The Great Pretender

It's a little dreary out, but I took the walk downtown this morning. On the way, I was joined for a couple of blocks by a gentleman, perhaps in his mid-to-late-60s, clearly either drunk or high, who had been caught in the early-morning storm (you could tell because he was soaking wet).

He was singing one line from the Steve Miller Band's "The Joker" over and over, and he asked me if I had heard the song "The Great Pretender," which of course I had.

"That's what I am, the great pretender," he said.

He asked me to pick a number between one and ten in my head, and just be honest with him. I chose six.

"Is it an odd number?"

"No," I said, knowing I left him with five to pick from.

"Eight," he said, authoritatively.

"Not that one; you've got four left."

"Four?" he tried.

"Sorry. I'll give you three more guesses."

"Six," he finally got. "Let's try again."

This time I picked three.

"Is it an odd number?"

"Yes," I told him.

"I'm getting strong vibes on two numbers."

"Oh? Which two?" I asked.

"Three and five."

"Well," I said, "It is one of those. But which one?"

"Five," he said, very sure of himself.

"No, I went with three this time."

"Well," he said, "whatever you do today, make sure you have a fantastic day."

"That's my only goal today, sir," I told him. "You do the same."

Tearing down Interstate 81

If you've managed to jump around blog-to-blog with me, you know that taking down the elevated portion of I-81 between I-690 and I-481 is one of big things.

People have to understand that the bridges either need expensive shoring up or expensive taking down, so it's not like it's a project that's coming out of nowhere.

The Onondaga Citizens League has started a blog (h/t to Greg Munno), and their first case study is I-81.

They start with some history, which is really instructive for me. I didn't grow up here, and at any rate, even if I did, I wouldn't remember the end of the Erie Canal and what that meant for the city.

There used to be rail service down Washington Street, and it was really difficult for people at street level – and not real safe, considering some of the cargo.

One solution was to consider elevated tracks. But people were adamantly against that. It would divide the city, they argued.

That's exactly why elevated tracks weren't built, and exactly what happened when the interstate was.

Huh.

If I had my way, frankly, we'd rip up Washington Street and Salina Street, not allow cars on them, and restore passenger rail service to the old Syracuse & Utica rails that are still buried throughout the city.

We'd continue to run the freight trains where they are now, but turn the north-south corridor and the east-west corridor through the city into mass transit and pedestrian ways. With two-to-four trains running per hour on each corridor (depending on the time of day), I bet ridership could be huge. A couple of elevated walkways would solve the crossing-the-street problem, and trains aren't really any louder than buses, trucks and other traffic.

The other piece to the puzzle is University Hill, which is entirely cut off from downtown, thanks to I-81 (and don't give me that "why don't people just walk under the highway?" crap; it's seriously unsafe). A study was finished last year assessing the needs of the university area, particularly as concerns bike and foot traffic (PDF).

Imagine if all the Syracuse University and SUNY ESF students were able to easily patronize business in other areas – and people in the rest of the city were easily able to patronize the Marshall Street businesses without fighting with university parking?

Wow.

There apparently is already a group dedicated to taking down freeways, and they outline challenges and successes.

If you want to get involved locally, watch the the SMTC's I-81 Web site for news, including some citizen forums.

Downtown, revisited

I feel like it's been a really long time since I've taken myself downtown when it wasn't necessary, or for a specific event.

Thursday evening, I got home from work, and went out to hop on a bus. And it turns out all those stories about ridership being up are true. I'm used to seeing about 10-15 quiet, almost sullen, people on that 4:30 bus.

But the bus was full – standing room only – and people were bumping into old friends. This is why they call it mass transit.

I made a beeline for the Tusk, where I sat in the back room with my laptop and a Boddingtons and made a huge amount of progress on a project that's been dogging me for a while.

While I was working, two gentlemen in town for the evening from New Jersey (who had been working at Fort Drum for a few days and said they had exhausted their options in Watertown) slid into a booth. I gave them a tour of Armory Square from the window; I later saw one of them coming out of Sound Garden with a bag, and they appeared to be taking my recommendation to head over to Ambrosia for dessert.

I decided to celebrate my success with dinner and a (naked) Honey Light at the Suds Factory, where someone waiting for a take-out order wanted to chat about the menu.

And people are always telling me how un-friendly Syracuse is.

If you need an introduction – or re-introduction – to downtown, why not come to the 40 Below Civic Engagement meeting Monday? It takes place at 5:30 on the 18th floor of the State Tower building. They always wrap up right around 6:30, and I'll be happy to show you around afterward.