A Word---To Give, Take, Keep

J. Sheldon Fisher 1907-2002

When I was first elected to office, the municipal attorney sent me a letter on official business, and I saw with shock that it was addressed to “The Honorable.” I was shocked because it hadn’t occurred to me that the simple matter of running for office and being elected would confer any such titles. As I thought more about it, though, it seemed there was a point to the honorific: in running for election, I had spoken about the need to protect the public trust. In voting for me, the public had conferred that trust, and in taking the oath of office, I had given my word that I would not only protect the community’s health, safety and general welfare but that I would do so within a framework of State and federal laws. At first blush, though, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

Local historian Sheldon Fisher’s passing has reminded me to review the position he held, without virtue of election, as an exemplary man-of-honor. In his case, it was his faithfulness to history and his insistence on the immediacy and pertinence of history that attracted first my attention then my trust and admiration.

Sheldon Fisher also exemplified the virtues of staying at home, which he accomplished to a remarkable extent. He was born a Fisher after all, born in Fishers, NY of generations of Fishers, and the tiny hamlet of Fishers always remained the heart of his universe. He knew that any inquiry has to be located somewhere, both as a point of origin and perspective, and he found Fishers to be as good as any and better than most for him. He recognized that tiny events in Fishers might be vitally contacted to massive, world-shaking events unfolding elsewhere on the globe. For example, we know that the Mormonism began in upstate New York before embarking on its epic continental journey. Fisher’s research uncovered significant details of the religion’s origins among families living in a swath from Palmyra to Mendon and including, yes, Fishers. He lived a life of inquiry and imagination that could see, in William Blake’s terms, “the world in a grain of sand.” Fishers was his grain of sand.

As a young man I remember seeing Sheldon Fisher and Canandaigua City Historian Herb Ellis, two old men even then, standing in a downpour of rain and sleet at the Council Stone on the main street. They were observing the anniversary of a treaty signed in 1794 by groups representing two nations meeting in Canandaigua. One group stood for the Seneca Nation, whose authority stemmed from their identification of certain local landscape features as their place of origin. But after defeat in war, their long residency was drawing to a close and they were on their way out- to reservations, to Canada, across the continent, bound elsewhere.

The other nation, represented by a hatchet-faced commissioner with a reputation for hard and fair dealing, was the new United States, whose authority had been established by a successful war of independence with the world’s premier colonial power. The weather on the day that the treaty was signed wasn’t recorded, but it’s not too difficult to imagine it as a bleak, cold, gray November day with a hint of snow in the air. My hometown, Canandaigua, was at that time a frontier settlement of a couple hundred people huddled around their chimneys.

Sheldon Fisher is worthy of honor because, despite the actions of our government in the 1960s to appropriate Seneca land for a dam project, he insisted on honoring the treaty. He felt as though it was his word that was given on November 11, 1794, and he would honor his word, whatever others did. We should all try to have such a WORD. The Seneca stayed away from the treaty commemoration for a number of years because they regarded the U.S. action as bending if not breaking the treaty and hoped in vain to embarrass the U.S.

Having a word requires that we give it without conditions and with as full a knowledge of consequences as possible. A word isn’t a word to the extent that we assign conditions to it: “I’ll keep my promise if/when you do.” Likewise, a true word to give requires that we live with all of its consequences.

I’m reminded of our friends the Friends who, when they were branded as Quakers, remarked, “Why yes, we do quake in the presence of the Lord,” and accepted the name as a legitimate, secondary title for their church. In their early days, they were constantly in trouble with religious and secular authorities for what they would and would not do. One of the bones of contention was the swearing of oaths.

The Quakers would not swear to the truth of anything; they considered that once having spoken the truth and said their “word,” no amount of attestation, declaration, God’s witness or notarization would alter the truth of that word. Swearing to the truth of a true statement was in effect gilding the lily, and they would no more swear than they would wear gaudy clothes (They insisted that bright dyes were intended to hide the dirt, and they preferred plain, clean clothes.) For authority, they pointed to a passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus says, “Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.”

