Category Archives: Uncategorized

Thursday, July 9 update: The Teenage Terror

Onondaga County update: Today felt like a bit of a turning point. Or more accurately, over the last three days it’s become impossible to deny that — regardless of what the national COVID watchers say — this is our “second wave” beginning. Right now.

Local news outlets were making stories out of this one tweet by the CE within 30 minutes of its posting. Less than 48 hours later came this yikes-inducing story of community spread at a daycare, followed by the unwelcome news that the virus has at last infiltrated the Onondaga Nation, have just added to the sense of alert. Then there are increasing stories of local nastiness and rants by the anti-mask crowd, things you think shouldn’t be happening here. (This incident involving two young employees being verbally abused at an ice cream stand has been getting a lot of press.)

We have a right to be annoyed at the rest of the U.S., who are tied to us like a ball and chain and whose local leaders apparently did nothing to learn from New York’s experiences. I find myself getting my hackles raised whenever some expert talks about how bad “the United States” is doing — because we haven’t done badly. But who was even watching? (Maybe we upstate should just embrace invisibility as our superpower…)

Community spread driven by young people is happening. Although the details weren’t reported to him directly by the health department, the CE acknowledged that he had background knowledge of “a party of high school students from multiple districts” — which could only mean Westhill and West Genesee, my neck of the woods also — that probably exposed up to 40 people and their families. (Wow, I really feel like going back to Fairmount Wegmans now…)

The new mobile testing strategy will fan out to area school districts in an attempt to get parents to bring their kids in for testing proactively. That’s the carrot. The stick is that McMahon has threatened to go all Rockland County on the ass of anyone who intentionally lies or refuses to cooperate with contact tracers. Or more specifically, their parents (fines for parents having worked in Rockland).

We can’t afford to be in denial about what’s going on, so I’m glad to see the alarms sounded by the media and by the CE. However, the uncomfortable thing that’s also happening this week is the reopening of DestiNY USA. Which was supposed to be a triumphant fulfilment of Phase 4… but increasingly is making me, and probably a lot of other people, very queasy. So far CNY has been lucky to not have local leaders suffering from cognitive dissonance. The alarm on COVID was sounded early and well. But you couldn’t pay me to go into DestiNY on a good day, and certainly not now. I don’t want to be anywhere near teenagers right now. (I’m only partly joking when I wonder if a good use for the State Fairgrounds would be to put on a big seven-week music festival that only teens could attend, which would last several weeks, and where they would be locked into the grounds until late August, when they could go off and be locked into their dorms.)

I know, it’s crazy to think that every young person is irresponsible. But I say this as someone who works at a medical college where today I saw a student, or perhaps a resident, lounging around in a hallway with people walking by, with his mask around his chin. Great. Then there was the teenage delivery boy who brought my mom her Instacart groceries — no mask whatsoever (fortunately, she had hers).

If there was any good news to the day, it was that the county’s 51 hospitalizations are demonstrably once again a distorted number. More than half of this number consists of asymptomatic or lightly ill nursing home residents and memory care patients — all from institutions overseen by the state — transferred to hospitals out of excess of caution. The other half, around 25 people, are genuinely ill with COVID. For the first time since April, we had a week with zero deaths.

But it isn’t a good sign when there’s a new sign-off to the daily briefing: “We need your help.” Don’t trust anyone under 30?

Saturday, June 13: Peace and power

This post is a response, and hopefully a small amplification, of an important message articulated at In The Salt City: Stop worrying about the wrong things, and quit asking if the protests in Syracuse are peaceful.

Asking that question puts the burden on the protesters. It allows people to think of themselves as outside observers and to pass judgment on the protests based on how the protesters act. It puts the protests themselves on trial, and once they have been judged—peaceful, legal, good or violent, illegal, bad—then the neutral observer moves on, having made their decision, without ever actually addressing the content of the protests.

“Peaceful,” of course, is a shorthand for “no white people or property were harmed or threatened in the making of this spectacle.” Not to ignore the fact that minority-owned businesses are often the first to be damaged in riots because of their physical proximity to where riots tend to begin, but this is the heart of the matter.

I’d like to return briefly to the evening of Saturday, May 30, the day that large-scale protesting began in the Syracuse area and in many other cities in Syracuse’s population tier. Because this was the only “occurrence” that was deemed “not peaceful” and the only one that spilled out of the city (“neighborhoods of the black people”) and into the suburbs (“domain of the white people”). And because, for a short while at least, a large, spontaneous march of very impassioned people was headed my way.

