Jan 20, 2010

Saratoga Springs: a miracle, revisionist history or simply a missing conversation?

Buy an ad; create your own myths

Any given Chamber of Commerce has as its primary function that of being a cheerleader; boosting the local community as a good place to live, work and visit. Promotion and marketing are keys to making things happen; hence there is nothing sinister with such a function.

So it should come as no surprise that this past Thursday found an insert titled “Saratoga Springs: Transformation by the Passion of a Community” within that city’s daily newspaper, The Saratogian. Published and paid for (one assumes) by the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, this collection of essays harkens on the supposed not-so-good old days of the Spa City’s downtown commercial district and Broadway epicenter. Historical images and recollections of abandoned storefronts and dilapidated structures are juxtaposed with the current streetscape of tidy facades and smiling shiny faces; a miracle turnaround, if you will.



Of special personal interest was the piece on the genesis of the Holiday Inn Hotel on the southern end of the street. In a quest to solve the gaping hole in the town’s inventory of lodging space (this is a tourist destination, after all), enlightened citizens came up with an innovative scheme as a means of attracting a development partner into the solving of that problem.

That solution was to demonstrate the community’s financial commitment through a stock offering of foundation shares, which were purchased at $50 each by everyone that gave a hoot. It worked, as the Memphis based Holiday Inn chain bought into the vision, constructing the first combo hotel & convention facility in their history in Saratoga.

My parents were two of those very stakeholders, buying a share each; as did most of their friends and neighbors. As a children, my brother and I would always shout out “can you show us which two bricks we own?” each and every time the family sedan drove by the facility, for that’s what we were told was the family’s ownership portion of such. Furthermore, the investment return on that $100 was very healthy, deemed as the “best financial investment we ever made” by our family treasurer.

Indeed, bricks and mortar are an important part of the mix of a community’s economic well being, and that’s what the Chamber is celebrating with such a document. Granted, some argue that the publication is more a celebration of the Chamber than it is of downtown, but either way, it still serves that aforementioned booster function quite adequately.

The point to remember, however, is that part part; as in “part of the mix.” Is a pleasant looking downtown a good asset? Yes; granted. Did a group effort by this city’s forward-thinking leadership and citizenry make that pleasant downtown happen? Yes, again! Now, did all of that lead to a thriving downtown economy and quality of life experience? Well, not so fast there.

Yes; downtown Saratoga rings the cash registers at a comparatively impressive clip – and that’s a good thing. But should that be the Report Card of a community’s health and well-being, or should it be but one line item (or subject matter) in such an analysis? The Chamber (and its willing partner The Saratogian) both seem to opt for the former; I’ll argue for the latter.

But the conversation never seems to get into that territory, and for that I blame the newspaper more than the Chamber. Again, the Chamber’s job is to promote; and a good promoter highlight’s its client’s primary assets. In the case of Saratoga, that asset is its downtown. The Saratogian cannot be let off the hook so easily, especially when its front page hype of the enclosed insert proclaims a “rise to glory” from “20 years of progress” and so on. Missing, not surprisingly, is an in-depth analysis of the community’s overall health and quality of life compared to the past. Instead, the reader is left with a given that Then was a shit hole; Now is Nirvana; nothing more.

But that more seems to be beyond the reach of the city’s daily --- just another sign of the continuing decline of this paper as a resource for thoughtful ideas and commentary on local dynamics. In this case, missing from the puzzle is a conversation that might raise these points:

• The downtown commercial district is dominated by a tourist economy, with precious little local-to-local commerce. The result is that very few resident citizens ever venture into this district as part of their economic (and social) life. Wouldn’t this be considered as a bad thing?

• Furthermore, the city’s livelihood seems to rely more and more heavily on it being the “bar district of the Capital Region.” Need proof: wander down Caroline Street on a Friday night (wear a helmet). Is this desirable?

• The city is devoid of a ‘high tech” or “creative class” economy; especially downtown. Few such businesses are created locally, further resulting in a brain drain worse than Appalachia’s. Need proof here as well? OK, how many of you or your neighbor’s kids returned home after getting their advanced degrees? Uh-huh: the waitress job at Lillian’s helped with the tuition, but it’s not a career path, is it?

• The city feels more and more like a combination retirement village and bedroom community. A discussion, please?

On and on we could go, but there lies the missing ingredient of the local fabric: that discussion. Who’s ready, willing and able to lead such a discussion? The Chamber of Commerce won’t and the Saratogian can’t. There lies what we would refer to as a VOIDin the community.

An old school buddy of mine made an interesting comment the other day when he said “I was probably the happiest back when I was living in a drafty rat hole of an apartment with lawn chairs and milk crates for furniture.” This coming from a guy who W2’s at least a mil each year and lives in a house that would make a Tudor prince jealous, mind you.

