The short journey from Steel City to Salt City

One of the things I’ve been struck by while in Syracuse is how much it reminds me of Pittsburgh. It’s a feeling I had the moment I first drove into the city earlier in the year to attend one of the preview days at SU. Coming into town on I-81, there was this weird smell. It wasn’t nasty or anything, just somehow familiar. And after taking a couple of seconds to flip through my smell index in my head, I realized it was akin to what might waft into the air in Bloomfield. Kind of a post-industrial, ethnic food, exhaust smell. (That’s weird, I know, but anyone who’s ever heard me go on and on about my smell and taste associations knows that that’s nothing.)

But there are infrastructure and attitudinal similarities, too. The biggest ones are that both Pittsburgh and Syracuse have both been victims of the flight of industry and truly awful urbanization schemes.

Where Pittsburgh has had to wrestle with the loss of big steel, Syracuse has had to deal with, first, losing a lucrative salt industry and, second, the shutting down of the Erie Canal. The latter has had the biggest impact, I think.

When you come into Syracuse, there are markers all over the place for the canal. On the highway there’s an old lock, and there are streets called “Water Street,” “Canal Street,” and “Erie Boulevard.” And there’s a lot of water — there are quite a few lakes around here, as well as little beaches — but no major canal. Put another way, the canal that’s up-and-running isn’t one that would inspire Pete Seeger to sing about it.

It’s a mark of me being a newcomer that I didn’t realize that those streets — Water, Canal, Erie Boulevard — were at one time the Erie Canal. Erie Boulevard was the canal itself, and now it’s a paved over, uneven four to six lane (depending on where you are) throughway and business district. And it’s thoroughly depressing.

One on side of Erie Boulevard is one of Syracuse’s many dilapidated neighborhoods, a nest of crime, gangs, and neglect. On the other, a horizontal obelisk highway system quartering Syracuse from the north and south (I-690) and east and west (I-81).

This highway system went up during the great urbanization spree of the 1950s and 60s in cities all over the country, like Syracuse and Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, urbanization killed the Hill District and East Liberty, obliterating once thriving, vibrant centers of culture and leaving drugs and crime in its wake. And the same thing has happened in Syracuse when the Erie Canal was paved over and an interstate highway system was raised up.

Fortunately, there are some plans being negotiated to undo the damage urbanization has caused. Unfortunately, Syracuse is nowhere near making the kind of headway Pittsburgh has made in undoing the mistakes of the past. But that’s a backhanded compliment since the progress Pittsburgh has made has been slight, and even then slow in even getting off the ground.

This doesn’t bode well for Syracuse, especially when you factor in how fragmented the city and county government is thanks to a six-year-old development deal that’s stalled out due to a controversial tax break. (But that’s for another time.)

While both the loss of the canal and the urban blight are major issues here, they have affected how people look at themselves and their city. (Sounds familiar…) A lot of people that I’ve spoken to for stories have told me that Syracusans have an inferiority complex. They live in a small city, there’s a youth exodus, the crime rate is rather high, and there is a serious gang presence. All of these things combine to paint an unfavorable view of Syracuse to the rest of the world.

Personally, I never heard anything about Syracuse outside of this is where SU was located. And that’s why I was so struck by the similarities to Pittsburgh when I first came here. But the inferiority some people feel here, I think, is rooted in what’s physically around them.

There are some beautiful buildings (that’s for another post) and decent cultural institutions, but this is very much a mall culture. Need to go to a Best Buy? You go to the Carousel Center, an ostentatious shopping center at the center of the aforementioned stalled development. Want to see a movie? Carousel. Buying clothes? Carousel. Carousel, Carousel, Carousel. The mall’s depressing enough, but it’s butted right up against off-ramps from the highway, old train yards and other artifacts of a bygone era, and industrial litter from the present. Leave Carousel and you’re stuck between a small-ish, rather underdeveloped downtown (there are no skyscrapers) and Gangland.

So it’s no surprise that when people walk out their doors they’re smacked in the face with the feeling of, “God, no wonder wants to come here. Syracuse is a dump!”

But what makes this city so confusing is that, just a couple miles outside the city, huge, beautiful homes and impressive neighborhoods can be found. Granted, these are in the more “swank” and “money-soaked” areas of Onondaga County, but where’s the trickle down? How is it that you walk 100 feet in one direction and be in a slum, then turn around and walk 200 feet in another direction and be in a nice neighborhood?

I’m being hyperbolic, of course, but it seems that way sometimes. There are various neighborhoods taking the initiative themselves to clean up their streets and homes, but not everyone is doing that. And it’s because more people are content to sit around and complain about things not happening and how bad they have it rather than getting up and taking action.

And anyone who has spent any amount of time in Pittsburgh will be all too familiar with that mindset.