City Portrait: Syracuse

Text: Ken Aiken • Photography: Ken Aiken

Refuge from the relentless glare and insistent heat of the day's sun, the night is soft around the edges. Streetlights glow in the humidity with a luminescence that blurs the sharp contours of brick, old and new. Sounds float muted but distinct on the evening air - melodious jazz from a live band, intimate laughter, the throaty gurgle of big twin engines. I follow the pulse, searching for the heart of Saturday night in, of all places, Syracuse, New York.

Fascinated by the early 19th century and knowing that one of the great events of that period was the building of the Erie Canal, I rumble into town at ten o'clock in the morning and travel down what was once a broad canal piercing the heart of this city. Now it's a boulevard, but its earlier significance as a civilizing waterway is amply commemorated within the stone walls of the Erie Canal Museum and Heritage Center.

The site is the only surviving tollhouse of that era and in what was once a lock fitted with a scale platform, a canal boat meticulously furnished with period artifacts now rests with its cargo hold filled with displays that elucidate the importance of the first of America's great canals and its effect on the westward expansion of our nation. Browsing other exhibits I learned that Hiawatha was not the prosodic fabrication of one Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but a historical person and the chief of the local Onondaga tribe, who organized the great Iroquois Confederacy. (Today the land south of the city belongs to the Onondaga Nation.) I then sat awhile to strum a few chords on a guitar once owned by Elizabeth Cotten, the famous singer who composed some of the great standards in the folk tradition, such as "Freight Train," and "Babe, It Ain't No Lie."

In the early 20th century Syracuse was renowned as a major transportation center. The three-wheeled Nercar was manufactured here, as was the incomparable Franklin motorcar, but it's two other local inventors, Huntington Crouse and Jesse Hinds, that we have to thank for inventing the traffic light in 1924. And while I found the history of Syracuse to be captivating, the need to explore the modern city gained sway. So, after thanking the curator for his help, I left to search for my hotel.

Located in the center of the downtown area, The Syracuse Hotel is a stylish establishment built in the early 20th century, which the times have forced to compete against the cookie-cutter chains threaded along the interstates that pass through the city. I love these old elegant hotels and this one offered both the ambiance of an earlier age and "modern" conveniences like air conditioning. Even more importantly, the hotel's central location makes it the perfect base from which to set out on a walking tour of the heart of the city.

Loaded with camera gear, I headed out onto streets so hot the asphalt yielded beneath each step. The Fleet Syracuse Arts and Crafts Festival was in progress and the streets around Columbus Circle were closed to traffic, so I wandered about watching people and evaluating the caliber of the city's artisans. Strolling on through downtown, I checked out buildings of varied architectural styles set shoulder to shoulder. Somehow I found myself in Armory Square, which is not a square at all, but a small neighborhood adjacent to the old armory building. The armory, designed to look like a medieval fortress built of red brick, now houses the Museum of Science and Technology (M.O.S.T.) and an IMAX theater. The formerly rundown blocks of old warehouses, seedy tenements, and third-rate retail outlets have been transformed into a hip, upscale area touted as "one of New York State's brightest examples of urban renaissance." Despite the hyperbole and being a bit touristy, it is known as "the place" for locals to hang. And, on this trip, it was the only street scene happening.

Experiencing the initial stages of dehydration, I looked for an oasis. With 79 brews on tap and shaded tables along the sidewalk, the Blue Tusk appeared to me like Ali Baba's cave. A couple of Syracusans invited me to join them at their table and, after hearing me mention that I was on assignment for RoadRUNNER, they were only too happy to fill me in on the local scene while I savored my pint of locally brewed porter.

When the streets fell into shadow and the city towers turned gold from the setting sun, I rolled my bike out of the parking garage and rode to the intersection of North Franklin and West Willow. I'd been told that there were two places I should check out once the sun went down, and there was no doubting that this was one of them. Ahead of me a two-story brick building glowed in colored neon. Stopping at a curb garnished with a row of gleaming paint and chrome parked front wheels outward, I'd found the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.
In 1983 three hungry bikers couldn't find anything decent to eat at the Harley Rendezvous so they set themselves up as vendors and traveled the rally circuit for a few years. With the life of vagabonds wearing thin, two of them established this little restaurant in Syracuse in 1987. These days the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is internationally revered for its barbeque sauces and in all probability you'll find the best ribs this side of Louisiana there. Inside it's dark, crowded, and noisy. Folks stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder drinking from longneck bottles while waiting for tables, and more people are lined up on the sidewalk outside. Classic biker posters and photos of jazz and blues greats cover the rough barn-wood walls in the eating areas, and the bathrooms are famous for the witticisms found in the graffiti (really). It was so busy that the thought of using my electronic flash, blinding one of the many tray-laden waitresses swerving amid the crowd and creating a scene I didn't want to be part of kept my hands off the camera. A live blues band was scheduled to perform later that evening, and hectic as it was I suppose things hadn't even begun to heat up at the Dinosaur when I made my exit and rode back to the hotel.

During the heat of the day I'd spotted only two motorcycles on the city's streets, and one of them was mine. But when the sun went down, the bikes came out, and most of them seemed to be headed in the same direction as I. Right onto South Clinton, left onto Walton Street, and I enter a neighborhood transformed.

Jazz floats up from a courtyard behind two very large men and an iron gate. Laughter spills across the street from one café to another, and the echoing sounds of big twin engines announce the arrival of another group of riders. The Blue Tusk is packed, as is the Empire Brewing Company, Daniel Jacks, and PJ Dorsey's. Around the corner in front of Kitty Hoynes, two guys in kilts are serenading the neighborhood with bagpipes while the smell of fine tobacco emanating from Awful Al's Whiskey & Cigar Bar wafts through the brick canyons on the moist night air. The dance clubs on West Fayette are coming alive and I peer into worlds of swirling blue neon, pulsing lights, and pounding noise. Sport bikes race from one traffic light to the next on South Franklin while Harleys and other big twins slowly cruise through the streets of Armory Square. I've found the heart of Saturday night and, judging from its pulse rate, Syracuse is doing just fine.