Syracuse isn't Saratoga
One frigid winter afternoon, at the height of the Great Recession, I went to the Carousel Center mall to look for the future of Syracuse. The last time I’d checked it was on the sixth-floor Skydeck, sitting on a large pedestal bearing the label DestiNY USA. The mall was in a postholiday slump. At the top of the escalator an old man wearing a burgundy blazer stood gripping a velvet rope as the riderless horses of the eponymous carousel spun slowly behind him. Organ music echoed in the empty food court. I got on an elevator in the glittering chrome and glass atrium and pushed the Skydeck button. It’d been deactivated. I tried the stairwell on the fourth floor instead. But the door to it was locked. A security guard peered at me from behind a slot cut in a heavy steel door next to the stairwell.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“Can I get to the Skydeck from here?”
“Skydeck’s closed,” he said. He eyeballed the bag hanging on my shoulder.
“Camera,” I said, patting the bag. “Who do I need to talk to for permission to go up there?” The guard tilted his chin toward a set of double glass doors leading to offices of the mall’s management. I pushed open the doors with purpose, as if I were late for an appointment, and asked the receptionist if I could please speak to somebody about visiting the Skydeck.
“Ohh-kaay,” she said. “And who are you with?”
I told her that I was a freelance photographer. Freelance writer was closer to the truth, but in my experience, people are much more accommodating to photographers than they are to writers. The last “writer” to visit the Skydeck was a troubled 21-year-old poet and cough-syrup addict who jumped one hundred feet to his death. I told the receptionist that I wanted to take a few photos of Onondaga Lake while the light was still good. The view of the lake from the Skydeck was the best in the city. What I really wanted to do was photograph the scale model of DestiNY USA. The receptionist circled her desk and disappeared into a glassed-in office suite. Moments later she came out and shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “the Skydeck is closed.”
I gave up and went outside. All along the length of Hiawatha Boulevard, the southern boundary of the mall, snowcapped mounds of excavated dirt stood over DestiNY USA’s aborted foundation.
Any story about Syracuse begins and ends with Onondaga Lake. The city would not exist without it. Both sit in a wide bowl on the northern end of Onondaga Valley, which extends south from the city limits for about fifteen miles. If you rolled a giant marble down one side of the valley, it would roll up the other side and back again, until it came to rest in Onondaga Lake.
The lake, the valley, and much of the surrounding territory were once the ancestral homeland of the Onondaga tribe. What’s left of the Onondagas, about five hundred tribe members, still live in Onondaga Valley on a swampy parcel of bottomland known as the Onondaga Nation. (I grew up a block away from the Onondaga Nation, although we always called it the “rez.”) The Onondagas are founding members of the powerful Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, a political entity consisting of six tribes whose territory encompassed what is now upstate New York and parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Onondaga Lake is sacred to the Iroquois. It’s said that the Haudenosaunee was founded on its shores under the visionary leadership of an Onondaga chief named Hiawatha. The Haudenosaunee was the first form of representative government on the continent, and many historians cite its influence on the democratic principles enshrined in the US Constitution.
Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time in the Onondaga County Courthouse, attending custody hearings between my sister and her ex-boyfriend. Most of the time nothing happens at these hearings. But I’ve learned a few things from staring at the walls in the courthouse’s vaulted second-floor vestibule, which has been restored to its full beaux arts glory with lots of polished marble and gilded plaster. Large oil paintings hang high on the walls, depicting early episodes in Syracuse’s history. One of them shows the Hiawatha of legend standing upright in a white birch-bark canoe, his arms outstretched and his face turned to the sky like Christ on the cross.
I’ve often sat at one of the heavy wooden tables in the vestibule while my sister’s ex-boyfriend, a member of the Onondaga tribe, sat at an adjacent table, both of us staring at the murals as a way of avoiding eye contact. I couldn’t help but wonder what he saw when he looked at the portrait of Hiawatha. An idealized version of himself? Sentimental white-man bullshit? The painting reminded me of my days as a Boy Scout, paddling an overloaded canoe on Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. Why the hell was Hiawatha standing up in a canoe? The greenest of greenhorns, to say nothing about Native American demigods, knows better than to stand up in a canoe.
“Mr. Forman,” said I, “do you call this a village? It would make an owl weep to fly over it.”Tweet
A mural on the wall opposite Hiawatha’s portrait depicts the 1654 discovery of Onondaga Lake’s salt springs by the French. A black-robed Jesuit priest and an explorer wearing a feathered cap stand over a kneeling, bare-chested Onondaga brave who offers them spring water in his cupped hands. Aside from the genteel racism on display in the foreground, the background of the painting contains a sublime feat of historical revisionism. Sheer white cliffs rise from the shores of Onondaga Lake, towering high above the shoulders of the priest and the explorer. But there were no white cliffs anywhere near Onondaga Lake in 1654. So how’d they get into the painting?
I have a theory. The muralist William de Leftwich Dodge completed the courthouse paintings in 1904. At that time the biggest business in Syracuse was the Solvay Process Company, a chemical manufacturer of soda ash, which had been dumping industrial waste into Onondaga Lake for decades. Mountains of a chalky white compound from the company’s chemical factory could be found all along the southwest shore of the lake. But maybe Dodge, who wasn’t a Syracuse native, actually believed the white mounds were natural features. His decision to include them was prophetic, for in a single frame he managed to memorialize the founding moment in Syracuse’s history — the discovery of salt — while retroactively fouling the pristine landscape with the very industrial waste that the discovery would lead to.
In 1656, the Jesuits built a mission on a knoll overlooking Onondaga Lake. They came to collect souls, not salt, declaring the wild country outside their palisades as the “heart of a land destined to become holy.” Two years later they fled the holy land under cover of night when Onondagas threatened to massacre them. The mission fell into ruin. White settlers didn’t return to the region until after the Revolutionary War. This time they came for salt, building a few ramshackle dwellings on fetid swamplands near the salt springs (the Onondagas had always sited their longhouses on higher ground south of the lake). They named the settlement Salina, after the commodity that created it. By the 19th century, most of the salt consumed in the United States would come from Onondaga Lake’s springs. But it didn’t happen overnight. The historian and newspaper editor William L. Stone ventured to Salina in 1820, before Syracuse was a name on a map. He spoke to Joshua Forman, one of Syracuse’s founding fathers, and made these observations:
I lodged for the night at a miserable tavern, thronged by a company of salt boilers from Salina, forming a group of about as rough-looking specimens of humanity as I had ever seen. Their wild visages, beards thick and long, and matted hair even now rise up in dark, distant, and picturesque effect before me. I passed a restless night, disturbed by strange fancies, as I yet well remember. It was in October, and a flurry of snow during the night had rendered the morning aspect of the country more dreary than the evening before. The few houses . . . standing upon low and almost marshy ground, and surrounded by trees and entangled thickets, presented a very uninviting scene. “Mr. Forman,” said I, “do you call this a village? It would make an owl weep to fly over it.” “Never mind,” said he, in reply, “you will live to see it a city yet.”