The world is full of conflicting allegiances, multiple perspectives, and contrary interpretations. There can be every shade of gray and confusion on all sides about the shades. We employ specialists to exploit the confusion to gain an advantage. The exponential growth of the attorney and actuary populations supported by our society attests to the sharpness of the instruments now being used to split hairs. Written contracts and treaties stretch into multiple volumes in which every circumstance and condition is imagined, probed, explicated and dissected. By contrast, Sheldon Fisher’s lifetime business was conducted as a matter of word, with perhaps a handshake thrown in for good measure.

Perhaps part of our current problem is our hyper-literacy. We expect that everyone we encounter will also be literate, and the records of decisions will be written down and kept so that they can be consulted in the future when the parties have forgotten the details of their agreement or have passed the agreement on to new parties. But not everyone is literate now, nor were they in the past. In part, the collision of the Seneca and the United States was part of a long history of literate people trying to impose their idea of an agreement on people whose idea of their word was quite different.

Clearly the Iroquois believed in reaching agreements with others (the Iroquois “League” was formed by such a device), and records of agreements were kept with wampum belts. The wampum belts functioned as mnemonic devices to facilitate the recitation of agreements in public. The other party to the agreement, the U.S., recorded words on paper (even if the Seneca could only make an “x”), copied the papers, then hid their copy in a vault in a distant capital. Our memories seem to have atrophied just as the written clauses have multiplied.

In the matter of giving, taking or keeping a word, some believe that it matters who knows, remembers and keeps track; others do not. Some believe that a word given is a public matter and others that it is a private function.

I think that the function of a word has private and public aspects. The public aspects are easiest to describe. On our side, giving and taking a word in public usually involves a ceremony, and the ceremony invokes some sacred principle to witness and protect the word.

On the other hand, the Seneca have consistently used metaphorical but secular imagery, speaking of the Canandaigua treaty as a chain, with full knowledge that the way a chain binds can be assuring or painful. The chain they speak of could be decorative since it’s made of silver. Left unattended, the chain binding the parties could become tarnished and ugly. The Seneca insist that the chain binding the two nations of people together in friendship must be periodically taken out, inspected and polished so that it will continue to be an ornament, a thing of beauty and not a tarnished hindrance.

The Seneca’s meaning isn’t obscure: the word needs to be exercised in public. It reminds me of a Jewish tale about the angel that attends every friendship. Without friendship’s proper exercise, the angel dies, so friends are required to see one another, to speak and to share. It matters less what they do so long as they do something together as friends.

The private word is more difficult to describe because it has an inchoate aspect going beyond language’s expressive ability. A person may give his or her word to him or herself, without notifying any other party. Probably we all know someone who’s dedicated to a task for a reason not immediately apparent. For example, a person may undertake work simply because that work was the unfulfilled wish or goal of a friend who’s been unable to complete it because of sickness or death. The word may also bind two people, and marriage is the best known example. In fact, the most common ceremonies of marriage invoke conditions, “in sickness and in health,” in order to nullify them. Beyond marriage, a word may be given within a family, extending common allegiance and protection to all of that blood.

Beyond the family, most word-giving and –taking becomes a public ceremony with attendant ritualism. Perhaps a better question about the nature of the word is how it is distributed- how far it reaches and who may make a claim on it. Exemplary people of honor often extend the circle in which their word will be kept beyond their families, friends and associates, beyond their clans, tribes and nations, and even beyond “people like us,” to include all humanity, the whole creation. Sheldon Fisher’s circle of responsibility had a center in Fishers, NY, not a place we, or he, might have chosen. But from Fishers, the circle extended to include all sorts of unlikely people and places and, most strikingly, deep into history and far into times to come.

-by Stephan Lewandowski


The second-hand store is a cluttered labyrinth carved out of a much larger building, once a department store, which explains the mysterious ups and downs of navigating its full extent. For example, the only way to go up to several floors of stored furniture above is to walk down a short flight to the basement. From the subterranean level, you catch the elevator up run by a short jaunty fellow in a hat. He will leave you off at whatever floor you say and he always, as he assures you, comes back for you later.

