1.17.2006

Letter to the Business Council of NY's Blog

Editor's Note: This is the copy of a letter I sent to "Let Upstate be Upstate," a blog sponsored by the Business Council of New York. They kindly posted the letter, not in its entirety, so I thought it would be useful to put it up here. I would like to clarify though when they claim that I wrote "I am a fan of upstate blog" (hence, their blog) I actually wrote "I am a fan of upstate blogs" in general. Of course, I should perhaps not be surprised to see this behavior in an organization that does not allow comments on its posts. I find that "Let Upstate be Upstate" focuses far to much attention upon taxes and the attraction of corporations; namely on the concerns of big business over those of average York Staters. I felt that my letter, which is below, is a direct challenge to this philosophy, which is perhaps why they did not publish it in it's entirety on their front page. Here is my letter:

I am not an old man. In fact, I am one of those fresh-out-of-college-20-somethings whose flight Upstate pundits and politicians constantly bemoan. But while I may not have as many years under my belt as some of the writers on this blog, I am aware of when I am being sold a shoddy bill of goods.

Unfortunately for Upstate New York, my homeland, those same pundits and politicians are peddling us second hand ideas and half-hearted excuses. It seems that every time I pick up the paper, I see the same reasons for the decline of this region: bad weather, lack of “culture” and youth entertainment, high taxes, inefficient state and local government and a business culture that favors Downstate over Upstate.

All of these arguments have some weight, but in varying degrees. It is true that we have tremendous snowstorms and a preponderance of gray days. Our options for young people and cultural pursuits are not even in the same league as San Francisco or New York. Our taxes are inordinately high, our governments are bloated, corrupt behemoths and the City wins any regional pissing match.

Yet, it seems that the governmental officials view these problems as an excuse to throw up their hands. The Mayor of my hometown, Johnson City, seems content to throw out the first baseball at Little League games and officiate at Rotary Club meetings. Meetings, roundtables and conferences gather to discuss our region’s problems and yet the only turn out this same litany of excuses on why nothing happens. If this was what we elect officials for, it seems it would be more efficient to program a computer to spit out the same whining reasons whenever anyone asks it a question.

When the governmental officials do actually decide to take action, it is inevitably to court some out-of-state business into building a distribution center, a call center or a big box store into their areas. The chance to hold a press conference and announce a hundred minimum wage jobs has the politicians scrambling to sell out their town’s sovereignty. Claims that the tax base will increase are nullified by the fact that they arrange deals to eliminate taxes, while still retaining services. The cluster of abandoned factories that stalk the heart of every Upstate town should have taught us lessons about placing our hope and trust in impersonal, distant masters, but it seems that only the unemployed (and if you’re a Mayor, you’ve got a job) notice.

The true problem, it seems to me, is a lack of vision and gumption. It is easier for our “leaders” to wait for companies to fall into their laps, toss ceremonial baseballs and court pork barrel projects than to take risks and come up with new ideas. What we lack is a sense of self, and idea of where we came from and a dream of where we are going. Our communities float aimlessly, slowly fading into oblivion.

It has not always been this way. Time after time, our region has been birthplace of innovation. In the 15th century, the Iroquois forged a mighty empire that made the English, French and Dutch tremble and at whose heart was the Finger Lakes and the Genesee Valley. The League they founded was an incredible political and social innovation. Again, after the decline of the Iroquois, the region became a hotbed of social innovation in the 1820s to 40s. The people of the region dreamed big dreams and had the energy and courage to create the type of world they desired to see. In so many of the movements of that era, Abolition, Women’s Rights and Temperance for example, Upstate New York came first. That time and place also saw the birth of Mormonism, the 7th Day Adventists, the Pentecostals, the Oneida Community and the Spiritualist Movement. Finally, the region saw a third burst of innovation, this time technological, around the turn of the last century. Industry and technology melded with hard work and dedication in places like IBM in Endicott and Kodak in Rochester.

Today, we have only an inkling of this tremendous history that surrounds us. We think of our status as “Upstaters” as more of liability than a source of pride and identity. It is true that our taxes are too high, that our government is corrupt and that there are more theaters on Broadway than in all of our cities combined. But these problems will not be overcome by complaining, or by attacking them as independent items on the agenda. They are all linked to a general malaise throughout our land. Even our complaints about how snowstorms drive away jobs ignore our glorious summers and sublime falls. These problems of course must be solved, but will come as part and parcel of a greater push to create a new age of innovation.

Luckily, there is a movement growing to reclaim a sense of Upstate identity. A new cooperative weblog entitled “York Staters,” a 19th century term for Upstate residents, attempts to fuse historical exploration, political discussion and old fashioned regional pride into a force to rejuvenate our region. Across the state, bloggers like NYCO, the Buffalo Pundit and Balogh are all asking the same questions. Art revivals are sweeping places like Binghamton and Rochester, people are preserving historic buildings and creating plans to revitalize downtowns. We can only hope that the historian Phillip Maples wrote about the terrible winter of 1823 holds true today:

“York Staters eat snowstorms for breakfast, spit on their hands, then go out and do what needs doing.”

We are a people accustomed to gray days, but it appears that dawn is coming. Only if you don’t listen to the politicians.

Jesse Harasta is a graduate of SUNY Geneseo (’05) and a proud resident of Johnson City, NY. He returned home for no reason more than his latent Slovak stubbornness resolving to buck a national trend, but instead found inspiration in his decaying community and a heightened resolve to rebuild. He is the co-editor of the Upstate weblog “York Staters.”

1 comment:

Manhattan Dan said...

Hi there and well said. Great post.

I grew up in the suburbs of Rochester and went to college in Oswego. I have a very soft spot in my heart for upstate in general and the Rochester area especially. It pains me to see the economic free=fall going on up there every time I visit. I've lived in NYC for 20+ years now and, while we have our ups and downs, there's always work to be had. So I'm here.

I'm writing because I'm so very glad you're replying to the Business Council's nonsense. You can spot the neo-cons by the lack of comments. And for the record, taxes are merely a small part of the problem. But to hear them tell it, high taxes are sending college grads running for the sun belt. Riiiight.

Actually, it's a combination of things. It's a lack of stable jobs. It's a lack of opportunity. A lack of self-esteem. It's the unrelenting focus on the "family friendly" suburbs. It's the crime rate. It's republican gerrymandering and political stagnation. It's shoveling all that snow. But are these symptoms or the cause?

In any event, the solution is not to merely lower taxes or attract big corporations. That's not going to happen when low tax states like Connecticut and New Jersey are right next door and even lower tax states like Texas and Virginia bend over backwards Nope. Nuh-uh. And lowering taxes would cut right into school budgets and medicare, which are already competing for few dollars.

I suspect the answer lies in many of the things you applaud. Embrace upstate communities and, especially, their people. They're golden. Like a gift. Stop the local press from reinforcing negativity and paralyzing regionalism (i.e. it's all NYC's fault!) It's not. It's just not. The divide and conquer attitude of the Rochester and Syracuse papers would be laughable except they're doing real damage using that scapegoat. NYC sends a huge amount of money to Albany and we get back pennies on the dollar. But that's another story.

And I'm so glad to find your blog through NYCO's blog. I know NYCO from DailyKos and I've long liked her writing (except when she's slamming NYC, but I digress). Solutions to difficult problems are tough. But nothing will ever progress without hope for better days.