A Tale of Two Cities

Syracuse focuses on decorative measures such as new curbs instead of addressing issues of poverty and despair

Editor’s note: Voices is a weekly column that provides a platform for Central New Yorkers to comment about the issues of the day. If you’d like to submit a column, email Larry Dietrich at [email protected].

My section of the city has no name. I mean, what the heck is the Far West Side? Anyhow, old-time Syracusans call it the “West End.”

Other neighborhoods erect classy signs that identify the community. South of West Genesee Street is Tipperary Hill, a traditionally Irish neighborhood where statues commemorate historic events and an upside-down traffic signal places green above red. Nice signage introduces us to the Valley, Salt Springs, Eastwood and Strathmore. On the Nort’ Side, we’ve invested millions in a concept called “Little Italy.”

Downtown has gone development crazy with condos, a brand-spanking-new hotel and new restaurants. The sound of change–the echo of hammers and jackhammers–is audible as we walk down the street. They’re installing new curbs.

Are we witnessing a Curb-apalooza? A Curb-athon? Maybe “The Affordable Curb Act,” Curb-zilla, Curbs of the Living Dead. Will we see DNA-infused curbs run wild in Curbassic Park? Seriously, I have street curbing etched into the retina of my eyes.

On West Genesee Street at Erie Boulevard, a bridge with a clearance of 11-foot-6, supposedly, is having some work done, but not on the bridge. After decades of tractor trailer after tractor trailer crashing into the overpass, someone got the bright idea to lower the road!

At South Salina Street and East Colvin, business owners and community members meet resistance to their plan to build a community park next to Beauchamp Library. Investors have poured piles of money into this corner hoping to develop a community treasure. African-American-owned businesses are transforming South Salina into a place where commerce and community merge. A barbershop, an upscale wine and spirits shop, a convenience store and a new coffeehouse have sprung up nearby.

Onondaga County’s coffers grow from the sales tax revenue generated by shoppers at the much-maligned Destiny USA. We should be happy; we have new curbing for everyone. A shining new mall filled with bright, shiny new things to buy. “Just put your cranes in the air, and wave them like you just don’t care.”

Under the glitz and glamour of our city’s renaissance lie the underpinnings of civil unrest and economic depression. This is a tale of the two cities of Syracuse.

If you are black or white and young, however, there is no glitz or glamour.

With our manufacturing base a mere memory, unemployment has skyrocketed. Our public schools have “mis-educated” generations of African-Americans possibly bound to a life of poverty and despair. Recent improvements have included the hiring of a school superintendent who is changing the conversation. She’s raising our expectations and those of our students. Isn’t that what a leader should do?

We can say yes to education, but unless city officials can guarantee a safe pathway to school, all of these dollars and all of these initiatives may be wasted. Drive by Fowler High School’s nearby commercial plaza after school. Almost every day there’s a fight there. And these are not just one-on-one encounters. These are mass gatherings. The fights often draw more than 100 people, and there are no police.

If you are older than 55, don’t you dare take a walk to a bodega. It’s not safe. As a so-called “junior senior” at age 56, I’m being told, “Don’t go to the store at night. Stay away from the stores.” Don’t we have the right to walk, stroll, run, sashay or shop anywhere in this community without warnings, without fear?

Every commercial district in this city should have publically paid security staff walking the street. These are called police officers. Business owners should not have to pay a “fee” for what citizens expect as a deliverable: quality of life. These are our shopping districts, or bastions of capitalism. It should be a priority to keep these places safe–but it’s not.

Even though the city publicizes bodega inspections, many stores still lack flooring. One basement store sits on dirt while others sell “hairy” chicken wings. And since when did Mike & Ike candy qualify as food-stamp purchasable?

The city has installed new curbing and sidewalks, but did anyone consider how many customers a business must attract before making a sale? Every day customers can’t get to the door, the establishment loses dollars. How many Westcott Street businesses will remain financially secure after the recent slow-motion curb-athon?

With the election in our rear-view mirror, Onondaga County Republicans’ TV ads bragged about the millions of dollars they’ve saved for taxpayers. They seem to forget the devastating cut of the Human Rights Commission a couple years ago. In that same “We Are the County” commercial, the Onondaga County Republican Legislature tried to play a Jedi mind trick on us all: “Everything is OK. Everything is fine!” But it’s not!

At the end of the ad they warn us, “We’re just getting started.”

We’ve invested millions in our infrastructure, given millions away in tax credits and might add another wing to the Justice Center, but what have we done for the poor? Constructed new temporary housing? If you’re poor, you might as well live under a bridge–and some do. The working poor face even greater hardships. How would you feel after laboring all week and still not making enough money to provide for your family? Our so-called “Living Wage Law” is about as protective as a moth-eaten fabric umbrella.

There was a time when city residents were employed thanks to community development money to provide basic services, such as information about aid to pay for heating or distributing government cheese. These programs spread a little cash around our poorest neighborhoods. If they were running today, they’d be providing information about the Affordable Health Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. Job coaching or training could have been mobilized from those locations. Those jobs no longer exist in the under-served community.

In Syracuse and Onondaga County, we are good when investing in “bricks and mortar” projects. We invest in decorative lighting downtown, install enough curbing to build our own Washington Monument. We Save the Rain, Save the Swans and even dredge Onondaga Lake while many of our residents are economically crumbling like an old sidewalk.

Just imagine for a moment, if our political leaders placed as much energy in our quality of living as they have on Save the Rain and Curb-apalooza?

Ken Jackson is an award-winning columnist based in Syracuse. You can read his blog at

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