There’s a ceremony in using the elevator. The door is held shut by a heavy bar latch, which he undoes by lifting and shifting with a clang. He rolls back the segments of doors and shows you in. He may doff his hat. Once loaded, he closes several doors, latches and a heavy metal safety-gate before beginning operation. The elevator is not self-aligning; it responds to his handling of a massive switch, and once he gets near a floor, he fine-tunes it with little twitches. At the floor, he repeats the ceremony of pulling switches, bars and gates in a certain order to let you out.

For a little while, he experimented with a tips tray held aloft by a piece of secondhand statuary, but not for long. I don’t think he had any takers. He always has his eye out for you and when you step down into his basement area, he’s right there asking if you want a ride up. Somehow he can make you feel vaguely embarrassed for not using his services.

Of course, we aren’t really used to being transported by others. We’d rather jump in and go. His service comes from an entirely different tradition. He invites you in. He asks you to go up. He implies that what you need must be on the upper floors reachable only by his elevator. He’s always sort of around. Probably he cleans up, fixes washing machines and moves the furniture around when he’s not transporting customers, but I’ve never seen him do so. He knows me by sight now, and our encounters have become a short-hand: he says “Today?” with an upward gesture of his head. When I say “Nope,” he gives me a look like I don’t know what I’m missing.
Today he gave me a start. I came looking for a special bowl of a certain size, and I found two right away at a good price on the main floor. I was short of time. Why did I go downstairs at all? I brushed past the Book Nook full of musty sheet music and coverless magazines. As I went down, I caught a whiff of the ever-present sewer gas, no worse than usual but no better either. I think it comes up from the next level down, the sub-basement, which must be dug nearly to the level of the nearby lake. It must have been difficult to get the sewer in so deep, but maybe it’s not quite deep enough, judging by the smell.

He was suddenly beside me, hat pulled low. He glanced up and recognized me. “Hey,” he said, “up today?” but before I could say, “Don’t think so,” he started telling me his story. He pulled his lip aside to show me a big space where his teeth used to be. “Yeah, I broke one and it got infected. They took out four. Now I’m waiting for my false teeth to come in.” It looked bad for him, and he looked bad too- worn, tired, and he seemed to have shrunk in his clothes. He was poking around with a broom, sweeping the floor, and didn’t seem to care much if I went up or stayed.

Something new in the store caught my eye. In the back of the basement, where it used to be dark and moldy, it was now shiny. There was a curtain hanging from the low ceiling, separating a new, bright space from the old basement. I walked past rows of slumping armchairs, absurd lamps, and stained couches, and as I went back, I could see past the curtain.

They must have broken through the cellar wall into a new part of the old basement. From where I thought it used to end, the cellar continued back, and someone had dry-walled and painted an all-white room just big enough to contain eight church pews with a lectern facing them. Behind the lectern hung a large golden cross bathed in light.

There was no one in sight, except for the sweeper. I looked around. The room was meticulously clean and bright. The benches were polished and carefully arranged. Even the floor was freshly painted and unmarked. The sweeper took no notice of my discovery of the new room, but I was suddenly afraid of being caught in the basement shrine by whoever worships there.

“So how you doing today?” he asked as I started to hurry out.

“Oh, I’m okay,” I said, “and I already got what I want. I left it at the front desk- just have to pay for it on the way out.”

“Come back when you got some time to go for a ride,” he said, the dust from his broom rising around our ankles.

-by Stephen Lewandowski

Citizens, Consumers and the struggle for the soul of Upstate Communities

I aim in this post to examine the concept of a ‘citizen’ in our Upstate communities and the slow erosion of this idea before the new concept of a ‘consumer.’ Today, we tend to view ‘citizenship’ as a relationship between an individual and a State, a government. By saying “I am a citizen of the United States,” one implies foremost a relationship with the United States government, including both rights and responsibilities. School citizenship classes or larger citizenship campaigns typically aim to increase participation in the activities of the government. This has not, however, always been the case.

The concept of a citizen arose in contrast to the political situation of being a subject. Once, this was the primary form of political allegiance in Western nations (like British Subjects). A subject’s primary loyalty is to a sovereign, such a King, Pope or Emperor. Power emanates from this central figure who is elevated above others. The key is that subjects are related to one another only by their relationship to the sovereign.

