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The city of Syracuse is best approached in layers of time. If you understand how it grew from a disease-ridden swamp next to the nascent Erie Canal into a transportation hub and industrial center, you'll understand the neighborhoods better. The best place to start is at the Erie Canal Museum, where you quickly get a sense of what this city was about in its early days and how it has contributed to the world. For instance, did you know that the electric traffic signal was first manufactured in Syracuse? And that the 24-second shot clock was invented here? "Syracuse is home to the longest running State Fair in the nation, dating back to 1841," and "the oldest continuous women's club in the United States," the Cornthian Club, is still going strong here. For a look at more fun facts, check out this page.
I like to make two outrageous claims, both based on fact. One is that the North wouldn't have won the Civil War had it not been for Syracuse. How could this be? Well, the salt works in the south were destroyed, whereas Syracuse salt, its major industry in the 19th century, preserved the soldiers' food. Soldiers who eat can fight for their side. My second outrageous claim is that the Syracuse area is the cradle of North American democracy. This is because the Iroquois' League of the Six Nations, based on the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee, was founded on the shore of Onondaga Lake, which is Syracuse's northern boundary. That Great Law, in turn, was an inspiration to the creators of the Constitution of the United States.
I'll leave a description of other neighborhoods to my neighbors elsewhere in the city. I live in Eastwood, which was a village until the early 1920's, when it incorporated with Syracuse. Back in those days, trolley cars made their way out to what are now considered "first ring" suburbs, and that would have included the tree-lined streets of Eastwood. James Street runs from the city out past Eastwood, and it still has some of the incredible mansions built a hundred years ago, although sadly many were lost to poor planning and ugly development.
Eastwood still retains its village atmosphere with its clear "Main Street" heart (James Street) and its diversity of businesses and residents. Businesses include the historic Palace Theater, recently renovated and still owned by the same family that built it, the Palace Cafe, a number of diners, a hardware store, a music center, more hair salons than can be counted, the best auto repair shop in Syracuse, two independent book stores, a fabulous hat store, and many others. Residential areas include palatial homes interspersed with smaller single-family homes and 2- or 3-family houses. There are also a few larger apartment complexes. Most of the older homes boast hardwood floors, woodwork (much of it still unpainted), and all the details of the early part of the 20th century that simply cannot be duplicated any more. Streets are built on a grid and every one has sidewalks, so Eastwood is already laid out as if a "new urbanist" planner had designed it. Most basic services are no more than a 10-15 minute walk from any residence. But since Eastwood is in the city, the commute to major employers such as Syracuse University or Upstate Medical is under ten minutes!
Eastwood's residents get involved! The Eastwood "Tomorrow's Neighborhoods Today" (TNT) meetings are well attended, and the various subcommittees get a lot done. There are streetscape improvements taking place on James St., ski and hiking trails have been created in Sunnycrest Park (which also has a 9-hole golf course!), the year-round Sunnycrest skating rink has solid support, and the country's oldest continuously-running peace and justice organization, P.E.A.C.E. Inc (celebrating 70 years this year!) runs the Eastwood Community Center. The TNT Economic Development Committee keeps an eagle eye on development and was successful last year in preventing Walgreens putting in a suburban-style store. The design of the store was changed to reflect adherence to the James Street Overlay District Design Guidelines. Finally, there's even an Eastwood Neighborhood Association, devoted to even more projects to improve the neighborhood.
For a good look at what Eastwood used to look like, what it looks like today, and the issues its residents are grappling with, take a look at the Walkable Eastwood website. You can even join the Walkable Eastwood email forum if you have questions you'd like to ask the folks who live here. Eastwood is actively seeking people who are considering moving to a walkable urban environment. With gas prices showing no sign of moving in any direction but up, there is nothing more efficient than living in the city where you work. With home prices in Syracuse still a great bargain, Syracuse's snow begins to look like an excuse to go skiing rather than an impediment to good living.