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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
the bad times truly began.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.