Syracuse. The name doesn't mean much anymore. Mention it to someone elsewhere in the country, and they might know about Syracuse University and the Orangemen. Weather enthusiasts may know Syracuse holds the title of snowiest metropolitan area in the United States at an average of 117 inches (almost 10 feet) of snow each year, thanks to lake effect. But Syracuse was so much more once upon a time.
In 1850, it was the 12th largest city in the country. According to the 2000 census, Syracuse has fallen to 60th largest in the nation and still slipping. In terms of population growth, that census put Syracuse at number 274 out of 280 metropolitan areas in the United States, one of only 24 areas that experienced a decline in population. Over 10,000 residents left the Greater Syracuse area between 1990 and 2000. The decline would be even more alarming except that the decline of the urban core is partially masked by Syracuse's relatively healthy suburbs. The entire region is hurt, with Elmira, Binghamton, Utica and Buffalo also joining Syracuse in that group of shrinking cities. The only bright spots were Rochester and Albany, which added nearly 36,000 and over 14,000 residents respectively in the same period. During the Civil War, Syracuse was of strategic importance, providing half of the salt the Union needed. Later, it became the typewriter capital of the country, home to Smith-Corona, Remington and a host of smaller manufacturers. Its industries manufactured some of the finest shoes and caskets in the country. All of that is gone today. Per capital personal income for the Syracuse metropolitan area was a dismal 156th in the nation in 2003.
Since the middle of the 20th century, most city centers in America, usually referred to as "downtown," have suffered steep declines in population and commerce as suburban communities and office parks gained ascendancy. From cities like Pittsburgh to Kalamazoo to Cincinnati to Columbus, Ohio, all suffered, although few as badly as Syracuse. Big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago were not immune. Even Lower Manhattan was hurt by the flight of corporations to New Jersey (lured by massive tax incentives, a practice also embraced by Syracuse), a flight accelerated by the heinous attack on September 11, 2001. It's has undoubtedly suffered enormous pain but it remains enviably vibrant and resilient, like the rest of New York City. While many downtown districts have experienced a resurgence, downtown Syracuse's is, at best, mild.
Here is documentation of the decline of one downtown. Marvel at the glory that was Syracuse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mourn for the treasures lost over the decades to neglect, corruption, waste, incompetence and indifference. Later, take a closer look at one of its long-time landmarks, an example of how the city has lost its way.