I first became aware of Onondaga Lake as a physical presence when I was about 6 years old. I knew it was there, of course. I could see it from the distant hills south of the city. Depending on the season, the lake appeared blue in color, or pewter, or white, or as a band of gold glinting behind the city’s modest silhouette of office buildings and churches. On hot summer days, my three siblings and I would pile into the backseat of the family car to go swimming at Oneida Lake or fishing on the Saint Lawrence River. It never occurred to me that Onondaga Lake, much closer to home, might also be a good place to swim and fish. In the geographic index of my mind, Onondaga Lake shared a slot alongside the junkyard on the rez that I often explored, a forbidden land that existed somewhere between the natural and man-made worlds.
Those summer fishing trips took us north through the heart of Syracuse on an elevated highway that soared over the black-tar rooftops of old factories made of crumbling red brick. As the lake grew near, we could see Oil City’s white storage tanks, sprouting like a colony of giant toadstools along the overgrown banks of the torpid barge canal. Here the highway descends to ground level and rounds the southwest corner of Onondaga Lake. It was on this short stretch of road, with only a narrow corridor of shrub willow separating our car from the cloudy green water, that Onondaga Lake asserted itself. At that moment my father cranked his window closed. In the back we followed suit. But the vaporous miasma drifting off the lake had already infiltrated the car.
The smell of Onondaga Lake hits your sinuses like cheap cologne, a nauseating one-two punch of flaming mothballs and something stronger, more organic. I have tried many times to pinpoint what it is, but I think it smells like armpit. The vile stench emanates from twenty-two acres of tar beds adjacent to the lake’s western shoreline, across the highway. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund report on Onondaga Lake, the tar beds, which the report refers to as “Semet Residue Ponds,” are filled with waste products of benzol manufacturing, a sticky black stew similar in consistency to driveway sealant. It consists of benzene, toluene, xylene, diphenyl ethanes, and the stuff mothballs are made of — naphthalene. These chemicals have leached into the lake for nearly a century. But the tar beds are hardly the only, or worst, source of toxins in the lake. Onondaga Lake’s sediments are a carcinogenic brew of heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, chromium, antimony, manganese, copper, lead, nickel, cobalt, vanadium, thallium, selenium, and zinc), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polyaromatic hydrocarbons, chlorinated and nonchlorinated benzenes, dioxins, furans, and shit — regular ol’ human shit, which flows into the lake from the Metro wastewater-treatment plant.
Sewage levels in Onondaga Lake led to a ban on swimming in 1940 that’s still in effect today. By 1972 mercury levels were so high that the state banned fishing as well. A “health advisory” replaced the fishing ban in 1986, allowing people to catch fish but not eat them. It had no practical impact. Nobody fished in Onondaga Lake anyway.
During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, I worked in New York City as a public-relations flack for various technology companies. I got laid off after the tech bubble burst in the spring of 2001 and returned to Syracuse one month after the September 11 attacks. My girlfriend — and future wife — had just moved back to Syracuse to take a job as an emergency physician at the main hospital in town. We got an apartment in the city together, and I started looking for a job. I thought my big-city experience would vault me to the top of Syracuse’s white-collar labor pool, but it turned out to be a stigma that required explanation. Potential employers couldn’t understand why I’d come back. Syracuse is the lover you leave for more attractive prospects. If you can’t leave, you dream about leaving. If you leave and come back, there’s something wrong with you. No offers came my way, so I gave up the job search and began freelance writing.
For one magazine assignment, I spent two weeks in the Gulf of Alaska aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel. One day I accompanied crew members to an uninhabited island. While they unpacked their GPS equipment, I wandered the rocky shoreline, mindful of bears. A bright fleck of white among the gray stones caught my eye. It was a thick fragment of ceramic. Rinsing it off in the cold surf, I turned it over to reveal a green stamp that read Syracuse China. How strange, fated almost, that I should travel more than 3,000 miles to this remote island only to find a broken bit of Syracuse’s history. But it’s not so strange when you consider that, one hundred years ago, Syracuse China supplied most of the tableware for the hotel and restaurant industries. The island, I later learned, once had a hotel on it.
At the turn of the 20th century, Syracuse was what business analysts today would call an industrial “incubator.” People came here to make stuff and to invent new ways to make it. It was the center of manufacturing for candles, typewriters, ball bearings, and so on. Sports fans will recognize Syracuse University’s iconic Carrier Dome, even if they don’t know that Carrier Corporation, the inventor of air-conditioning, was one of the largest employers in Onondaga County for half a century. Then, in the postwar era, Syracuse shed residents and factory jobs faster than it could replace them. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s, the city was long past its prime. Our glam, globe-trotting four-term mayor milked the state to pay for parking garages and other public-works boondoggles, for which he received bags of cash, gold coins, and six years in federal prison.
At the turn of the 21st century, the dinosaurs of Syracuse’s industrial age had all but gone extinct. Carrier shuttered its manufacturing operations in 2003. That same year, the Marsellus Casket Company, unofficial coffin maker for US presidents — Truman, JFK, Nixon — gave up the ghost. In 2009, Syracuse China’s kilns in Salina went cold. (You can still buy dinner plates with Syracuse China stamped on the back, but now they’re actually made in China.) Assembly lines at the massive New Process Gear plant, which made transfer cases for Detroit’s auto industry, fell silent in 2012. Those four companies alone provided good jobs to tens of thousands of Syracusans for nearly five hundred years combined.
Today, Syracuse staggers toward a dim future, feeding off its sick and dying to sustain itself. Marsellus Casket Company’s historic west-side factory, torched and partially gutted by vandals, is being turned into the regional headquarters of an ambulance service. Three of the top six employers in the city are hospitals, and another is an old folks’ home. One of the largest for-profit companies that pays its full tax burden is the defense contractor Lockheed Martin, and they’re dependent on a dwindling military budget. To many, it would appear that Syracuse is, in fact, already dead. In 2010, when bricks from an old tin factory fell onto the northbound lanes of Interstate 81, a highway so integral to Syracuse’s identity as the crossroads of New York State that it’s featured on the city seal, the state transportation department shut down the highway for three whole weeks while they rifled the city’s pockets for cleanup money.