Citizenship, however, was originally a relationship between citizens not between citizens and the state. Citizenship permeated every element of life. We can see this fascination with life in a ‘Republican System’ in the writings of authors like Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. This changed the fundamental nature of politics: privileges granted by the sovereign were replaced by (universal) rights, duties given to the sovereign were replaced by responsibilities of the citizen as a member of the community. The state was re-imagined from being the emanation of the power of the sovereign to an agent acting on behalf of the citizenry. While the government was defined by its citizenry, citizenship went far beyond a relationship to the state. These ideals were summed up in the slogans of the era: “All men [sic] are created equal,” and “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.”

As the Enlightenment revolutions (most notably the French) swept the Western world, they also reconfigured the very space of the European cities. The most iconic transformation was the reshaping of Paris by Baron Haussmann. Caldiera writes:

At the core of the conception of urban public life embedded in modern Paris are notions that city space is open to be used and enjoyed by anyone, and that the consumption society it houses may become accesssible to all. Of course, this has never been entirely the case, neither in Paris nor anywhere else… These
modern urban experencies were coupled with a political life in which similar values were fostered. The modern city has been the stage for all types of public demonstrations. In fact, the promise of incorporation into modern society included not only the city and consumption but also the polity. (From “Fortified Enclaves: The New Urban Segregation,” pg 94)
While this promise of universal inclusion has never been achieved, this does not make it any less of a worthwhile goal; the successes (if only partial) of movements like Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, etc, are because they have forced inclusion, not because they have rejected the possibility of it occuring.

Yet, it is this basic society of inclusion, the ideal of equal citizens working in fraternity [sic] for liberty, that is today under siege in our communities. Across Upstate New York, we can see the creep of the privatization of space. In Buffalo, there are plans for the first gated community in Amherst (here’s an editorial). In Syracuse, DestinNY proposes to create a privately-owned (but publically subsidized) sealed fantasyworld only accessible by car. Barnes and Noble or Borders replaces the public library. Elevated freeways cut across Syracuse, Binghamton and smaller cities of the Mohawk valley, paralyzing neighborhoods and allowing the owners of cars to avoid all contact with the communities they pass over. Yards become ever-larger, separating mcmansions even as suburbs push further away from central cities. Cars become an absolute necessity for moving from one private parking lot to another in order to do basic shopping.

Is this not an outright rejection of the project of citizenship? We are privatizing public space, creating a situation where one’s status as a consumer replaces that of a citizen. No right exists to enter and inhabit these faux-public spaces—it is only one’s position as a potential purchaser. We need to look no further than the 2003 arrest at the Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, NY of a man for wearing a peace t-shirt to see the fragility of the illusion of true public space within the modern mall. It is profit, not the high-minded goals of liberty, equality and love, that guide these consumer-business relationship. The creation of these privatized enclaves (especially fortified areas like gated communities)—and the interrelated withering of true public spaces—“are not environments that generate conditions conducive to demcracy. Rather, they foster inequality and the sense that different groups belong to separate universes and have irreconcilable claims.” (Caldiera 104)

Without true public space, there is no chance for citizens to enact true citizenship, to develope intimate, difficult relationships with one another. Without the enactment of true citizenship upon the ground, our conception of citizenship will continue to wither to a vestigial loyalty to the State and our communities will fade into nothing.

-by Jesse


Dreaming of a New Westcott Theater

Citizens of Syracuse's Westcott Nation, lovers of cinema and defenders of the besieged independent media all have reason to mourn this week. The Westcott Cinema is closing. One of a dying breed, the Cinema is a single screen, independently owned movie house. Certainly, the owner of the structure will look for an alternative tenant, but there are enough empty storefronts in Syracuse for one to guess that finding someone to occupy a run-down, single-screen theater might not be the easiest prospect. There is a good chance that it will go un-occupied for some time to come.

