On Space

NYCO posted a very intriguing essay entitled On Neighborliness And Space. I wrote some of my first impressions in my prior post, but I still don’t feel like I got to the heart of my concerns. I focused on NYCO’s comments on neighborliness, contrasted with the ideas of Balogh, another local blogger to whom she was responding. I now realize that I only responded to the first half of her post–hence today’s jeremiad on space.

NYCO’s post is a spirited defense of the suburbs and their oft-maligned design–blank space, not much common area, geared toward car traffic etc. She ably tweaks the New Urbanist design folks who believe that everyone wants to “live up each others’ noses in perfect harmony.” NYCO argues that the suburbs exist because not everyone wants the urban ideal–some people want space, grass, privacy, a sense of upward moblility.

I come at this from the opposite end of the spectrum. I was born and raised in Fayetteville. K-12 in the F-M schools. I fled my hometown to attend college in a big city (Philadelphia). I bemoaned my cloistered background. When I came back home to Syracuse to live, I located in the city. I am committed to the city and would never want to move back to the suburbs.

Syracuse is a city, but it is a city of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods such as Outer Comstock, Bradford Hills, Lyncourt and Eastwood all feature suburban-style houses, larger than average lawns and are practically indistinguishable from their adjoining suburban counterparts. The Sedgewick and Strathmore neighborhoods rival affluent suburbs such as Manlius, Skaneateles and Cazenovia. You can find what you want in the city. Not everyone is forced to live in a five-floor walk-up, concrete jungle.

I still maintain that the urge to flee to the suburbs has more to do with perceived safety and the quality of the public schools. Both of these issues are influenced by race and poverty.

The continual drumbeat in the local media on city crime has contributed to a fear of the city on the part of most suburban residents. Does Channel 3 even stop to think about the message they send by having a pre-produced “CITY CRIME” graphic with a pistol and creepy theme music?

Yes, there are some neighborhoods that face drug crime and increased firearm violence. They are a small percentage of the city and the violence is not random. The violence is either intoxicated domestic disputes or gang turf battles. I work on the Southside, often attending nighttime meetings in the heart of the neighborhoods with the worst crime rates in the city. In 12 years I have suffered one flat tire and one broken windshield. I have never been physically threatened.

The schools are a different issue. Cities are often cited for their diversity, a much more interesting and heterogeneous experience than the sterile suburbs. This might be great for ethnic restarants, movie houses and nightclubs. I don’t believe that this is what families are looking for in schools.

School districts that have the resources to educate their kids and minimize the problems that race and poverty bring to a student’s life are more successful than those districts that struggle with money and non-academic issues brought on by poverty.

You can meet this challenge in one of two ways. Raleigh, North Carolina created a countywide school system that ensures that no child attends a school with more than 40% of its student body from families living under the poverty line. To do this, Raleigh has extensive busing and incredibly inventive magnet schools. Recent tests show students’ scores rising–regardless of race and income.

Or you can just move out to the suburbs. I cannot blame families for making this kind of decision. I received a great education at F-M, untroubled by non-academic distractions in the classroom. I was able to parlay my experience into an Ivy League college education. It is ironic, it was the stifling, cloistered, white bread suburbs that allowed me to mature intellectually and make my way in the great, big and diverse world.

However, I still drive through a lot of the suburbs, see the similar style houses and wonder about these Lost Tribes of Syracuse.


2 thoughts on “On Space

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  1. Yes, but bringing a coffee cake to my neighbor (or helping her with her computer woes – more up my alley) doesn’t make my 9 to 5 life any less hectic and draining. It’s just like putting a band-aid on a larger problem.I agree that schools are a huge part of the equation… although in the 1950s, when my grandparents moved from the city (the Polish and Irish west side, to be exact), I don’t think it was so much. Public schools were public schools back then and it seems to me there was far less inequity. So the reasons are shifting.Also, I just want to clarify, I’m NOT happy about the blank spaces and relative car-centricness of Fairmount and I think there’s been a lack of imagination about making things better (perhaps this too is changing). However, I will strongly argue that you cannot compare all suburbs with each other. What people are really unhappy about these days are “exurbs” or new developments that eat up land in a hugely wasteful way. You can’t compare these newer burbs with the older ones which are much more compact and much more citylike. Exurbs have a planned, studied sterility; in places like Fairmount, things have gone unplanned for so long, that there seem to be many small opportunities for rethinking.I think suburban culture gets a bad rap, in general. I also think that urban planners would have a much easier time if they concentrated on old growth burbs than on only tackling head-on the huge problems in the cities. The old-growth burbs are the “middle” of the ring system – they border the cities, the population is neither affluent nor destitute, and there are lots of opportunities to make things easier for older residents when you actually HAVE older residents to serve. (I see older people using the new sidewalks on Onondaga Rd. all the time.) So much about urban renewal seems based upon luring young people in, rather than taking care of the people who already live there.Certainly we need to make old suburbs friendlier to small business.


  2. I’m sorry that my post wasn’t clear enough–I wanted to emphasize that your defense of suburban life was well thought out and spirited. I love the phrase “living up each others’ noses.”!Your posts on NYCO and geddesblog make it clear that you have long opposed the worst aspects of suburban (and urban for that matter) development.I think that the personal work of neighborliness can help folks deal with the stress of the 9 to 5 grind. The feeling that you get from connecting with your neighbors can contribute to a sense of connectedness, well-being and any other Oprah-esque adjectives you want to add. I feel better because I have made an attempt to get to know my neighbors.On a practical level, I also have neighbors that watch out for my house when I’m on vacation, share the bounties of their gardens and occasionally sit down for meals with my family.I absolutely agree that the inner-ring suburbs need more attention. Without some dedicated work and investment, places like Mattydale and E. Syracuse will have the same kind of problems as the city in terms of crime and poverty–with nowhere near the resources to deal with them. The southern suburbs of Chicago are an example of this.Lastly, I was moved to write about this issue because I am depressed about the fate of my adopted home. I yearn for the old days that no longer exist–the kind of stable, vibrant neighborhoods that your grandparents left on the westside.


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