So it was with morbid fascination that I watched the saga of DestiNY USA unfold against this backdrop of dilapidation and despair. It all began with the announcement of DestiNY USA’s name, a product of committee thinking if there ever was one. Saying it aloud conjures the image of executives awkwardly high-fiving one another around a dry-erase board. DestiNY USA. As a PR professional, I would’ve cringed every time I had to utter that ridiculous name to a journalist — yes, it’s two words, and “NY” and “USA” are all caps — but it was a perfect distillation of its time, a pompous cheer for the home team that crystallized the sloganeering of the post–September 11 era, when shopping was elevated to a solemn patriotic duty.
DestiNY USA was the brainchild of Bob Congel, a native son of Syracuse who amassed a fortune building malls across upstate New York and western Massachusetts, before plunking one down along the shores of Onondaga Lake in 1990. Carousel Center, as it was called, was a win-win for everyone. The city rid itself of an industrial-waste dump and received a cut of the mall’s sales-tax revenue. In return, Congel didn’t have to pay property taxes on the mall for fifteen years. But there were unfortunate side effects. Carousel Center killed off retail in downtown Syracuse, which had struggled for years as suburban malls siphoned off shoppers. Eventually, Carousel strangled the life out of the suburban malls, too.
In 2000, with his original tax deal coming to a close, Congel announced plans to expand Carousel Center into what would eventually be known as DestiNY USA, a massive tax loophole disguised as Disney World. It would be a “destination product,” not a mall, complete with hotels, amusement park attractions, a high-tech research park, and upscale shopping. Economic-impact studies declared that DestiNY USA would create tens of thousands of new jobs, attract millions of visitors to the region, and rescue Syracuse from the postindustrial malaise it had been wallowing in for decades. The price for this civic resurrection was a new thirty-year tax deal. Some city officials were hesitant to give up tax revenue on a mall that was already a city unto itself, with no connection to the crumbling neighborhoods surrounding it. But Syracuse is a one-mogul town. No one else was proposing to build a billion-dollar retail utopia on a brownfield site overlooking Onondaga Lake. Congel got his tax deal, but that was only his opening gambit. Soon he would demand much more, threatening to build DestiNY USA elsewhere if he didn’t get it.
Albert Speer’s sketches showed less ambition.Tweet
In the fall of 2002, Congel held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Grand Destiny Hotel at a Carousel Center parking lot. Surrounded by his seventeen grandchildren, he doled out gold-colored shovels. In the background an enormous pile driver pounded a steel support beam into the ground with a monotonous clang. The beam, like the ceremonial shovels, had no real purpose. Blueprints for a hotel, much less a new parking garage, did not exist. But that didn’t matter. The DestiNY USA promotional blitz had entered a realm of pure abstraction where anything was possible with enough tax credits, and all the politicians who could make that happen for Congel were on hand to congratulate one another for saving Syracuse.
What began as a relatively modest 800,000-square-foot expansion of Carousel Center quickly mutated into a 100-million-square-foot Frankenmall that would cost $20 billion to build, making it one of the largest building projects in US history, according to Architectural Record. And it wasn’t going to save just Syracuse, but the entire world. In the pages of the New York Times Magazine, Congel crowed that DestiNY USA would “produce more benefit for humanity than any one thing that private enterprise has ever done.”
Below is a partial list of DestiNY USA’s humanitarian benefits:
5-star restaurants, including Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville
25,000-square-foot off-Broadway theater designed to host premier acts such as David Blaine Magic and Blue Man Group
Onondaga Dunes, an 18-hole golf course to be built over the Solvay wastebeds
Swim-with-the-Fish Experience, with dolphins, tropical fish, and stingrays
Torch-lined historical re-creation of the Erie Canal
4 miles of jogging and biking trails
Rainforest habitat, with real tropical plants and animatronics
5-acre extreme sports complex
The local newspaper published a series of conceptual renderings of the project that might as well have been printed with disappearing ink. Any firm notion of what it was supposed to be evaporated with each new illustration. These weren’t functional architectural drawings, but rather broadsides designed to showcase Congel’s bold vision. Albert Speer’s sketches showed less ambition. The Grand Destiny Hotel started out as two identical towers reminiscent of the World Trade Center (this was in 2002). Congel dumped the design in favor of one featuring emerald green spires last seen on matte paintings for The Wizard of Oz. In its final iteration, the 1,300-room Grand Destiny Hotel disappeared altogether, replaced by six or more — the renderings aren’t clear — tube-shaped glass towers accounting for 80,000 hotel rooms, equal to the hotel capacity of New York City at the time.
As Congel’s marketing team tinkered with DestiNY USA’s features, one element remained constant: the big glass dome. Architectural Record described it as “the world’s largest glass canopy roof.” The dome changed from one rendering to the next. Sometimes it was wavy, other times curved. The illustrators sketched the dome’s structural lattice as lightly as possible, but it could not be ignored, and that was the whole point. The sunny, swanky shopping paradise depicted in the renderings was the anti-Syracuse, sealed off from the stinky lake and grimy city surrounding it by a glittering glass bubble.
The rusty support beams erected during DestiNY USA’s groundbreaking ceremony cast long shadows over Carousel Center’s parking lot for five years while Congel lobbied for additional government subsidies. His best hustle was convincing officials to rezone DestiNY USA so that he could reap $10 million a year from the state on property taxes that he never had to pay in the first place. Not a penny went to pay for the police or fire department or any other essential city service. Public opinion about DestiNY USA began to sour. Where were all the jobs Congel promised in exchange for the mountains of public money he was raking in? Sensitive to growing outrage over the tax deal, Syracuse’s new mayor refused to implement it and put the mall back on the tax rolls. But instead of pouring concrete, Congel sued the city and poured millions of dollars into a massive public-relations campaign to renew enthusiasm in the project and smear officials who opposed him as enemies of progress.
Congel launched his attack from Carousel Center. Displays on every level of the mall enumerated the multitude of economic benefits and luxury attractions that he promised to lavish on his beloved hometown. In 2003, before DestiNY USA entered its chimeric phase, Congel’s marketing team sponsored a bass-fishing tournament on Onondaga Lake to get people excited about the project. Top prize was $1 million for whoever caught the fish with the magic tag.