Those left standing on the battle field are the ones that get to write the war's history. That’s why the few childhood friends of mine that still remain in the city are those that have succeeded in the locally endorsed religions of tourism and housing/real estate or their allied sects. Those pursuing other interests in technology, high finance, software, research or whatever (including myself) needed to look elsewhere.

That’s fine: a town cannot be all things to all people. Just don’t tell me that it’s a miracle for Broadway to now have more barrooms than it does internet companies or that the demographics of the type of people likely to create those very internet companies are priced out of being able to live or work there. Yes, give me a bohemian ghetto and some interesting people to tell me stories around town now and then.

Personally, if push came to shove and I had to make a mutually-exclusive choice between: a) a pretty downtown filled with tourists and skyrocketing property values fueled by in-migration; or: b) a community of deep-routed neighborhoods complete with slew of locally-centric venues where everyone knows my name; I’ll opt for the Cheers scenario. But that’s just a personal preference; I can at least recognize there are varying perspectives and opinions on the matter.

But meanwhile, those holding the ropes go about perpetuating the myths and denying the collateral damage. Thursday’s offering was simply Exhibit #875771.

RM

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19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Most excellent. Well done.

Blue Streak said...

I am not one to make a habit of giving public praise for something like this, but in this case it is well deserved.

This piece is a tremendous example of what journalism SHOULD look like. But you are correct, though: it is an increasinlgy rare example.

I look forward to more in the future.

The TechValleyTimes Group: said...

<>

Folks: 3 very simple requests:

a) keep on topic

b) lay off the personal attacks, unless it is directly related to topic AND it is done so in a non-libelous manner.


Libel:

"the false and malicious publication in printed form, done so for the purpose of defaming a living person"

Anonymous said...

Examples please?

The TechValleyTimes Group: said...

While I find it amazing that this needs explaining, I'll play along.

Pass or Trash ?

Example 1:

"Politician Smith is an idiot because he thinks paid parking is good (or bad) when everyone with a brain knows it is the key to this city's fortunes (or downfall). And Politican Jones must have dropped out of school in kindergarden because his budget makes no sense."

Pass or Trash? Pass
Why? This is an expression of a sarcastic opinion with its conclusion based on a perception of real world events.


Example 2:

"Politician Brown is having an affair with his sister's 12yo daughter and is paying for her cell phone with city funds."


Pass or Trash? Trash
Why? Charges are being made without any level of supporting proof. Futhermore, if such charges were later determined to be false, a reasonable person would conclude that Brown's reputation was, in fact, seriously damaged by such an accusation.


Does that help, Mr or Ms X?

Karen said...

I find myself both agreeing AND disagreeing with this. I guess thats the sign of a good article getting people to think. I think i will read it again before I offer some specific comments/

But right now I would like to thank you for not allowing what are most likely the filthy comments that it looks like you are deleting when they come in. Some of the other blogs don't bother and the result is awful.

Anonymous said...

I've lived in Saratoga since the late '50s, and it was a great place to grow up. It's still a great place to live, but you're right about the lack of good jobs outside of construction and real estate. And, there were a lot of great things we had in the past that we don't have now: Skidmore downtown with students everywhere, not just in the bars, a wide variety of stores that you could walk to for things like hardware, ordinary clothing, car parts, sporting goods, photo supplies, groceries, etc., funkier (and much cheaper) bars and restaurants, and more characters around from the town, not just tourists. It used to be a lot less expensive too. I'll probably have to move away when my kids are grown.

dirty harry said...

Nice article rm

Anonymous said...

It's all about Who has the power. This includes Who influences what the paper prints and how they spin it. In this town the Who is the realtors and buidling people. It is in theri interest to whitewash the citys image so living here is made attractive to out of towners. Your views, while they wont make it into the paper or on the comemrce chambers action list are most definitely the popular opinion, at least by those that have lived here for any length of time. Thank you for being courageous enoght to share it in such a public manner. I also agree with the other one who thanks you for filtering the trash talk.

Anonymous said...

If I may comment about the Chamber booklet publication in The Saratogian......

Because it was a "Camber publication" they got what they paid for....and lots of politics intertwined in what could have been a booklet worth passing on to every person who moves to Saratoga Springs, or visits here.

Certain names were omitted, yet others were repeated ad nauseum. Why was that? Politics. It was Dalton's parting shot.

And, by the way, it was a bland graphic display, matched only by the blandest of writing.

Sorry, I give it a 4 out of possible 10.

Anonymous said...

--superb--

Citizen Nancy said...

your comments about saratoga being devoid of an 'creative class economy' and lacking a bohemian
ghetto are certainly worth discussion. This town certainly has a strong aversion to working class intellectuals, thats for sure. I suspect they keep a low profile like I do(in some ways) but they are probably encouraged to move elsewhere. I will ponder what you have suggested-'the discussion' and either blog about it myself or get back to you.

