Stories and experiences from different groups of people are important to collect and put together in order to understand the whole of what has happened to cause such devastation in the city of Syracuse, New York, and to connect people who have been driven apart by decades of racist policies. In this article, it is not my intention to speak for anyone but myself, and in doing so I wish to contribute to dialogue about Syracuse by writing about my family’s history here, and my experiences.
Recently, a few articles, including one from the Atlantic, have been making the rounds on the internet, as Syracuse has been declared the number one city in the United States for concentrated poverty rates in its inner city among black and latino people.
I grew up in Syracuse, mostly, with some time spent also in Oregon, and now I am a student of Syracuse University after also having lived in Utica and Brooklyn. I have noticed recently that my professors and fellow academics have been discussing the Syracuse poverty issue in emails, on social media, as well as in person.
The attention the city of Syracuse is getting, now, feels surprising to me. For so much of my childhood it seemed as if no one really knew about what happened here except my family or those who lived in the city, because they were the only ones I ever heard talk about it. And Syracuse University, well… it seemed like another universe to me. I used to think of it growing up as the castle on the hill, almost like a medieval fortress beyond highway 81, always in the distance. Certainly it was never a place I ever expected to end up. I regarded the university somewhat disdainfully, because everyone knew it was for the elite. Other than the disdain, I didn’t think about SU very much at all. It is surreal for me to experience being on the other side of the discussion now, and hearing about the issues that have tried to destroy the soul of this city, for decades, from within the university.
I was born in Eugene, Oregon, but my parents moved back here to Syracuse, where my mother is from, when I was an infant, because her father contracted cancer. I am an only child, and our little family lived at first in Elbridge, which is in the country side near Syracuse. When I was three, my grandfather passed away, and my mother inherited his house, in which she had spent some of her teenage years growing up. It was located on Stanley Drive in the Syracuse suburb of Fairmount, in a housing division modeled after Levittown and built by Stanley Westfall. Our house belonged to Mr. Westfall, and he lived in it with his wife and children when the subdivision was being built in the 1950s and early 60s. Many years later, we found some of the plastic 1950s toys that Stanley’s children had hidden in the attic; miniature yellow cowboys and red plastic cars.
There was a neighborhood near Fairmount that my parents and I often returned to for visits, and that was the West End; the Irish and Ukrainian neighborhood, where many of our family members lived, located about five minutes from downtown in a working class area. And adjacent to that, there was the neighborhood where my mother grew up, the Near West Side. When I was a child, for about as far back as I can remember, I heard the story of what had happened to our family house on Rowland Street.
My mother was born in 1952, a first generation Scottish and second generation Irish child from an immigrant family. When you are from an immigrant family, there is a certain narrative that you may hear growing up, and for me it was about how my ancestors escaped famine and hardship in the old country to come here and toil and make a better life. Everyone worked, there was no other way about it. I remember asking my mother why her mother and grandparents came here from Scotland to live in Solvay, by way of England in the 1920s. She said that they never would have graduated above the level of maids and servants, and they never could have had a single hope of owning a house, because of the rigid class system in England and the poverty in Ireland and Scotland. When my mother’s parents were married, they lived in the house on Rowland Street in Syracuse in the 1950s, which my great grandparents and my grandparents all worked to pay for, and all lived in, along with my grandfather’s brother, Edward Corbett, and his wife, Ethyl, who both paid rent. In those decades, many immigrants lived in the neighborhood. My mother spoke of Polish and Ukrainian neighbors, part of the influx of immigrants escaping occupied lands leading up to and after WW II.
“When my parents finally paid off the mortgage,” my mother would tell me as part of the oft-repeated story I heard as a child, “they threw a BIG party. It was such a big deal.” And, inevitably, her sense of pride would be followed by tears of heartbreak and despair, because my family lost that house they worked so hard for shortly after they paid it off. The area was red-lined.
011809firescenegw photo by Gary Walts 1-18-09 Burned house at 203 Rowland St., Syracuse, NY.
My grandmother had a friend who worked at the bank, and she heard of the illegal action the bank had taken to red-line the Near West Side, so she told my grandmother of it. It is rare that anyone I tell this story to knows the meaning of red-lining, which always strikes me as odd, because to me it was absolutely a term I grew up hearing. Red lining, as it was told to me, is an illegal activity when, in essence, a bank takes a red pen and draws a circle around a neighborhood on their map and refuses to approve loans for anyone who lives there. That means no mortgage loans, no small business loans, no car loans, no college; nothing. This filled my grandparents with terror and they seemed to be acutely aware of what this meant. Because they were white, they were able to buy a house in Fairmount, and leave the old one behind.
For my mother and grandmother, this was a positive change. My mother was suddenly in a class of suburban people that did things like go to college after high school. She says her girlfriends that remained behind in the city all worked in offices upon graduating high school.
