Editor’s Note: The following opinion column was written by Jeff Stein, editor of the Ithaca Voice.
As always, we are eager to reprint alternative or dissenting viewpoints. To submit a column, contact me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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ITHACA, N.Y. — There they remain, dead and unused, as if in an open casket.
Buffalo’s massive grain elevators once helped make the city a national economic powerhouse by linking wheat from the Midwest to the Erie Canal. Now they are a few more of the Rust Belt’s slain giants, made largely obsolete during the late 20th Century by cheaper, faster ways of transporting grain around the country.
Dozens of the hulking industrial silos still line Buffalo’s waterfront. In them, I see a paradox: On the one hand, the grain elevators remain awe-inspiring reminders of man’s prodigious powers: to build durable, efficient machines; to feed millions of people; to conquer and remake the skyline.
But if they remain impressive testaments to our character, the grain elevators serve as equally dispiriting reminders of man’s limitations — of our inability to see the future, of how our most seemingly safe predictions can prove embarrassingly, laughably wrong.
I went to Cornell, where Buffalo’s forgotten grain elevators are rarely discussed. Students at the university are more likely to consider the titans of industry in this era — to wonder how to become the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk — than to mull the technological marvels of past centuries.
This worldview makes sense. But as a friend took me through the industrial vestiges of the city’s Outer Harbor last week, I felt the narrowness and hubris of the perspective acutely. And I had a sudden (if childish) desire to grab every aspiring Cornell tech entrepreneur by the popped collar and drag him or her in front of the grain elevators: “Look at what these workers accomplished! Look at what they built!,” I would exclaim maniacally, gesturing wildly up at the 130-foot colossal grain silos. “And you think your new app is cool? You really think your “disruptive” startup will stand the test of time?”
There’s no doubt that 21st Century software is miraculous in its own way. It has created meaningful improvements in our lives, and has made communication seamless and effortless, and has unleashed new wonders for consumers. But I would argue that programming even the most inventive code pales in comparison to the glory radiated to this day by Buffalo’s industrial relics.
There are exceptions, of course. But the sheer physical grandeur of these structures, the noble purpose they served — these, to me, will always dwarf whatever we can do next with our little buzzing pocket gadgets (or online news sites).
The Buffalo Central Terminal opened in 1929. The $14 million, 17-story Art Deco building was created to transport thousands of people through a city that planners at the time expected would grow by 1.5 million people. Things didn’t work out as expected.
Two of the biggest blows came from the flight of heavy industry to China and the rerouting of U.S. shipping routes. Unemployment soared. Buffalo slowly became one of the five poorest cities in the country, according to some studies. By 1990, there were fewer people in Buffalo’s Erie County than there had been in 1960.
The last train passed through the Buffalo Central Terminal in 1979. Except for the occasional art event or concert, it has sat largely unused for several decades.
There are many better and more abler chroniclers of Buffalo’s long decline. (You can find some of them here or here.) And I should note that there are real and encouraging signs that the Buffalo economy is finally on the rebound, especially with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s exciting new “Buffalo Billion” initiative. But even those who are most bullish about Buffalo today recognize that the city has fallen far from its industrial heyday — and from what was once widely envisioned to be its perennially bright future.
Which brings me back to Ithaca. If you read the Ithaca Voice with anything resembling a passing regularity, you know that the city of gorges is in the middle of an economic boom.
Tompkins County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state. Cornell and Ithaca College continue to expand, hiring staff and bringing students who pump money into our city. Ithaca’s economy, it does not seem a stretch to say, is the envy of Central New York.
See related: Explainer: Ithaca’s economy, unemployment rate
It would be far too facile for me to say that the lesson from Buffalo is that our economic health is inevitably fleeting. And it would be equally superficial of me to argue that we should temper our construction spree based on Buffalo’s lessons; with the possible exception of the Emerson proposal, our current building boom stands to compensate for growth that’s already happened (rather than being predicated on expectations about the future).
Still, I think we should do more to try and remember what happened in cities like Buffalo when considering Ithaca’s future.
I spend most of my days chasing stories about all sorts of issues related to city governance — fights over zoning; questions around one housing project or another; debates over local tax rates. These discussions, however, are almost certain to prove little more than mere parentheticals in the real story of Ithaca. Instead, the most important question facing Ithaca — bar none — is the following: How will the business model for elite higher education weather the 21st Century?
There’s reasonable disagreement on the question. Some, like Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, believe new technology companies will undermine the shocking sticker price of a four-year degree. Others say that rising costs have created a bubble in higher education that is certain to burst. Personally, I tend to agree with those who think the top schools will be okay, and that the globally famous Cornell brand will be in high demand for years to come.
But even I think that fellow optimists must leave room for doubt. At the very least, I think we should recognize this: We simply don’t know whether Cornell’s sprawling campus will continue to teem with life decades from now. And we don’t know if the Big Red’s glittering laboratories will one day instead resemble something closer to Buffalo’s abandoned grain elevators and train station — beautiful ruins from a bygone era, bypassed by forces beyond our ability to foresee or control.
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