Buffalo BEAST - Buffalo's New Best Fiend

August 10 - 24, 2005
Issue #81

  ..Buffalo's Best Fiend
The BEAST 25 Most Loathsome Buffalonians
Queen City Loathing

Legislative Juice
Palmiero Charged for War Crimes
Matt Taibbi

Here Comes the Sun
But it's Not All Right
Alexander Zaitchik
A Mighty Wind
Green Power Threatens Corporations
Kit Smith

Tough All Over
Upstate Sucks; No One Cares

Shawn Ewald


Ohio Player
An Interview with Rep. Sherrod Brown
Matt Taibbi


Bush Names New Planet "Little Arbusto"
N Sorrentl


God Hates Boy Scouts
Scott Wagner

The BEAST Blog
Buffalo in Briefs
The Sports Blotter
The Week in Sports Crime
Page 3
Separated at Birth?
Kino Korner: Movies
[sic] - Letters
 Cover Page

Idiot Box
Perry Bible Fellowship
Bob the Angry Flower

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Tough All Over
Upstate NY: Economically & Clinically Depressed
By Shawn Ewald

Watching, for most of my adult life, what has happened to upstate New York and my hometown of Syracuse has inspired the kind of sadness, helplessness, anger, and disgust that one might feel for a beloved relative who is actively drinking themselves to death, or doing some other stupid and willfully self-destructive thing to speed themselves to the grave. For me, upstate New York is that lovable loser that makes you hate yourself for caring about him. You want to believe that things will work out for him in the end, that he’ll finally get on the wagon and turn himself around, but every time you check up on him he’s passed out, face down on the floor as always.

I’ll be thirty-six this year, and for about twenty-five of those years I have watched Syracuse and its entire surrounding region go through a long, steady and agonizing decline. My generation grew up enjoying the last dregs of prosperity the region has experienced: my father had a good paying union job at the massive General Electric plants in the suburb of Liverpool, which used to employ approximately 18,000 central New Yorkers. Most of my friends’ parents had good jobs, typically union jobs, with one of the many big employers here: GE, GM, Carrier, Bristol Labs, Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing Co., Nestle, Crucible Steel, or with one of the many small manufacturers whose existence depended on the bigger ones.

Life was good then. My mother could stay home and take care of my brother and I, and my dad had no problem keeping us kids supplied with Atari Game Consoles, BB Guns, Green Machines, and Star Wars action figures. However, these good times were hard won.

Some of the most bitter labor battles to keep jobs in the area occurred in the mid- to late-seventies and early eighties. Syracuse was a union town then and my dad and other union members fought fiercely to keep their standard of living intact. Back then, it was considered “tough times” when my mother had to work to make ends meet, which she did when my dad went on a long-term strike or when he was temporarily laid off. It may seem strange to talk about both parents working as if this were an unusual thing, but it was still possible then for a working-class mom to stay at home without bankrupting the family, and many of them did. Labor still knew how to win then and, make no mistake, it was those labor victories that kept the real hard times at bay until I reached my teens.

Another factor that ameliorated the economic climate in Syracuse during that time was a man named Lee Alexander, probably the most popular mayor that Syracuse has ever had. Alexander, who was mayor of Syracuse from 1970 to 1985, was an old school Democrat politician. He was the kind of guy who consistently brought home the bacon for his constituents, while skimming a little off the top for himself. He was a charismatic Greek in a town dominated by Irish, Italians, Germans, and Poles, and he had a level of class and sophistication that made him seem out of place in our provincial little burg. He lived well, he dressed well, and his mistresses were an open secret, but he also showed up to neighborhood meetings, kept the city solvent, got things done, and generally did more good for the city than any mayor since. He was elected president of the US Conference of Mayors in 1977, and remained an influential member of that organization, because Syracuse was one of the few cities during the recessions of the late seventies and early eighties to remain in the black and keep unemployment below the national and state averages. Even when he was finally indicted on bribery charges—which eventually got him sent to a white-collar prison—he left the city with an AA credit rating and a budget surplus.

I don’t mean to imply that Lee Alexander was a great man, he was a corrupt politician who also happened to do the job he was elected to do, and maybe he gave a damn about his constituents. However, in comparison to his successors, he looms above them like a titan. What makes him great is not his inherent greatness, but simply the glaring contrast one discovers when he is compared to the mediocrities that took his place, and the low expectations the electorate has had since.

Thus the bad times truly began.

