Regionalism in the Blogs

Honestly, I am a bit surprised at the ripple my comments (here and here) on Regionalism have made. I am impressed with the eloquence and thought that other bloggers have put into this issue. Among the Upstate blogs to comment on Regionalism (please tell me if I’ve missed any) are: The Buffalo Pundit, Baloghblog (Balogh has also made some great comments on my first post) and NYCO’s Blog.

NYCO's post in particular struck a chord within me. In it, she discusses a new take on York State history that can be an inspiration for all of us today. It is a take on the pre-Civil War decades that I have discussed earlier
here. NYCO writes:

“…[Upstate’s] golden age was really the couple of decades before the Civil War, when the aim here — on all sorts of levels — was to create a world that had never existed before, whether it was physically, socially or spiritually. Upstate New York stood out sharply against the dominant culture of its day 150 years ago and was twenty years ahead of everyone else. What America eventually became, as impressive as it did become, is just a pale shadow compared to what was envisioned here back then.
I say we here in upstate New York put out a call for people... who are skeptical about the 21st-century American dream and can imagine a better one; who recognize that upstate New York never was, is not, and will not be just like the rest of the country; that it is situated in a historical time zone that — in both good times and bad — is a few decades in the future from the rest of America."
These are powerful sentiments and ones that I wholeheartedly agree with. For too long, our region, and especially its press and governmental officals, have focused upon the doom and gloom of Rust Belt existence. We are caught up in complaints about taxes, the hegemony of the City, unemployment and snow. While these are all real problems, by complaining alone we accomplish nothing but perhaps making ourselves feel better about our inaction and mediocrity. What creates true change and rebirth is instead a grand vision, one both of the past and of the future.

In crafting and making real this vision, we can take our inspiration from great York Staters of the past: the eloquence of Frederick Douglass, the courage of the "caged lioness" Elizabeth Katy Stanton, the compassion for justice of Susan B. Anthony and the sacrifice of John Brown.

Simultaneously, we can draw strength from the natural splendour of our native state: the magnificent solitude of the Adirondacks, the awesome thunder Niagara Falls and the quiet way that a snowfall in your front yard can make our hectic world slow down, if only for a few hours.

While we will need to focus on the problems of the day, with unemployment, decay and youth flight featuring highly upon the list, we can use our regional pride and identity mingled with our own creativity and passion, to create a new path for American society towards a more peaceful, meaningful and sustainable way of life.

Posted by Jesse


#2 Tastes of the Region: Java Chicken

This edition of "Tastes of the Region," will not focus on one of our more popular regional foods, like Spiedies or Buffalo Wings, but instead upon a food that was once ubiquitous across New York and is today almost completely forgotten and extinct: the Java Chicken.

The Java is America's oldest native chicken breed. Coming into existence somewhere between 1835 and 1850, it is belived that the root stock came from the Far East (thus the name "Java"). It is an excellent "homesteading" bird, meaning that it is able to largely fend for itself foraging and produces both good eggs and meat. The Java were entered in the first poultry show ever in the United States in 1849 and where awarded the Standard of Perfection in 1883.

In the end, though, this versatile bird, an excellent forager, egg layer and meat producer, became victim to the effects of the industrialization of agriculture. Modern chicken farms are not looking for versatility, but hyper-efficiency in a single area. Thus most eggs today come from huge chicken farms with thousands of identical hens living in tiny cages, laying eggs until their bodies collapse. The Java has declined from being the pre-eminent bird of New York State to being sold by only three hatcheries, raised by seven backyard breeders from a stock of only around 100 breeder chickens. This breed is considered critically endangered, but there are efforts to bring them back.

But why should we concern ourselves with preserving this breed, except as something of a historical curiosity? The first reason is for genetic purposes. As livestock across the United States become increasingly genetically homogenized, they become more and more susceptible to disease and similar problems. Maintaining these "heritage" breeds, keeps genetic variation that protect vitally important food sources.

Secondly, free-range and organic food have been proven to not only be better for the environment, but also better for the health of consumers. Free-range chickens have a more varied diet and lay fewer eggs, meaning that there is a greater range and quantity of nutrients within their eggs and meat. Plus, organic chickens are free from chemicals that can hurt especially the very young and very old.

Finally, raising food locally, especially such a regionally prominent food as a Java Chicken, creates local identity. A venerable breed like the Java gives a unique flavor to our tables and a connection to centuries of history. Eating locally grown chickens keeps money in our communities and decreases the amount of gas used to transport meat and eggs from farm to table.

So the Java can help us to protect genetic diversity, protect the environment, build healthy bodies for ourselves and our families, give unique taste to our tables, build regional pride and protect local economies. The only question that remains is: how does one acquire a Java chicken?

The Java, of course, is not available in your ordinary grocery store. Chickens are available, though, through the Garfield Farm Museum in Illinois (info@garfieldfarm.org) or through the Java Club (contact Pete Malmberg at pamhlm@raccoon.com). If you are a farmer or a member of a Community Sponsored Agriculture Project, you might be able to bring commercial Javas to your local area. However, the Java can be easily kept in small numbers in your own backyard (check local ordinances). The joy of raising chickens, especially for children, does not involve a tremendous expenditure of cash and owners begin recouping their losses almost immediately. For more information about raising chickens in your backyard: check out this article on the Ten Commandments of Chicken Raising (and this continuation) from Mother Earth News, and this from the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

If you have any success in the breeding of heritage livestock from New York, of any kind, feel free to send us a post discussing your experiences and why you decided to take this path. Also, if you sell heritage livestock form NY (preferably in NY), we can put up your contact information for our readers.

"...when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another Heaven and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again."-William Beebe

Posted by Jesse


Communities, Ecology and Economic Success

Over the last few days, Baloghblog has written several great comments to my last large post (Upstate Identity and the Upstate Environment). I thought it would be worthwhile to bring these questions to the front page for discussion. The first comment was in response to a call for local answers to local problems, which would hopefully integrate ecological and economic solutions:

"My point is this: If you took a economically depressed area, such as Rome, NY after the air force base closed, and asked residents if they would support a large non-enviromentally friendly company to come in and replace the relatively high paying jobs associated with the AFB, how do you think the residents would have voted? Would they choose to protect the area for future generations and forego the business development? Or would they rather have jobs and security to protect their family's financial future?...don't underestimate "the locals" to make short term decisions that negatively affect the environment to protect their family's way of life either."

Bahloghblog then moves on to discuss the big questions:

"How do you convince people to have faith in local government again, when many feel that the leaders of the past have made decisions that have affected the state and region negatively over the past 40 years? or how do you convince others to begin participating (and voting) in local elections?

how do you convince someone that is living in the lower middle class to middle class not to purchase progressively cheaper goods from China, or abroad in order to support the local economies?

what steps can upstate New York take in order to reshape and revitalize communities, while working towards a sustainable future - in order to provide jobs and preventing "brain drain"?

how do you "brand" or make sustainability enticing to the 50-75% of the population that is struggling to make ends meet in our communities?"

And the most important question, perhaps: "How can you do it on a budget of $0.00?"

The first step, I believe, to bringing about a more sustainable, local society, is to begin questioning. Our society today is based upon drives that are anything but sustainable: consumerism, the culture of fear and dominance, the philosophy of "bigger is better," a fetish for the new and a seemingly insatiable desire for the appearence of convenience, speed and efficiency. While all of these factors have material and political sides, inevitably, they are products of our minds. They are ideas, plain and simple, and ideas, even the most powerful, can be defeated.

For me (though perhaps not for Natalie, she's got her own mind), that is one of the great purposes of this website. I want to bring forward ideas that run directly counter to those I mentioned above as an attempt to bring forward other options. Localism and the joy of idiosyncrisy stand against homogenization, a love of history and art are values that you cannot buy and are available to all and community empowerment and awareness stand directly opposite to domination, hierarchy and oppression.