I decided this was as good a time as any to learn a bit more about Onondaga Lake, so I went for boat ride with an aquatic biologist named Bruce Wagner. Bruce works for Upstate Freshwater Institute, a nonprofit scientific organization dedicated to studying the lake. Steering the aluminum skiff with one hand on the throttle, he pointed out landmarks, his pinched, nasally voice marking him as a native Central New Yorker. Four and a half miles long, one mile wide, with an average depth of thirty-five feet, Onondaga Lake is relatively small. As we skimmed its placid surface, I made adjustments to my mental map of Syracuse. I grew up south of the city. I was accustomed to seeing it from an elevated vantage point, looking northward on winter nights so cold and clear that it seemed the air might crack. The city’s streets glowed like strings of pearls laid out on a rumpled swatch of black velvet. Or racing up Interstate 81 from New York City on a Friday night, half-asleep at the wheel, I’d hit a bend in the road right before Exit 16 and rouse at the sight of Syracuse’s skyline materializing in the gap of Onondaga Valley.
Looking at the city from the low angle of a boat floating in the middle of Onondaga Lake was a minor revelation. It was like seeing the back of my head in a barber’s mirror. Just by turning my chin a few degrees, I could take in the entire east-west axis of the city stretched across the middle horizon. Church steeples and reservoir standpipes I’d never noticed before poked above the treetops. A white slice of the Carrier Dome’s pillow-topped roof lay half-hidden behind the pale flanks of parking garages. It took me a moment to locate the MONY towers (formerly owned by the MONY Life Insurance Company, now owned by Axa Equitable, although Syracusans still call them the “money towers”). Resembling upended shoeboxes clad in smoked glass, the towers are two of the tallest buildings in the city. But viewed from Onondaga Lake, they appear flattened against the hills rising above them to the south, like carvings in an old woodcut of a cityscape.
“You can see the whole city from out here,” I shouted to Bruce over the drone of the outboard motor. “Beautiful!”
“It’s really a shame,” Bruce replied. “I just can’t understand what the politicians, the people that controlled the community, were thinking back then.” He seemed to want to say more.
“They were probably saying the same stuff that they’re saying about Destiny now,” I said, goading him a little. “Future of the city!” Bruce didn’t bite. His job was to give decision-makers facts about the condition of the lake, not opinions about the biggest and most controversial lakefront development project in the city’s history. That was a sure way to lose funding. He just smiled ruefully and steered the skiff into a shallow little bay.
“Weirdest thing I ever saw on the lake was an inflatable woman,” Bruce said. “It came down Onondaga Creek and ended up in the harbor and was circulating around. We just watched it.”
There was nothing on the lake that day. No boats, no geese, no inflatable sex dolls. It was possible to picture the scene as the Jesuits did 350 years ago, gliding through the water in their birch-bark canoes. Onondaga Lake has been so thoroughly despoiled for so long that much of the waterfront is undeveloped and now exists in a postnatural state of sylvan tranquillity. The salt industry’s vast infrastructure of pump houses, solar sheds, and boiling blocks was razed long ago. Oil City’s ugly tank farm replaced the salt mills, but it, too, was bulldozed in 2000 to make room for DestiNY USA. The factories that once treated the lake as their private sump are either gone or far enough removed that all you can see of them is a distant smokestack. A sure sign that something might be terribly wrong with the lake is the conspicuous absence of pricey condos, or any private dwelling, crowding the shoreline, 90 percent of which is owned by the county.
Bruce throttled back on the outboard and we coasted toward a row of rotten wooden pilings — remnants of an old pier — that peeked above the surface of the bay. They were all that was left of Onondaga Lake’s heyday, a period around the turn of the 20th century when elegant resorts with names like White City, Iron Pier, and Rockaway Beach drew tens of thousands of people to these shores. The lake was already in decline by then. Salmon, lake trout, and whitefish had been wiped out. Lake water was so dirty that the city banned ice harvesting. But it was still a great place to hear marching bands perform, play a game of tenpins, or ride the water flume. Bruce maneuvered us closer to shore. Bank swallows darted in and out of holes in a white bluff that rose thirty feet out of the water — the same white bluffs that William de Leftwich Dodge repurposed as dramatic backdrops in his courthouse murals.
“We call this the White Cliffs of Dover,” Bruce said.
“It’s actually kind of pretty,” I said.
I asked him if the cove had a name. He shrugged. “We just call it the blue ooze area.”Tweet
“Yeah, it’s a wastebed.” Bruce swept his arm the length of the shoreline. “All this — wastebeds.” The white stuff, he explained, was calcium carbonate, the same material that clamshells and Rolaids are made of. The Solvay Process Company obliterated the natural shoreline on this stretch of the lake long ago, burying it beneath three square miles of calcium carbonate mountains that range up to seventy feet in height. Carousel Center was built on top of them. But for the most part the wastebeds remain undeveloped, a curious ecosystem of scrubland sandwiched between the highway and the lake. The wastebeds are the only place east of the Mississippi River where tumbleweeds occur naturally, Bruce said. But their chalky substructure makes them unstable. On Thanksgiving Day in 1943, some wastebeds liquefied and broke through containment dikes. Industrial waste flowed knee-deep into the streets of the Lakeland neighborhood, carrying away vehicles. The wastebeds also contribute directly to the lake’s salinity and pH levels. Calcium carbonate is a strong alkali. During the 1950s and ’60s, researchers tried to neutralize it by tilling treated sewage into the wastebeds. The experiment produced a bumper crop of tomatoes and squash that sprouted from undigested seeds in the sewage. History doesn’t record whether anybody harvested this cornucopia.
“But the woodchucks sure liked it,” Bruce said. Eager to show me what calcium carbonate sediment looked like, he reached into the water. “The consistency varies from, like, Jell-O to concrete in this stuff,” he said, “and it’s very slippery.” His hand emerged from the lake gripping a large black chunk of the lake bottom encrusted with razor-sharp zebra mussels, an invasive species from Eurasia. Zebra mussels have been wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems and infrastructure all throughout the Great Lakes for thirty years. When the zebra mussel scourge arrived in Onondaga Lake in 1992, it got more than it bargained for. The virulent little bivalves couldn’t gain a foothold in the lake’s poisonous waters. Since then, improvements to the Metro sewage-treatment plant have reduced the amount of ammonia and phosphorous discharged into the lake, and as a result zebra mussel colonies have sprouted up everywhere. Here, it’s a sign of progress.
Bruce heaved the zebra-encrusted chunk of wastebed overboard, then steered us to another little cove. I asked him if the cove had a name. He shrugged. “We just call it the blue ooze area.”
“Where you break through the crust” — Bruce jabbed an oar into the lake bottom — “the blue ooze comes up. Ah, there we go. There’s some nice blue.”
Plumes of sediment cleared to reveal an electric-blue substance seeping from the gash he’d made with his oar. It had the consistency of toothpaste, and the rotten-egg smell of it made me recoil.
“What the hell is that stuff?”
