Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Central New York State of Mind (Poverty)

Central New York can be a beautiful place to live - in the summer months.  But much of the area is blighted with empty burned-out factories, depressed neighborhoods, high unemployment, and low expectations about life.  Places like Syracuse, Utica, Buffalo, Ithaca, and the entire Southern Tier, will wear on your soul, if you stay here.  Ugly towns and uglier people.  And part of the problem is the mindset of the people living here - the ones that stayed while the ambitious left.  It has created a gene pool of underachievers.

We have sold our house in Central New York.  This was my homeland - where I was born, where I grew up.  My ancestors settled here after the Revolutionary War - and left when the land gave out.   Their less ambitious cousins stayed behind and bred.  I left when the jobs gave out.  I'm leaving again.  It is not hard to fathom why.

There is a mindset in Central New York, or actually most of New York State - a mindset of poverty.  It is endemic to the area.  And as I have noted time and time again, mental attitude is very important in terms of understanding and acting on finances.  If you think poor, you will be poor.

Central New Yorkers think poor, they act poor, and as a result, ARE poor.

They tend to dream small dreams.  They don't value their time.  They refuse to work unless paid handsomely.  They look to the government for help and solutions.  And they don't think it could work any other way.

They tend to dream small dreams.  Central New Yorkers are not big on thinking big.  The idea that you could take a business and make it work is an anathema to them.  And anyone who thinks big?  They get shouted down.

A local Real Estate developer built a shopping mall in Syracuse called the "Carousel Mall".  It is a pretty crappy mall by world standards, but many opposed it.  It did become a destination shopping place, though, and was a vast improvement over the tank farm it replaced.

He proposed developing the unused industrial lakefront - having this weird idea that waterfront property might be attractive and useful.  He proposed a development that would combine shopping, residences, waterfront, and the like in something calls DestiNY USA.

The project had a lot of problems, but most people felt they just had to shout it down before it even started.  It was delayed for several years, a half-hearted effort was started, and then the recession came and the whole thing went belly-up.

So Onondaga Lake continues to be this beautiful lake that is essentially abandoned and not utilized.  Lakefront property going unused - only in Central New York!  And the Carousel mall was half-torn up and then boarded up, insuring its eventual demise.  Meanwhile, tons of run down small businesses with eyesore buildings were spared the wrecking ball.  Syracuse, like most Central New York towns, remains a very ugly city.

"Dream no small dreams" - but Central New Yorkers know no other kind.  An aspirational vehicle up here is a Hyundai Accent.  It is pretty pathetic.

Want to run a business?  The "big dreams" here are to open (yet another) ice cream stand or local restaurant.  The area is littered with the skeletons of each.  There simply isn't enough business to support them all, and no one understands marketing - determining whether there is a demand for a business before opening it.  As a result we have a ton of under-utilized golf courses as well, all teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

And everyone wants to open yet another winery - which have reached saturation point in the area.  There are simply too many wineries to see now, and many, if not most, make very mediocre wine at staggering prices.  For $20 a bottle, you can buy some bad finger lakes wine, or for $8 a bottle, you can buy a French table wine that is far superior.  When you buy local wine, you are making a poor economic choice.

And oddly enough, many local wineries are not interested in selling wine by the bottle.  They prefer to do "tastings" - pouring small amounts of wine into a glass for $2 to $5 per tasting.  It basically works out to about $10 a glass, if you pour smartly.  So the entire winery business here is based on tastings, not on actual retail sales of wine - as in real wine-producing regions.

And the most popular New York State wine?  "Red Cat" - a wine that tastes like Hawaiian Punch.

Californians, have no fear.  New York State wines are no threat to your industry.

And suppose you want to start even a small business like that?  There are people who will attend your zoning board meeting and try to shout you down - even though they live on the other side of the county.  They regularly cruise the zoning board meetings and shout "NO" to anything that comes up.  I kid you not!   These pot-heads make it their business to make sure that no one else is successful, because they can't be.  It is sheer craziness.

Another big ambition up here is to go on full disability.  I kid you not.  Being "on the dole" is a big deal up here, and a lot of people do it.  This is, of course, why taxes are so high.  When no one is actually working, the few that do have to pay for everyone else.  And the few that do, work for the government or one of the local universities.  Prison guard or teacher are two top jobs around here.  Being a retiree from either is also a good gig.  Entrepreneur or Businessman are not only scarce jobs, if you are either, you will likely be ostracized and treated as a criminal.

Is it the cold, the darkness, the rain or the snow?  I don't know.  All I do know is, there is nothing big here, just small crappy projects, low expectations, and low-self-esteem.