Part of the story of our old family house was accompanied by drives to look at it. My mother would take me, over the years, on a drive down to Rowland Street, which was still only about ten minutes away from our suburban house. She would relate the story to me again, of my immigrant relatives working for decades to pay it off, the party; and the red lining. And she would cry. I remember sitting in the car outside the house on Rowland Street at night, and my mother breaking into sobs that as a child, I could not understand. The house looked so different; it had been carved up into ramshackle apartments by some slumlord who didn’t love it or care for it the way my family had. The street lights were mostly out, the street was dimly lit. People were murdered there. It had become one of the most dangerous, impoverished and violent parts of Syracuse. When you look up the news for Rowland Street now, it is murder after murder.
My mother never blamed local black and latino people for the crime in her old house, or on her old street. She knew what happened, she knew that they had also lived in that area and in the nearby SouthSide and she knew that the poverty and subsequent crime was created by racism and redlining, and that some, unlike her, could not move into Stanley Westfall’s house. It was never a question, there was never a wonder why it had all happened. The only thing to do was cry. “It was like the heart had been ripped out of the street,” my mother said recently. I asked her why she thought that the street and the house had deteriorated so much, she responded, “When you do not own, or have a stake in the place that you live…where you raise your family, you have a different outlook on the property.”
“I also think that the concept of future goals is different. If you do not feel good about yourself, where you live, what your opportunities are, you are not putting energy into where you rent.” I asked her if she thought the future goals were different when she was growing up on Rowland Street. “Yes!” she said. “It might not have been my idea of a great future, but it was a future. One where your children were doing better than you, or at least as well. Get a job, have kids, the American Dream.When the area was redlined, we took those dreams with us when we left.”
Gothic Cottage, 19th C. South Side. Recently torn down.
The Atlantic article says that things in Syracuse have gotten much worse in the last ten years. My experience differed from my mother’s. I spent about two years going to high school at Westhill, which is where she went, located in the suburban Fairmount/Westvale area, and I got a good education, one that had not been available to me in Oregon, which is a story for another time. From there, however, I was on my own, and at age 18 moved to Utica to attend community college. I had not been sheltered up to that point, but the culture of the west coast is very different from the east. In Utica, I lived in neighborhoods very much like the one Rowland Street has become. I was somewhat used to dodging crime as a teenager, and I knew children who were addicted to drugs and all of that kind of thing, without getting too much into it, back in Eugene. But Utica involved gunfire, which I was not used to, and constant murder and arson. The problems were severe. I don’t know why, but it didn’t seem to scare or upset me as much as it probably should have. Some things certainly did, like the looks of utter hopelessness on the faces of some of the children I knew who lived on my street; I was really not much older than they were and it struck me. These children would often come and sit on the stoop with me and talk. There was also a terrifying homicide of a sixteen year old girl that occurred right around the corner; her body lay in an abandoned house for weeks; a house which I used to walk by every day on my way to the corner store. I was very bothered by that. Things I had seen were definitely upsetting in Eugene, but I did not know children who had been murdered. I also had not felt too much fear of being murdered myself, and that was certainly something that became palpable in Utica. When I was 18, I was tiny, and many people driving their cars around the area where I lived and took the bus thought I was one of the many child sexual trafficking victims (aka “prostitutes”) that worked Oneida Square. The looks on the faces of men who drove by me in their cars, leering, was truly terrifying, and I learned not to stand in one spot for too long. I worried taking the bus to campus through neighborhoods where teenagers like me were shot every week. I was worried that gunfire would hit the city bus, as happened in Syracuse very recently, to the South Ave/OCC bus, a bus that many young people take to Onondaga Community College, one that I took almost daily for about two years myself.
I mention Utica because for me it seems very similar to areas of Syracuse. It seems like the same kind of thing, only with a different history of how the crime and poverty came about. Like Syracuse, it has a concentration of abandoned houses which dot each street.
I think for a long time, I became somewhat resigned to that kind of thing, but also felt like I had to work very hard to not stay in those areas. I tried to make a go of it in Eugene as a young adult, but it was way too expensive and there were no jobs. So I moved back to Utica. I had friends there, and it felt like home. I found the old houses and the decay to be somewhat beautiful and comforting. I did not feel much hope at the time and had no idea really what I could do other than try to get by. Being poor was ok there, because everyone was. Eventually it just got too hard, and I moved back to Syracuse and tried to make a go of it there for a few years in my young twenties. It was an absolute nightmare of hardship and I had a total breakdown of my health. There was nowhere I could afford to live other than the worst areas, and I tried very hard to avoid them. Most of my friends and some of my family were falling into heroin, which again has become a serious problem here. One of my cousins was almost murdered. The crime at that point in Syracuse had spread into most areas of the city, including the old Irish neighborhood. Heroin and gunfire. I left. I went to college in New York. I saved up as much as I could and drove the moving van myself, straight to South Brooklyn.
