Karrie Jacobs


May 11, 2008

Alexis de Tocqueville Was Here

Parking garage, downtown Syracuse.

The Itinerant Urbanist loves cities. It is my job in life to wander cities big and small, drinking in the architecture and the streetscapes, appreciating them as a naturalist might appreciate the forest and the trees, or an oenophile the flavor and the nose. Syracuse, however, represented a challenge.

I was spending a long weekend in Ithaca where my nephew the surrealist had mounted his senior thesis show in one of Cornell’s galleries and I decided to drive north to check out Syracuse. I went online and found the Downtown Living Tour of 2007, a walking tour of loft and condo conversions of some of the city’s historic buildings. Although I missed the tour by a year, I figured that the route map would lead me to downtown’s most vital spots.

Indeed, it took me right to Armory Square, where intensive redevelopment has created a credible urban neighborhood full of restaurants and shops. I stopped to admire the interior of Sakana-ya (see below), a conveyor-belt sushi bar done in post-industrial chic, according to the waiter, by a Korean architect, name unknown. It also took me to the Hotel Syracuse, currently in the midst of a condo conversion, where I got booted out by a belligerent man when I tried to peek at the lobby. And it led me to the corner of Franklin and Willow where the Dinosaur Barbeque was buzzing with bikers.

But mostly what I observed and felt as I walked around was the native sadness of New York state’s old industrial cities. Salina St. which, pre-WWII was a the heart of a bustling shopping district appeared to be neglected and semi-abandoned. In between the few hotspots, there was very little to make a pedestrian happy. Yes, there are some beautiful old buildings, like the glorious art deco Niagara Mohawk headquarters, but the urban fabric is awfully threadbare. I found myself appreciating parking garages, just for the little splashes of color they provide.

Parking garage, Syracuse.

And I devoted more time to reading signs and historical markers than I would in a more vibrant place. In Clinton Square, ostensibly the heart of the city, there was a sign explaining how ice skating had been restored to its rightful place. Syracuse became an industrial powerhouse in part because the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, ran right through downtown. The canal wasn’t just a shipping artery, it was the city’s commercial and social hub. In the winter, when it froze, people ice skated on it. By the 1920s, the canal was outmoded and the portion that ran through Syracuse was paved over, converted into Erie Boulevard. So now there’s this desolate square where the canal used to be with a little concrete skating rink, a ghost of the amazing piece of infrastructure that had once made the city (and the rest of New York’s cities) great.

Oh, and there was also a marker noting that Alexis de Tocqueville had “visited this area” in the 1830s while researching Democracy in America (and that a cable channel had, in the 1990s, retraced his route). Hard to say which is more poignant, the image of Syracuse as the 19th century boomtown that de Tocqueville must have found, or the idea that a city would turn to “C-Span and the cable television industry” for its historical markers.

Two unrelated notes:

1) From the Department of Self-Promotion, my recent Metropolis column, Like Urban Renewal, Only Backward seems to be a favorite of policy wonks everywhere. You might enjoy it, too.

2)As some sort of viral marketing effort I was sent a link to a Current TV mini-documentary, City on Steroids, about the booming Chinese city of Chongqing. I think it’s worth watching.