Once we begin to recognize, as we are doing today, that these curses are just ideas in our heads and that there are other options, we can move onto the second stage of community revitalization: building institutions. This doesn't mean that we abandon questioning and creativity, only that they are supplemented by more obvious action. Our social institutions, like corporations, big government bureacracies, brands and logos, banks and political parties, are part and parcel to the philosophy that we reject. When profit is king, community will only be tolerated where it brings in a buck. Some of these institutions, perhaps, can be converted over to the cause, but that will only occur later. Before conversion, we must instead attempt to create new institutions. Local credit unions to replace banks, cooperatives to fill the roll of corporations, unions and community organizations to fight centralized authority. The beauty of these actions is that when they are properly planned, they not only help to make our lives more meaningful, but they also can bring us social stability lacking in modern America and ecological revitalization.

When we have a coherent ideological answer to our problems and the framework of institutions to offer as an alternative, can we begin the true struggle: for the hearts and minds of the people. Of course, public education is continuous and part of our own education, but many people will only be convinced to look outside the box when there is a viable alternative for them to look at. People will only give up on Wal-Mart and Chinese products when we can offer them a different, and more healthy and meaningful, way to live. In the end, the institutions of environmental and social destruction will wither as their true power, the faith of the people, is sapped away from them.

I know that what I write here is perhaps the most radical post I have yet written on this blog and that many people will not be willing to embrace its ideas immediately. In fact, I may be wrong about some of the particulars, though I have strong faith in this framework. I believe that the way we treat the environment is mirrored in the way we treat each other, and vice-versa. Upstate New York will have its golden age only when it recognizes this and, once again, becomes the American frontier, this time ideologically instead of geographically. The fact that we have been so poorly treated by the "powers that be" is only an asset in these conversions. Our weapon is our rust and our path is down our snowy streets where only the hardened locals dare to drive. The only other option is a continued slide into oblivion.

Posted by Jesse


Buffalo Wings

I am writing up a post on Buffalo Wings and I am looking for a good recipe for homemade wing sauce. If you know of a good recipe and don't mind sharing it (you will of course be credited), please email me: yorkstaters@gmail.com.

Posted by Jesse

Upstate Identity and the Upstate Environment

It is easy for us to understand how regionalism can benefit our communities economically and socially. One often overlooked benefit to regionalism, though, is the effect it can have on the environment. Over the past few decades, there has been a growing trend amongst environmental social theorists to advocate for local answers to environmental struggles. In his recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond explains the basic rationale for this approach:
“Small societies occupying a small island or homeland can adopt a bottom-up approach to environmental management. Because the homeland is small, all of its inhabitants are familiar with the entire island, know that they are affected by developments throughout the island, and share a sense of identity and common interests with other inhabitants. Hence everybody realizes that they will benefit from sound environmental measures that they and their neighbors adopt. That’s bottom-up management, in which people work together to solve their own problems.” (277-8)

Simply put, when we are able to wrap our heads around and understand a place, we are better able to comprehend ecological problems within it. Regionalism implies not only an understanding of a place, but also a deep attachment and love, which is the fuel that allows us to protect it from destruction. In a mobile modern American society, people often lack a sense of belonging to a place, which means that if ecological problems compound, the easiest solution is to simply leave. Regionalism seeks to counter this option.

We must also remember that environmental protections that grow out of the local need and concern are often the strongest. On the other hand, those imposed from without become things of local hatred; just look at the reputation of the federal land management agencies with many Westerners. Some of the most successful environmental solutions are those that emerge from within a community, taking into account the people’s social and economic needs.

When outside environmental concerns impose ecological regulation on a community without concern for the local situation, they create a recipe for disaster. This form of political imperialism, which breeds hatred, jealousy and despair. We all know how it feels that have the events and laws affecting your daily life are completely out of your control. It also breeds contempt for environmentalism itself, which is counter-productive to the cause of environmental protection and revitalization.

Small local initiatives are not nearly as flashy and exciting as the mighty preserves that are created by the great governments. Yellowstone, ANWR, Death Valley and similar projects draw more attention and funding than, for example, a 705-acre expansion onto Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. However, the history of the slow growth of the Adirondack Park shows that landscape protection can be done much more organically by communities (New York) that don’t have the tremendous resources of the Federal Government. Also, the Adirondack Park has shown a resilience that might or might not be true in newer parks and preserves. The very fact that 6 million acres has been set aside in the busiest, most crowded corner of the country (not to mention another 700,000 in the Catskill Park, 65,000 in the Allegany Park and tens of thousands in the 201 other parks and historic sites) shows that small scale protection can achieve results, albeit in a more patchwork form, that would be the envy of any environmental central planner.

Local identity goes further in environmental protection than simply aiding in the establishment of parks and preserves. Buying local not only helps protect local jobs, but it also decreases our reliance upon and use of oil. Why import apples from Washington State when New Yorkers grow them so much closer to home? Local breeds of plants and animals give local flavor to food, preserve precious genetic diversity in domesticate crops, and are often uniquely suited to local conditions (weather, soil conditions, etc).

The desire to enjoy local foods, protect local jobs and build local community can be fused with, and strengthened by, a deep love of a place and the mission to protect it from ecological destruction. In this end, the desires to protect our communities and our environment should be seen as natural allies and part of a greater push to create the type of Upstate that we would be proud to leave to our grandchildren.

Posted by Jesse


Buy Upstate and CNY Products

Help your upstate hometown out by supporting those local new businesses. And, buy CNY products. If you are a CNY emigre, buy them when you are here. Bring em back in your suitcase, drive them back or have them shipped. Buy Camillus Cutlery, Gianelli Sausage, Rapasadi Potatoes and Onions, Fulton Onions, Cortland and Beak n skiff Apples, certain products from Oneida Silver, Paul de Lima Coffee, Stickley Furniture, Harden Furniture, Hale Wood Bookcases, Terrell's Potato Chips, Syracuse China, Dinosaur Barb-e-Q sauce and the list goes on and on. What you spend here makes a difference. Make an annual clothes budget and spend it here when you are in town, and wear it home or mail it home. Put your dollars here in your favorite hometown. Support our industry, our manufacturers. We do not have to buy into globalism. We need to buy into Upstatism. Keep your dollars upstate.

Written by Brendan Delay

Editor's Note: Brendan also suggests Mohawk Paper, Finch Pruyn Paper, Aurora Shoe Company, Syracuse China, Hoffman's Hot Dogs, Byrne Dairy Milk, Saratoga Spring Water, Camillus Cutlery and Cutco Knives. Of course, there are manufacturer's across Upstate NY (though not what there was once) and I'm sure the list could go on and on. Thanks for the submission Brendan.
-Posted by Jesse


Adirondack Pride

This summer, when I was living in Raquette Lake, in the Adirondack Park, I had an incredible encounter with regional pride. My parents were visiting and I took them to a concert at the Adirondack Museum by a local singer/storyteller named Roy Hurd. Roy grew up in the Adirondacks, born from an old local family, but moved to Nashville, where he was a songwriter. Eventually, however, something called him home from his career and he left warm Tenneessee for the North Country. To listen to his music is to hear an incredible pride in a place and a culture. These are lyrics taken from Hurd's tribute to North Country ladies, "Adirondack Woman:
"She's an Adirondack woman, she's purty as Silver Lake. She'll still the chill of the winter night with the love she make. Her eyes shine and sparkle, like sun on the fallen snow. Her heart's as free as the chickadee when the summer breezes blow. I've done my share of travel, I've been from state to state and I've rolled around from New York town to the city of the Golden Gate..." (quotes taken from Hurd's website)

The Adirondacks, perhaps more than any other region within our state, has a sense of place. There are Adirondackers and there are Downstaters; I was told by a woman who had lived within the Park for some 20 years that she was still not an Adirondacker, she was a transplant.

