Sep 02, 2010 Ami Olson Uncategorized
One of Syracuse’s best-known, if not best-liked, features has long been the manufactured barriers created by the tangle of highway running overhead.
But the Near Westside has been struggling with its own unnatural dividing line — train trestles near the corner of West and Fayette Streets — and the impact it has had on development of the community.
“We knew we wanted to do something on those trestles,” said Maarten Jacobs, director of the Near Westside Initiative. “They’re really a barricade between the West side and downtown.”
When organizers began to see the unsightly barricade instead as a massive canvas, the solution became clear: turn it into a giant, community-based public art project.
With the vision and technique of former graffiti artist Steve “ESPO” Powers, the joint project between the NWSI, Connective Corridor and CoLab has transformed the once rusting barrier between neighborhoods into a brightly colored, hand-painted “Love Letter to Syracuse.”
What you love, and what you don’t
The Syracuse paintings echo Powers’ Philadelphia project, “A Love Letter for You,” a series of murals painted on buildings visible along a commuter train route in the city. Here in Syracuse, Powers and his crew have turned trestles into treasures with the following phrases:
Spring comes, Summer waits, Fall leaves, winter longs.
I paid the light bill just to see your face, now that we are here nowhere else matters.
Nothing to do is everything with you.
The phrases were derived from neighborhood meetings and door-to-door canvassing Powers and his crew undertook in July.
“He didn’t just ask people what they loved about Syracuse,” Jacobs said. “He asked, ‘What do you hate?’ and ‘What’s different about Syracuse?'”
Shoham Arad, program and innovation collaborator with CoLab, said one thing that people said they loved about Syracuse was the seasons, which led to the words that are now painted across the north-facing side of the bridge crossing West Street.
“That [phrase] is the direct result of public dialogue,” Arad said.
The emphasis on residents’ attitude toward their city is why Powers was the right pick for the project.
Jacobs and Arad agreed that the style of his Philadelphia paintings suited the Westside bridges, and Powers’ method of keeping public art a product of its environment fit the goal.
“It was a challenge,” Jacobs said of the decision to select a national or local artist for the project. “But it was really important that people outside of the city take notice.”
“And local artists are excited,” Arad said. “They know, we need national attention.”
In the limelight
Already, the Syracuse project has gotten attention outside CNY.
Filmmaker Faythe Levine began filming in Syracuse last week as part of her project, “The Sign Painter.”
“This changes the way people view the landscape,” Levine said. “It will become a permanent fixture in a lot of people’s lives… it might be in someone’s first baby pictures, or in their graduation photos. It will be something that people identify with Syracuse.”
Jacobs hoped the project would also become something that forces people, particularly commuters passing under the giant trestles, to think about and interpret, giving them a new perspective on their home.
Now is the time
One of the biggest struggles arts-focused organizations are faced with now is convincing other sectors that public art means more than a well-placed sculpture or a pop of color.
Jacobs said city government has been supportive of the local arts in terms of zoning and permits, and just generally “getting out of the way.”
But simply being cooperative and being active in the arts are worlds apart.
“My hope is that next, the city realizes these organizations can’t be the only ones who fund this stuff,” Jacobs said. The bridge painting project was funded through a public arts grant secured by the Connective Corridor.
But now may be prime time for public art to prove itself as a critical piece of revitalizing the city. With groups like the NWSI, Connective Corridor and CoLab leading the way, the arts community in Syracuse has become deeply entwined with the overall movement toward bringing Syracuse back to life.
“When the economy struggles, when the cranes leave the city, artists are not going to stop being creative,” Jacobs said. And people in other sectors, like property owners and entrepreneurs, are more willing to try something different to create any sort of economic growth.
For the NWSI, this summer has been evidence of that progress.
“This summer has been huge for us,” Jacobs said. More than a dozen homes have been rehabilitated on the Westside this summer alone, along with new construction or development on nearly every block of the SALT district.
Last month, reading advocacy group ProLiteracy announced it would set up national headquarters in the Case Supply building in the SALT district next year, creating an additional 60 jobs when it moves from the current location in East Syracuse. The Marcellus Street building will also be the new home of public broadcaster WCNY, which plans to relocate from Salina.
To add residential space, the NWSI’s renovation of the Lincoln Supply Warehouse into a mixed-use commercial and residential space is nearing completion.
It’s just a short walk from the SALT district into Armory Square, a route that takes pedestrians under the trestles on West Street, Jacobs pointed out. And now, that walk will be a little more colorful.
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