I’m old enough to remember the LA riots and how they seemed to just “begin” magically after the Rodney King verdict was announced. Fortunately at the time I understood that there were huge forces impacting humans in L.A., forces that I didn’t really understand. I was a (distant) bystander, but, as one is told by scientists that a large fault line has moved under the sea unseen by you and you can reliably expect a tsunami, I saw that this tsunami was moving through communities in L.A. and carrying many people before it. The shock of the earthquake (the verdict) was so much that few could withstand it or resist this force. It was too late to prevent major violence. The only question was how long it would go on before individuals, and then institutions, had the strength to channel the flow of the earthquake’s power. (The analogy breaks down, of course, because injustice is not a natural event like a fault slip, but a pattern of decisions that humans choose to make.)

Like many interested county residents on May 30, I was following the protests on social media in semi-real-time courtesy of the local news reporters with Twitter accounts. One tweet advised people to tune in to the Facebook stream of Sakia Daye, who was driving along with the marchers. She said, along with other powerful remarks, “We’re going out to Camillus — where the police lay their heads at night.”

This meant the marchers were headed my way — Fairmount! I was not about to sit at home while the most significant march in Syracuse, in my lifetime, was on the move. I threw my clothes on and quickly drove down to West Genesee Street. When might the tsunami be expected to arrive? What would happen when it got here? What would hundreds of passionate people do when they arrived at the vast expanse of pavement that marks Fairmount’s eastern border? Would it be just loud, or something else? Would it be prudent for me to be in a position to flee, or would I be near enough to offer them the water bottles in my car? I scanned social media for clues. They were estimated to be minutes from Solvay. And although I had taken a different route and hadn’t observed this, the Camillus police were scared and were now guarding the mall, just down the road from where I was stationed.

My reaction to the coming march was maybe colored by the fact that I am an amateur historian and that I tend to view everything in a vast context of everything that ever happened in my area — not a really human way to see things, I suppose. Would Fairmount Fair be looted? Write that down in the annals. But even in that detached context, there was no question that power really was on the move that night and that any fear of that power had to be swallowed. There was a not insignificant chance that violence might happen. I knew it, the Camillus cops knew it, the laws of human physics were plain. Yet as an amateur historian I also knew that every specific place has a specific black history; very often, a silent history of individuals, or the history of things that weren’t permitted to happen. Fairmount’s black history seemed about to surface in a major way. To not be at least present, as a historian and as a human, seemed a dereliction of duty.

But the marchers didn’t come. They stopped in Solvay, and then went back to Syracuse, and most of them went home. I went home too. The rest of the night’s story everyone knows — except the one act of destruction that happened that night outside of the city limits. At around 3 a.m., a small group of people went to the Target at Fairmount Fair, smashed a plate glass window and stole some electronics. I’m not knowledgeable about the police investigation, so I have no idea if the thieves were black, brown, white, associated with the city marchers or just some local copycats. But it seems to me that this was a very important window. It possibly was the “high water mark” of the night’s tsunami. (This fact will at least be recorded in the annals as the most important broken window in Fairmount history; and I would argue one of the key broken windows in Onondaga County history as well.)

More to the point of what In the Salt City has stated: We ought to be more concerned about whether a march is powerful or not. Peace by itself is nothing. I was happy to stand with my fellow Camillus and Fairmount citizens in a “peaceful demonstration” a week later; while it was important, there was no power in it, it just gave an appropriate assent to the power in the hands of the citizens marching downtown. While standing alongside the main street of Fairmount, we got many supportive car honks, but every few minutes some men headed out to Camillus would angrily rev their SUV or truck engines and speed dangerously past us in disgust. (One woman, also headed westward toward the exurban regions, riding in her car with several children, drove by slowly and gave us the finger.)

The paradox is that power implies force. The forces unleashed by injustice are blind and can be terrible. But without acknowledgement of the presence of that force in times of injustice, one is marching behind a kitten on a string, not a lion on a leash. As students of organizing know, “Power is not only what you have, but what the [opposition] thinks you have.”

We live in a time when everyone is forced to admit that day and night occur in a particular sequence over which we have no influence. We have had to admit that we are not special and that history is not at an end. We have learned that when you unwisely order your economy and investment in public health, deadly viruses will finally have a field day. We’ve learned (again) that systemic racism left unchecked in our institutions will indeed explode. (We seem to not have learned that when powerful nations stockpile weapons, repress their own citizens, engage in belligerent nationalistic posturing and move their armies into strategic positions, then global conflict will erupt, but we’ll re-learn that again soon, I’m afraid.)

