What the hell happened to those kids from high school?

This is a question I often ask myself upon returning home to Syracuse for the holidays. A question usually answered with minimal musing has this year been been framed by by lively debate, on this weblog and others, about regionalism and brain drain. Where are my classmates from the days of homeroom and lockers?

It's no secret many of them have left.
New York City, Washington DC, Boston... I struggle to think of anyone I know who is here in the Syracuse area outside of the holiday season. Brain drain is an issue impossible to ignore throughout Upstate, and it looks as though it's begun hitting New York City as well. In fact, New York State overall is losing people. A major news item last week was the Census Bureau report that along with Massachusetts and Rhode Island, New York State hemorrhaged residents this year, the only states to do so. New York lost one tenth of one percent of it's population from 2004-2005. It would be one thing if this were a fluke, an off year perhaps. But we don't need hard numbers to tell us this has been going on for years; the state of our communities and anecdotal evidence speak volumes that statistics could never encapsulate.

Attempting to summarize the often complex causes of declining population, a Boston news outlet wrote "Among the factors seen as driving the decline... are weather and high housing costs."

The weather can be a lot of things.. a good conversation starter, for one. A serious snowstorm is like badge of courage. It's true that by early March even the most hard-core york stater would say they're sick of life in perpetual greyscale, but I'm with NYCO when she said
"As for me, I’ll be leaving New York when they chisel open the permafrost and throw my body into the cold, hard ground."
The weather as the first listed cause for population decline?
That's not only just plain silly, it's looking to pin the issue on something one-dimensional that we ultimately can't do anything about.

So what about housing costs? For Upstate New York, I don't buy the "housing costs" argument. In an area the housing bubble forgot, home values haven't changed much since I was in grade school. The killer is taxes.
Griping about taxes is one of my father's favorite subjects (tied with hating the Thruway Authority.) A lifelong York Stater himself, he has those insights into the murky workings of state governance and fiscal policy that I feel as though only time and observation can give, and as he often points out, along with having among the highest property taxes in that nation, New York also shares the highest local responsibility in the nation for Medicaid costs.

It's not often that the New York Times casts its eye northward for any reason other than the Real Estate section's coverage of the second-home market, but recently the Times has run a series of articles about New York State's medicaid burden. My dad felt his longtime criticism of the state mechanisms validated when this article showed up in the December 23rd Times, focusing on Chemung County and the local toll. The article summarizes the issue while coming right out and noting that upstate inadvertenty shot itself in the foot on this issue years ago:

"The upstate counties have become the victims of a plan that originated when Medicaid began 40 years ago but has since backfired on them. At the time, upstate lawmakers did not want to subsidize health care for the many poor people in New York City, who have long constituted two-thirds of the Medicaid rolls, so they supported a deal to transfer some of the cost from the state to local governments.

With the greatest costs imposed on New York City, for years the price to upstate counties seemed high but tolerable. But in the last few years, the Medicaid rolls upstate and around New York have swelled sharply, as the state expanded eligibility and the number of jobs offering health insurance shrank. The Medicaid bills have grown quickly for counties that were also squeezed by a sluggish upstate economy, as family farms closed and industrial towns like Elmira lost mainstays like typewriter and picture tube factories."

Hey New York Times, thanks for noting that we did it to ourselves because of the "old mistrust" between Upstate and the City. It's worth pointing out that this was an instance in which regionalism and concern for regional welfare didn't pan out. And that's bound to happen. Regionalism has its drawbacks, and it need not be embraced to solve every problem that confronts us. But it is an approach worth serious consideration.

While the article goes on to note that some progress is being made in Albany to address this problem, it's clear that it will probably take drastic measures to rehabilitate or reform the Medicaid system New York has now into an effective, non-crippling social service. Dealing with these problems, whether or not they are likely to be addressed effectively, is largely outside the purview of local governments. For all the efforts local and leaders might make to present their area as hospitable to development (Empire Zones jump to mind), it is undeniable that the tax issues will sabotage their efforts if left unchanged.

