The “New Economy” in Upstate New York

Last week at the ceremony opening the new Expo Center at the State Fairgrounds, Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke about bringing Upstate New York into the “new economy.” As he sees it, that new economy is based on making Upstate into a place that people want to be.

The Governor pointed to County Executive Joanie Mahoney and Mayor Ben Walsh as two local politicians who understand this “new economy.” The County Executive turned Onondaga Lake “into an asset and an attraction which is what water is everywhere, and that amphitheater on the lake is magnificent, and it’s working, and it’s attracting people.” In Syracuse, the Mayor focused on “downtown development” because that attracts “the new workforce: the millenials… They want to be downtown.” Investing  in tourist destinations and downtown apartments attracts people to the region, it gets people to spend their money here, and it gets people to live here.

But now we’re seeing the dark side of this “new economy.” On the same day that the Governor gave that speech, Ryan McMahon, Chairman of the Onondaga County Legislature, went public with his proposal to incarcerate people who ask for money “aggressively.” The new law “would prohibit persistent solicitation after a person has rejected a request for money, which could be perceived as threatening.” A couple days later, Mayor Walsh came out in support of the law, saying that he’d heard complaints from “business owners and citizens who have felt threatened or harassed by panhandlers.”

If your idea of the “new economy” is based on bringing in new people, this panhandling law makes perfect sense. Those new people are the ones spending money Downtown, renting the $2500 apartments, shopping at the high-end clothing stores, drinking the $6 beer, and they’re not going to do all those things if they “feel threatened” or if they “perceive” Downtown to be dangerous. They are the people that matter, and if they might get scared off by interacting with some of the people in Syracuse who don’t matter, the obvious solution is to criminalize that interaction.

That’s why the Governor’s “new economy” is a moral failure–the people who have been living in Syracuse do matter, and they don’t deserve this. They don’t deserve to be talked about like they’re the problem, like they’re the reason the City has fallen on hard times. They deserve better lives, and any economy that can’t make that happen isn’t one worth bringing about.

It’s exciting that people want to be in Syracuse, are choosing to live in Syracuse. But those people need to see the whole City. It’s a City racked by poverty, segregation, and homelessness. The health of this community depends on facing those challenges squarely, respecting the humanity of each person who has suffered from them, and working together to overcome them. When Syracuse finally does that, it will have created a New Economy worth talking about.