Bruce didn’t know. Nobody did, not even the Department of Environmental Conservation. Whatever it was, the blue ooze is unique to Onondaga Lake. Judging from the stench of hydrogen sulfide, Bruce speculated that it consisted of partially decayed sewage, rotting plant material, and finely ground limestone from soda ash. One time, he said, he was sloshing around the cove, collecting zooplankton, when he broke through the crust on the lake bottom and sank up to his waist in the muck. A colleague had to pull him out, leaving a bubbling hole of hydrogen sulfide and blue ooze.
We drifted toward a weedy stub of land poking into the lake that Bruce called White Trash Point. It was a popular spot for teens to hang out, drink beer, and toss their empties into the lake. A pair of white panties hung on a willow branch. I could hear the rush of traffic on the highway over the embankment behind the point, where the Semet Residue Ponds were located. “This will be really nasty,” Bruce said, plunging his hand into the lake again. He dislodged an oncolite stone made of calcium carbonate, causing the soft sediment trapped beneath it to swirl to the surface. “See the oil slick? And the bubbles? Oh, that’s pretty bad!”
“Jesus!” I gagged. The overwhelming stench of mothballs and sweaty armpits evoked childhood memories of trips around the lake. Bruce fired up the outboard and peeled away. He skirted the southern shore, taking us past a shallow reef made from thousands of old tires, “a haven for carp and catfish,” he said, past the Metro effluent pipe, wide enough to drive a car through, and up the east side of the lake to the outlet of Bloody Brook, the smallest of Onondaga Lake’s seven tributaries. Bloody Brook runs through the city’s northeastern suburbs, where General Electric’s old Electronics Park factory was once located, now the home of Lockheed Martin. In the late 1990s, high levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal used to coat television picture tubes at GE’s plant, were discovered in Bloody Brook’s sediments and cleaned up at great expense. Samples taken years afterward showed that cadmium levels in the sediment hadn’t declined.
Bruce cut the motor and we bobbed for a while near the marina, waves lapping gently against the side of the boat. We exchanged local lore about the lake as people walked dogs and rode bikes on the parkway that follows the eastern shoreline. Bruce was from the city’s west side, near the village of Solvay and the chemical factory that the village was named after.
“When I was a kid my elementary school teachers threatened a punishment of throwing you in Onondaga Lake if you didn’t behave in class,” he said. “That was their way of intimidating us.”
Like most Syracusans, Bruce and I grew up believing that Onondaga Lake was the most polluted body of water in the country, if not the world. It’s part of our civic identity, like our interminable winters. Dr. Steven Effler, Upstate Freshwater Institute’s chief scientist, and Bruce’s boss, told me that there was no objective yardstick to measure such a claim. Besides, he said, there were much dirtier lakes in some former Eastern Bloc countries. The news was disappointing, but I took some pride in knowing that it took Soviet levels of apathy and incompetence to top us.
The day of the bass tournament was hot and muggy and blessedly odor-free due to the lack of wind. I walked around the lake, talking to contestants. Most were residents of Syracuse’s blue-collar neighborhoods, hoping to catch the magic smallmouth bass with the $1 million tag clipped to its fin. Ida Mae Evans, an elderly black woman with a southern accent, sat in the shade beneath the state thruway overpass.
“Call me the Fish Lady,” she said, cackling gleefully. “Here come the Fish Lady!” I asked her what she would do with the prize money. “I wanna go to Vegas. Honest to God,” she said, placing her hand over her heart. “I really wanna go to Vegas. I wanna go to Vegas and catch that handle on that machine and pull it down. And when I pull it down I hope all the change start a-falling.”
“Then they can call you the Slot Lady,” I said.
“No,” she said, “they gonna call me the Mississippi Chicken Scratch Lady!”
Zoran Nukic and Goldic Nermin, two shirtless immigrants from Bosnia, occupied a rocky point on the north end of the lake. They’d caught a few bass, but none was tagged.
“For us, only luck is when you go work and make a good paycheck,” said Zoran. “This is best lucky.” By which he meant impossible luck. Lottery luck. Still, I said, what would you do with the prize money? “Oh!” Zoran exclaimed and laughed. When he saw that I was serious, he gave it some thought. “I go visit to Germany my family,” he said. He liked Germany. He liked Syracuse, too. Both places had a lot in common with Bosnia. “Because have good people, friendly. Have same winter, you know? It’s almost everything same, like us country. Lot of people come here from Bosnia. About 3,000 people is come, is now living in Syracuse.” I asked him whether they liked to fish in Onondaga Lake. Zoran turned to Goldic and said something in Bosnian that made both men snort with laughter. I didn’t need a translator. Onondaga Lake is an eternal spring of black humor from which all Syracusans drink.
Max Rhodes didn’t get the joke. Maybe because his sense of humor had been bought by the sponsors who’d hired him to organize the tournament, or perhaps because he was from Texas. I met Rhodes near the check-in station, where I was attempting to bribe a group of skeptical onlookers to eat one of the tagged fish splashing around in a big orange bucket. My offer had peaked at $500 with no takers when he sidled up next to me. “Show me your money, big boy!” he bellowed into my ear. “This ain’t my first rodeo!” For $500 he’d sushi one of those fish right here, right now, with his own knife. Onondaga Lake was dirty? What did we know from dirty? “I spent ten years in the Marine Corps dragging a canteen through rice paddies — I’ll show you dirty,” he growled. “This is a great lake!”
“You can get a monkey to eat dirt, but they don’t like it,” Dave added.Tweet
I knew when I was beaten. I slunk away to my car and drove out to White Trash Point to see whether anybody was fishing near the tar beds. It was empty. A stagnant marine funk hung in the air, wafting off the scummy effluvium of dead fish and rotting algae that floated around the boat launch. I wasn’t far from the spot where Bruce Wagner had broken off a chunk of calcified sediment. Using a piece of steel rebar that I found lying on the ground, I began poking the lake bottom. Just then, two young men on dirt bikes careened out of the willow and skidded to a stop. They stared at me, revving their bikes. Once they determined that I wasn’t a narc, they took their helmets off. One of them popped the tab on a twenty-four-ounce can of beer. They introduced themselves as Dave Williams and T-Bone the Corrupter.
“Lose something?” T-Bone said. I shook my head and jammed the piece of rebar into the lake a few more times.
“What’s that smell like to you?” I said, gesturing toward the cloudy hole I’d made in the crust. Dave and T-Bone bent over the side of the boat launch and sniffed.
“Ass,” said T-Bone, wrinkling his nose.
“Armpit,” Dave said.
