From Heritage Circle, Solvay: This is the view north from an unlikely place; west and east vistas are equally impressive.
After covering many streets over and over, I realized my efforts could be expanded to walk every route in town, from major thoroughfares down to one-house mini-streets like Morningside Terrace. It started as a kind of “because they’re there” challenge. Now that I have walked a distance greater than that of Clinton Square to Times Square and back, I can report that my view of the city and environs has been transformed, changed utterly.
So far I have completed seven zip codes, six in the city and all of East Syracuse, plus at least an hour’s worth—three miles—in all city zip codes. This counts the closest suburbs—DeWitt, Lyncourt, Geddes and Solvay—as “city” because they are listed as “Syracuse” by the post office. I have also devoted at least an hour each to adjacent suburbs: Fayetteville, Manlius, Jamesville, Nedrow, Camillus, Liverpool, North Syracuse and Mattydale
When I tell people that I have begun an effort to walk every street in Syracuse, most react negatively. “What could possibly have motivated you to do such a thing?” is a response I’ve heard more than once. A truthful answer requires name-dropping. The impulse ultimately originated in an interview with Tony Award-winning actress Elizabeth Franz a few years ago. I had baited her by asking her how she felt about being stuck again in town for her third role at Syracuse Stage, the 2006 production of Driving Miss Daisy. After praising the cuisine at Lemon Grass, her favorite local eatery, she leaned forward as if to explain something elementary that I had carelessly neglected, like failing to identify who the Schubert brothers were.
“It’s one of my favorite places to walk—anywhere,” she said. “That’s why I always bring my dog to Syracuse. I feel safe, and there’s so much to see.”
Once I got into it, by the time I had completed two zip codes, I learned that we are in the midst of a rising culture of walking and that there were already about a half-dozen books on the subject, like Geoff Nicholson’s amusing The Lost Art of Walking published last year. Like me, Nicholson chooses to walk in cities, especially Los Angeles and London, preferring the latter.
Closer to my heart is New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, who wrote about walking every street in Montclair, N.J., before I got started. His goal was more modest than mine as Montclair, with 6.3 square miles, is about a quarter the size of Syracuse’s 25.6 square miles. But both are places where a single person can know every block, which is not true of Los Angeles or London. Historian Arnold Toynbee explained Syracuse’s appeal this way: “A city that outdistances a man’s walking powers is a trap for man.”
In a 2004 New Yorker article Frazier spelled out the insight that any sustained urban pedestrian learns immediately: how much everything looks better on foot than it does from a car window. For several years Frazier had traveled the 15 miles of Route 3 from the Lincoln Tunnel to Montclair, through a grimy, semi-industrial wasteland. Hundreds of times he had taken the route by bus, allowing him to study roadside features more carefully. Yet when he walked the 15 miles he found revelations all along the route: comedy, drama, absurdity, heroism and poignancy. He had to be up close in person to see them all.
Everything looks better on foot: James MacKillop’s pedestrian travels have taken him past...
landscaper Frank O’Neill, standing in his Delmar Place yard;
intricate mosaics that decorate sidewalks, like this one on Cadillac Street;
still-working hitches on North McBride Street;
and a walking path above Latter Drive in the Valley.
For all of New Jersey’s bad press, Syracuse’s is arguably worse. Consider the portrait of our city in the 2006 collection of short stories, Rescue Missions, by the much-lauded, little-read Frederick Busch (1941-2006), a longtime writer-in-residence at Colgate University. For him Syracuse is a “navel of bleakness” and a “gray, cold, sorry city in a necklace of bright suburbs.” Busch lays heavy slams on Polk Street, which he says is two blocks above Erie Boulevard, when it is actually only one, as well as being half the distance from Wegmans that he ascribes. He might have driven by, but he assuredly never walked on Polk or Erie.
Observers who live here, or are passing through, can be even harsher. Robert Thompson, the Newhouse School’s media star, mused aloud last fall on the perceived decline of the region at a ceremony honoring Syracuse University Press. The city and the region might have had a moment of greatness decades ago when many of the nation’s television sets were manufactured in Liverpool, he observed, but now the whole place looked as though it was covered by a heavy blanket smelling of urine.
The man who has plumbed the cultural significance of Gilligan’s Island has never toured the city’s many surviving Arts and Crafts mansions or the African American Freedom Trail off Lodi Street, both of which require preparation. He might find evidence of his smelly blanket among the professionally landscaped palaces on Brattle Road or any of the 200 or so floral fiestas scattered everywhere, like 900-902 Cadillac St., at the corner of Harford, on the North Side.
