ruminations on place
Like many, I went home for the holidays to be with family. While home , I took a walk in my old “hometown downtown”- Syracuse, New York. It conjured up a lot of memories walking for a few miles along the Creekwalk, a newly opened path through the heart of the old city. Here’s my diary:
At some point , a visit to Syracuse inevitably includes a visit to its megamall DestiNY (get it!), and this is where, as it happens, the Creekwalk, and my visit began. If nothing else, there is plenty of parking.
DestiNY is painful to see; a case study in watching a city in need of hope get taken for a ride. The developer of this mall, to wet the appetites of the locals into bending over backwards with tax incentives, originally conjured utopian dream cities , a green paradise of sustainable entertainment in the heart of New York- “Destiny USA!”.
I would read the latest update in the Architectural press and think; what? In my hometown? In Syracuse- 50 story hotels ?; Tuscan hilltowns ?, more tourists than Disneyland? Really? This? :
Well, not really? The fuzzy visions begat this, our big fat mall :
Now, it does some good. It is IN Syracuse, and it does bring new shopping experiences- I mean Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar and Grill” ! But its an ugly hulk that sits at the end of the county’s namesake lake that defines the area. And, in being surrounded by hundreds of acres of parking, manages in true mall fashion to turn inward, away from the city. But I Love This Bar And Grill!
As I stood in the cold, I contemplated these absurd visions. On its bleak exterior, perhaps to taunt, a single windmill sat, I guess to remind us how all those green tax incentive bonds were spent. It sat directly above a PF Changs banner that flapped in the tepid breeze, non-threatening Pan-Asian cuisine coming soon.
It drew me into a funk, made me think of all the missed opportunities or crazy ideas in my hometown. The mall that helped to kill off downtown, the ballpark that was not built downtown, the monorail to the campus (lets not even go there). Syracuse had gone on some bad dates.
The Creekwalk begins near the shores of the aforementioned Lake. This is one of most polluted lakes (albeit finally getting cleaned up) in the world, and into it flows the industrial canal and creek that form the basis for the creekwalk.
As I started, I remember growing up in the west side suburbs not far away, and recalled the smell in nearby Solvay, an overwhelming odor of , well, cleanser. These factories were primarily responsible for nearly killing the lake. And that was kind of the memory for me in 70s Syracuse; a lake that smelled like Borax, a decaying downtown, one largely there for nights watching the likes of Cheap Trick and Foreigner at the War Memorial, a crumbling hulk of a football stadium , and a baseball stadium with, remarkably, no seats behind home plate (due to a fire, it stayed that way for 30 years). But it was the lake that symbolized Syracuse , a beautiful resource destroyed, broken, and in true Syracuse fashion, like the hole in the baseball stadium, it just sat there for years.
The good times for us teens were had elsewhere, in the hills and dales of the countryside, and along its many wondrous crystalline lakes and rivers. A great region to grow up in, but after college, I got my Architecture degree, shook the dust of the crumbling burg off my clothes, and headed out-of-town to “Opportunity”, which I was sure was well past Cortland.
But a funny thing happened. Over the years, my interest in my hometown as a built environment grew instead of fading, in part fed by my ever-loving mother dutifully sending me whatever updates there were in the trusty Herald Journal.
As I began to work my way along the industrial west side heading to downtown , it was clear the old industrial canal had been transformed. It was now a park and a harbor, surrounded by cleaned up vegetation.
This got me to remembering the beginnings of the change in these parts back in the 80′s. There was talk that some old buildings in the neglected Armory Square area were to be redeveloped. We’ll see I thought.
But slowly, it began to happen, a building here or there , then more, then it spread to Franklin Square, where I was now. As an Architect living in San Francisco, living in an area with an ever-expanding population, with so few unused buildings, this series of small acts seemed heroic, and maybe a bit crazy. I mean people were emptying out of downtown, who would come back? My return trips home periodically included a visit to these parts, to see what had changed. Bit by bit a critical mass developed, and on this day, with freshly fallen snow, these old factories, now a new neighborhood of homes and businesses, were kind of enchanting.
The Creekwalk is marvelous in the way it weaves in and around buildings, giving one surprise vistas and marvelous juxtapositions, the present day walk leading to a renovated building, with industrial remnants in the blurry periphery.
As the walk gets to downtown and emerges from its channel, one gets an up-close view of some of Syracuse’s finest buildings. At the center of the old city, the utilitarian brick of the factories gives way to the finely hewn stones and flights of masonic fancy:
Be it a solid bit of Classical Architecture at the Clinton Exchange.
A bit of whimsical Commercial Baroque:
Or the Moderne Niagara Mohawk Building and her Spirit of Energy (why don’t we do this on buildings anymore?).