“Armpit!” I shouted, perhaps too enthusiastically. T-Bone cocked his eyebrow at his friend and took a swig of beer. “That’s what I always thought it smelled like,” I said. “It’s actually chemicals, from the tar beds across the road.” Dave and T-Bone weren’t impressed by the distinction.
“Smells worse up by Bristol-Myers,” said T-Bone, referring to the pharmaceutical plant in East Syracuse. “Cooking them monkeys up there.”
“You can get a monkey to eat dirt, but they don’t like it,” Dave added.
“They cook monkeys at Bristol-Myers?”
“Sure,” T-Bone said, as if this were common knowledge. “In the incinerator there, after they’re done testing them.”
“Just their bones,” Dave said. “It’s like a big Crock-Pot.” He tossed the empty beer can into the weeds, kick-started his bike, and tore off into the thicket. I stood on White Trash Point as the high-pitched whine of Dave and T-Bone’s dirt bikes faded into the steady whoosh of traffic on the bypass. Fishing boats crisscrossed the lake. The concrete and glass ramparts of Carousel Center shone in the dull, hazy light. I wondered how different the scene would look after DestiNY USA had been built. Would the prosperity that the developers promised save Syracuse? Ten years later, the answer to that question is obvious, but before we get to it, it’s worth mentioning that nobody caught the million-dollar fish.
In 2007, I caught a glimpse of a scale model of DestiNY USA in Carousel Center’s Skydeck, which had been converted into a multimedia showcase for the project. It was sitting on a platform, surrounded by bright watercolor renderings. I recognized the tube-shaped hotels right away. Each hotel anchored a section of DestiNY USA characterized by a theme. The mansard-style buildings of the Marquis District, for instance, evoked a fashionable Paris neighborhood stocked with “the latest season’s hot trends and personal shopping assistants” to help guide well-heeled “visitors desiring a more enhanced level of service.” If concierge retail wasn’t your thing, you could get your culture on in the Tuscan Hill Town, a twenty-five-acre enclave of rustic villas situated on a terraced hillside above a man-made river where you could stroll among the shops and museums “while sipping espresso” in a “cozy village atmosphere.”
To those concerned about the carbon footprint created by this kingdom of conspicuous consumption, to those skeptical of the giant green DestiNY USA banners flapping in the wind outside Carousel Center or the new coat of green paint on the railings inside the mall, or the funky green wind turbines displayed prominently on the mall’s roof, Congel vowed that DestiNY USA would run on 100 percent renewable energy. To demonstrate the depth of his commitment, he commissioned a new round of conceptual renderings, including a 3D fly-through of a futuristic research-and-development complex adjacent to DestiNY USA called the Petroleum Addiction and Rehabilitation Park, or PARP. Green technologies developed at PARP would be tested at DestiNY USA, and DestiNY USA would in turn attract top tech talent from around the world. Onondaga Valley would become the Silicon Valley of the 21st century. We might not have a Mediterranean climate, but we would soon have a Tuscan Hill Town with monorail service.
The city settled its legal battle with Congel over construction delays by taking $60 million in exchange for leaving the thirty-year tax deal intact. In the summer of 2007, workers finally began digging the foundation for DestiNY USA’s first phase. But in less than a year, the bottom fell out of the US economy. Credit markets dried up. Citigroup froze Congel’s construction loan, silencing the pile drivers and bulldozers. As the Great Recession deepened, Congel fought Citigroup in court. Something happened to DestiNY USA during this period. Hotel construction was pushed off to phase two; phase one would be limited to an expansion of Carousel Center. The gallery of DestiNY USA ephemera in Carousel Center’s Skydeck closed, and the conceptual renderings disappeared from the mall’s concourses. Any mention or depiction of what the project used to be was scrubbed from DestiNY USA’s website. While the $228 million in tax-exempt “green” bonds that the federal government awarded the project still required Congel to wave his eco flag, he stopped hyping PARP and renewable energy. Instead of helping wean the world off fossil fuels, DestiNY USA’s newest tech initiative would help retailers glean customer data from shoppers carrying wireless data transmitters around the mall. Even DestiNY USA’s name shrank to match its narrowing scope, as “NY” quietly reverted to lowercase letters in all company communications.
Congel won his lawsuit against Citigroup and resumed construction in 2011. That summer, a decade after they first announced plans for Destiny USA, Congel’s marketing team invited people to tour the unfinished project on an appointment-only basis. I booked one of the first slots. Marc Strang, Destiny USA’s director of marketing, escorted our small group of mostly middle-aged suburbanites up to the Skydeck. The reporter’s notebook protruding from my shirt pocket seemed to make Strang apprehensive. What newspaper was I from? he asked. The notes were just for me, I assured him. I had a hard time keeping all the different versions of Destiny USA straight. Strang gave me a puzzled smile and went into the conference room to set up a projector. We milled around the Skydeck for a few minutes. I’d half-hoped to find a stack of conceptual renderings leaning against a wall, or better yet, the scale model of the old DestiNY USA project hidden beneath a tarp in the corner. But it was all gone.
We sat around a conference table as Strang narrated a PowerPoint presentation that began with the history of Carousel Center, a tale so familiar that it had achieved the status of an origin myth. Everybody in Syracuse knew it by heart. It goes like this: One day, Bob Congel decided to do something special for his hometown. He’d done so much already, turning empty factories into offices and apartments, renovating an abandoned downtown landmark for the headquarters of his mall empire. He owned malls in every corner of the state, except Syracuse. So that would be his gift to the city, a brand-new mall. But where would he build this mall? On a suburban greenfield site with good highway access? That’s what an ordinary developer would do. But Bob Congel is no ordinary developer. He’s a man of vision, the Hiawatha of developers. He would erect a super-regional mall that would unite shoppers from Canada to Pennsylvania, from Buffalo to Albany, and he would put it in the heart of the city, on a scarred brownfield site occupied by a run-down scrap yard next to the dirtiest lake in the country.
“He grew up near this neighborhood and actually saw the opportunity to create something really transformational in the community,” Strang said, clicking through slides of the old Marley Scrap Yard and Oil City. Strang reminded us that Congel now had nineteen grandchildren. What inspired Congel to build Destiny USA was his desire to make Syracuse a place where future generations of Congels would want to raise their own grandchildren. If Carousel Center was his gift to Syracuse, Destiny USA was his legacy. Strang ticked off a list of all the different stores and restaurants Destiny USA had signed on as tenants. At the end of the presentation, he handed out “real pretend gold” coins commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Carousel Center. Then he opened the floor to questions. A woman wearing a pink knit top and white shorts looked around the table.
“I have a comment,” she said nervously. Strang smiled.