That being said, there is a lot that regionalism can do to combat population hemmorage and the like that has nothing to do with governance.
To me, brain drain, youth flight, and population decline in general seem like a the product of a very intangible sense that nothing is going on, best summarized by the word "blah." Jesse rightly noted the prevalence of a "doom and gloom" mentality looming over rust belt cities. NYCO noted in a recent post about regionalism that Upstate is not the area for people who need to be constantly entertained, and I think that's true. And not because I think people should be content to watch the snow fall. Being "entertained" is so passive, Upstate needs people to take an active role in their local culture, and be creative with what we have.

The "scene" and the quality of life, try as local officials might, cannot be manufactured. Ultimately, whatever happens Upstate culturally cannot be thrust upon us from the outside; there's no importing a sense of place. There is no one single answer to these Upstate problems of course. But postulating about what those myriad solutions might be and making a grassroots effort has been an interesting and useful endeavor to watch unfold in these last few monthes, facilitated by the regional weblogs and sites like RocWiki.

The collective weight of York Staters has cultural power that we oft underestimate. Just look how Syracuse revived and nurtured one-hit-wonder Benny Mardones. Not that I don't love "Into the Night" (because I do) but I think if we put our minds to it to knowing, understanding, and loving our communities for what they've been, what they are, and what they could be, we can propell ourselves into an organic and original renacemento.

So what the hell did happen to those kids from high school? Here are two (that I know of) who are, knowingly or not, poking the problem of brain drain in the eye by being young and providing respite from boredom through music:

Former Fayetteville-Manlius football player and piano man Keith Ward was a man-about-town here in Syracuse, but has recently gone to NYC...perhaps the siren song of Syracuse will call him back before too long. Mick Fury was in my Latin class and played the French horn, facts that belie his post-graduation cool-rock persona. He left CNY for LA and commenced rocking, and now he's back and I hear he plays shows down at the Ugly Duckling in Manlius. After I started writing this post, I then saw him in the most recent issue of the Syracuse New Times dissing LA in favor of upstate. Good man.

I've got high hopes for Upstate and best wishes to our readers for the new year. Thanks everyone.

Posted by Natalie


Todd said...

From my high school class up in St. Lawrence County, those near the top of the class have tended to split the scene entirely. One example I always think of is a childhood friend who, staying in SLC, earned an engineering degree and went off to Boston. He found the way of life so different that he's returned home and now owns a farm, like he grew up on, in addition to working engineering jobs in and out of the area. I call on him as an example of the main reason, to me, people stay or go: it's cultural and societal as much as anything economic. This gentleman farmer sought a specific way of life, which he could have in upstate NY, just as the fashion designer classmate now lives in NYC and the two academics live near major research universities. In some ways, there is a fine line between economics and the societal questions, but I think we need to pay attention to the subjective measures of what "youth" want as well.

Mick Fury said...

Natalie, how the hell are ya? This is The Fury here, just happened upon your article and HAD to respond. By the way, I never played French Horn and that is a bloody bloody lie (play along).

I like this question, I ask this question but more in the sense of "Where's the fun in Upstate?" I think we need a lot more people to be asking this question, then maybe we can fix this problem of BOREDOM.

I don't have the solution, but I agree people need to be more proactive. I think its a round and round kinda thing, ie there aren't any late night food places, great music venues with regular bands, or bars that kids will regularly go to on week nights. So no one goes out besides the weekenders at Armory and the University. A new bar opens up that offers these things, but people are so ingrained with the mindset that "There's nothing to do" they don't go out and support it, it closes down, and there is once again no more "fun" things to do. Its a vicious cycle. Somebody has to figure out how to break it.

I would LOVE for there to be a more blossoming music scene in Syracuse. I think that might be the key. If there were lots of bands constantly out playing at great clubs, people would come out, have a great time, and the cycle would be broken. But that's just my dream. Rock on.