There is really nothing for our community here in Fairmount, which is so physically near to the city limits, to do in these times but to make the road free of obstructions and lie as still as we are able. The “peace” that people demand is incumbent upon us at this moment in time. (And, in the big picture of hundreds of years of racially motivated violence of the strong over the weak, a single broken window of a corporate-owned behemoth does not even rise to the level of an accidental bloody nose.)

Wednesday, June 3: Home fires

Much like our politicians, Facebook is evil; but, in the same way that everyone’s local politicians are not quite so horrible (not like in those other places), the places we hang out on Facebook are mostly just fine. Local history Facebook groups are usually a cut above the community groups (where “What are all those sirens?” and “Watch out for the Verizon FIOS people knocking on everyone’s doors” are standards) and, if well moderated, can actually control the repetitive posts about “Remember Captain Kangaroo?”

I’m co-moderator of the awkwardly named Fairmount History and Surrounding Areas, where it is implicitly understood that “The Magic Toyshop” is off topic. It has taken some years to develop the group into a place where memories of sliding downhill behind the mall on naked store mannequins can live naturally side by side with seriously arcane stuff about the 1790’s. Fortunately the co-moderators are of a like mind, and I, personally, think they have made it the best local nostalgia group on Facebook.

Last Saturday, Syracuse’s first spontaneously assembled crowd of demonstrators decided to leave downtown by foot and by car, and for reasons unknown, chose to head out toward Camillus. The word was that they wanted to go somewhere where the cops actually lived. (I’m not aware of there being a high concentration of Syracuse cops in the town, but who am I to argue.) I later found out that I was not the only local resident who rushed down to West Genesee Street to wait for their arrival at Fairmount and witness or perhaps even follow. (I was impressed and a little concerned that kids were also walking with the crowd all that way.)

However, nobody came. History did not come marching by. It turns out that they stopped in Solvay instead and assembled there, and while things were raucous and a little tense, no serious incidents occurred. The marchers went back to Syracuse and mostly went home peacefully, and the rest (the window smashing and tear gas) came later.

The next morning, we woke up to the unwelcome news that — despite it being surrounded by Camillus cops throughout the early evening — a small group of unknown people had snuck over to Fairmount Fair at 3 a.m., smashed a single plate glass door at the Target, and made off with a couple of TVs. Whoever they were, they were probably disappointed that nobody was there to watch them being unimaginative copycats.

However, as Sunday night wore on, the spirit of protest metamorphosed into its current form (tonight is the fifth night of marching). The marchers have vowed to keep perambulating through Syracuse for forty days and forty nights. It seems that eventually they will probably take their message outside of the city and go into the suburbs. It is disappointing to think that, perhaps because of the Target incident, they might not want to come back this way (or that others might dissuade them).

Nevertheless, we still have time to get ready.

I’m hopeful that this time things are different, but all too often, racial justice protests have grown a peach fuzz of “kumbaya” that feels good in the moment in a very nonspecific way. Marchers take their city back — for a while — but when the cameras go away, the fellow-travelers do too. It would be very easy to head downtown and join Saturday’s big demonstration. It’s only 20 minutes away. But I’m going to say that what those of us in the suburbs really ought to be doing is staying home and talking about real, specific things about their own communities — and talking to other privileged people — in preparation for when the march actually gets to where you actually are.

While I’m glad that recently removed their toxic comments sections, in some ways that couldn’t have come at a worse time. The conversations we have to have now are going to be uncomfortable and any toxins must come to the surface. Otherwise, things aren’t going to move forward. We won’t be able to get our experiences to link up. No ground will be gained. Without a comments section, and with no local forums, we don’t have a place to talk. And local journalists, as good as they are, often do not know what we, the commentariat, know about our own communities and their pasts.

One of the reasons I have no ambitions to write a history of anything local is probably that I have too much worry about creating an “Our Wonderful Town” self-published pamphlet that 75 years from now will smell just like a stale church basement. In my newspaper travels through the early 20th century, I would read about “minstrel shows” in Fairmount and other localities put on as church benefits, and try to convince myself that they weren’t that kind of minstrel show. This stopped when last year I got definitive proof that, yeah, they were that kind of show — when a fellow local enthusiast sent me an obscure history of the Fairmount schools and, yup, there it was. The shows were real, they took place in the 1940s or perhaps even later, and kids were involved. Wearing blackface and more.