“Please, go ahead.”
“The Melting Pot is going to do really good,” the woman blurted out.
“Oh yeah?” Strang said. “Have you been to the Melting Pot?”
“My daughter lives in Wisconsin and that place is just — everybody raves about that place,” the woman said. Other members of the tour started whispering to each other and shrugging. Melting Pot? What’s a Melting Pot?
“It’s a fondue restaurant,” said a man in a suit who’d been sitting quietly in the corner. Strang introduced him as the mall’s manager. “See, it’s set up with these individual kind of cubbies, and they do seatings of seven and nine,” the manager said, then realized that this level of detail probably wasn’t necessary. He crossed his arms, raised his eyebrows, and said, “It’s an experience.”
“We have them in a number of our properties,” Strang said. “If anybody’s driven by Buffalo in the last few years, we just did a renovation there. And they have a Melting Pot, a P. F. Chang’s, a Cheesecake Factory — ” The woman in pink clapped her hands. “Oh see, that too, a Cheesecake Factory!”
“Wait until you see the Canyon,” Strang said.Tweet
I stared at the notebook on the table in front of me. In it I’d written a list of Destiny USA amenities that had gone by the wayside over the years. My plan was to ask questions as if I’d just stepped out of a time machine from 2002. How much did it cost to play the back nine on Onondaga Dunes? Stuff like that. But I didn’t have the courage to do it. For some reason, I figured that a mall tour scheduled for the middle of a weekday would coax other unemployed cranks like me from their caves for the rare opportunity to harangue Destiny USA executives in person. But my compatriots were nice people, the kind who came to the mall on a summer afternoon to buy presents for their grandchildren. My bitterness dissolved inside a steaming pot of gooey cheese.
A woman with a smoker’s raspy voice asked about the number of jobs Destiny USA would add to the local economy. Strang fumbled the question and passed it off to the mall manager. The manager estimated that Destiny USA, when completed and flush with tenants, would bring 2,000 retail jobs to the city. I flipped through the pages of my notebook, looking for the jobs figure that Congel had boasted about in the past. The number ranged anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000, including a fair percentage of high-paying white-collar jobs. As I formulated a follow-up question, the raspy-voiced woman said, apropos of nothing, “I know I always sound like a cheerleader for Congel and company. I just happen to like these guys.” Everyone around the table chuckled, which encouraged her to continue. “My family is from the Hudson Valley. When they get a chance to come up here, they always want to come to Carousel. I don’t make them do that. They just say, ‘Great, we’ll come up to you because we want to come to Carousel.’ I don’t know why. It’s the light in here, it’s the . . . something, you know?” Strang and the mall manager nodded as if they, too, appreciated the magical quality of the light in Carousel Center.
“Wait until you see the Canyon,” Strang said.
The walking tour of Destiny USA was all drywall dust, deafening power tools, and deathly stares from construction workers unhappy with dorky tourists in green Destiny USA hard hats and fluorescent-green vests tramping through their work site. The high point occurred when we passed two old men wearing identical hard hats and vests. Surprised, Mark and the mall manager stopped the tour and introduced one of the men to the group as Bruce Kenan, Congel’s right-hand man and part owner of Destiny USA.
“Hi, everybody,” Kenan said with a grin. “Next time you come, spend some money here!”
The tour concluded with a viewing of the Canyon, a three-level concourse wrapped around a courtyard covered in glass. The summer light pouring through the ceiling got swallowed up by all the empty storefronts and gray, unfinished concrete. We stood at a railing and gazed at a branched metal sculpture rising up from the floor of the Canyon’s courtyard. It looked like a lightning-struck tree. Strang pointed out where the Melting Pot restaurant was going to be located, in case we didn’t notice the enormous banner draped above the restaurant’s cavernous entrance. When it came time to leave, he encouraged us to hang on to the commemorative coins. “They’re very valuable,” he said, “at least they will be in, like, fifty years.” I couldn’t tell whether he was joking. Halfway to the parking lot, I discovered that I was still wearing my hard hat. I thought about returning it, but then decided it needed to be preserved. The logo on the hard hat was an artifact from the “DestiNY” era of imprudent capitalization. It even had a little shooting star arcing over the top of “NY” and, underneath, a catchphrase that Congel’s marketeers had dropped early on: “Nothing like it in the world.”
One morning in June 2012, a courier walked up the limestone steps of City Hall in downtown Syracuse and handed a letter to a security guard. The letter was from Bruce Kenan. The first phase of the “Expansion Project” was finished, Kenan declared. It was also the last phase. The announcement triggered a clause in the fine print of the city’s agreement with Destiny USA that allowed Congel to begin reaping the tax windfall that the city, county, state, and federal governments had promised him in exchange for saving Syracuse. In other words, the Destiny USA saga was over. There would be no hotel, no golf course, no Tuscan Hill Town. From the outside, the textured concrete facade of the mall expansion resembled one of the many maximum-security prisons that dot the north country, except this one had a Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill franchise. And for that the city had to give up only $600 million in tax revenue on the single most valuable property in Syracuse. In their final act of expectations management, Congel’s marketing team revised the company logo yet again. New signs over the mall’s entrances welcomed shoppers to a diminished “destiny usa.”
The following August, Congel spoke at Carousel Center’s brief rebranding ceremony. He stood beside Bruce Kenan, his grandchildren having better things to do that day. “I’m a proud man,” Congel said, his voice echoing in the hollow chamber of the Canyon. “I’m not sure I’m awed about any of our malls. I’m awed by this mall.” Onondaga county executive Joanie Mahoney took the podium after Congel. “We owe a real debt of gratitude to . . . the Congel family in particular,” she said. “This could have happened anywhere.”
Many Syracusans share Mahoney’s feckless sentiment. It’s an integral part of the Congel mythos. OK, so Destiny USA is a mere shadow of the grand vision Congel sold us. Sure, he got a lot of public money to build it. So what? Isn’t that what developers do? Over-promise, under-deliver, and build things with other people’s money? In the end, Congel broke no laws, and he created something where there was nothing in a town that has been edging closer to nothing for a long time. I could not agree more, and Mahoney could not be more wrong.
Destiny USA, and Carousel Center before it, could not have “happened” anywhere else but here. And not just here, in Syracuse, but on the frothy, stinking shores of Onondaga Lake. If it wasn’t the most polluted lake in the country, if it didn’t sit smack in the middle of a Rust Belt city verging on bankruptcy, Congel would have neither abandoned land to grab nor the political leverage to exploit it. Had he hawked his megamall to any community located on any of the other Finger Lakes — the affluent resort town of Skaneateles, say, where the Congel clan owns multimillion-dollar mansions — they would’ve told him to take a hike.