For beginners there are a dozen or so elevations that offer sweeping urban vistas. The best-known is probably the mini-park atop Westminster Hill, which is really a drumlin. Before it was closed to car traffic the site was a favorite lovers’ lane. Another is the circular drive in Lincoln Park. Even on a first visit, the view of downtown buildings from here invites a jarring déjà vu because so many photographers have used it over the years. The least-known with arguably the most dazzling vista is from the eastern arc of Heritage Circle in Solvay (opposite numbers 36-38-40), above Westvale Plaza, where you can see for many miles in three directions. All three of these are unheralded and rarely visited. Walk to them, and you’ll be the only one there.
Getting back to Franz’s original insight, Syracuse was built for walking, even if few exploit it. Empty sidewalks are well-maintained, and curbs at the corner were recently flattened to accommodate wheelchair traffic. In four summers I have seen only one wheelchair tooling about, but then in many neighborhoods, more than a mile from Interstate 81, I can go days without seeing another pedestrian, except for letter carriers. Runners are more common, often grim-faced women with ponytails swishing from the backs of baseball caps. That they are always alone is testimony to Franz’s other observation: They feel safe in the majority of zip codes. Foot traffic increases in the mile closest to I-81.
Being built for walking means that many routes in Syracuse were constructed with the anticipation of pedestrian traffic. There are more than 50 foot-only walkways in Syracuse and adjacent suburbs, like the so-called “thousand steps” (really 187) leading downhill (north) from Westminster Hill to Euclid Avenue below. Another is the well-kept switchback path from the end of Edgehill Road to East Genesee Street.
Some of these were engineered for schoolchildren, such as the paved walkway through the woods from Sunnyside Park Drive north to H.W. Smith Elementary School on Salt Springs Road, or the sidewalk running east from the end of Chaffee Avenue with its own footbridge across Onondaga Creek to Clary Magnet School in the Valley. Among the most attractive is the paved walkway through the woods above Latter Drive in the Valley, with its own staircase coming up from Cheltingham Drive, also in the Valley. Whoever designed the older, hillier parks on the East Side expected that a debutante might want to enter the grounds with a certain panache, as on the parallel stone staircases from Hastings Place into Sunnycrest Park.
Despite my seeing so few other pedestrians, the evidence for just how many people are still walking is mixed. On the more discouraging side, if a segment of sidewalk has been removed or does not complete its trajectory to the curb there is never a path in the sod where the pavement runs out. On the other hand, there are several dozen blazed paths like the attempted continuation of Andover to Meadowbrook near Barry Park or the hard-packed route from the parking lot behind Geddes Savings, fording an unnamed brook to Charles Avenue. Thousands of feet have flattened the route into the bird sanctuary behind Webster Pond from the south end of Hopper Road.
It takes no heightened skill to discern the messages homeowners are sending us as we walk by. Yogi Berra’s rule that you can observe a lot just by looking always applies. Many houses are in dialogue with one another. Take flags and banners, for example. A homeowner with the temerity to raise a pennant for the Boston Red Sox in this part of the world is assured he will soon be gazing up one to as many as five flags for the Yankees.
In neighborhoods where the standards of landscaping are beginning to slide, you will find selected houses that are fighting back with fresh paint and bursts of color and shrubbery. Often such houses are protected by fences or well-trimmed hedges. The CSX rail yard in East Syracuse would be one of the more disheartening cityscapes for many people, but the otherwise unpretentious residences on Ellis Street facing it are defiantly filled with flowers.
Walking in neighborhoods built before 1950 is generally more rewarding, with the dizzying variety of architectural styles: Greek revival, Victorian gothic, federal, Italian flat roof, colonial, Dutch colonial, Tudor, Spanish mission, Boston three-decker (admittedly rare), mansard, Sears catalog and Bauhaus box. Along with these hundreds of one-of-a-kind designs are the fulfillment of long-ago dreams and indulgences of long-dead families. The phenomenal mix in the three miles east of SU is very likely what Franz meant by “much to see.”
Because they are an asset to Syracuse, found less often elsewhere, I tend to favor the arts-and-crafts places with curled roofs and leaded glass. The glut of visual surprises led me to abandon any list of favorites as the subject of Syracuse residential architecture needs its own article, or book. I want to get in my three miles and get back to other work.
New houses, especially tract houses, are generally of less interest, although there is much delight to be had in seeing how quirky personalities struggle against the tyranny of cookie-cutter designs.