What has caused this incredible regional identity? I believe that it is a product of the fact that the Park is a magnified microcosm of Upstate itself. The legal and cultural artifact that is the Park would not exist without it's mirror opposite: New York City. It, along with the Catskill Park, was created in the 1800s to protect the Hudson River and Erie Canal watersheds. Since then, it has been the playground for generations of New Yorkers (in this sense, I mean people from the City) and Yorkstaters alike. The division between local and outsider was strong when Vanderbilts played here and has only been strengthened by the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency in the 1970s.

Adirondackers, like Upstaters in general, often feel that control of their region and their communities is held in the hands of politicians, lobbyists, developers and, above all, Downstaters. Their towns are plagued by unemployment and a decaying economic base (logging, mining and similar industries). Their winters are amongst the harshest in the state; at least when the snow comes in Syracuse, one is surrounded by thousands of other suffering Syracusians. When the town of Raquette Lake is snowed in, only around 120 residents dig themselves out.

Perhaps it is fitting that some of the most famous Adirondack heros are guides. The legendary guides were loners, living off the land and surviving its trials, revealing (sometimes grudgingly) its secrets to outsiders. One must not forget that they were often more than a touch xenophobic.

Adirondack Pride has its positive and negative elements. On one hand, it has allowed for the preservation of local crafts and arts, especially music. The region is full of folk singers, fiddlers, cloggers and storytellers, often surviving off of tourism dollars. The pride in the wildlands and especially in the Forever Wild clause of the NY state constitution that protects the park has led to the creation of the Resident's Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and has allowed many locals to appreciate the beauty and value of their home. However, it has also led to xenophobia and nasty battles between environmental protectionists and property rights advocates. I highly suggest Philip G. Terie's seminal history of the region: Contested Terrain.

What does this mean to all of us Yorkstaters who live outside the Blue Line (the name for the boundary of the Park)? We are also affected by the same problems that face Adirondack communities: decaying economic base, youth flight, difficult winters and a feeling of lack of control over the destiny of our homes. In the Adirondacks, the unique nature of the Park has, over the years, served to amplify these problems. The Adirondacks, then, can serve as a testing ground for future regionalism. When we, as a greater region, respond to future pressures, we perhaps might look to the North Country for a lesson.

Posted by Jesse


Hudson Valley Ruins

Everyone has their own favorite vices. Drinking, smoking, gambling, extreme sports, battling sharks.

My preferred source of thrills is going to look at buildings.
Abandoned buildings are extra fun.

Several years ago I stumbled across Hudson Valley Ruins while doing research and realized this website would let me get my kicks without having to worry about getting stopped by the police. A team effort by Rob Yasinsac and Tom Rinaldi, the site features abandoned buildings from Yonkers to Hudson Falls, and is updated periodically with demolition alerts. In a region with a lot of growth and a lot of history, abandoned structures are where the need for change and the need for preservation collide. I've long been an admirer and thought it worth posting as a point of interest.

Posted by Natalie


The Tastes of the Region #1: Spiedies

This will be the first of a series of posts discussing local foods found in Upstate New York. Some of them (like this one) will detail a local creation, while others may discuss ethnic foods imported into our cities, but rare elsewhere in the United States. Just as buildings, unique weather patterns and historical people make a region, so do its individual flavors. If you have a favorite local recipie that meets this category, please send it to York Staters with a discussion of its importance and we'll put it up.

The Spiedie is found only within the Southern Tier of New York and Pennsylvania's Northern Tier. There is some dispute over its creator, though many agree that Lupo's Spiedies in Endicott was the first. The Spiedie, however, is a truly democratic dish, with innumerable family recipies. Every summer, the people of the Binghamton area gather for the annual Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally, which features a competition for the best Spiedie of the year and the launching of dozens of brightly-colored hot air balloons.

To quote Lupo's website: "Spiedies, (pronounced "speedies"), are marinated cubes of meat cooked on a skewer...Traditionally, spiedies were made from lamb. Today, however, they are made from lamb, pork, chicken, veal, venison, and beef. The cubes of meat are marinated in a sauce as varied as the types of people that enjoy them." I found this recipie on a post at a Cycling website, I hope you enjoy the taste of the Southern Tier:

Beef Spiedies (Celine Hughes, Vestal)
beef, grilling
3 pounds boneless beef; cubed
1 cup olive or vegetable oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
2/4 cup fresh sweet basil; chopped
4 clove fresh garlic; chopped
3/4 cup italian parsley; chopped
3 tablespoons fresh mint; chopped
salt to taste
pepper to taste

Combine marinade ingredients. Let meat marinate in refrigerator for three days. Skewer; grill overhot coals. Note: This recipe is one of the winners of the 2002 Spiedie Fest & Balloon Rally Expo cooking contest.


Why Regionalism?

More than most other developed states, Americans are deeply proud of their nation. In fact, polls have found that 84-91% of us are “very” or “extremely” proud to be Americans. 90% claim to “usually feel proud” when they hear the Star Spangled Banner and 74% of 2001 college graduates stated that they “would be willing to fight for my country.”¹ It is undeniable that Americans feel united and proud, especially after the attacks in NYC and Washington in 2001 and this is considered by most to be a “good thing.” However, when our communities and livelihoods are hard-pressed and we truly want to find solutions to our problems, we can sometimes find value in questioning the ideas that we previously believed to be indisputable. It is a fortunate side of living in rusting cities forgotten by the great powers that we are sometimes free to ask questions that those in more prosperous, powerful places would be afraid to; after all, the answer might challenge their comfort, their prosperity.

It was not always this way. When the War of Independence was won, the victorious Patriots viewed themselves primarily as the residents of their state. When asked where they came from, the would answer “Connecticut” or “Virginia” long before “America.” In fact, there were minor wars fought between the states over territory and westerward expansion where armies from New York and New Hampshire fought over Vermont or Pennsylvania and Connecticut fought over the Wyoming Valley (the Pennamite Wars). Even George Washington probably thought of himself as a Virginian. Today, this state identity only survives in strength in places like Texas and Alaska.

The shared “American” identity is sometimes a strange thing. For a moment, let us imagine three hypothetical Americans: the first is a 17-year-old white boy from an old family in Maine who just got his first job in a lobster packing plant and is worried about graduation, prom and the future; the second is a 48-year-old Indian immigrant man who moved to the United States and began a successful software company, he has retired early and built himself a home in Key West where he lives year round; the third is a 35-year-old Navajo woman who lives with her husband and three children on the reservation, raises livestock and does traditional weaving that she sells to tourists. What do these three people have in common? They are Americans is the typical answer, but in reality, while there are similarities they are often outweighed by differences in geography, profession, wealth, ethnicity/race, gender and age. There is no doubt at all that the problems facing each of their communities will be wildly different and may even place them at odds with each other. What would help the young factory worker’s home town might cause devastation if it were implemented in the Navajo community and vice versa.

While difference is inevitable, and beneficial to a community, there comes a point when the variation itself becomes a hindrance. How can a central government in Washington make decisions that effectively answer the problems of irrigation farmers in Idaho, the unemployed in Buffalo and gas station attendants in the Deep South? Inevitably, with so many problems and so many voices, some people get heard more than others and some people are forgotten.

