2 AM in Syracuse: Thoughts on Change

I: High rates of poverty is cause for more discussion on campus 2/10/2016

II: Student Calls for more permanent Civic Pride

It was a Sunday afternoon and I was heading to campus from my childhood home in Syracuse. I’ll spare you the agony of explaining why, but I was having one of those rock-bottom days that often follows a night on Marshall, when one too many fish bowls were consumed. I pulled up to a red light and there, on the corner, was a high school classmate of mine. Nowadays, he seems to be as much a part of that corner as the street sign that loomed above.

While I was wallowing in my own nonsense, his realities had long since hardened him like cement.

In Syracuse, about half of our children are born into economic despair. In a Syracuse.com commentary, Mayor Stephanie Miner, citing trends of faltering economic mobility, described a crushing likelihood: “a child born today at 919 S. State St. will live her entire life in poverty.”

While difficult to hear, such frankness is necessary in civic discussions and is all too often missing. Take for example the transcript of the last GOP debate — the word “poverty” was mentioned once.

In academia, the way we discuss poverty feels dehumanized and terms like “inequality” bounce off of me. What hits me instead are the harsh truths and subtle realities; children who are born closest to the Carrier Dome are probably the least likely to ever attend a game. Too many of my former classmates spend their days on corners.

Still, good things are undoubtedly happening in Syracuse. You can feel the energy downtown and you can see the physical progress. In many ways, our university remains a shining city on the hill.

On campus, we can serve ourselves and our city by confronting the challenges and struggles at our doorstep. We harbor a wide range of talent in fields that are so profoundly connected to potential solutions, such as education, political science, communications, nutrition and business. It seems to me that we can — and ought to — do more to focus our attention on these pressing issues.

The realities of our neighbors should be the topic of more lectures, conversations and thought. Reinforcing this belief is the Athenian Oath, engraved outside of the Maxwell Auditorium, which reminds us to “unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty” and to “transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

II:

Over the past few weeks, a great deal of national attention has focused on Syracuse. Both the men and women’s basketball teams have peaked at just the right moment. It’s been a beautiful thing to watch.

It’s just what the doctor ordered for the city of Syracuse. Over the past year or two, most or any national news relating to the city has regarded its extreme poverty rates and lack of economic growth. Locally, division widens over the idea of merging the city and county. Today, rich or poor, pro or against that merger plan, we all have something to be proud of.

Unfortunately, this feeling of euphoria will eventually fade, win or lose. Still, maybe there’s something to be learned from the experience, besides the advantages of running a stellar 2-3 zone. Aren’t we stronger when we have a shared sense of pride in something communal? Certainly, it must be beneficial to have the attention of the nation.

So, can we emulate such pride, on a more permanent level?

The city of Charleston, South Carolina, may shed light on an answer.  The city hosts the annual 17-day Spoleto Arts Festival, with art displays and major concerts that bring visitors from around the globe. In a New York Time’s interview, Charleston’s longtime Mayor, Joe Riley, stated that “you need to commit a city to excellence”; the festival “forced the city to take on the responsibility of putting on something world-class.”

A similar example was displayed in Chicago, in the late 1800s. In 1871, The Great Fire destroyed over 3 miles of property. Crime, employment rates and workers’ rights created unrest, which boiled over in 1886, when police fired on a group of working protestors.

Yet, by 1893, civic pride had improved dramatically. This was mostly due to the Chicago World’s Fair, constructed by a team of architects led by Daniel H. Burnham. Fluorescent light bulbs, a Ferris Wheel and dishwashers were among many of the “firsts” introduced at the fair. Perhaps its greatest achievement was its architectural beauty, which helped draw in over 25 million visitors.

In Syracuse, we feel proud at the moment, but economic realities remain pressing. With out-of-the-box thinking, perhaps there is a way to duplicate that civic pride, while changing those realities. As far as ideas, Burnham provides a good starting point: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Liam Kirst
Political Science Fall ’16