As a single mother with a low income, Melissa Gardiner was drawn to the Near Westside a year ago by its flourishing arts scene and the possibility to become a homeowner.
“I saw that there was a lot of innovation and an artistic community in this area—and an opportunity for me,” she said.
Now, Gardiner has a home and a job in the Near Westside. And she’s an example of how the arts and culture are helping to revitalize the neighborhood, she and others in the arts community say.
Since August 2013, Gardiner has been coordinating free after-school programs for middle-school students, creative workshops, exhibitions and cultural events at 601 Tully, a center for the arts located on Tully Street. The center is affiliated with the Syracuse University School of Education. It’s part of a network of local organizations aiming to help redevelop the Near Westside through artistic engagement.
The neighborhood is on the western end of downtown Syracuse. It’s one of the city’s most impoverished areas, with an estimated 4,042 residents – or 57 percent—in poverty, according to data from the 2008-2012 American Community Survey by the Census Bureau.
To help revitalize the Near Westside neighborhood, 601 Tully brings SU resources and students into the neighborhood, says director and founder Marion Wilson. Along with the free public programs, the center offers classes in social art for SU students in collaboration with community partners. This spring, students at 601 Tully are designing an interior courtyard garden for Blodgett Elementary School, at 312 Oswego St.
“The mission really is linking university, neighborhood and artists,” Wilson said.
601 Tully is funded through several sources, including SU, foundations and private donors, Wilson said. The project also received $150,000 from the state in Restore New York funds to pay for construction costs, Wilson said.
Separately, the overall Near Westside Initiative also received a $1 million award in December 2013 from the state’s Regional Economic Development Council to renovate a commercial property on Marcellus Street, said Maarten Jacobs, director of the Near Westside Initiative.
The Near Westside Initiative also has branded the neighborhood as the Syracuse Art, Literacy, Technology –or SALT—District. The organization operates as a facilitator, leveraging funds for projects and programs in the area and fostering relationships in the community, says community organizer Taino Palermo. For example, the initiative works closely with 601 Tully and owns the building in which the arts center is housed.
To catalyze the revitalization of the neighborhood, the Near Westside Initiative has transformed a one-time restaurant at 115 Otisco St. into an art gallery called SALT Quarters. The gallery hosts artists-in-residence who develop public art projects, Palermo said.
Using the arts to help communities is a good idea, say arts groups. Nonprofit arts and cultural organizations boost economic development, according to Americans for the Arts, a national organization for the arts headquartered in New York City and Washington, D.C. A 2012 report by the group shows that Syracuse’s local nonprofit arts and culture industry generates more than $20 million in local and state government revenue.
For her part, new homeowner and program coordinator Melissa Gardner underscores the importance of the arts in the revitalization of her neighborhood. “It’s a way out,” she said. “The youth of this neighborhood struggles with a lot situational things like poverty and crime.”
(Pablo Mayo Cerqueiro is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)