The photograph above shows what was, until recent years, the financial, cultural and social hub of Central New York. Before World War II downtown Syracuse offered multiple theaters, restaurants, department stores and shops of every description. On weekend nights it was the place people went to be entertained and to meet friends.
Today, much of downtown is deserted. Retail and office space that were once among the most valuable in town now sit empty.
This evolution of downtown Syracuse isn't unique – it has been repeated in city after city across the country.
Following the war, the nation began construction of an ambitious interstate highway system to speed travel between cities. But these highways often cut right through the communities they were to serve, destroying neighborhoods and leaving depressed property values in their wake. In Syracuse, I-81 cut the university off from the city, demolished an ethnically diverse residential community to the south and created a buffer of undesirable land on either side.
Encouraged by federal and local subsidies, sprawling new housing developments followed these highways out of town into what had once been farm land. Soon stores and schools and offices followed as well.
City leaders and downtown business owners were desperate to halt the exodus. Grand old buildings were wrapped in sheet metal and plywood to make them look more "modern." Others were torn down to create parking lots. Federal "urban renewal" grants offered generous funding to revitalize downtown areas, but only for the construction of new buildings and only if entire city blocks were leveled in the process (this is how the new downtown plaza and office tower complexes were born). Federal funds were not available to restore existing buildings.
Ultimately, none of these efforts reversed the tide. One by one, downtown businesses left for the suburbs or went out of business. The last remaining department store in downtown Syracuse closed its doors in the early 1990's.
Does this matter? Why should we care what happens to downtown Syracuse? Here are some reasons:
Regional Impact. A variety of studies have shown that the economic health of an entire region depends on the vitality of its downtown core. This includes everything from property values in surrounding communities to a region's ability to attract new business investment.
Valuable Assets. The people of Syracuse have made an enormous investment in downtown – going back well over a century. This includes the structures themselves as well as the infrastructure to support them. These valuable assets are being wasted.
Tax Base. In 1980, downtown properties accounted for one fourth of all city property taxes. Today, less than one tenth of all property taxes come from downtown. As downtown property and sales tax revenues decrease, more of the city's tax burden falls on residential property owners.
Incubator. With rents now low, downtowns have become major incubators of new small businesses. And, unlike the Walmart or Home Depot on the edge of town, these businesses are more likely to be locally owned and, thus, to invest their profits in the local economy and local institutions.
Heart and Soul. Most important of all, downtown influences how a community feels about itself – it gives a city its collective identity. It is the place where parades are held, where monuments are erected, where crowds gather to speak out on issues of the day. Downtown is the heart and soul of the city.