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Barbed Wire Fences and Destiny

October 20, 2010

The first thing I notice in Syracuse are the barbed wire fences. There’s a lot of new ones around lots of empty lots.

Syracuse shares a story with Flint, Michigan once a boom town, high industry, culture and progress. It once used to be a progressive place. Syracuse is remembered in the history books as a major hub of the underground railroad.

But like Flint, Syracuse has seen it’s better days.

Years ago when I first realized I wanted to work as a documentary filmmaker I started a film called Mike and Me. It was going to be a ‘search ‘ for Michael Moore all the while comparing my hometown to his. The parallels were frightening, unemployment, crime, white flight – we were in 1999 15 years behind Flint.

I left Syracuse eventually to work in New York for another journalist, but every once and a while I get the urge to revisit the film.

Leaving town on a bus always grants the opportunity for interesting conversations. I start one with a African American women heading to NYC and eventually Boston. Her family, like mine asked if I’m here to stay – she said “Hell no.” I agreed. No jobs, even less likely for someone working in journalism. Syracuse University might have one of the best schools in the country for journalism but all that means is that no one in the city will pay for it. What’s the phrase? Why pay for milk when you can get an intern to run to the store and buy it for you…? Something like that.

But anyway. The barbed wire fences.

I’m not sure how many people will actually notice this, but the amount of rust on a fence tells a lot about a town. I drive through a lot of towns long past their glory (living in the North East it’s hard not to) and one of the first things I notice is the fences. They tell you first if construction is going on, open gates usually no matter the hour. They tell you if the construction has been stopped, rusted hanging chains. If the fences are sagging they’ve been up during an upstate NY winter from all the snow pushed up against them.

The Planned Destiny USA

The barbed wire tells a lot too – it collect garbage, plastic bags mostly. If they’re old you’ll see plastic bags from shops long closed, they it collect rust as well. If it’s razor wire (not the old western style) the lot is probably new – and part of an expensive well funded project. If it’s got clothes or hunks of carpet over it it’s been jumped over.

There’s a lot of new fences around Syracuse most of them around empty lots. Mostly near a new mega-mall project called Destiny USA which promises to be the largest mall in the world – beating out the Mall of America in Minnesota. Never mind that the Mall of America has already purchased land to expand.

It’s a project of developer Bob Congel who is a former family business associate of my late grandfather. Mr. Congel first built a large mall called ‘Carousel’ back in the early 90’s using tax breaks and promises of jobs. The city and the state rebuilt roads at great expense – promises of reimbursement were made from Congel. It’s been nearly two decades and none have been forth coming. In fact  he’s made threats of leaving the project all together if he doesn’t get more tax breaks (and for many years) and more special consideration on roads.

But Congel who was last time I checked worth over $700 million is promising that hundreds of new jobs will be created with this Destiny USA project. These jobs will of course be minimum wage level jobs with a few management positions thrown in – nothing that can actually help grow the local community. Essentially Destiny is akin to a cruise ship. Hotels, restaurants, sports activities will all be inside of this domed pleasure palace. Giving people no reason essentially to venture out to the countryside or especially downtown Syracuse.

Local leader and current gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins (Green Party) has at least called for a special minimum wage for the mega-mall. He’s asking for wages to be at the local living wage – which is close to $12 an hour (est. from 2003).

The project is currently going through – Congel has already bought much of the land that he’ll need to complete the project and the local politicians have conceded to many of his demands. Most of the smaller, and non-chain stores have already been priced out of what equates to the last safe commercial zone in Syracuse. Apple and Cartier have their spots and are their to stay. Here’s hoping the dollar stays at least above the Canadian loon by a bit – otherwise we’ll have another similarity with Michael Moore’s Flint. As featured in his brilliant Roger & Me the city spent millions building an indoor amusement park honoring automobiles called “Autoworld”- no one showed up and it closed two year later.

There’s a larger story here that hasn’t been covered enough by the local media, or any media for that matter. If I’ve missed a great report on this – please send it to me – Destiny could be a great thing… I just hope that it won’t make Flint Michigan our Fate.

News report from the opening of AutoWorld in Flint, MI.

NY Times story on Destiny USA -“The Mall that Would Save America” here.

Syracuse Post Standard story – “Citigroup says Destiny USA has no tenants; work comes to halt” here

Zach Roberts is a photographer and videographer currently working in New York City. He blogs at

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