Despite some gone-to-seed neighborhoods, there are no real slums in Syracuse as one can find in other eastern cities, like New Haven, Conn., Newark, N.J., or Baltimore. No one built tenements here. Aside from perhaps eight neighborhoods constructed for the professional classes, most of the housing stock in Syracuse, even in areas with the worst reputations, was put there for well-paid industrial workers, much like Clint Eastwood’s house in Gran Torino. Houses have yards and space for gardens. It’s entirely characteristic of Syracuse that our still-youthful mayor, Matt Driscoll, born in the suburbs, made his first money restoring city houses.
Lessons in unwritten history and geography come effortlessly while walking, like the abandoned trolley tracks peeping through thinning asphalt, or the still functioning stone hitching post on McGroarty Park, a median that bisects lower North McBride Street. At a dozen locations shiny bronze plaques proclaim that the pavements of the Granolitic Cement Company have withstood more than a century of traffic. On the Highland Street side of Rose Hill Cemetery children play near the headstone of Oliver Teall, a 24-year captain of the State Militia in the War of 1812.
The houses along Seneca Turnpike, some with Masonic markers, feel like the oldest in the city. They have air conditioning and computer lines now. To walk for 20 minutes means to cross a nearly invisible isobar that’s probably highly important to the locals. On Wilmore Place on the North Side, all the houses from 130 and west were built before 1945, those from 130 and east are post-1945. Residents understand everything. You never see the gay pride rainbow banner where a parked car is emblazoned with the bumper sticker, “H.A.T.E. Hot-rodders Against The Environmentalists.”
Many signifiers are overt, like the thousands of testimonials for SU sports teams. A common but bogus ordinance reads, “Orangemen Parking Only.” Team boosterism beats all other kinds of expression, with the Bills and Yankees ranking second and third after SU teams. Many pennants are merely decorative, celebrating angels, unicorns, leprechauns or a Peanuts character.
The Stars and Stripes is found in every neighborhood, coming in all sizes. One on Kimber Road, displayed in all weather, covers the top half of a garage door. Of European countries the Irish tricolor is in first place, followed by the similar-looking Italian tricolor. Others are scattered: Greece, Denmark, Ukraine, Poland, Scotland, Wales and Finland.
Not once have I seen any evidence of German ethnic pride despite the many streets with German names and the beautifully restored “Goethe und Schiller” monument above Highland Street and Third Avenue in Schiller Park. South-of-the-border constituencies are better represented: Puerto Rico, Cuba (the same design with different colors), Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Mexico. Any house with a flag from a country farther away will always have a roof dish pointed in the right direction: Guatemala, the Palestinian authority, Jordan, Iraq, India and the pre-1975 Republic of Vietnam.
Many streets offer what is in effect an open air gallery of fine and folk art. The best I have yet seen is the collection of modernist sculpture at 15 Cross Road in DeWitt, north of Tecumseh. Where other homeowners kneel to pull up crabgrass, here maintenance means keeping all the metalwork gleaming. For honorable mention I’d nominate the wooden sculptures and garden at 412 Delmar Place in Lyncourt, every bit as much a labor of love as Cross Road.
Countless citizens present us with grottoes for the Blessed Virgin and St. Francis, while others have secular statues for lawn gardens: little fishermen, gray Hummel figures and Disney characters. I am thankful for the generous wit who left a visual pun on the 200 block of Kensington last year. Near where clear Christmas tree ornaments were pushed into some soft dirt was the sign, “We’ve just planted some bulbs.”
Moving On Up
Part of my pleasure in walking in Syracuse is the contrast that the terrain of steep hills, waterways and open places makes with the Detroit suburbs, where I grew up. Southeastern Michigan is as flat and characterless as a matzo. Streets are laid out in a relentless grid and can run in straight lines for 30 miles. Suburban house numbers run to five digits, “51269 Ozzie & Harriet Lane.”
Syracuse, in contrast, has dozens of steeply graded streets to challenge what’s found in San Francisco. Four streets—Clarendon near SU, Scottholm Terrace off East Genesee, Westmoreland uphill from Levy School and John Street on the North Side—still require brick surfaces. The specially molded bricks were laid for horse-drawn vehicles, but automobiles need the traction. Some houses are so far above the street surface, five on Carbon near Pond alone, you can’t tell how they would ever deliver a piano there.
a bucolic scene in Sedgwick, along Burlingame Road;
an example of how East Syracusans have made peace with the CSX rail yards across their street;
brick-faced Clarendon Street;
and a North Side home where Christ welcomes visitors to the front door.