They don't value their time.  Most Central New Yorkers do not value their time at all.   They get involved in very labor intensive and cost-ineffective projects in order to "save money" while squandering time.

Heating your home with an outside wood furnace is popular here.  These monsters pollute like all get out, cost upwards of $10,000 (or more!) and require constant tending through the winter.

Worse yet, the average homeowner who succumbs to this mindset spends days, weeks, and months cutting down trees, splitting firewood, and stacking it up.  All to save maybe $500 to $1000 a year in heating bills.

In other parts of the country, most folks would say "Gee, I can make a lot more money working than I can cutting firewood!" and leave it at that.  The poverty mindset here is, you have to "save money" by harvesting your own fuel, when you could make more money working.

And this is just typical of the time-wasting projects they take on - fixing up rusted out, clapped out old cars, instead of spending an equal amount of money on bus fare to Virginia and a rust-free Southern car.

Or take hunting.  Your typical Central New Yorker will walk off a construction job or skip a day's work to go hunting, on the premise that a few hundred dollars worth of deer meat is a better proposition than a job or career.  And those few hundred dollars of deer meat cost them several hundred dollars worth of hunting gear.  If you have a home remodeling job, don't start it anywhere near deer season or fishing season - your contractor will walk off the job for days, if not weeks.

They refuse to work unless paid handsomely.  Most Central New Yorkers want a job.  They want one that pays $100,000 a year and full benefits and requires only 35 hours a week of labor, with time off for the hunting season.  And since few such jobs exist, they refuse to work.

Meanwhile, you can't find a plumber, a carpenter, or any help at all, unless you are willing to pay them the equivalent of a quarter-million dollars a year.  The few people who work for reasonable rates are booked solid for years.

Work goes undone, or people are forced to "do it themselves" while others collect welfare and unemployment.  No one has the motivation to start their own business - they passively wait for jobs to come to them.  And given how businesses are treated by the government and the people up here, it is no wonder.

It is, to say the least, a bizarre system.

They look to the government for help and solutions.  If there is a problem, Albany will fix it!  That is the mindset.  Self-reliance is dead here, other than to cut your own firewood.

Central New Yorkers are quick to collect government benefits or defer to government "experts" in all aspects of their lives.  They live under very strict regulations

And they don't think it could work any other way.

And of course, New York has one of the most corrupt and inefficient governments outside of Louisiana.   The Mob runs everything here, which is why taxes are so high and nothing gets done.  But ask a Central New Yorker about it, and well, "government knows best" and "nothing can be done about it."  - so nothing changes, ever.


* * * *

Because of all of these factors, most industry left Central New York decades ago.  With corruption and high taxes, not to mention people who refuse to work unless paid 2-3 times the national average, it made no sense to improve or build a factory here.  In fact, it was simply not affordable.  Meanwhile foreign competitors were opening new factories in the sun belt and making money.  Those few companies that bravely hung on in Central New York, went out of business - bankrupted.  And of course the workers "blamed" the company for this.

And many of these workers believe, against all rational thinking, that high-paying union jobs will come back to Central New York any day now.  If they just stay out on strike another 10-20 years, the bankrupt factory will magically reopen.

A lot of people up here smoke pot, which is not surprising, given the attitudes of most folks.  Those that don't, drink  heavily.  The cold winters, the snow, and mostly the gray depressing skies tend to cause one to seek recreational drugs.  But as a result of being stoned all the time, Central New Yorkers don't care to work, seek government solutions to all problems, and dream small dreams.
So who lives in Central New York?  Underachievers, potheads, people with low-self-esteem issues.  Very few people move here by choice.  The few that do, came here to go to college and then never left.  Ithaca is full of such folks.  Most were born and raised here, like myself, but never had the ambition to see any other part of the county.

A young bank manager explained to me that he left Ithaca for the first time - at age 31 - and flew to Florida (his first time on an airplane).  He didn't like it.  And that's typical.  Many folks around here consider someone to be a "local" only if they've lived on the same 3-foot-square patch of land their whole lives.  I was born in Rochester and raised in Syracuse, but am still considered a foreigner in Ithaca.  Even xenophobic Mainers are not so idiotic!  It is parochial, to say the least.

Now of course, many "locals" would say to me, "Well good!  Then leave!  We don't want you here!" which of course is the sort of attitude that keeps Central New York's tourist business in the dumpster.  While the months of June through August can be pleasant up here, they are also pleasant in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, among other places.  In other words, there is no compelling need to go to New York.

Vermont offers an interesting contrast.  We once drove around Lake Champlain, nearly circumnavigating the lake.  The Vermont side is carefully tended with neat barns and charming small towns.  Local businesses sell hand-crafted cheeses and real local craft items (and not junky tchochke).