Let me give an example of the inefficiency and clumsiness inherent in over-centralization. I work for Sears department stores in the shoe department. With Christmas and winter upon us, we have gotten many new shipments of shoes and boots for the customers. These shoes, designed in New York City, Chicago (where Sears is headquartered) and other metropolitan centers are often absurd for practical York Staters. We have received shipments of sandals and watershoes (perhaps useful if we were in south Texas) and lily white boots (not the best in a world of salt and snow). The women’s boots of this year almost universally possess preposterously high and narrow heels and lack insulation; often time the soles are completely smooth. When we opened the box of good insulated boots, only 10 pairs were found. “Have these designers ever seen ice?” I have been asked facetiously and my answer is always, with complete honesty, “probably not.” This problem is compounded by the fact that we cannot order boots ourselves or request for certain types, we simply open the shipment every Tuesday and Thursday and see what they’ve brought us.²

Focusing our attentions and identity towards an amorphous centralized Federal government is like relying upon Sears and Roebuck Inc to send the proper shoes for Johnson City. The Federal government, the big corporations and all massive centralized bureaucracies inevitably approach all problems, whether they be nails or broken crystal vases, with the same big hammer. Look at the effects of NAFTA and corporate America upon our cities and towns. How many Upstate cities have been sold out by the very corporations and governments that they had put our trust, money and labor into?

As we attempt to solve Upstate New York’s problems, as long as we think of ourselves and our problems as primarily “American” we will be bound to a tiny number of options promoted by our centralized authorities. However, when we begin to free ourselves from what is an appropriate answer for America and identify ourselves with Upstate New York then we can begin to find new, uniquely Upstate answers.

In addition to an increased ability to flexibly respond to local problems, a regional identity would help to heal many of the psychic wounds that we possess in modern America. We are a rootless people, rarely possessing a sense of “place;” many of us even lack a spot that we can call “home.” How many of our people have no sense of where they are and who they are? How many just want to get away, but are never sure where they want to get to? While a strong regional identity would not solve all of our problems in and of itself, it would provide a solid foundation for communities to grow. As much as it is a physical place, a community is also a state of mind, a shared mental orientation. Look at the vitality of New Orleans, a place with a strong sense of self, in its desire to rebuild and maintain its traditions.

There is some of this in our Upstate cities and places. Buffalo especially is famous for its stalwart pride, forged perhaps by the grind of snow, factory closings and the shared heartbreak of the Bills performance at the Superbowls. Natalie, a Syracuse native, has told me of terrible snowstorms where Syracusians took shelter in their emblematic Carrier Dome to watch Orange play out of town on big screens. How many Rochesterians take a sort of sick pride in the Garbage Plate, Syracusians in Dinosaur Barbeque, Binghamtonians in the Spiedie or Buffalonians in the myriad of local Buffalo food choices?

The possession of a regional identity does not preclude other identities, including an “American” one. For example, when I was living in Spain, I found that the people there had a cascading number of political identities, each important in different spheres and each interlocked like wooden Russian dolls. Their strongest identity was to their extended family, which they protected and promoted ferociously. Spain is a land of infamous nepotism, but unlike America, there it was seen as inevitable and largely benign. The next loyalty was to one’s pueblo, the ancestral village of your family. Even families who now live primarily in the cities still travel home on weekends, vacations, holidays and during important local fiestas. They consider themselves to be of that pueblo, they still often intermarry within those communities and retain those strong local bonds and traditions. The next level is the Patria Chica, the “little fatherland,” which is perhaps the most important political level. This is the region in which one lives, which often has its own language, and is a source of strong identity and is analogous politically to a State in the USA. It is here that the people focus their social, economic and political lives. Above the Patria Chica is the nation-state (Spain), which many people only have a token allegiance to; Spain, they believe is a federation of peoples and is a thing of political convenience.³ Finally, above Spain is the EU and then the UN, both of which are considered to be important parts of their identity. Above many business, the flags of the local city, the Autonomous Community (Patria Chica), the nation of Spain and the European Union flew side by side as equals.

I feel that there is some hope for regional identities in this age of growing centralization. The last time I drove into Vermont, flying on the first house I passed over the border was the flag of the Green Mountain Boys and the symbol of the rapidly growing Vermont Independence Movement. When I drive through Johnson City, I occasionally spot a JC Wildcat flag. Perhaps someday, here in Upstate New York, locals we see no problem in flying the flags of their town, state and nation as equals in their hearts and minds.4

1) These polls are, in order that they are quoted: Anonymous, “National Pride Varies Greatly Across Europe: And its much lower than in the United States, according to New Five-Country Survey;” June 24th, the PRNewswire; “Harris Poll #27: Pride in America, June 12, 2002,” Accessed online at http://www.harrisinteractive.com on 10-3-04; Anonymous; “Proud and Patriotic,” in the Washington Times, July 8, 2004; “Harris Poll #27: Pride in America, June 12, 2002,” Accessed online at http://www.harrisinteractive.com on 10-3-04; Anonymous; “Harris Poll #12: Generation 2001: A survey of the First College Graduating Class of the New Millennium, February 26th, 1998,” Accessed online at http://www.harrisinteractive.com on 10-3-04
2) By the way, if anyone is looking for new boots, we’re located in the Oakdale Mall in Johnson City, and I get a 3-4% commission, so stop by and we’ll find you something you’ll just love.
3) To be fair, I should note that there are some Spaniards, the intellectual descendents of the Fascists, who still see the centralized State as a holy and divinely ordained fact. I, however, rarely saw this side of Spain as I did not live in a pro-Castillian part of the country, but instead in one of the ethnic areas: Catalan-speaking Valencia.
4) I do think that we need to get a cooler state flag though, let’s admit it, the boat on the river with the ladies around it is nice as a seal but it’s really not a good flag, but I think that’s a topic for a later discussion.

NYCO's Blog

Over at NYCO's Blog, there is an excellent post discussing NYCO's passion for our grand region and its proud history. I highly suggest checking it out (besides the fact they talk about us!)

York State Santa

This is Santa Claus on a fire engine on my street in Fayetteville, NY, last December.

Posted by Natalie


Brain Drain in the North Country

Today, the Watertown Daily Times has published a story on “Brain Drain” in the North Country. Personally, I am pleased that the Daily Times has contributed to the discussion on this issue, though I am disappointed in both the Daily Times and the event that they discuss. Please note that a password is required to read the article, so I will summarize it below.

The event was a roundtable discussion “among a group of state officials and local business and school leaders” at a job fair that over 1,000 high school students attended. The discussion centered on the job market and how to make high-paying jobs available to young people from within the area. In general the problem was blamed on issues beyond their control, the usual litany of: “a cold climate, high state taxes and a global economy that sends jobs overseas to places like China, where labor is much cheaper.” The final result was to suggest that Jefferson Community College (JCC) create more internships linking students with local businesses.

Like I said above, I am pleased to see that the folks in Jefferson County are at least thinking about the problem, but it seems to me that they’re getting their priorities screwed up and simply repeating what a hundred other roundtables, editorials and panelists have said.

To begin with, the most incredible part of their meeting is that while they were discussing young people, why they leave and how to keep them in the area, they did not seem to invite a single young person to join their discussion. They have no good excuse for this, being surrounded by over 1,000 of them, except that perhaps they really don’t care what young people think about the issue. Is something wrong here? Without the presence of thoughtful young people around the table, the group came the same assumption that all similar round-tables come to: high paying jobs.

I will agree that the community has to provide something besides $6/hour work, and I feel that this is a question of human decency over anything else, have you ever tried to live on $6 an hour? But young people need more than this, we need a place to grow, to create and, as corny as it sounds, to dream. If a cold climate was the source of Watertown’s misery, no-one would have settled there to begin with and if they did they would have left long ago (this is true for all of our region). By once again quoting high state taxes and the threat of China, though they also may have some weight, is in effect for the community to throw its hand in the air and deny responsibility. Is this what we elect leaders for?

Mr. John B. Johnson, the editor of the Daily Times itself, is quoted as saying: “young people do not want to live here, you can’t even get a cup of coffee from Starbucks here.” In some ways, he’s hitting on something here. If our communities actually want to retain their youth, youth culture must flourish. I do think though, that Mr. Johnson is voicing his own Starbucks gripe more than that of the younger generation.

