A city is not made up of buildings.

A city is not made up of buildings.

They are nothing more than a collection of bricks, wood and stone. While there is value in old, beautiful buildings, in the labor that the creators put into them and the history to which they bore witness, their intrinsic value is trumped by the true spirit of a city: the people who live within it and the unique society that they have built there. A city is its residents and the buildings are a collection of artistically arranged bricks and mortar without them.

In the same vein, the entire region that we call Upstate New York is not just a place, but a way of life. When we speak of reviving Upstate fortunes, we should be seeking to envigorate the society of human beings, not simply to fill the buildings. It is informative to look at those areas of the Hudson Valley where Upstaters have been replaced: the villages, their names and their buildings are still there, but the people have changed. It isn’t the same place and the displacement of those people from their communities, even if it was done subtly and raised no protest, was a crime of a more powerful society against a weaker one.[1]

If we seek to protect the culture and history of our region’s cities and villages, and by extension Upstate itself, we cannot do it without the people that are already here: the Upstaters. Perhaps Amsterdam, NY would be prettier if the locals were evicted and swanky restaurants and inns filled her old buildings, but it would no longer be Amsterdam. Maybe Upstate would be richer if its towns and villages gave themselves over to condominiums and luxury houses for City folk, but something precious and important would be lost forever. A conquest disguised as a renaissance is an insult to the very humanity of the conquered.

This doesn’t mean that we should wall ourselves off or hate outsiders. Our region has a long history of being a meeting place of cultures, my own hometown is shared by Slavs, Hungarians, Italians, Laotians, African-Americans, old Yankee families and many others. Their interwoven stories is the fabric that makes my community and I’m sure that the addition of new threads will only make a richer tapestry.

However, the arrival of these groups did not involve the destruction, systematic displacement or marginalization of its previous residents. [2] This is the threat of many modern revitalization projects. Take a look at Harlem, a traditional black community that today is being colonized by wealthy whites from the lower end of the island; a friend of mine from the city recently said “you could walk through Harlem in KKK robes and not be threatened its become so white.” Shall there come a day when one can walk through Buffalo and be unable to find Beef on Weck? Where the children in Rochester learn nothing about Susan B. Anthony or the Oneida Community?

The key is a plan of development and rebirth that is directed by and works for the people who already live within the place. When the government of Binghamton attempts to create a Downtown that will attract hypothetical outsiders that have preferable traits[3] than the current residents, the government is betraying the very people who elected them. The Mayor and City Council don’t serve the buildings and bridges, they serve the people who inhabit and use those spaces. Cleansing and subsequent repopulation is not a solution to poverty and decay; in fact it simply forces the poor out of their homes and into other places, presumably those without pretty buildings.

A city is made up of it's people, with all of their flaws and all of their idosyncracies. The time has come for us to recognize that we need to reject the decayed and sorry state of our communities but at the same time to accept that within them we already have everything we need to rebuild: each other.

-Posted by Jesse

[1] This does not mean that there is no value in those places today and that the incoming culture has nothing to give, but that those villages already housed a way of life that was equally as valuable as the new one. Simply reversing a crime, e.g. driving out the Downstaters and moving in Upstaters, doesn't correct the injustice that has already passed and would only bring grief upon the new displaced. The damage has been done and today these new residents are developing their own different, but equally worthy, society in the place of the old Upstaters. But in those places where Upstaters still do live, the residents should have the right to make their own decisions.
[2] There is, of course, one great exception to this story: that of the native Haudenosaunee peoples. The arrival of Yankee settlers involved the destruction or displacement of the natives. That was a crime that cannot be reversed today, but may still perhaps be healed.
[3] Mainly money.

No comments: