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They will come

The XX Files


It was at a Little League game that I had a consciousness-raising experience. One of the dads, a developer, told me his adult son was moving back to Rochester to work with him. Instead of being delighted, he was troubled. The economy here is bad and getting worse, he said. Jobs and people are fleeing the state. Bringing his son here might be, my friend said, "my biggest mistake ever."

In that moment I realized that I've been living on two levels --- microscopically and macroscopically. On the microscopic level, I focus on our little life: food on the table, the kids' education, paying the bills. On the macroscopic level, I focus on the bigger world around us: developments in the war, our Constitutional rights, AIDS.

But there's a big hole in the middle: when I look at this region I vaguely lament Upstate's downward slide, but I don't really know how we got here. And, my friend made me realize, I've never extrapolated out to see if there will even be a Rochester for my preteen sons to return to when they're grown.

How did it happen that I, a big news junkie, missed all the warning signs? For one thing, it's easy to live in Rochester when things are going well. Until someone close to us is among the thousands who've lost jobs or until signs of the growing poverty appear in our own neighborhoods --- like when a suburban home is burglarized --- we just hum along in our little bubbles.

It's also mind-numbing to read the depressing statistics: The lack of jobs sends people out of the region every year: 3.8 percent of Rochesterians have left since 2000 alone. The highest state and local in property taxes in the country deter businesses from relocating here; we pay $5260 per person, 53 percent higher than the national average. Our energy costs are outranked only by Hawaii, which must import its energy; we pay 63 percent higher costs than the national average. Then there's workers' compensation which, some business leaders argue, must be reformed in order to attract businesses. We have the second most expensive workers' comp program in the nation.

It's embarrassing to admit the third reason I've not focused on the region's decline: a subconscious assumption that I'd eventually follow my sons to where ever they'll live when they're grown. In my sick mind, it plays out like this: the kids go to college, my husband kicks me to the curb, and I scrape along until the boys graduate and get jobs somewhere. Then I follow one of them, moving into his basement with my 15 cats, collection of potatoes that resemble celebrities, and meth lab.

But what if it all works out? What if my husband and I want to live here, together, in our pretty house that would cost three times as much anywhere else? What if our kids want to move back and hatch a bunch of grandchildren? I don't want to worry that they're making a mistake.

It's too bad the boring but important facts about Upstate didn't hold my attention before. But I am now on board, reading current and past articles about state legislation and politics. It's confusing and takes a lot of concentration. No wonder upwards of 90 percent of politicians get reelected even when they're doing a bad job. Most people just don't have the time to follow the minutiae of issues like the state's devastating Medicaid burden. At $44 billion, our Medicaid costs are 75 percent higher than the national average. Add to that dozens of other crucial but opaque topics, and it's no wonder that when it's time to vote we don't hold pols responsible.

I'm nostalgic for the good old days, when I was younger and living in other cities. Back then, politics were more entertaining and less complex. Okay, I guess there was costly incompetence, too. But people like Washington, DC's Mayor Marion Barry kept things lively by driving around the city in his limo at 2 a.m. until, that is, he got busted for doing crack cocaine in a hotel room. And back in Philadelphia, I remember when authorities bombed two row houses to drive out a suspected violent cult. In Massachusetts, every president of the state senate seemed to have a mobbed-up brother running from the law. Why can't Albany serve up that kind of excitement?

One thing I've learned is that the political stagnation and bickering in New YorkState hurts Upstate more than the rest of the state. Another legislative session just ended in Albany, and many things that could have been fixed weren't. And a few things were made worse.

Another thing I've learned led me to an inconveniencing truth. As I tease apart the causes of Upstate's demise, it looks like some of my pet causes may be at fault. I need to learn more, but at first glance it seems workers' comp might in fact be too burdensome. So, too, might be some of the demands made by the powerful unions: teachers and state workers, for example.

Adjusting my world view to include regional and state politics is going to mean more than staying informed. It means reexamining my knee-jerk Lefty impulses, a painful and frustrating form of consciousness raising. I'm not going over to the dark side. As the view of Upstate gets darker and darker, however, I'll do whatever it takes to make sure that my grandchildren will someday be playing Little League here.