Destiny, USA

Syracuse isn't Saratoga

Josephine Halvorson, Drops. 2012, oil on linen. 20 x 15”. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

One frigid winter afternoon, at the height of the Great Recession, I went to the Carousel Center mall to look for the future of Syracuse. The last time I’d checked it was on the sixth-floor Skydeck, sitting on a large pedestal bearing the label DestiNY USA. The mall was in a postholiday slump. At the top of the escalator an old man wearing a burgundy blazer stood gripping a velvet rope as the riderless horses of the eponymous carousel spun slowly behind him. Organ music echoed in the empty food court. I got on an elevator in the glittering chrome and glass atrium and pushed the Skydeck button. It’d been deactivated. I tried the stairwell on the fourth floor instead. But the door to it was locked. A security guard peered at me from behind a slot cut in a heavy steel door next to the stairwell.

“Can I help you?” he said.

“Can I get to the Skydeck from here?”

“Skydeck’s closed,” he said. He eyeballed the bag hanging on my shoulder.

“Camera,” I said, patting the bag. “Who do I need to talk to for permission to go up there?” The guard tilted his chin toward a set of double glass doors leading to offices of the mall’s management. I pushed open the doors with purpose, as if I were late for an appointment, and asked the receptionist if I could please speak to somebody about visiting the Skydeck.

“Ohh-kaay,” she said. “And who are you with?”

I told her that I was a freelance photographer. Freelance writer was closer to the truth, but in my experience, people are much more accommodating to photographers than they are to writers. The last “writer” to visit the Skydeck was a troubled 21-year-old poet and cough-syrup addict who jumped one hundred feet to his death. I told the receptionist that I wanted to take a few photos of Onondaga Lake while the light was still good. The view of the lake from the Skydeck was the best in the city. What I really wanted to do was photograph the scale model of DestiNY USA. The receptionist circled her desk and disappeared into a glassed-in office suite. Moments later she came out and shook her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “the Skydeck is closed.”

I gave up and went outside. All along the length of Hiawatha Boulevard, the southern boundary of the mall, snowcapped mounds of excavated dirt stood over DestiNY USA’s aborted foundation.

Any story about Syracuse begins and ends with Onondaga Lake. The city would not exist without it. Both sit in a wide bowl on the northern end of Onondaga Valley, which extends south from the city limits for about fifteen miles. If you rolled a giant marble down one side of the valley, it would roll up the other side and back again, until it came to rest in Onondaga Lake.

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