The New York side of the lake was all run-down camps, burnt out small, charmless towns, and miles and miles of desolation and shit-hole farmers (you know the type, who park the tractor in the door yard).

Vermont gets it.  New York doesn't.  Vermonters realize that tourism is a big part of the economy.  And tourists don't drive all the way from New York City to see countryside that look like the South Bronx.

And note that Vermont didn't have to sacrifice its left-leaning politics or political correctness to be a more attractive place to live.  New York has all the craziness of the "loony left" with none of the advantages of such political awareness.  It is just an ugly place to live, compared to Vermont.

Having left the area 20 years ago, I guess I remembered the nice summers and beautiful greenery, and forgot about all the squalor, depression, and depressed economy.  Spending six summers up here brought it all back - into sharp focus.

We have a saying up here - "don't look out the side windows".  If you are driving down the road here in the summer, look out the front.  You'll see beautiful vistas and wonderful lakes that please the eye.  If you look out the side windows of your car, you will see the poverty, stupidity, and low-expectation mindset of the inhabitants.  So long as you don't look out the side windows, you might actually enjoy yourself.

There are some areas where things are mostly beautiful.  But such neighborhoods are often staggeringly expensive - in terms of buying property and in property taxes.  Yes, you can have a beautiful house in Skaneateles, but it will cost over a million bucks and the property taxes top $25,000 a year.  And there is no guarantee you won't be next door to a trailer on blocks.

Do I regret coming back?  No.  But only because it was instructive and because we did have a good time - on the lake, enjoying good times with our friends.  But to stay any longer seems futile.  The high taxes make it hard to afford, and the low-expectations attitudes of the natives eventually wear on your soul.

You see, like in any tourist area, the so-called "locals" resent the tourists.  They resent them for being wealthy (which is easy for potheads to do) and resent them for bringing money to the area.  You'd think they'd be happy that out-of-towners were bringing money to the economy and paying the lion's share of property taxes for the County.

You'd be wrong, though.  It is more like "fuck you, go away."  Like I said, unless you were born on the immediate ground you are standing on, you are an outsider.

Pleasant Rowland came back to Aurora New York, donated millions of dollars to her Alma Mater (Wells College) and for her efforts was hanged in effigy by the pot-smoking locals who decried her wealth as bourgeois.  This is the sort of small-dreaming I am talking about.  The locals were not happy that the decrepit Inn was remodeled.  No, they would prefer it to be decrepit.

So, she left, and took her money with her.  And not surprisingly, the local college is now struggling to stay afloat.

A pair of local brothers decided to return to the county, having made millions elsewhere (you certainly can't make them here!).  They have been buying up local properties and remodeling them, turning them in to model farms.  It is one of the more attractive features of the place.  But I can't imagine what they are paying in terms of property taxes.  And their immaculately restored homes and barns are worth only a fraction of what they have invested in them.  Other than for sentimental value, it is hard to fathom why someone would do this.  And once they die, it is unclear who will pay the money to keep up these dream properties, as they would not be affordable to anyone other than another millionaire who wants a model farm.

There is a lot of talk about "Socialism" these days by teabaggers.  While a lot of it is just blather, there is a core issue at stake - the idea that government should run everything and that businesses should be taxed, regulated, and controlled to the point where only a few large employers are left, with most small businesses taxed, regulated, or sued out of existence.  If you want to see the end result of such a system, come to New York State.

Because once you have "big government" and "big taxes" our good friend "big corruption" will be closely behind.  Once the government is the biggest game in town, the only way to really make money is to petition the government - either as a begging welfare recipient, or as a corrupt political crony.   The last thing you'd want to do is try to be an entrepreneur, as the two other groups would make it their business to see you are run out of business.

Will we return to Central New York?  Perhaps on vacation.  But then again, perhaps not.  There are other places to visit, other places without mind-searing poverty and retrograde attitudes.  We may come back for a week or two, here and there, renting a place or perhaps camping.  But to own property here is a really bad idea, I think.  It is very costly and there is not likely to be any serious appreciation anytime soon, due to the tax situation.  And if you spend enough time up here, you will likely become less and less enthused about the area.

A vacation home should be a vacation.  And if you buy Real Estate, unfortunately, it ties you into the local economy and politics of the area.  And the local economy here sucks.  And the local politics are just plain idiotic - like the people.

As I put it in my Vacation Home and Vacation Home - Part Deux postings, sometimes it is just better to visit.  Rent a place, enjoy it, and then move on.  Vacations can be enjoyable when you are not worried about the tax bill, the property values, and the latest local political brouhaha.

Leave that nonsense to the insane locals.