Now I am back, going to graduate school at SU, after a few years of trying to make a go of it working here, which did nothing to lift me out of poverty or keep me off of food stamps. I got sick in New York, so I came home. New York is a hard road, but it wasn’t as grim as upstate, not for me. I didn’t see the type of horror-show, Nightmare on Elm street type bullet riddled, boarded up houses you thought only existed in Detroit or Flint, Michigan, in New York. When I moved back, I moved about two minutes away from the poorest neighborhood in the state of New York, worse than Brooklyn, worse than Bronx: the near west side.
I would wait outside in the wind and snow, in twenty degree weather outside the Civic Center in downtown Syracuse, lined up with the mothers and infants the welfare office made stand out in the cold until the church bells struck eight o’clock am, a grim reminder of the beggars we were.
I didn’t know if I would ever escape any of that. Every day, I would take the city bus through the Near West Side, marveling at the influence of Syracuse University’s Near West Side Initiative, which resulted in new side walks, probably for the first time in over thirty years, curb cuts for wheelchairs, fixing up the falling-down houses. I had, at that time, which was only a few years ago, that same feeling of hopelessness which I had had for so long. I told my best friend at the time about how scared I was that I would be stuck down there, end up in that area, so near to me, the poorest neighborhood in the state of New York. It didn’t feel very far away from my more working class area at all, and I knew my Deafness prevented me from many ways to make money.
The best I could do was a part time, $8 an hour job, even though with my New York education. When I was laid off from that job, I went to the welfare office yet again, because I was so fearful of how I would pay rent or eat on the $100 a week unemployment benefits that were offered. Attempting to get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (aka welfare) was an almost worthless endeavor; they gave you nothing for forty days, and made you apply to twenty jobs. A man in the office said that he had trouble reading and writing and it hindered him from filling out applications, and they told him to use a dictionary. He had just gotten out of prison and state mandated rehab, and I thought to myself at the time, there is so much incentive for him to just go back into crime. There was incentive for me to become involved in it, too. It often seemed like the only way to make money.
Luckily I did not need to keep begging for scraps at the welfare office, and I got hired at Syracuse University. I made twelve dollars an hour and worked full time. It raised my standard of living a little bit, but not much. Getting accepted to graduate school at SU made me feel that I had finally managed to tether my grasp to something that would likely result in me finally, for real, being able to escape what I felt had loomed so close to me for so long.
There is no better representation of all of these decades of racial and ethnic hatred foisted upon the city of Syracuse by those in charge than the abandoned house pictured in the banner photo of the Atlantic article. A house that once was beautiful, that someone owned and lived in, and washed the outside of, and swept the sidewalk. Perhaps their elderly parents lived upstairs, and they had a job in one of the long vanished factories, factories which moved to the developing world once labor movements in Syracuse demanded and got a living wage. Or maybe they ran a local store, a neighborhood shop that didn’t primarily sell lottery tickets and cigarettes, in an age before corporate chains were allowed to take over and funnel money out of the city.
Reform is cyclical, and there always must be vigilance. The marginalized win small victories here and there, only to be horrifically quashed again by fear and hatred, violence and greed. Racist policies affect everyone, even those who make them, and they destroy cities like this one. Segregating people of color and those with disabilities, who are impoverished in high numbers, into the worst areas, areas with no resources, is a negative for the city of Syracuse and this has become evident now to others in the world, that our city is impoverished and racist. The big, beautiful houses that line the streets of every city neighborhood, the West Side, South Side, North and East sides; they’re falling to decay and there was a time when they were beautiful, and the people who lived in those houses owned them. Why shouldn’t people own their homes? There are those who have come to blame the poor for how their lives are, ignoring the decades and centuries of oppressive policies enforced by those in power. They do not want to see anyone given “a free ride” in the form of social support programs, so social services is routinely underfunded and policed, subjecting the poor to drug tests, or refusing to help people in desperate need for 40 days, a long time when you are hungry and looking at becoming or are homeless.
So here we are. I am still hopeful, however. Out of the rubble of a vacant lot can grow a garden full of food, chipboard can be torn away and houses refurbished and built again. Industry can come back. Maybe Syracuse can be beautiful again in every area, because we have the infrastructure; we have the lovely old houses and buildings that still stand in this city, and downtown is starting to look much better. Moving forward, we cannot be racist. We cannot segregate. And we have to make housing accessible for the disabled. Discrimination and segregation have manifested in the ultimate symbol: the once beautiful, once cared for, abandoned house covered in rotting chipboard, falling to decay because of hate.
Beautiful old houses in a West Side area neighborhood, restored.