What we want are things to do at night, places to go and a chance to express ourselves. Just as we would be terrible setting up the agenda for activities at the Senior Center, so would people like Mr. Johnson at organizing youth culture. This is something youths must do, though the local power structure can stand in the way or help. Our community leaders can provide venues for youth entertainment (knowing full well that they probably won’t enjoy the music themselves) and set up opportunities for local musicians and artists to flourish. In Binghamton, a project is in the works to build a community media center where everyone could utilize the tools for making television shows and films. This is an excellent idea, what if every town had well-publicized public-owned resources for citizens, especially young people, to make television shows, films, record music and publish works, etc? Why should only communities with colleges have access to these resources?

Likewise, the community must help its young people not only to find decent paying jobs in the area, but also to follow their own dreams. Mico-loans to help small businesses and cooperatives run by young people could be set up. For example, I know a young man here in Johnson City who runs his own business building stereos and selling them on Ebay. There is no community resource to help him in this endeavor as a young person. What if there were small loans to give him the leg up on new technology or liaisons to help connect him to local stores that might like to sell his custom work? My friend is not looking for some six-figure salary, but a chance to do his work and play in a venue with his band without having the police harass them constantly. He is an artist and an entrepreneur and the community has turned its back on him.

The Watertown Daily Times and the roundtable discussion in Jefferson County have done nothing to truly confront the very real problem of youth flight. Yes, it is good that they are talking about it, but until they actually start to talk to young people, until they understand that it’s not just snow and jobs going to China that are the problems, they will continue to see our young people flee the northlands for places to the south.

Thanks to Todd for pointing out this article.

Posted by Jesse


Let it snow!

As the snow swirls outside my home, I am thinking about how snow affects our sense of who we are. The combination of Nor'easters and Lake-Effect means that we are often one of the snowiest regions of the United States. While many people are simply resigned to the fact that snow will come and pine for spring, many have internalized the "problem." It is well known that Syracuse and Buffalo have an old rivalry over the title of "snowiest" but they are not alone.
Recently an Upstate snow tradition has been revived: The Golden Snowball Award. A product of rivarlies among the weather services in several Upstate cities, the Golden Snowball is a yearly award given to the snowiest city in the state. There are two "leagues" the Big Cities (Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Binghamton) and the Little Cities (Oswego, Utica, Fulton, Rome and Watertown). The winner each year is presented with a trophy which is then passed to the next winner (though Syracuse has won the Big Cities ever since 2002) and a cash award. The Big City prize is $100 and the Little Cities, $50. Last year, the Big City prize was given to a Syracuse-area school for the purchase of hats and gloves... so that the kids could enjoy the snow in comfort. The official Golden Snowball Award website is an unmatched tribute to snow in all of its forms; I've never seen a site before that simply had videos and photo galleries of falling snow.
The award has become a matter of pride; to quote a 2003 USA Today article:
"Buffalo's reputation is just hype. Rochester's not even in our league. The others, forget about it. No challenge at all" -Pat Mercert (A Syracuse snow affecionado)
"I think it would be great if we won, especially with Syracuse and their lake-effect snow" -John Pennock of Albany
Awards aside, we all know that snow has a serious side. The incredible Blizzard of 1977 in Buffalo, for example, dumped eight feet on the city, burying entire buildings when the drifts accumulated. But, through it all, York Staters have survived. The Golden Snowball is a form of gallows humor; another manifestation was the Blizzard of 1977 Board Game, where players scrambled to collect supplies before the storm hit and they were waylaid by black ice and whiteouts.
When we begin to see ourselves as survivors, that becomes part of our regional identity. To many Upstaters, they are strong, more resilient than those who flee to places like Florida and the Carolinas. I believe that the economic suffering that our cities have been dealt has only added to this feeling (it is a strange coincidence that most of the new jobs opened in warm, sunny places).
However, this pride is certainly not new. In my searches online, I found this website discussing Upstate history. In one page, talking about the difficult winter of 1823-24 and the sturdy, stalwart people who survived it. I hope that, as you dig out tomorrow, you think of it and smile:
"York Staters eat snowstorms for breakfast, spit on their hands, then go out and do what needs doing."
Posted by Jesse


The Mid-Hudson Valley: Biological and Cultural Estuary

An estuary is an ecosystem where sea water and fresh water meet. The confluence of these waters provides a unique home for a wide variety of organisms that would not exist in either the ocean or fresh waters individually. The Hudson River, whose American Indian name means "the river that flows two ways", is one such body of water, tidal from its mouth to Troy.

The confluence of two divergent influences provides another type of habitat along the river, a cultural and economic estuary where the influences of New York City and of Upstate mix and meld to form a unique set of communities. Rich in cultural institutions such as museums and concert halls as well as natural beauty, the Mid-Hudson Valley, stretching from roughly Beacon/Newburgh in the south and Hudson/Athens to the north is home to an intense mix of people and places that create a unique environment unlike anyplace else.

For four and a half years I have been a resident of Northern Dutchess County, and even in that short period of time, I have seen measurable changes, the ebb and flow, between weekenders, transplants from the city, transplants for elsewhere, and natives. The tensions created over land use, sustainable development, and taxes are just a few of the issues that seem to be escalating before the eyes of residents.

This mingling of city and country is nothing new to the Mid-Hudson Valley. For as long as European-Americans have inhabited the banks of the river, it has been both the homestead of humble tenant farmers and the country seat of the American elite, whose wealth was drawn from pursuits in the city. "The Chancellor" Robert R. Livingston, Jr., a revolutionary era statesman whose country seat was at Clermont is an excellent early example. The Erie Canal connected the valley with the interior of New York State and reaffirmed the Hudson's status as a major commercial artery. Throughout American history, but with a notable boom in the gilded age, the valley provided the picturesque and bucolic setting for an increasing number of country seats and playing host to what James Ackerman called "villa culture." Entire villages sprang up to accommodate the needs of these estates and their workers, all the while living alongside farmers. The gulf between these farmers and estate workers was immense, but as that gap closed in the twentieth century and the idea of the villa, or country home, became democratized and transportation became cheaper and faster, the lower valley surrounding New York City became suburbs.

The Mid-Hudson Valley, meanwhile, continued and continues still to serve the city as a place for weekend homes, while the farmers and natives continue to find livelihoods in this unique environment of wealth and cultural institutions. What is the Mid-Hudson Valley now? What are the unique problems of this biological and cultural estuary, what are their roots in history, and what solutions are the diverse residents of this valley working towards?

These questions cannot be addressed in one post. In Jesse's recent post about what defines Upstate New York he explores the different interpretations of what constitues upstate. Many would be inclined to draw a line, but the character of the Hudson Valley makes such a division impossible. Over the course of many posts, I seek to explore this nebulous fronteir. I will periodically try and take on different topics facing the community in which I now live, everything from "citdiots" to conservation easments to confederate flags to cows. Any readers are as always encouraged to add their opinions on these issues.

Posted by Natalie

Natalie, a Fayetteville, NY native, is a recent graduate of Bard College in Art History who now works at the college and lives in the village of Red Hook. She has spent the last two years academically exploring how the wealthy throughout history
(particularly in the Hudson Valley)
have expressed their values and justified their power through architecture. She likes to drive around Northern Dutches and Columbia Counties looking at buildings.


Buffalo and New Orleans, sisters in suffering

When the dikes broke and Katrina spilled over into the proud city of New Orleans, two tragedies occurred: one natural and one man-made. The natural disaster was a hurricane that meteorolgists predicted would eventually come and was a mighty force. The force of the hurricane, while mighty, was magnified thousand-fold by the man-made disaster.

