Landscapes of fun: Rewriting downtown Syracuse

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




James Duncan


New York, urban development, culture

Subject Categories



One of the more noticeable transformations of the urban landscape today is the constructive metamorphosis of downtowns and waterfronts. New stadiums, convention centers, festival marketplaces, megamalls, and museums, connected by trains, trolleys, and other "fun rides" seem to signify a change in focus in our culture from production and work to consumption and play.

This dissertation proposes that the new "look" of downtown can be understood in terms of a hegemonic discourse of boosterism, a shared set of narratives, ideologies, and notions about the "good city" held by a powerful set of actors who comprise a city's growth machine. As a cultural production, the urban landscape is thoroughly implicated in the discourse; it concretizes and naturalizes the collective vision of these urban elites, thereby strengthening their claims to legitimacy.

The post-industrial city of Syracuse, NY provides an excellent illustration of the workings of this discourse. Despite decades of population and job losses, the city has embarked on an extremely ambitious public-private remaking of its downtown and waterfront. With cultural and tourism development strategies as guiding texts, and a powerful "renaissance" narrative as one of many rhetorical strategies of legitimation, the booster network in Syracuse has steadily inscribed its vision into the landscape. Ritualized social practices, such as marketing campaigns, festivals, and celebrations, help "spectacularize" and further legitimize the new landscapes of fun. But the booster discourse has not gone unchallenged. Its silences and omissions open up discursive space for other landscape visions. I discuss one of these, community preservation, and suggest a fertile field for future investigation.


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