KRB said...

This is a good way to get people thinking at the very least.

Dave D said...

Bob, looks like you've lost your rose colored glasses!

You're firing on all cylinders with this essay, and you are right, no-one wants to have a serious discussion about Saratoga Springs beyond the "everything is beautiful" delusion.

Broadway is downtown success story, but mainly as an attraction to outsiders for fun and shopping for high-end women's clothing. The bar scene has been a staple of Saratoga Springs for decades - I remember going to Caroline back in my youth with a bunch of guys from our hometown of Glenville. We'd roadtrip to "Toga" because the bar scene was a happening, even when the rest of downtown wasn't. The veteran bars of Caroline st. are a testimony to the continued happening scene.

Today, Broadway offers little for the local, aside from the occasional splurge for a taste of fine dining. Uncommon Grounds has become the one local hangout, mainly because most of us can still afford a cup of coffee. All the clothing shops are geared for the well-heeled visitor, as I don't see many locals wearing clothing like threads on the mannequins.

I can honestly say I have never set foot into the Gap or Eddie Bauer, and don't plan to. And what's with all the woman's clothing stores? Broadway must have the highest density of woman's clothing of any city in upstate NY.

Regarding the BR community and retirement village - well, apparently that is where the money is, and the builders will go where the money is.

Unfortunately, gentrifying everything ends up displacing the "creative class" that lived in the rat hole with milk crate furniture. The town becomes sanitized of such undesirables, because the money wants pretty. Even the once bohemian Beekman Street has been gentrified, and Saratoga's "ghetto" is now a trendy arts district.

Funny thing is, it's now priced out of the reach of most artists. Those that have money have moved to Broadway, because Beekman has no foot traffic. It's been sanitized of it's gritty past, and thus, has lost the soul that it once had.

Your friend who now W2's in the millions loved the girtty existence that was the old Saratoga Springs because it was real - a diverse town of varied classes that needed some TLC, but oozed opportunity. Thus, there was energy and excitement in the chaos; the milk crates and lawn chairs worked because they were functional without the fanfare. He didn't care, because it didn't really matter what kind of furniture he had. He was to busy feeding off the vibe of the untamed city. Now that he's made it, he's surrounded himself with all the trappings that money can buy; much like the many newcomers to the Spa city. He's moved from the low class to the high class, but in the rarefied air of affluence comes a feeling of isolation.

This is the new state of downtown Saratoga - in it quest to please and appease the moneyed class, it has isolated itself from the locals who make it work. It's been called "Aspenization" in Colorado, or "Californication" in LA.

The resultant transformation guts the soul of a town and creates a fake facade of a pretend place. It reminds me of a friend's slang knickname for Lake Placid in the Adirondacks - he calls it "Fake Plastic." Like the Hollywood starlet that has been gotten a facelift - the beauty hides the empty soul within.

So can we save Saratoga Springs from itself? It may be already too late. Unfortunately, it is small city that lacks a a neighborhood "on the other side of the tracks" where the displaced creatives can claim as their own. Cities like NY are large enough to room to migrate to create the next hip neighborhood. Greenwich Village beget SoHo, and now Harlem. Saratoga has Ballston Spa.

Ironically, Ballston Spa has all the ingredients for entrepreneurial revival you speak of, including the local-centric vibe that makes for a rich community experience.

Maybe we need to become their cheerleaders?

John L said...

I 'd probably take B as well.

I wouldn't say it was the happiest I've ever been, but I had a hell of a good time living at 4 Franklin Square in the mid-90s (before it was transformed into swanky office space). The apartment was atrocious & the building would have been condemned had its owner not put it on the National Register of Historic Places back in 70s before letting it go to hell. Clever guy was he.

Anyway, I agree with most of this but want to caution against equating hi-tech companies with prosperity.

As somebody who works for an Internet company, I'd love to have more comrades in Saratoga, but I think too many people see hi-tech as an economic panacea.

IMO the key to economic prosperity (i.e., steady growth, not boom n' bust cycles) lies more in diversity of services and local ownership/investment than infusions of fancy VC money.

Dividends paid on VC money rarely seem to stick around where they were created but instead return to the nation's existing wealth centers.

I'm reading an great book right now called The Illusions of Entrepreneurship. I was surprised to learn just how few jobs and wealth that small and start-up hi-tech companies create. And shocked to learn that the most entrepreneurial state, in terms of new businesses created per capita, is VERMONT.

Who knew!

Interested parties can check it out at http://goo.gl/E5Gb.

Carol said...

Wow. I am just reading this. You state what a lot of us think. Thank you, whoever you are!

Will R said...

Same here. I didn't see this the first time. Thank you for brining it back to the front and center.

Anonymous said...

WOW!

and YEAH!

Toga Native said...

This might be the most thoughtful piece I've ever read on the status of Saratoga as a community.