Coinciding with Lee Alexander’s downfall came the rise of Jack Welch, who had been appointed CEO of General Electric in 1981. If there is one man and one company that could take a large share of the blame for what has become of upstate New York, it would be Jack Welch and General Electric. GE had facilities all over the state, employing tens of thousands of people. Under Welch’s leadership, GE continued its efforts to systematically devastate upstate New York economically through layoffs, plant closings, and the sale of its many businesses. Previously, the actions of management were justified as cold-blooded business decisions, but with Welch the ruthlessness of GE’s management culture was ramped up. He turned throwing thousands of people out of work and evading culpability for the company’s incalculable environmental crimes into a personal ideological crusade.

While the relationship between labor and management within GE was never friendly, Welch brought labor/management acrimony to unheard of levels, becoming a target of murderous hatred for his union employees. Welch was quite conscious of this hatred—when he visited the Syracuse plants, for example, he took great pains to avoid any contact with union employees without an entourage of security personnel. He even refused limousine service, opting instead to take a helicopter to the plant from the airport.

While the poor saps on GE’s factory floors dutifully followed labor’s doomed “Buy American” strategy (my father’s co-workers would refuse to even jump-start another co-worker’s car if it was foreign made), Jack Welch was telling the business press that GE was not an American company, but an international company. GE’s employees put up a great fight, but in the end Welch was able to do what he wanted with near impunity, leaving thousands unemployed and numerous Superfund sites in his wake. Once Welch showed the corporate world, with Satanic efficiency, how his “lean and mean” philosophy could work, it didn’t take long for other companies in the area to follow suit initiating the free fall that upstate New York continues to this day.

Many people from central New York joined the rust-belt diaspora, selling their homes while they could still get a good price and moving to the south and the west in search of work. Those who stayed seemed to have just sat back and watched the region slip deeper into decline. These were the same people who would spray-paint “SCAB” on the side of a scab’s house in the middle of the night and mix it up with cops on the picket line—I can only assume that, once their jobs were gone for good, they had nothing left to fight for.

These are the same basically decent, friendly, and helpful people that I knew as a kid. They have let the world steamroll them, and every time I come back to the area to visit my family it both breaks my heart and makes me angry. What makes me angry is not that they seem to take having their lives and livelihoods screwed over as if it were a spell of bad weather, but that they consistently elect petty criminals who help make things worse by orders of magnitude.

Like hyenas ganging around a carcass, a succession of unremarkable, Babbittesque businessman’s flunkies have occupied the mayor’s office and other key elected offices in the city and county, ever at the ready to throw public money at any greedy developer to fund the most preposterous boondoggles in the name of “creating jobs.” From the monstrous eyesore known as Carousel Mall, to a moribund convention center, to a four-stop commuter train that boast an average of 60 passengers a day (not coincidentally, its last stop is Carousel Mall), it seems as if no project is too ridiculous to fund partly or in whole with taxpayer money. The latest and most insane example of this central New York tradition is the forever delayed and ironically named Destiny, USA, which is a plan to build a gargantuan mall/eco-friendly theme park/alternative energy research facility, which has enlisted the county government’s eminent domain powers to muscle out existing businesses and homeowners to make way for this fiasco. Meanwhile, as these scams on the public have repeatedly accomplished little more than filling the pockets of politicians and their businessman cronies, more public money is spent throwing as many people in jail as possible.

Actually, I must admit, the good natured complacency of central New Yorkers regarding their lot in life gets to me too. Even in decline, people here go about things with a Swiss-like tidiness: you can find ten storey buildings in downtown Syracuse, completely abandoned, surrounded by clean, unused sidewalks sprouting grass and wildflowers from the cracks, with not a single initial of graffiti or a single broken or boarded window. Even some of our ghettos look neatly kept, like well-groomed corpses. Elsewhere in the world, even elsewhere in America, one can find the occasional outburst of rage and discontent when a community has reached this level of decay—a riot here, a shooting spree there—but not in central New York. It is harrowing to watch every kick to the teeth the region takes, yet that friendly grin, to my horror, still remains.

When I visit Syracuse, I often roam around downtown. With the almost complete absence of industry, the air is fresh and clean even in the heart of the city; the loss of industrial jobs has certainly been an incredible boon to the environment. Onondaga lake is a short bike ride from the center of town; it was once one of the most polluted lakes in the world, but now it no longer has that familiar chemical stink that I knew in my youth, as it continues the long process of cleaning itself. Downtown used to be a busy and vibrant place; people used to complain about the parking here, but now it is nearly desolate.

I don’t claim to know what should be done to turn the region around, and since I don’t live there anymore, I don’t even know if it’s my place to give advice. But I can ask: people of Syracuse, people of upstate, where is your anger? It may not be your fault that you’re in the mess you’re in, but what are you going to do about it? Unfortunately, as with watching a loved one slowly drink themselves to death, I am powerless; only they can make the choice to stop.

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