Dealing with the dark

I've been thinking lately about the release of Dave Gilmartin's book "The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America," with proclaims Syracuse to be "the crown jewel of that impressive collection of horrible midsize cities known as Western New York." The indignant response not only from Syracusians (check out Sean Kirst's column) but, as I can see it pretty much every city in the book. The situation reminds me of one of the more tragic scenes from Michael Moore's first (and perhaps finest) film: Roger and Me.

In that film, the local elite of Flint, Michigan- a city spiraling into a hellish implosion after GM pulls out all its factories- spend the afternoon burning piles of magazines (I think it's time) after it names Flint as the worst city in America. Throughout the film, these local boosters repeatedly put on a sunny face and proclaim that all the problems will soon be solved.

Now I'm not saying that Syracuse is akin to Flint in those dark days. In fact, I largely agree with Kirst that I find Syracuse and, in fact many of those "horrible midsized cities known as Western New York" to be fine places to make a life. Gilmartin goes to a bit of the extreme when he declares it to be one of the "dirtiest, smelliest, most miserable cesspools and armpits of this great land of ours" (that's a quote from his website). I'm surprised that he was shocked to have offended anyone. That said, he did apologize for the offense.

At the same time, Gilmartin does have a point. What is a community, like Syracuse or Buffalo or Elmira or Binghamton do when so much is lined up against it? What with snow/grey weather, unemployment, pollution, etc? I will say this much--denying that we have a problem and attacking the messenger won't solve the problem.

So let me bring up an example of ingenuity making a difference. Many people cite weather as an insurmountable problem, "there's simply nothing we can do about it" they announce. It's certainly true that we get more of our fair share of bad weather but I think we cannot hold a candle to Anchorage, Alaska. Average winter temperature are from 5-30 degrees and they have rainy, cool, short summers plagued with horrific mosquitoes. Granted, Syracusians will say "ok, that's not too bad," but the real problem is the fact that in the winter, they only 27% of the sunlight that us in southerly climes enjoy. People who work indoors go weeks in the winter without seeing daylight. This leads to seasonal depression, suicide and other social problems. Let's not forget that Anchorage is a city cursed with ugly '70s architecture, which probably doesn't help matters.

So what is a city to do? Anchorage shows us that its all about attitude. Dubbing itself the "City of Lights," they have come up with a unique response:
'City of Lights' is a community-wide program Started by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce in approximately 1983. Mayor Rick Mystrom helped get the program going with his enthusiasm. This is completely a volunteer effort to help brighten the long, dark days of the city, giving the city almost a magical look. Some say that Anchorage is one of the most beautiful winter cities in the world. Thousands of citizens and businesses alike join in the “City of Lights” programs by placing miniature white lights as a decoration around home, trees and many other objects throughout the city.

According to the Official Homepage, the city has a big festival to start up the lights on October 27th and that individuals donate money in order to buy lights for public places and those who can't afford them. There are competitions for the best lit businesses, neighborhoods and homes.

Do I think attitude changes everything? No, that's a bit too optimistic... you also need a whole bunch of lights. But I also think that rejecting the messenger of coming doom and gloom does nothing to change the accuracy of his prophecy. We need to take what's good about our communities (not just Syracuse but all of them), mix in healthy doses of creativity and energy and see what comes out. Even winter doesn't have to hold us back

-By Jesse

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