Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Whither Hamilton?

by Michael Johnston

Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science

In one key respect I haven’t really got the standing to weigh in on the Fairmount Properties debate. I live in Earlville, where proposals to build anything of any sort are sorely lacking. Still, I’ve worked in Hamilton since 1986, have a stake in the way Colgate makes decisions and pursues its goals, and have taught a seminar on “urbanism” for the last several years. That course considers the social sources of viable communities and the ways seemingly mundane choices and activities shape and reshape our cities.

And besides, keeping quiet has never been my forte. So here goes.

            I’ve never been a NIMBY type, nor have I ever been part of the BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) Brigade. Change and renewal can be good for a community when done right, and when they reflect and serve the needs and wishes of large segments of the community. A critical mass in a town or village—a certain amount of density—can be essential, particularly in a rural village that has to contend with the many forces drawing people and commercial activity away to The Bright Lights of Syracuse, and beyond.

            And—here’s a view that I know many will dispute—Hamilton really does need help. Pleasant as it is in many respects, as college towns go it’s a fairly poky little joint sorely lacking in a variety of areas. (I know: Mr. Earlville – look who’s talking. But anyway…) If Fairmount proposed to replace the old Wayne’s World with commercial space and housing for the broader community—crucially, for a mix of incomes and household types—I would probably support the idea. Hamilton does need to be more open to change than it has typically been: a few years ago the idea of widening the sidewalk a few feet where Lebanon and Broad Streets come together, across the street from the Colgate Bookstore, touched off an almost-comical level of contention. Other possible developments that might have enlivened the village have drawn almost reflexive opposition over the years.

            But the Fairmount/Colgate proposal, to the extent that we even know what it will be, is seriously unsettling for at least three big, and interrelated, reasons. It is a bad idea to concentrate students in the center of the village; that idea is part of a larger Colgate strategy that harms the village far more than it helps; and it reflects a style of governance that suggests we will see many other bad ideas in the future.

            Concentrating a large number of students, their guests, their loud music, their broken bottles, and their carousing within staggering distance of all the town’s bars and its one liquor store is such a bad idea that it falls into the “What were they thinking?” category. As noted, I don’t live in Hamilton, but I recall several nights on which I’ve driven through the village on my way home from late flights into Syracuse, and have seen what sorts of hell are routinely being raised. Colleagues who do live in the village can describe that particular Colgate scene far better than I can. On this issue the Hamilton Police are right on target: the proposal is a bloody brawl just waiting to happen. Yes, it’s true that many, perhaps most, of our students don’t fit the profile sketched out here – thank goodness -- and yes, it’s true that the others who do fit it live on the hill and around the village already. But the proposed new residence is a good bet to become Party Central, and precedent suggests that some of those affairs will turn ugly. What the village might gain depends upon the sorts of retail businesses willing to set up shop below a dormitory, but the biggest likely effect is an additional boost to the beer-and-pizza sector of the local economy.

            That brings up the second point, which is the larger vision that the University seems to be pursuing for the village. Here, Colgate gets things exactly wrong. Jane Jacobs wasn’t writing about Hamilton by any means, but she was right in observing that vibrant communities derive their vitality from the fact that people want to be there—people who pursue diverse agendas and activities at a variety of times in a variety of ways. Communities that offer those many day-to-day uses, particularly where there is a broader pool of social and economic resources, are likely to thrive. Those that become over-specialized and one-dimensional will not. If there are decent places to shop for daily needs, if there are a variety of services (How about catering! Right next to the movie theatre… oh, yeah -- sorry…)—in other words, if there are good reasons for all sorts of people to come to the center of the village on a regular basis to do all sorts of things, Hamilton will do just fine.

            But concentrating a large group of students in the center of Hamilton is about as un-diverse as it gets in terms of the ways people use public space. Similarly, Colgate’s agenda of turning the village into a Potemkin version of The American College Town largely, it would seem, for the benefit of visiting parents is a poor way to attract a diverse and reliable stream of everyday activity. Many notable college towns are indeed sorta cute: Princeton in particular has suffered a large number of Cutesy attacks, with Cutesy typically winning by several touchdowns. But those sorts of attractions survive and retain their interest because they grow up on the foundations, and in the nooks and crannies, of a viable city and region. Using cutesy as a starting point is to confuse cause and effect: it’s a lot like pushing on one end of a string.

            Hamilton’s problems have a lot more to do with the general economic weakness of its surrounding area than with any lack of a fine-arts center or a shortage of students in bar district. Colgate cannot revive the region by itself, but it could help Hamilton develop the sorts of businesses that would offer something every day to our neighbors in these parts of Madison and Chenango counties. The area is not wealthy by any means, but Hamilton would have surprisingly little competition as a kind of regional market town. A place to buy a shirt or a pair of shoes, a pharmacy—it would all be pretty mundane, but it could be the basis of a more viable community. As matters stand, Colgate has been taking away the reasons why people from around the region might want to come to town. Then, our administrators wonder why retailers are not lining up for our vacant storefronts.

            The final issue is governance: who decides what Hamilton should be, whose interests are to be served, and who gets a place at the table when those decisions are made? I will admit that while I had heard rumors about the future of the old Wayne’s location I had not realized Colgate was so deeply involved. But the way the proposal came to the surface was telling: a meeting that, according to the Mid-York Weekly, was expected to deal with preliminaries was instead confronted with a full-blown proposal—one that may be opened to a little discussion now that the developer and University have seized the momentum, but one for which no changes are contemplated in the immediate future. That sort of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, take-it-or-leave-it proposal, rolled out during the downtime of summer, is becoming a hallmark of this administration.

            I don’t know: perhaps when it comes to making Hamilton a viable multi-purpose village again, all the relevant ships have long since sailed. Perhaps our administration will have second thoughts about the dormitory idea and the steamroller tactics used to promote it so far. Stranger things have happened, although I can’t quite recall when. But the basic point is that while Colgate’s and Hamilton’s interests line up in some respects, they aren’t identical. A long, complex, and inclusive conversation is in order as to just what Hamilton’s strengths and weaknesses might be, and about a variety of visions of what the town could become. The Fairmount/Colgate approach not only raises real concerns about that future; it also leaves many of us pessimistic as to whether that essential conversation can ever take place.    

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