And I was Downtown. And at the edge of the aforementioned Armory Square. Growing up, I don’t think I was in this area once, but at some point it stopped being this:
And instead became this:
Again, I can remember when these buildings were being restored, at first scrappy urban pioneers in lofts, then a few brave shops and restaurants. But now, with new buildings filling in and around the old, a compelling, dense urban neighborhood has emerged amidst 19th century commercial buildings. Shops on the ground floor and curtains up above, a depth of use matched by the rich depth of these substantial facades.
But what of the adjacent downtown. While I did have that memory of a crumbling Syracuse from the 70′s , it occurred to me I also had another more compelling one.
But I had to search to find it, because the bustling Commercial core seemed long gone. Downtown Syracuse, like so many other mid-sized northeast cities, has lost people, and the attractiveness of downtown as a shopping and working core faded. My father’s shop was nowhere to be seen, and the memories of striding proudly down Warren Street with my Dad, he getting greeted every 20 feet by another friend or client, faded:
But ,(I argued with myself ), the fact remained that downtown IS unique, there was no place like it in the region. Downtown was an exciting place when I was very young, a portal to a strange and compelling world out there, one very different from my secure suburban home. In those times, downtown visits were a treat, even if they were just a trip to the dentist. But just as often, a visit to Mom or Dad at work, an exciting downtown lunch, or maybe a trip with my grandmother to buy shoes.
Then it all came back when I came upon the old State Tower Building. In my oft-exaggerated memories, it IS a soaring 50 story edifice, not, the modest depression era office building one sees often in cities of this ilk. But with slender proportions, it did soar to the 5 year old. It was home to my dentist , who was one thrilling ride up its art deco elevators. The tallest building for miles!
He now long gone, but how the memory of place remained. There was a small newstand in the lobby, and a cafe off the main aisle (still there), and the aforementioned ride up to a room with a view. It was all so foreign, so exciting, so urban, so stylized! I came out of the experience richer, and not just because I was the proud owner of a new gold filling.
More dental history, my mind remembered orthodontistry in a soaring high ceilinged classical temple. Is that right, could that have been possible? And here it was , around the corner, all Christmasy, and yes there was the soaring space, second floor of the University Building on the left, where , a bit older, I would sit admiring Corinthian columns whilst getting my screws tightened on my braces, a budding architect with an overbite under construction. (Somehow, today, the partnership of architecture to getting screws tightened seems right , but I digress ).
And always, a visit to Clinton Square, to see the Christmas tree. On this day, the scene was a Nordic urban post card, with skaters against a backdrop of the best of Syracuse’s splendid castles of Commerce.
I made my way back to Armory Square and back to the creek for the trek back to the car. Along the way, I had passed a sign of promise for downtown, the renovation of a block of buildings along Salina Street. Redevelopment is like dropping a stone in the water, its effects gradually cascade outward, so the success of Armory seems to be sending out its small waves.
To wit, on the other side of Armory something completely different seems to have taken hold on the creek, anchored by the SU School of Architecture’s new home. :
An arts district is taking off:
and even the bridges have become canvasses:
A few years ago, I came down here with my Dad. Like me, he had his own memories of the place, but much deeper. He also grew right here- on the Near Westside, right across the creek,in a dirt poor Irish Catholic household of 12 kids.
On this day, his old neighborhood not seen for 30 years, was unrecognizable to him. The area had been to war and back, sort of. It was re-emerging , with new housing being built near downtown for the first time in decades- block by block.
He was startled to see this. I could tell he couldn’t quite compute it all, it rustled the recall of his own palaces. He knew it was a good thing, as change came often to inner city neighborhoods, but still.
Then we came upon his beloved St. Lucy’s , still there. He regaled us growing up with tales of the much feared nuns of St. Lucy’s , where, as an altar boy, he served mass every day. He teared up as we stood out front, and told those stories that I had heard over and over, now with a new freshness. My eyes got blurry too, as we stood in front of dear old St. Lucy’s, his palace of memories, with Sinners Welcome :
The solidity of these great buildings, be they churches, towers, or factories, have served Syracuse for multiple generations. Despite all the change, they are still here, because they are substantial, built to last. They are accommodating new uses, lives, dreams, as well the continuity of the old- so two generations can share a moment .
The walk gave me great hope for my hometown. It all takes a lot more courage and conviction in Syracuse than it does in San Francisco and what I realize is how much this city and the experiences within have shaped me and inspired me.
As I returned to my car, I acknowledged that on a bitter cold day, there was a place for the climate controlled comfort of the manufactured town square:
But in my experience, a little cold might be good for the heart and the soul. Yeah, that;s it. Syracuse Rising: