9.01.2006

Counterproductive

I think promoting an Upstate/Downstate dichotomy is both foolish and counterproductive. These people are not our enemies; they're decent people doing their jobs, paying their taxes and trying to raise their children to do the same.
I believe the pot is stirred by people with an agenda. As a lifetime resident of Syracuse, I can tell you that it's usually done to deflect attention away from an inbred political elite that has dominated local politics and government for decades. While our area stagnated then declined, these individuals passed office directly to other family members and opened the public treasury to their friends.
In the early 60s, Interstate 81 was run through Syracuse. East of Downtown it followed the New York Central tracks; to the North the old Oswego Canal, and to the West the shore of Onondaga Lake. However, to the South it cut through urban neighborhoods.
One of these was the minority-dominated 18th Ward. A huge area between Downtown Syracuse and the highway was demolished. We were offered grand plans for development, complete with models of modern high-rise office towers and the like. In the end, we got empty, weed choked lots that were covered in gravel and used for county employee parking.
Later, a group including a former State Senator and State Republican Chairman proposed an "Avenue Of the Arts". A local physician questioned the project and had her license stripped by GOP appointees under questionable circumstances. The Senator and former Chair sued the City School District - in effect the children of Syracuse - and collected millions of dollars. The citizens of Syracuse got a gutted hulk which used to be a beautiful Masonic Temple with woodwork and furniture by Gustav Stickley and two derelict buildings which have since been resurrected.
Syracuse and Onondaga County built a new ballpark. Reversing a national trend, it was not built downtown, but rather next to the old facility. Instead of revitalizing the city center as was done with every other comparable facility built in the last decades, ours is surrounded by acres of asphalt and malodorous, mosquito-breeding swamps. Fans drive to the games and leave immediately because there are no restaurants or other amenities to attract them.
Today, a local developer is demanding tax breaks to expand his shopping mall. Again we are being shown grand plans. However, the actual plan calls for nothing more than enclosing an area the size of a JC Penny store. When City Councilors balked, the local DA - an associate of the developer's son - iniated a Grand Jury probe of their vote.
Through all of this, the same families get nominated for office after office. A recent Family Court vacancy had the Republicans consider a relative of the current County Executive or the daughter of the former CE (Onondaga County has had only two County Executives since the system was begun in the early 1960s). Our Congressman is the son of the former Congressman, and a retiring State Legislator actually had a press conference to announce his son would be handed the job.
The cost of this inbreeding is not just fossilized government and antiquated thinking. It translates to a total private-sector job loss of 1.3% since 1990, with the national growth at 22.6%. This 24% differential corresponds to the percentage of young, educated workers fleeing this area in search of employment. Our median household income is half the national median.
Our "leaders" respond by playing the New York City card. This was done before during the 1960s when Medicaid was instituted. Our politicians, including the State Senator who profited from the Avenue Of The Arts debacle, insisted each county pay its own Medicaid costs so we wouldn't have to pay for "New York City". (At the time NYC was used as a well-known code word for African-Americans). Today, Upstate is choking on the staggering costs this foolish, parochial and bigoted way of thinking.
We MUST end the false division and question the motives and rationales of those who promote it. Suggesting people from the Downstate counties are somehow robbing us blind and blocking our prosperity is too often the stock in trade of those who actually do.
Sincerely,
Johnny Salami
Syracuse NY

1 comment:

Jesse said...

Johnny,

When I think deeply of the state of New York and the many regions and peoples encompassed within its borders, I am often drawn to come to conclusions that are similar to yours. So often the dichotomy between Upstate and Downstate, the 'City' and the 'Country', is drawn by corrupt local power brokers looking to set up a fall guy, a scapegoat, for their own failures. Better they think, to blame our stagnation on blacks and latinos from NYC than the fact that I just gave Bob Congel two houses for $1 a piece.

Their xenophobia and racism touches a deep nerve in our communities. I myself grew up in a community that views all non-whites as "Downstate" interlopers who come up on Greyhound busses to prey upon our generosity when we are barely holding together ourselves. Look at the conflict over the placement of the bus station in Syracuse and those who are disturbed by blacks and latinos waiting for the bus.

And with a state with so many regions and so many peoples within it, why arbitrarily draw the line at the top of Westchester and Rockland?

At the same time, I am a firm believer that, despite our internal diversity (which I celebrate) there is a fundamental uniqueness to Upstate New York that separates it not only from the City and its periphery, but also from surrounding communities beyond our borders.

What I believe defines our region is a unique complex of factors that defines our character:

1) While there are regions of states and even whole states that lie upon the economic and political periphery, only in New York and Illinois is the divide so great between a geographically small center of power and the huge outlying periphery. In New York, this is exacerbated by the awkward nature of borderlines- Downstate is sort of stuck hanging off the corner of the state.

2) Through various accidents of history, we develoed a unique set of what I call "Island-Cities." Each of our Upstate cities: Syracuse, Elmira-Corning, Binghamton, Rochester, Buffalo, etc, is a unique element. They are surrounded by undeveloped rural areas, cities in a sea of green. All of these cities share elements in common: they are populated largely by the descendents of immigrant populations that are distinctly different in makeup from both one another and the surrounding countryside. So, for instance, Syracuse possesses the flavor of its Irish and Italian heritage, Buffalo the Germans, Poles and African-Americans and Binghamton the various Slavic and Irish peoples. Each island-city has its own character, yet all are similar to the others in many ways.

3) We all share the same climate, both meteorological and economic: the Rust Belt. We have cities on the decline, beautiful falls and cold winters. We all suffer from youth flight, job hemmoraghing, etc. I have written more about this elsewhere.

For me, these top three reasons are what define Upstate communities and the Upstate experience. To create an Upstate that is purely the reactionary antithesis of NYC has never been my goal. I instead try to celebrate and understand Upstate New York for its positives, for its wonderful variety, but also to work to correct its negatives-- those imposed on us by an often uncaring City and those that are homegrown.