I also love the streets that tangle around without meeting thoroughfares and the many dead ends. There are more on the East Side than the West. Following a dead-end street to its logical conclusion can usually produce a surprise, like a house with an eccentric design or, commonly, the most attractive one on the block. When I entered lonely Burrows Street in East Syracuse I could not see where it ended. This is the same street that is visible from westbound Interstate 690, west of the Bridge Street entrance, where there was once a pile of debris from the 1998 Labor Day storm. Near a creek I came upon about a dozen foil condom wrappers. Beyond that, one sunny June day, I inadvertently upset the repose of an East Syracuse officer in his patrol car. Perhaps he was staking out afternoon fornicators.
Just as I am reluctant to name Syracuse’s best houses—there would be thousands—so too have I avoided picking a favorite street. My tastes run to struggle and eccentricity, and the nominees might not like reading that I am saluting their power of beating the odds. When people say “nice” they mean photogenic. Affluence always enjoys advantages with the camera.
Cazenovia and Skaneateles abound in posh locales, suitable for fashionable photo shoots. But if Frederick Busch were conjured up from the dead, and forced to swallow his “navel of bleakness” slur, he should be taken to the cul-de-sac of Burlingame Road off DeWitt Street in Sedgwick. When I visited it April 27, the hottest day of spring, with flowers in bloom, perfect lawns and laughing children romping on the grass, it looked like the best face the city of Syracuse could show to the world.
Some of the naysayers of my walking adventure have more on their minds than the city’s attributed boredom or bleakness. They are reluctant to speak their concerns but they fit under the general category of safety. As one of our mayoral candidates is promising “Walkable Streets,” the question is not to be shrugged off. Indeed, there have been murders at three places I have walked within days of my treading past them: Seeley Road and Fayette, Lincoln Park, and Knaul Street at the intersection of Butternut. Among my friends none will make an anti-black remark, but it is clear that some of their concern is wrapped up with the question of race.
Despite the general paucity of pedestrians, I learned quickly that Syracuse is more racially integrated than I had thought. In neighborhoods presumed to be black, I find a number of white faces, some of them residents. And in suburbs removed from the city’s core, I can always find a few black faces. So what? With the three murders I just cited, two of the three perpetrators were white.
I may be immune from harassment in many neighborhoods because I am a gray-bearded gent who looks old enough to know all the songs in Forever Plaid, and I wear a funny-looking fedora. For insurance I carry only a $5 bill to pay off a mugger and my driver’s license, but neither has come out of my pocket. I have faced only one panhandler, a man at Valley Drive and St. Louis Avenue who asked for a quarter. Still there are different reactions to being a white man in a mostly white neighborhood as opposed to a mostly black neighborhood, some of them amusing.
Because I am carrying a Jimapco laminated map, people often assume I am lost. I don’t want to tell them my actual mission: something so cockeyed could invite suspicion. People in both black or white neighborhoods, washing their cars or doing yard work, are equally polite and generous but they follow radically different scripts. In white neighborhoods men or women will say, “Can I help you?” There’s an unstated deference to the male reluctance to ask for directions. In black neighborhoods men speak more often than women and they always ask some variant of, “Who are you looking for?” The unstated assumption, put politely, is that I must be there for a specific reason and I could not possibly be walking by for the fun of it.
White people are twice as likely to make eye contact or make small, phatic verbal gestures, like, “How’s it goin’?” Other than the mother of a lemonade entrepreneur in Lyncourt who clearly thought my lack of an automobile was questionable, most white people are not suspicious, and may even be inviting. A family having lunch on a porch in Eastwood asked me to join them. More memorable was the woman in East Syracuse, about my age. I could see her working on a garden next to the street from 50 yards off, but with my silent Rockport sneakers, she could not hear me coming, and I was about to walk within two feet of her. I theatrically cleared my throat as a warning, at which she immediately stood up and adjusted her straw hat, assuming a broad, friendly smile, “Well, hello! Are you new in the neighborhood?”
Black people tease and hassle, thus far always good-naturedly. I’ll leave out the boys aggressively selling raffle tickets. The most inventive tease was the middle-aged black man near the intersection of Butternut and Lodi. As I approached he called out to me, “Hey, where did you get that white beard?” As I drew closer I could see that he was flirting with a woman in a wheelchair, who was enjoying his attention. His sport with me was a means of making time with her. As I got next to him he declared, “I need to grow a white beard like yours because they drive the chicks crazy!”
I fumbled with a line about dropping Miracle-Gro in his beer, but was more interested in getting in my three miles on the pedometer than matching wits in a battle I was likely to lose. As I moved away he exploited me for more points with his quarry. “Look at that man!” he laughed. “He’s Ernest Hemingway on the bottom and Indiana Jones on the top.”
Intrepid pedestrian James MacKillop expects to complete walking every street in the city by the end of 2010 and finish off the suburbs after that.