As we all know, the foundation of the city rested under sea level, an artifical arrangement created by the levees and the Army Corps of Engineers. The people of New Orleans put their trust in a distant Federal government, a government that taxed them, demanded and recieved their allegiance and
sent thousands of their sons and daughters away to war. At the same time, the Federal government cut the budgets that funded the very levees that the city relied upon for its survival. The unfortunate people found that when you put your lives in the hands of a barely accountable federal agency (an army division) that represents a government located half-way across a continent away, the inevitable lack of interest from that government can have disasterous results.

This man-made situation was later compounded by the fact that after the levees broke and the tragedy began, the people continued to turn their eyes to a distant Federal government. To all of our horror, that government did nothing for days.

Perhaps some of the people of New Orleans, and the US in general, are beginning to suspect that their trust is misplaced. But of course, up here in Upstate NY, our cities are nowhere near as vulnerable as submerged New Orleans.

Or are they? What about Buffalo's
fiscal problems? When the press discussed photos of the devastation of New Orleans, they would often compare it to a war zone. But to me, ruined homes, boarded up store-fronts and abandoned factories reminded me instead of the Rust Belt, albeit covered in sea muck, not rust and slush.

Is not the tragedy of the Rust Belt not a story of the victimization of communities by central authorities as much as New Orleans is? Perhaps our problem is that our man-made tragedy cannot be blamed on an act of God and that our misery was stretched out over years (and continues) while theirs occurred in a few days. America was justly horrified by the looting and violence in the wake of Katrina, but is able to blithely ignore the spike in
violence that follows every factory closing. Murder, spousal and child abuse, petty theft and alcoholism are some of the symptoms of slow death for our communities that rarely appears on television screens.

Like the people of New Orleans, trusting the Army to build walls to protect them and the Federal Government to bail them out when disaster hit, we trusted the corporations that we worked for to keep the factories open if we did our jobs, we trusted federal and state governments to bail us out if disaster hit. The betrayal of New Orleans in the days after Katrina is a crime that is echoed in the passage of NAFTA and every free trade agreement that not only tears the heart out of our communities, but those of other peoples across the globe.

You would think that perhaps its time that we learned out lesson, but yet you still see so many of our local "leaders" turning to the easy solutions of corporate development and federal/state aid, yet again. How many jobs have to be outsourced before we learn that the corporations don't care a rat's ass about our livelihoods, our homes and our communities? How many "free" trade agreements have to be signed before we learn that the federal government cares more about corporate campaign donations than the people of the Rust Belt? I think it's time we stop seeking our solutions on Pennsylvania Avenue and in the halls of power and instead turn to Maine Street (or perhaps State, Court or Division or wherever) and halls of our own towns, cities and villages.

Posted by Jesse

75 Reasons to live in Upstate NY

A short post here. A fellow named John Cleary from the Star Gazette in Elmira has made a list of his 75 Reasons to live in Upstate NY. They're a little Elmira specific, but I think we can all sympathize with some of them. Here are my favorites:

12 Route 352 on a sunny fall morning... 13 Route 549 on a sunny spring morning... 32 The quiet on Cayuta Creek any old day... 34 Early frosts that kill off the mosquitoes, just when you can't stand them another day... 35 Early thaws that have you itching to get into the garden... 38 Just five miles from any Main Street in the Twin Tiers is a forest or country field where you can be all alone... 61 Great place names: Horseheads, Big Flats, Checkerville, Painted Post, Gang Mills, Slabtown, Frenchman's Flats... 65 Carrot Top at the Clemens Center almost every year... 74 The melodic voice of Gregory Keeler on WSKG Radio as he reads his long, long list of school closings [for snow days]...

What are your reasons?

Posted by Jesse


What's in a Name No.1: "The Leatherstocking Region"

This is the first of what I hope to be a series of posts about the origins of place names and other words unique to Upstate, New York. Exploring names helps us to explore our origins and the remnants of the past the stay with us today. Our first installment is on one of the alternative names for Central New York: The Leatherstocking Region.

As a child, I thought the term "Leatherstocking" referred to a now defunct tanning industry that must have "stocked" leather for the country. While dairies are certainly the most prominent agricultural industry in the area, the name is instead from James Fenimore Cooper's series of books known as The Leatherstocking Tales.

While Cooper was born in
Burlington, NJ, (in 1789) his family moved to the frontier settlement of Ostego Lake, NY when he was one year old. The settlement his father founded on the lake was named after the family and is today Cooperstown, NY, famous today for the Baseball Hall of Fame. After graduating from Yale and a stint in the Navy, James settled down in Westchester County to write.

In 1823, he began the Leatherstocking Series:
The Pioneers: Sources of the Susquehanna (1823), The Last of the Mohicans: A Tale of 1757 (1826), The Prairie: A Tale (1827), The Pathfinder: The Inland Sea (1840) and The Deerslayer: The First Warpath (1841) [note: these links are to copies of the books at the Gutenberg Project].

All but The Prairie are set in Upstate New York (The Prairie is set in Kansas), with Pioneers and Deerslayer taking place on Otsego Lake, The Last of the Mohicans around the Adirondacks and The Pathfinder continues the stories of the region during the French and Indian War. All of the books follow the life of the heroic Natty Bumpo, "A valiant, a just, and a wise warrior" (Prairie) and the embodiment of the 19th century concept of the
Noble Savage, the natural man unencumbered with the pains and pettiness of civilization. Bumpo has a number of titles or nicknames in the books: the Deerslayer, the Pathfinder, Hawkeye and "Leatherstocking," his name among the English settlers.

Cooper lives on not only in the name of the region and the town but also in the local name for Ostego Lake: Glimmerglass, a name which is used in
Glimmerglass State Park and the Glimmerglass Opera.

An article discussing Cooper's relation, and that of his family, to Ostego Lake can be found
here. The picture above is of Cooper and is an open source document from Wikipedia; most of the information above was taken from Wikipedia or the quoted link.

Posted by Jesse


"Cobblestone Quest"

In an earlier post (Adventures in Johnson City), I talked a little bit about a unique pagoda built by Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company workers integrating pieces of rubble, old tools and bits of gears and metal. I commented on how it was a testament to the ingenuity and aesthetic taste to the workers who built it.

Vernacular architectual creativity in Upstate New York certainly does not end with a half forgotten pagoda in the heart of a rubble field. One of the more distinctive vernacular forms characteristic of our state are the cobblestone buildings of Western NY. On this site from the town of Phelps, the buildings are described:
"In fact, of the 1000+ cobblestone structures erected from Western NY into Wisconsin and Canada, 90% of them are within 75 miles of Rochester, NY (a mere 30 minute drive from Phelps). This was due in large part to the detritus left over from the glaciers, clearing of land for farming, the development of lime-based mortars, and the building of the Erie Canal from 1817 - 1825."
While I was living in the village of Geneseo, south of Rochester, I would ocassionally note the cobblestone buildings in the surrounding countryside. Inside the village itself was an old school, now the local historical museum, entirely made from cobblestone. To think of the incredible effort it took to transport the thousands of cobbles into their place and fit them into a level wall (could you do it?) is humbling.

To me though, the real lesson the buildings teach is not one of humility, but instead one of inspiration. These pioneers were working with the materials at hand to solve their problems. They took what appeared to be a major problem (too many stones in their fields) and not only solved the problem of stones, but also that of a need for good housing. In their work, they created aesthetically pleasing and incredibly durable structures. Can we take inspiration from their work and turn the problems and supposed draw-backs of our communities into assets? Can we create a new local idiom that expresses our creative and artistic sides while at the same time providing for generations of our descendents?

Recently, the Landmark Society of Western New York has released a book entitled
Cobblestone Quest which details some of these fascinating buildings and bike/car tours in the Rochester region to visit them. For those who want to get into one of these buildings, you can visit the Cobblestone Restaurant (c. 1800s) in Geneva , the Maxwell Creek Inn (1846) in Sodus or the Jackson School B & B (1829) in Lyons. All of these are Upstate owned businesses that could use support. For those of you who want to get involved in building, restoring and protecting cobblestone buildings, you can find no better friend and resource than the Cobblestone Society, good people working hard to protect their traditions and reinvigorate their communities.

