agree with Jim Walsh’s concerns about the towns around the lake — Camillus, Geddes and Salina — needing to be involved as well in some way. Some people in Camillus, who live around the portentiously named Wastebed 13, still think everything stinks. While the community outreach over the Onondaga land rights action has been heartening to see since 2005, I sometimes have felt that it has been very oriented toward the city of Syracuse and the University, with less emphasis on the other lakeside communities. In unraveling the past history of the lake’s pollution and bad/illegal deals made, we have to remember that the communities along the lake (which later became Solvay and Liverpool) were planted here before the city of Syracuse was even a mirage in the swamp. Just because they are now filled with short-sighted suburbanites of a particular political persuasion, doesn’t mean they’re not part of the puzzle.

(Yes, this post’s subject is a tribute to my all-time favorite newspaper headline, from the Post-Standard: Bills Stink Less.)

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.

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.