Westcott is a fantastically aberrant neighborhood. For starters, it (like its cinema) is an increasing rarity: an integrated neighborhood. While this most certainly refers to the presence of both whites and blacks within the area, this doesn’t encapsulate the diversity found in this little outlying area. Women in saris pass those in the latest hip-hop fashions. University professors rub elbows with psychics and shamans. At the Credit Union, one is as likely to hear Spanish as English. Our yearly festival features music from places as varied as Havana, the Bronx, Ghana and Nashville.

More than simply an abundance of cultural roots, we also enjoy a fantastic network of community institutions: neighborhood associations, a thriving business strip, a community center, a farmer’s market, a branch library, numerous churches, a neighborhood credit union and a co-operative grocery.

I am sure that various community-oriented minds around the Westcott Nation read ‘opportunity’ into the closing of the Cinema. Space is a precious resource, especially at the convergence of Westcott and Harvard streets and there are many that would love to see their dream come to fill that space. Undoubtedly, someone is thinking of re-opening Westcott once again as an art theater. This is both my hope and my great fear.

It seems to be consensus that something different has to be done. The previous tenant, Nat Tobin, was an experienced cinema owner (he also runs the Manlius Art Cinema) and a great lover of the art form, yet was unable to sustain the enterprise. According to the Post Standard (on October 18th, 2007):

…people have shown interest in creating a new theater on the site that would
show either first- or second-run films. Several local business people have
suggested partnerships in new ventures, including a coffee shop, at the
location. Others have proposed the theater become a venue for live

What is it that I fear about these developments? Simply put, the harmonious cohabitation of numerous racial and cultural groups within a neighborhood is a balance that needs to be continually worked on to be maintained. Sitting on Westcott on a Friday night, one sees both groups of whites and blacks, but they are almost always segregated. I rarely saw anyone that wasn’t a middle-aged, middle-classed and white attending the old Westcott Cinema. The only institutions that pull off this integration well—from what I can see—are the Community Center and the Credit Union, and both of them have had to work hard and, more importantly, consciously at maintaining this balance.

I fear an art cinema, community run or not, that claims to appeal to the ‘community’ but in fact aims only at the wealthiest, whitest and most prestigious of clientele. A place that takes its cues solely from Sundance and where the term ‘foreign film’ rarely extends beyond the art scenes of Western Europe and its Latin American imitators. A place like the misnamed Little Theater in Rochester with its attached jazz club and French pastry shop. I fear a resurrected cinema of fancy coffees, expensive pastries and high brow films—another agent of gentrification.

Do I dislike art films? Am I opposed to liberal-minded documentaries? Of course not, I firmly stand behind cinema that aims for something higher than profit. Yet, I also stand behind a cinema that aims to be a truly community affair. What do the citizens of Westcott Nation—white and black, native and immigrant, young and old, working and middle class—want to see on their screen?

My imagined cinema would show the standard fare of art flicks and documentaries, but also feature popular films from the burgeoning film industries of India and China, second-run Hollywood films to undercut the popularity of corporate cinemaplexes, and bizarre kitsch films like the Rocky Horror Picture Show for nothing more than sheer fun. I see it as a place spiced up with stand-up comics and musical acts, both local and brought in from the outside. I fantasize of each film being preceded by a short produced by a student from a local high school or university. However, in the end, I hope that my dreams carry only as much weight as any of my other neighbors.

How could this be arranged? I see two options for organizing a dream like this: non-profit, or a cooperative of some sort (perhaps a consumer co-0p like the Real Food Co-Op or perhaps a worker-owned one). All of these options would leave control of the destiny of our cinema in the hands of our neighbors.

As we move towards one of these options, we might do well to take a lesson from the Art Cinema of Binghamton. When the old, privately owned, single-screened, Art Theater burned down a few years ago, the cinemaphiles of Binghamton organized screenings of art films in homes and sympathetic places of business. These screenings raised money, attracted attention, built a sense of fellowship among activists and provided the basic framework of an organization that would eventually open a new Art Cinema downtown. If we are to undertake these actions, we must take care to not only respect but also celebrate the beautiful, empowering and, ultimately, fragile diversity that is Westcott.

-By Jesse