Apr 27, 2011 Ami Olson Uncategorized
To say the Northside Urban Partnership was born last November is sort of misleading.
Part economic development agency and part social service organization, the group is more like the rebranded, refocused offspring of a four-way collaboration between St. Joseph’s Hospital, Catholic Charities, Centerstate CEO, and Franciscan Collaborative Ministries.
On the surface, what had been known as the Northside Collaboratory was relabeled and moved into its own space in a rehabbed house on Catawba Street.
But after six months as Northside UP, the group boasts a growing resume of completed projects, ongoing programs and new initiatives in new neighborhoods, and serves as an example of how, if we just quit complaining about the disconnect between community organizations in Syracuse and put a solution to work, we might actually be able to get something done.
A bit of background
Dominic Robinson landed in Syracuse with very different plans: he came to the Salt City six years ago from Chicago to help his father, former SU football coach Greg Robinson, with the football program.
But with a background in urban studies, Robinson said in the back of his mind he’d begun developing a blueprint for what would become a community-based organization. He found himself pitching his idea to the friar of the Franciscan not long after he landed in the Salt City.
“He invited me to come and give it a try,” Robinson said.
Robinson brought Maarten Jacobs on board and founded the Northside Collaboratory, which focused mostly on economic development and the arts.
“The two of us were just figuring stuff out,” Robinson said. “As we evolved we started doing more work with St. Joseph’s and the MDA, and I was asked to oversee Prospect Hill Development.”
As the group evolved, Robinson said, it became clear consolidating into one entity would be more efficient, and Northside UP was unveiled.
The not-for-profit employs five full-time staff members and three Americorps VISTAs, though the 207 Catawba St. headquarters are home to shared staff members from the Syracuse City School District, OCM Boces and the Small Business Development Center at OCC.
What it is
Like many other community organizations, Northside UP covers a lot of bases and provides a range of services.
And, like many groups, explaining “what it does,” exactly, can get confusing.
But Director Dominic Robinson sums it up like this: traditionally, revitalizing a community would happen on two different platforms, one being economic development, the other, community development and social service.
“And you have all these people working in silos,” Robinson said. “To fully revitalize the neighborhood you have to be improving quality of life along different lines. We function to bridge all those different things together.”
Major construction projects are a traditional economic engine, and being able to bring those into a neighborhood is a big deal.
But, Robinson said, “you’re not necessarily giving anyone an opportunity just by bringing those things into a locality.”
Empowering neighborhood residents to capitalize on that economic development and sustain the energy they bring into the community is an important second step that Northside UP strives toward, Robinson said.
All aboard the Green Train
One way the group connects the community with development is through Green Train, a workforce training program that graduated its fifth class a few weeks ago.
Green Train students learn about green construction and sustainable urban development in a rigorous 12-week program at no cost to the students.
Robinson said in two years, more than 90 students have completed the program, which has about a 90-percent job placement rate post-graduation.
Since roughly 80 percent of Green Train students are refugees and immigrants, learning to communicate in English plays a big part of the program. And an intense screening process ensures the program is being offered to North Side residents who will benefit the most from it, Robinson said.
Why the North Side?
It’s no secret the North Side has changed over the years. Jonathan Logan, Northside UP program manager for placemaking and small business development, remembers visiting his grandmother in the Lilac Street house his mother grew up in and watching the neighborhood change.
Now that he’s back — and living in that same Lilac Street house — Logan is helping neighborhood residents help themselves to improve their physical space.
“A lot of people say the North Side is ‘going places that it shouldn’t go,’ or that it’s beyond hope, but when you walk around the streets and see the people that are here, everybody’s just trying to make it,” Logan said. “The vast majority of the people that are here are just trying to make it day to day.”
One such resident is Sharif Aden, 36, who grew up in Somalia and came to Syracuse in 2003.
With the help of Northside UP, Aden opened the Somali Halal Food Market at 808 N. Townsend St. in December, a small shop that offers, among other things, hard-to-find imported goods from Somalia and Aden’s tailor services.
Aden said he’d already submitted two unsuccessful applications to the city to open the shop before Northside UP stepped in to help him navigate the system. Logan helped him scout possible locations before finally finding the Townsend spot, and is now helping Aden secure permits to cut meat in-store.
Aden’s story is an example of some of the unique challenges the Northside faces, specifically its high immigrant and refugee population.
“In some ways our greatest asset is our greatest challenge,” Robinson said. “Our diversity is by far one of our greatest assets, we have so many different cultures, so many different people live in this neighborhood, but that diversity does not come without its amount of tensions.”
The North Side has been in transition for decades, in a way that other Syracuse neighborhoods have not. As a result, it lacks a trusted and historic infrastructure of community centers offering services like child care and counseling, programs that are already established in other areas of the city, Robinson said.
While the faces have changed on the North Side, the rich architecture has remained, adding character to the community and potential for rehabilitation.
“But it takes a lot of money and it’s difficult to preserve that building stock in a market that isn’t very strong,” said Robinson.
Is that the future for Syracuse?
“Syracuse is getting a lot better,” Robinson said bluntly. “There is a movement afoot in this town to really work collaboratively and from the ground up.”
He said it isn’t unusual or a bad sign that there is a need in Syracuse for organizations like Northside UP to act as a rallying point for a community while communicating between existing resources.
“It’s not weird that we need a group to communicate between resources, he said. “A neighborhood in transition needs a champion, it needs someone to be focused on what’s going to happen there and those champions fail when they try to do it themselves.”