Work took me to Ithaca, NY, where I spent most of today struggling against the network setup there. I want a relatively simple thing; a network that joins up with Cambridge’s. But I don’t have quite the right mix of what I need. I have a server that should be able to operate with only sporadic contact with the home base in Cambridge, but apparently doesn’t. Ticks me off, it does, and leads me to spend one of those days rolling a sisyphean rock up the hill. Nothing is more frustrating and terrible than that, in this line of work: the thing that doesn’t work, and you don’t know how to make it work given the tools you have.
But last night I drove from Syracuse, where my flight landed, to Ithaca. Along the way, I drove through Syracuse, a middling sized city of lit, empty streets. I passed through Cortland, which looked like any other collection of neon and red plastic signs drawing attention to the inevitable chain stores. The strip malls blend in with the next; town boundaries blur, and identities blur. What separates Cortland really from Syracuse, or Syracuse from Utica, or Schenectady, or Pittsfield, or Fitchburg? Their city centers are distinct, but barren; their outskirts lively, but so much the same; bright red and blue overlit signs, parking lots, and commercial monotony.
Ithaca has a sunburst of character, but it’s unsustainable without the weight of Cornell to draw that critical mass here. That’s how Ann Arbor works, and Madison. Large cities manage it too, through sheer numbers; though we have Detroit to offset Boston, and Newark looks over New York’s shoulder. San Francisco is lovely, but Phoenix is just depressing, and in exactly the same way that Syracuse is depressing. Places with such august names should live up to them; Syracuse should be a city of hills and Greek columns and libraries, while Phoenix should spread oranges and reds and yellows so the very ground seems to burn with it.
Not so much. Instead corporate branding ply their psychological games. Supposedly, whenever I see the blue and yellow sign I immediately think Best Buy and am seized with the urge to buy a $4,000 television.
Talent flows from places like Syracuse to places like Ithaca. It flows from places like Fitchburg to places like Boston. And that’s sad, since there’s nothing saying that a place like Fitchburg couldn’t be the center and source of civic pride that once it was, where someone with talent could stay and build and make it a little bit better, except that we’ve had choices made for us in the country and economy that say it’s efficient for our entire country to be the same strip mall, repeated over and over. I immediately know where I can buy a certain thing, but I never know quite where I am.