Every awful thing you’ve ever heard about Central New York winters is true. They’re snowy, dark, and unspeakably long. You don’t hear as much about Central New York’s glorious summers, though. They’re short and bright, like a sharp blow to the head that makes you forget all about winter. I don’t think I spent a single summer weekend in New York City when I lived there. On Fridays, I left work early and drove straight to Syracuse.
We spend as much time as we can outside during the summer, usually near water. Within a ten-minute drive of our house there are three public beaches, four waterfalls, and too many creeks to count, including one in our backyard where our kids hunt for salamanders and crayfish. Sometimes we go north to Lake Ontario or the Saint Lawrence River, on the same route that my father used to take up the western shore of Onondaga Lake; and sometimes we go to Onondaga Lake itself, which my father never would’ve done, and with good reason.
“When we used to go out there in the early ’70s on a hot summer day, the lake sort of had the appearance of a green champagne cocktail,” Dr. Steven Effler recalled. “A lot of bubbles rising to the surface all the time.” Onondaga Lake today is not the fizzy cauldron of poisons that it was when I was a kid. It’s not the lake of Hayden Carruth’s ode “The Oldest Killed Lake in North America,” which the poet describes as “a great fallen sickly and silent harp” reflecting the “gleaming wires” of lights shining atop smokestacks. It’s not even the same Onondaga Lake that it was a few years ago. The health of the lake has improved in inverse proportion to the city’s health. But to understand how much it’s changed, you have to go below the surface.
In the summer of 2011, Effler and a team of scientists from the Upstate Freshwater Institute injected agricultural fertilizer into the bottom of the lake. They had a hunch that bacteria in the fertilizer would displace other bacteria that feed on the lake’s enormous reservoir of toxic mercury. The experiment worked. Without host bacteria to disperse it throughout the water column, mercury levels in the lake dropped by 95 percent. The mercury didn’t magically disappear. It’s still there, immobilized in the muck, where it can’t so easily get into the food chain. Mercury levels in fish have also dropped. That’s great news for the bald eagles that have been coming here in recent winters. You can see them from the parking deck at Carousel (nobody calls it Destiny USA), swooping over the Metro plant’s steaming sewer outflow, which doesn’t ice up like the rest of the lake.
Effler’s experiment is a small, but important, part of Onondaga Lake’s court-ordered billion-dollar cleanup. Honeywell International, the company that inherited legal responsibility for polluting the lake, is doing the heavy lifting. The company’s “dredging and capping” operations will cost half a billion dollars. When the winter ice melts, Honeywell’s barges ply the west side of the lake, sucking up contaminated muck from the bottom. A big black pipe snakes aboveground for miles along the shore, past the state fairgrounds, carrying the slurry to a disposal site. There, it’s pumped into long fabric tubes and left to dry like cured sausages.
T-Bone the Corrupter wouldn’t recognize Onondaga Lake’s western shoreline today. Construction equipment rumbles over wastebeds once crisscrossed with dirt-bike trails. Honeywell is restoring the lake’s natural tributaries and wetlands there. The company is also installing a barrier wall to prevent tar bed residues from seeping into the lake. They even cleared the shrub willow from White Trash Point and built a visitor’s center. If you’re discreet, you can pop a tab on a twenty-four-ounce and watch the barges gulping up the muck.
Honeywell is doing the bare minimum required by law, which amounts to sweeping the worst of the contamination under a very small rug. The company will dredge only 6 percent of the lake nearest the wastebeds, including the blue-ooze area and the White Cliffs of Dover. Then they’ll cap the most contaminated portions of the bottom, about 14 percent of the lake’s total area, with a three-foot layer of sand and dirt. Whether or not the cleanup goes far enough, it’s undeniably a watershed event for Onondaga Lake, reversing two hundred years of nonstop spoliation and neglect. But progress abhors a vacuum. Already there’s talk in the corridors of City Hall about what to do with the west side of the lake. The latest idea, backed by a $30 million contribution from the state, is a waterfront amphitheater that will be carved out of the wastebeds. I suppose it’s an attempt to rebrand Syracuse as a vanguard of culture in upstate New York, an idea with special appeal among those who believe the city of Syracuse stops at the foot of University Hill. I’m not so sure that Zoran Nukic or T-Bone the Corrupter or the waitress at the Melting Pot will be lining up behind English professors to buy tickets for a Shakespeare festival, though. Syracuse isn’t Saratoga. We’ve never gotten by on our charm. I think we should leave the lake alone for the next two hundred years and allow it recover. Then we can decide what to do with it, if that decision will even be ours to make. Who knows, if current trends hold, in two hundred years Syracuse could be a pile of bricks and rust.
Our kids like to ride their scooters on the wide pedestrian parkway that runs along the eastern shoreline of Onondaga Lake. We often stop to sit on a bench in the shade or to throw stones in the lake. Last summer, my son pried a fragment of pottery from the dirt at the base of a large maple tree near the shore. Using sticks, we dug for more fragments. The root-heaved earth around the tree was full of them. Many bore Syracuse China stamps. We collected about a dozen ear-shaped finger rings from old teacups, and one whole piece of white, unglazed earthenware that might have been a creamer. My son asked me where it all came from. I told him that restaurant dishes and cups used to be made right here in Syracuse, and that we’d probably found a spot where factory remnants were dumped as fill. I tried to make the connection between the pottery fragments, Syracuse’s industrial history, and the dredging barges on the far side of the lake. My son humored me with a thoughtful nod and resumed excavating.
The creamer sits on a shelf in his bedroom now, next to a fraying bird’s nest. Does he remember what I told him about it? Will he remember years from now, after he’s left Syracuse, and he finds it at the bottom of a box? Probably not. That’s why he and I both collect junk, as a substitute for memory. If the creamer reminds him of anything at all, it’ll be the weird habit his dad had of flipping over the plates every time we went out to eat. But I’ve got a plan. This summer I’m going to teach him how to ride a bike. I’m going tighten the chin strap on his helmet and give him a shove down the bike path at Onondaga Lake. He’ll fall and cry; I’ll help him up and utter a few words of encouragement. And we’ll repeat the cycle, over and over again, up the lakeshore, from the marina to the lunch truck at the north end of the lake. Afterward we’ll get soft ice cream and eat it under the tree where we found all the pottery fragments last year. And later, much later, when he’s unpacking boxes in some distant city, and he comes across that creamer, he’ll hold it in his hand and remember the day his dad taught him how to ride a bike on the shore of Onondaga Lake, in the city of Syracuse, his home.