I had intended to post this on our group, but hesitated, as the time never seemed to be right. We have some very old-timers on our group, who might have even participated in these shows, and I wondered how they would react. And Fairmount has other, very current problematic optics that have slid under the newspapers’ radar — such as an Indian mascot that is so prominent that it almost hides in plain sight, and is a head-scratcher on several levels. In truth, I wanted to hold on to the minstrel-show information until I could get a better handle on why the Indian mascot even exists, as they seemed somehow both of a certain time of origin. I want to learn about the specifics. I want to ask more questions before attempting to write anything, so that my aim was true.

But you can’t do that with important information. You really can’t pick and choose and strategize about when to discuss it. And in the absence of a neighborhood newspaper, we’re very lucky that we have the kind of local history discussion group where we are accustomed to read about wide-ranging subjects.

This is the moment to go ahead and begin the work that all the local communities are going to have to do, using whatever tools and forums we have. So, now we are beginning to have a discussion about those shows — and, as expected, memories of even more recent vintage are being dislodged concerning racial bias incidents in Fairmount. It has been a calm discussion so far. As certain topics are uncovered, it may grow more heated.

The road to change goes past your own house. In my opinion, if you want to support the marchers, get the rocks out of the road.

Friday, May 8: Borders and bonds

The Post-Standard is focusing on the Green Empire Farms coronavirus outbreak today, and examines just who was working at the exceedingly spacious Canadian-owned plant, and where they came from. Although the company employs many local Central New Yorkers who make $13 an hour, more than half are migrant workers under contract from MAC, an Indiana firm. These are the ones who were living allegedly four to a room in area motels, an arrangement made by the labor contracting firm, who takes money out of their paychecks to pay for the housing.

Cris Schultz, a MAC employee in Indiana, disputed the county’s account in an interview Thursday with She said the workers never stayed more than three to a room. She said the workers pay for some of the housing out of their paychecks, but she would not say how much. She disputed that the workers’ living arrangements made them ill… She declined to say how MAC helped the workers follow social distancing when they were on the buses or at the hotels. County officials said that, after prodding, MAC spaced the workers out on the buses and vans and began wiping down the vehicles several times a day. Schultz would not say how many workers were sick with symptoms from the virus. At one point in she said “enough” were sick; then she said none were ill. County officials said two of the workers are hospitalized. “I am worried about them, their health,” Schultz said. Then she hung up.

As reported elsewhere, the usual ugly grumblings about “illegals” have cropped up, despite these migrant workers being (probably) documented. At least local officials have gotten out in front of this talk. In other parts of the state, it’s like there isn’t even a pandemic going on and it’s just business as usual for the same old MAGA wankery. Here’s a screenshot of the Lockport paper’s website this morning. Clearly they believe their readers, cooped up and out of work, are desperately concerned with far more pressing matters.

But back to Green Empire Farms. The problem really isn’t the migrant workers — who fill a critical space that most American workers won’t enter — but the foreigners that Central New York is actually doing business with. We have a Canadian company contracting with an Indiana firm to bring these workers in. While being Canadian doesn’t automatically make a business pure of heart and motive, it’s a lot easier to suspect what Indiana business values might be. Governor Cuomo and the other Northeastern governors recently made a pact to do business with each other in the PPE trade. Why then are we bringing in potentially labor-abusive firms from deep red states to do business in Central New York? There’s a very real possibility that their red-state values have had a negative impact on our region’s public health (and our business, since we’re currently struggling to meet metrics in order to reopen).

As a local Republican maxim says, “It’s easier to regulate businesses than people.” (I will never let go of that quote, sorry.) This is why no local leader (that I know of) has shown much of a stomach for siccing the police dogs on anyone not wearing a mask (well, maybe that’s just an upstate thing). Part of the local plan for restarting has to do with making sure local businesses absolutely comply with measures designed to protect public health. The Green Empire Farms situation plainly shows that who you do business with, matters. And foreign businesses (including from foreign states) that don’t conform to regional values should be made to conform, or else run out of town on a rail.

One of the revelatory aspects of the COVID crisis has been how problematic our national and internal borders are when it comes to preventing the spread of disease, and also laying down policies to restart local and state economies. National borders can be quickly shut, causing problems; state borders are weak and porous, also causing problems. The North Country and Western NY are feeling the pinch of less cross-border commerce, while the Southern Tier is nervously watching what Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier counties are doing, having no control over what local PA officials allow and having no power to shut the state border. (And of course, New York City is a gateway to the world, which was the unavoidable source of all our trouble.)

