Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Oneida's Dim Reflection is NY's Reality


As if on cue, more bad news is coming out of Upstate New York.

Yesterday, I wrote about how the economy of the Empire State has been decimated by taxes and a bloated bureaucracy, yet Governor Andrew Cuomo still has the temerity to tell conservatives they're not welcome.

Then today, the final bell rang for Oneida Silversmiths, the iconic flatware company that became synonymous with well-laid dining tables across America.  Its manufacturing plant had been shut down years ago, putting hundreds of Central New Yorkers out of work, and whittling down most of its corporate staff to a bare-bones operation.  But now, whomever had been left is being laid off, and Oneida's exquisite corporate headquarters building shuttered.

The company's new owners, Everywhere Global, is consolidating functions into its own corporate headquarters, located near Columbus, Ohio.

Talk about the end of an era.  It certainly is that for Oneida, New York.  The small city named after a Native American tribe, home to a religious sect that named itself after the same Native American tribe, and a silverware company started by the religious sect, also named after the same Native American Tribe.

Ironically, thanks to its gambling operations and tax-free cigarettes, that Native American tribe is doing quite well, hundreds of years after the "white man" ventured into its territory along the eastern flanks of, well, Oneida Lake, not far from what would become the city of Syracuse.  In the Nineteenth Century, during a time of prolific religious sectarianism in Upstate New York, a group of experimenters in Utopian sexuality formed a sort of family called the Oneida Community, and an outgrowth of their venture became the manufacture of silverware.  Today, the Oneida Community Mansion House, which is technically located in a neighborhood called Kenwood Heights, in the town of Sherrill, just outside Oneida's city limits, is a stately tourist attraction.  And across a tree-lined street, looking more like an old cathedral, stands the long, elegant headquarters building for Oneida Silversmiths.

When I was a child, my family worshipped at a small church located in Kenwood Heights, where Mom was the director of its Sunday School program.  I remember late one sunny summer afternoon, Mom had a Sunday School meeting at church, and since we lived about half an hour away, we all drove out early for both Mom's meeting, and Sunday evening church, which would follow.  While Mom had her meeting, Dad took my brother and me for a short walk.  We meandered alongside a tranquil pond, around a corner from the church, and on towards a quiet street flanked by both the Mansion House and the silver company's headquarters.

It was like walking into a world of genteel opulence and grace.  On the one side there was the Victorian mansion, a rambling red brick structure with a mansard roof, white pillars, and meticulously-groomed lawns and flower beds.  On the other side sprawled a surprisingly ornate granite building, three stories of English Gothic splendor.  We didn't have this kind of stuff back in the little rural village where we lived on the north shore of Oneida Lake!  Maybe it wasn't just the architecture, but also the late-afternoon sun washing it all with glowing pastels, yet it seemed ethereal and other-worldly to me.

The intervening years haven't been as kind to Oneida Silversmiths as I remember that afternoon in what I thought was some parallel universe.  Oneida used to make all of its flatware in an aging factory a couple of miles from its headquarters.  But the factory was shut down in stages, laying off chunks of its workforce in a protracted death knell, until the place was shuttered several years ago.  A handful of former Oneida employees scraped together enough cash from sympathetic bankers to re-open part of the factory to make stainless steel flatware that they currently sell under the Liberty Tabletop brand.  The long-tenured factory store for Oneida Silversmiths remained open just down the block, even after all the company's other factory stores in outlet malls across America were closed.  When some leveraged buy-out kings took over what was left of Oneida a couple of year ago, hope ran high that some of the glory days might return to both the company and its namesake city.  But today, not only has the final nail been hammered into the coffin, but the coffin itself has been unceremoniously dumped into a grave dug long ago.

Indeed, Oneida's grave was dug long ago by a variety of circumstances.  Some former workers blame the company's executives for being out of touch with national trends in the trade, and then for reacting too slowly when the offshoring of manufacturing began decimating industries of all types in the United States.  All of a sudden, no matter their skills, workers in Upstate New York became too expensive for the company to remain competitive against all of the cheaply-made flatware being churned out by Chinese factories.

Sure, the quality from China wasn't all that great, but American consumers now cared more about low prices than high quality.  Then, too, when was the last time you were invited to a wedding in which the bride and groom had selected a wedding pattern for their silverware?  As American society becomes more casual, fine dining has disappeared from most American dining rooms.  And on those few days when a fancy meal is served at home, everyday flatware, or Grandmother's heirloom silver from generations ago, can suffice.

Besides, who wants to polish all of that silver?  It dents easily, and you can't make a habit of running it through the dishwasher.  In American kitchens, like everyplace else in our country, efficiency is everything.  And silver, while it may feel nice, and look nice, is simply an unnecessary relic from a former time.

And a former place:  Oneida, New York.

That seems to be the theme for most of New York State, outside of the Big Apple.  The whole of New York used to be thriving - in another time.  Its places used to be famous, with names like Oneida and its silver, or Utica and its insurance companies, or Rochester, where Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb have either gone bankrupt or moved their corporate headquarters out of state.  Left behind are untold numbers of vacant factories, unused office buildings, and lots of memories about how good times used to be in places that used to be good for families, employees, and taxpayers.

For its part, the Rochester area has managed to retain a lot of the talent that was jettisoned by its large corporate citizens as they downsized and relocated.  While the city's urban core is suffering, its suburban office parks are percolating with new companies started by the engineers and entrepreneurs who'd decided to stay and pool their industry's remaining resources to create new ventures.  But that formula for success hasn't worked well in other parts of the state.  For one thing, Rochester's digital imaging and optics industries remain in constant development mode, whereas personnel-intensive tasks for industries like insurance and manufacturing have been shunted to low-cost call centers and factories overseas.  And we've already determined that dining with Oneida silverware simply isn't as desirable as it used to be.

To a large degree, it's all part of the economic reality that cannot be denied as consumers push producers to assuage their thirst for stuff with lowest-cost products and services.  Meanwhile, New York State's politicians continue to operate in a similar type of time warp that I remember from that walk with my father and brother around the pond between Kenwood Heights and Sherrill.  It's yesteryear revisited every day down in Albany, the state capital, as people who could cut taxes and reduce state spending live in the nostalgia of New York as the true Empire State, the place to be for all that used to be creative and profitable about American business.

Woe be to anybody who forgets the adage:  all that's shiny is not gold!  Sometimes, it may be sterling silver, suitable for a knife, to cut fat and pork, for example.  Or simply to gaze dimly at one's reflection.

While yet another company leaves the state.


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