Posted by Jesse


Technical Problems

Yesterday, a friend of Natalie's volunteered to help us give technical updates to the site. Thanks for all of your patience. So keep your eyes peeled for updates and additions of all kinds.

Posted by Jesse


A challenge

This evening, Natalie and I were discussing my earlier post on art in Broome County and my fears of gentrification. I was bemoaning the process of "improvement" that drives out poor folk, especially people of color, from their traditional neighborhoods and turns them into "yuppie" areas. Myself, being a long-time proponent of tradition and the importance of "place" and the heritage that we inherit in a place that is associated with our families and our lifestyles, saw gentrification as an entirely negative experience.

Natalie, while agreeing with most of my points, argued that she really couldn't think of another way to rebuild communities without gentrifying them. After all, isn't a building full of yuppies better than one crumbling away into oblivion? Aren't coffee shops and art galleries better than no businesses at all? I was a bit uprepared for this statement (she has a habit of catching me that way) and didn't have a good response. While I plan on thinking about and researching this topic, I would like to invite readers to a challenge:

I would like to hear how can our communities revitalize themselves without betraying their heritage? How can we have vital towns, villages and cities without evicting the residents of those places? Does anyone have any ideas? Does anyone know of any examples of communities who have succeeded in a rebirth without selling out?

A firm believer in competition, the person who presents the most informative example of progress without gentrification, or the most creative plan for carrying this out (as judged by the obviously biased judges Jesse and Natalie) by the end of December will be given the purely symbolic honor of: York Stater of the Month.

I look forward to seeing this discussion continue on the comment boards (to participate click the light blue number just right of the title of this post... that's the number of current comments).

Posted by Jesse

Architectual Treasures

Here is a well put-together site about historic asylums in Upstate New York. It appears to be in development, but right now it details the Buffalo State Hospital and the Castle on the Hill, NYS Inebriate Asylum in Binghamton. The Buffalo site was designed by the noted architect H. H. Richardson who also did considerable work in Albany including early work on the Capital Building. The Castle on the Hill was designed by Binhamton's first architect Isaac G. Perry, who coincidentally finished the Capital in Albany and made the Broome County Court House detailed in Natalie's last post.

One of the greatest treasures throughout York State is our built heritage. For those interested in this subject, I suggest visiting and supporting the
Landmark Society of Western New York. This summer at Sagamore, I met a member of this organization writing a book entirely upon architectual treasures in Upstate New York and I am looking forward to its publication (the Broome County Courthouse and Sagamore are included).

Posted by Jesse

Art in Broome County

This weekend, I decided that I was going to do something different with my time. I get weekly emails fromt he Binghamton IndyMedia Center discussing events going on in the area and I heard about two interesting sounding activities this weekend.

The first was called
First Friday, a monthly event in downtown Binghamton. A relatively new event, it is an Art Walk, when the roughly half a dozen galleries open their doors late. Also open are cafes, restaurants and gift shops (roughly forty establishments). Me and three friends went down to enjoy the activities. Overall, it was a good time, the art was ok to good (especially the Brunelli gallery) and every one of them gave wine, cheese or, in one case, egg nog. It was obvious that the aim of the event was to sell the works, which was understandable (artists have to eat) but somehow gave something of a disconcerting air to the event; the art walkers were largely middle class white folks, the kind of people that Binghamton's administration has been trying to bring in. The photo above is of me and one of the more striking sculptures.

It seems that Mayor Bucci's people have been working hard to revitalize downtown. Loft apartments, riverside park projects, an art boom and an exciting proposal for a university extension downtown. I'm optimistic about some of these developments, especially art and river projects. The only question I have is whether the City is trying to gentrify itself and what will happen. Another artist played jazz stand up bass (his picture is here, I unfortunately didn't write his name down even though he told it to me, I'm sorry). Overall it was an enjoyable event.

Posted by Jesse

County Courthouse Series No.1: Broome County

The Broome CountyCourthouse, designed by architect Isaac G. Perry. The courthouse, built from 1897-98 and dedicated November 12, 1898, is one of many buildings designed by Perry in Binghamton.

The County Courthouse Series requires some explanation. Over the years, I have developed an inordinate desire to memorize the names of, be able to place on a map, and visit all the counties of New York State. I’m fairly certain I’ve been through all of them at some point or another, but I feel this does not constitute “visiting.” And I would like to document this process.

The first idea was to take pictures of the signs at county borders, but the major logistical problem with that is that (I’m assuming) the counties that comprise New York City don’t have them. Someone (and if memory serves, this was Jesse) suggested that I take pictures of the county courthouses instead. Which is double trouble, since I’m an architectural history person. So as I traverse this great state of ours, I will share the documentation of my county obsession.

Try your hand at the Counties of New York State game!

Posted by Natalie

It's time to bring back the children

Recently, the Press and Fun Bulletin, the local Gannet newspaper in my hometown of Johnson City, NY, released an interview* with County Executive Barbara Fiala discussing her work since being elected last year. Among the questions about funding problems and pollution in Endicott, one of the questions was what had she done to bring young people into the community. Her response was that she had established a program with Binghamton University to have internships with the County for students that would hopefully lead to jobs.
I was disgusted that both the Press and the County Executive treated this problem so lightly. The Press asked only one question on the topic and then let her go with a lame answer. Executive Fiala has such a low opinion of our youth that she made only a feeble token effort to keep them around, and then the way she did it was to develop a program that mainly affects students at a University populated by a vast majority of out-of-towners. If successful, her program would draw a tiny number of Long Island kids away from their parents to replace our kids that have to move to North Carolina to find decent work. It would be tragic if this was an isolated incident in my county, but this travesty is repeated over and over again in our communities.

Yet, the greatest threat to the survival of our communities is this phenomenon of youth flight, better known as the brain drain. This is a blight that we are not alone in; it affects places as varies as Thailand and Africa, with the best and brightest leaving these regions for better opportunities abroad. In our case, our young people are leaving for NYC, North Carolina, Virginia and California. In other words, largely to the Sun Belt.
The problems caused by this phenomenon are multifaceted. The most obvious to most of us is the effect it has on our families. Family strength and unity allows for support in difficult times: help for the young in getting off of their feet, help for the elderly when they can no longer take care of themselves and help for everyone when they are ill, exhausted, depressed or suffering. However, the family is weakened when it is scattered across the nation. Grandparents, uncles and aunts can no longer aid in the eduction of youth and the transfer of knowledge from the elderly to the young is cut off. In disasters, but also in joy, the family is missing; part of us is missing. We have all experienced this heartache and I need not elaborate it more, I just want to point out that when our families are weakened across the board, so is our community's ability to widthstand economic and social problems (such as those currently besetting the
Rust Belt).

The next problem that is caused by the Brain Drain is the greying of our populace. One of the only sectors of our economy to grow lately has been health care. This is largely because the elderly need more care than the young. But what happens when your entire community is populated by the elderly? Who will take care of them? Who will fight the fires, clean the streets, build and maintain the buildings? What will happen when, inevitably, they die? When pensions and 401K plans are the support of your economy, what happens when to the health care and retail jobs that they support when they dissappear? When all of the homes populated by the elderly are emptied, who will buy them or will they fall into decay?