Central New York, however, is in a unique position in this oddly shaped state. With neither international nor state borders to worry about, in a time of near-complete national economic shutdown, it is well placed (literally) among the state’s regions to lay the groundwork for its economy in a more controlled, locally decided fashion. (This is also true of other similarly situated regions such as the Mohawk Valley or parts of the Finger Lakes or so-called Southern Tier ESDC regions.)

That groundwork ought to include a committed rethinking of what sort of community, business and human bonds that we value, and that we want to emphasize as we search for our own recovery. We can and should begin wherever the opportunities present themselves. The future is now.

Sunday, May 3: E pluribus

After a rocky start — and perhaps because they have no choice — there are at least now stabs of cooperation among our extended New York State family. It’s still unclear how any of this makes for a rethought post-pandemic food distribution system, but downstate politicians are now realizing that upstate people can be a valuable asset in a crisis.

“We cannot have hungry families in New York City, and farmers upstate dumping their product because they cannot sell it,” [Queens State Sen. Jessica] Ramos said. “Together with our farmer partners, we created our own network, and we will convert our district office into a food distribution hub to provide our neighbors with fresh produce and meals.”  Ramos, who chairs the Senate Labor Committee and led the effort last year to pass legislation granting farmworkers overtime pay and other labor rights, visited upstate farms to gather feedback on the bill. Torrey Farms, one of the farms that donated food to the senator’s office, mentioned that donations included onions planted by Ramos when she toured the farm last year. 

This relationship didn’t just happen yesterday, as the article notes, and the effort has an impressive reach, from Queens to the Hudson Valley to Western New York. We’re pretty good at producing stuff that people can eat right away with minimal processing: in the top 10 nationally for dairy, apples, onions, potatoes, strawberries, cherries, cabbage, sweet corn, tomatoes, grapes and maple syrup. (By the way, “victory cheese” is now a thing.)

Ironically, as the initial shock of the pandemic wears off and New Yorkers are moving to find their own short-term solutions to the crisis, one has the growing sense that old relationships that were assumed to be there are in fact not really there, or may be negotiable.

Every single issue that matters to New York today has almost nothing to do with Republican or Democratic party lines, whether it is food security, public health, or decimated budgets. Like a stream finding its own course, the flow of public action throughout the state no longer runs between the same old rocks. Albany has seemed unable to keep up with events, and there may be other local political cultures that are unable to adapt. Local political structures that invested heavily in mastering the old statewide and national games may be increasingly left behind as they wait for things to “get back to normal.”

And the response of various Upstate local governments has been surprisingly varied. Central New York leaders reached out to each other right away, without waiting for instructions from Cuomo. Many years ago when I had a healthy “Upstate blogroll,” I tried to search out fellow bloggers from all over. I always wondered why it was so bloody hard to find Buffalo bloggers who were interested in talking to people from other parts of the state. The blogs were out there, but it was clear that the Buffalo bloggers were very engaged with their own territory, their own polarized city and county politics, and national politics as well. Now when the “What is Upstate?” question has not only become fashionable again, but a vital issue of emergency governance, you find out that many people in Buffalo actually believe that they are not part of “Upstate” at all, that there is something somehow besides “Upstate” that is “Western New York,” its own special animal that apparently exists outside of the whole up/down continuum.

It’s struck me that perhaps “Upstate New York” deserves independence from the Buffalo area as well, which is a whole new paradigm of state political triangulation. While the New York Times looks abroad to wonder why some regions across the world have mysteriously done better with the pandemic than others, I have yet to see any stories on the mystery of why the Buffalo area has done so poorly in this pandemic relative to other Upstate cities. If we are all under the Upstate New York sun, this is relevant, and we need to know why. Is it just simply a matter of scale? Are there special demographic factors unlike those in Rochester or Syracuse? Unique issues relating to city and intra-regional governance? Something about the political makeup of the Buffalo area that makes people social distance less? Or has Buffalo just had bad luck and bad timing beyond its control?

Probably when all is said and done, New York’s ESDC regions will slide back into irrelevance, but it sure is refreshing to be “Central” New York for a while instead of “Upstate.” It’s been great to be reminded that Ulster and Dutchess counties are distinct from Rockland and Westchester, a fine point that often escapes people up here. Although this may slip away too, it’s good to have recognized — and, through the ESDC designations, now have a language to express — that we are not all the same. (Our county executive now throws the words “in Central” and “in Mohawk” around regularly.) Ex uno, pluria. My point ultimately being that you cannot have a true “unum” unless you actually have a true “pluribus.”