The final problem is that when the best and the brightest of your community is drawn away, with it goes your creativity, your energy and your hope. What is left are those who are too poor or too socially hampered in other ways to escape. You are left with a community of elderly folks living off their pensions and poor people who work in retail jobs and health care jobs supporting those elderly folks. This is a recipie for disaster.
So the question that remains is: what do we do to reverse this trend? Many of our young people want to return home, they want to work to improve their communities. The attraction of family, friends and a familiar setting is a siren call in the backs of many of our minds. I know I have heard it. In order to be able to give a practical answer to this gut reaction we must attack the problem on two fronts: youth culture and work possibilities.
One of the largest reasons why young people leave Upstate cities and towns is that there is "nothing to do." Especially as our population greys, local leaders seek to capture votes by building senior centers; the idea of courting young (18-28) voters is alien to their mindset. After all, many of these "leaders" have been serving for decades and are old themselves. However, if there is nothing in the community to entertain young people, and especially if the community is hostile to attempts to create those entertainments, the young people will leave. This is true, even if there are jobs available. Those jobs will instead be filled by middle aged poor (the fact that they also need jobs I will address momentarily).

Youth culture is difficult for those who are not youth to manufacture. However, at the same time, they may go great lengths to hinder it. It is inevitable in our quickly changing society that the music, clothing and slang of our youth will be different from, and often in direct rebellion against, the norms of their parents. For our communities to build a thriving youth culture, what leaders and community members must do is simply get out of the way. Young people need places to dance, to drink, to argue, to create art and to do stupid things. If you don't want skateboarders in the park, build a skate park. Key to this process is letting youths make their own paths and providing them with the resources to achieve it.

Just as vital to reversing the Brain Drain are work opportunities. This means more than McDonalds or the local telemarketing center. The AIG call center in Vestal, NY was proclaimed "leaders" from local politicians all the way up to the Governor, to be the answer to unemployment in my home area. However, these jobs are minimum wage positions calling people about their bills. From friends who worked there, I have heard it described as "soul sucking," "horrible," "boring as all hell" and other colorful terms. This is not the way to build community, these are soulless positions that kill hope and optimism.

Instead, the community must invest in the ideas of the young people. Local governments and credit unions should work together to create microloans/grants to help in the establishment of new businesses by young people. The boards for the allocation of these funds should be run by young people who understand the importance of their work, not by cyncial and pessimistic "adults."

When young people, our brothers and sisters, cousins, children and friends, realize that back at home, back in Upstate New York, there is an attempt to bring them back, they will return. When they know that here they can persue their dreams, they can find the entertainments that they enjoy and they can be safe with the support of the family and friends, they will inevitably return. With the return of each young person, the youth community will grow. It will become easier for entertainment options to become flourish and new work opportunities to grow. For our communities to survive, this is not an option, but a necessity.

Posted by Jesse

*For the life of me, I can't seem to find this interview online, so I'm afraid that you, loyal reader, will have to take my word on it.


It doesn't have to be this way

Over on Geddesblog, there is a good discussion going on about the byzantine political boundaries that divide us and confuse our community members. Here's a quote:
The Solvay, Geddes and Fairmount areas seem like a historical, economic and demographic unit, and writing and thinking about them in tandem seems natural. However, just within this small area, we're dealing with at least three municipal governments -- four, if you wander too far up Onondaga Road! We take little notice of these borders as we cross over them multiple times daily to work, shop and play, but although they're invisible, they're there and they affect all development decisions that are made. How can area residents, local businesses and developers best work with these governments and each other to create an overall vision for Syracuse's mature western suburbs?
It doesn't have to be this way. Over in Connecticut, things are much simpler. It would be interesting to see how that translates into community understanding an interest in local politics.

Posted by Jesse

A York State of Mind

What does it mean to be an Upstate New Yorker (or a “York Stater”)? This is a bit trickier of a question than it appears at first glance. Some people (like those in St. Lawrence or Hamilton Counties) are quite obviously York Staters, but what about people who identify themselves as “Western New Yorkers” or “Central New Yorkers;” even more problematic, what about folks in the Hudson Valley, an area rapidly becoming a peripheral part of the New York Greater Metropolitan Area? In a place like Dutchess County communities of farmers live side by side with brand new neighborhoods of weekend commuters from the City looking to escape into the picturesque countryside. Are both of these groups of people Upstaters? Are they both Downstaters?

One classic method of defining Upstate from Downstate was to simply draw a line, which was often the northern borders of Westchester and Orange Counties. Others place it at that point where the weather suddenly starts to get cold. The problem with any arbitrarily drawn line is that times change. Commuter colonies have moved as far north as Poughkeepsie and climate change warms even Upstate winters.

We could say that, instead of drawing a line, that Downstate New York is that area populated by people whose livelihoods are drawn from, and attentions directed towards, New York City. One could simply take a census poll and see how many of the local residents work in the City, or have retired from there. The areas with a majority of City folk are Downstate and the rest are Upstate.

There are two problems with this method. First off, is that even within these statistical Downstate areas (like Westchester, Orange, Putnam and Dutchess Counties) there are pockets of those whose eyes are not turned towards the bright light to the south. There are communities within these areas that have what would be considered a fundamentally Upstate character.

In addition, while defining the region as the “rest of New York that is not part of the City” might function for areas like Ulster and northern Duchess Counties, its is not really a workable identity for Buffalonians or Watertownians. An identity forged by not possessing a quality, in this case a cultural orientation towards the City, is a weak one indeed. For those of us seeking to create a stronger sense of Upstate identity, we should instead seek positive qualities, in other words, we should define Upstate by what it is, instead of by what it is not. This is a similar to the reclamation of identity by minority groups; the Black (and other ethnic) and Gay Pride, not to mention much of modern Women’s Liberation, movements often focus on building positive identities not based around what the minority group is not (white, straight and male). While I certainly do not believe that the plight of us York Staters is identical to that of oppressed peoples of color, gays and women, the analogy can help us to understand that the current Upstate identity is a psychic wound in the minds of Upstaters.

There are many factors that we can use to shape our identity independent of that city to the south. The first is the bounty of our natural landscapes. Upstate New York is home to two of the greatest parks in the United States (the Catskills and the Adirondacks) and one of the most extensive systems of smaller state parks in existence. Across the state outside of the parks, we are a land of beautiful scenery and a resurgent forest.

Our historical heritage is also rich. In a previous post, I touched upon the religious history of the Burnt-Over District, but our history goes far beyond that. Especially in comparison to relatively recently developed areas (like the far West and Alaska), towns in York State are old, possessing a rich patrimony of architecture, traditions and artifacts. Not a town exists in our state that does not possess architectural and historical gems.

This historic heritage is related to our cultural heritage. A friend of mine from Nebraska who spent the last summer in the Adirondacks was amazed at the regionalism of our state. In many of our cities there exist distinctive forms of cuisine (I think of the Binghamton Speedie and the Buffalonian Sponge Candy) and each town has a unique ethnic mixture that is often still strongly felt. The fact that my home town of Johnson City was mainly populated by Slavs while Endicott to the west was a place for Italians to settle is still important today. Any discussion of upstate ethnic/cultural heritage cannot leave out the tremendous wealth and depth of historic, artistic and cultural heritage possessed by the native Haudenosaunee peoples of the state.

While it is important to celebrate agreeable attributes, there also is a value in accepting our flaws within our identity. The path of ignoring one’s flaws leads only to blind nationalism and suffering. We are a land with many problems: poverty, decay of infrastructure, the flight of our youth to the Sun Belt and the accompanying graying of our populace, decline of wealth and manufacturing, left-over pollution from earlier industry, and an archaic, stagnant state and (often) local government. Our towns suffer from disinvestment, apathy that accompany our seemingly unstoppable decline into nonexistence.

These are some of the blocks with which we will build our identity, for being “Upstate” isn’t so much a statement about geography as a declaration of a state of mind, a way of being. It is time that we articulate this peculiar worldview and take pride in who we are because those who don’t know who they are will never be able to take control over what they will become.

Posted by Jesse

Note: The image on this post was taken from Wikipedia's article on Upstate New York, which is an excellent discussion of some of these topics. It is a public domain image.