Can Artists Save The Near Westside?

By John Giammatteo

The Near Westside Initiative: will it gentrify one of the city's poorest neighborhoods?


Maarten Jacobs sits in his office at Syracuse University’s Warehouse building. From the lobby outside, he can see past the brick and boutiques of Armory Square, over the raised concrete barricade of West Street, and stare straight into the soul of the Near Westside. Only a few blocks away from some of the most prosperous parts of the city, the Near Westside stands as a mess of abandoned homes and empty factories, a once-great industrial center humbled by rust.

The neighborhood is “one of the poorest in America,” according to the United Way of Central New York. Census data gathered in 2000 placed almost half of all families in the neighborhood under the poverty line, one of the highest rates in the whole city. So when SU approached the New York State Foundation in 2006, the school asked the state to forgive a $13.8 million loan in exchange for a new neighborhood program to revitalize the Near Westside. That seed money created the Near Westside Initiative not only to reimagine the Westside, but also to recreate it as a capitol for the arts.

Jacobs is the director of the SALT District, the section of the Near Westside Initiative that deals directly with the arts. The organization’s goal is to attract artists into the neighborhood from outside, trading cheap mortgages and tax credits for a five-year commitment to the neighborhood. The Initiative has even offered some of the worst houses for $1, as long as the new owners prove they can reconstruct the home within two years.

Frank Cetera owns one of the dollar-bill homes. His group, Alchemical Nursery, currently works on a house at 717 Otisco St. and hopes to turn it into a center to support permaculture within Syracuse. The Near Westside, he said, offers a “sandbox” of inspiration to artists and innovators.

“You’re looking at a lot of vacant properties—vacant lots, vacant homes, absentee ownership,” Cetera said. “You can look at it from the societal or spiritual perspective as well. It’s a very depressed area economically and culturally in some ways. Those are all negative components of what the community currently has. But if you look at it from the other perspective, they present ideal situations to have a slate to work with.”

The argument goes something like this: artists will take chances on properties other people won’t. They will rehab old buildings, occupy old factories, and fix crumbling houses. At the same time, artists need cheap rents and studios-worth of space. Districts in New York City, like SoHo and Tribeca, employed similar tactics and created renaissance for themselves over the last few decades.

The artists need the space. The space needs the artists. Win-win.

On the Westside, this transformation has taken place for the last few years, most notably at the Gear Factory. The factory-turned-studio not only hosts organizations like Cetera’s Alchemical Nursery, but also artists like Tina Zagyva and Dustin Regner. Walking to her studio in the Gear Factory, Zagyva passes one of her works: a collection of used trunks and found objects pieced together to create, as she calls it, a “vessel.”

Her art has been showcased around the world: created on the Westside and displayed throughout New York, Canada, and Germany. And next May, Lipe Art Park on West Fayette Street will exhibit all of those pieces.

Zagyva, from Pulaski, N.Y., just north of Syracuse, teaches for Bryant and Stratton College as well as Say Yes to Education. The artist first came to an art show at the Gear Factory a few years ago and stayed. “You know you go to New York City or you go to California. There’s all this stuff happening but you go there and have to work your way into it,” she said. “As opposed to building it up from the ground level–”

“Shaping it.” Regner chimed in. “The way you want it to be.” “Yeah. That was more interesting to me,” Zagyva said. “Building something up.”

But attracting art and artists is not always positive. SoHo, Tribeca, and other areas that artists revitalized are textbook examples of gentrification. As the areas improved, richer and richer people moved in. The neighborhoods became safer and swankier. Property values rose, and all of a sudden, the communities in those neighborhoods couldn’t afford the taxes on their homes anymore. Sure, great for crime rates. Not as great for social justice.

In Geography Compass, an academic journal, Vanessa Mathews called artists the “‘colonizing arm’ for the middle class”—they move in, refurbish, and make it safe for more and more societal elites to move in, pushing the former residents out. However, Jacobs believes that while gentrification concerns SALT district planners, the comparisons between New York City and Syracuse don’t apply.

“It’s just such a different situation here. I mean the density is just so low, that’s what we try and stress,” Jacobs said. “And we’ve purposely put in stop-gaps so people can’t just up the costs. Prices aren’t going to skyrocket because of new homes being built and renovated.”

Luckily, the initiative forced the state to stop taxes and home assessment on all these homes for 10 years. That means a $1 home, fully refurbished by an artist, won’t affect their neighbors at all for a decade. By then, the organization hopes the whole of the community will have benefited.

“Within 10 years, we’ve been able to do enough work within the community that everybody’s property has gone up and the neighborhood is much more stable and able to afford that kind of change that might happen,” Jacobs said.

“It’s something we constantly battle, a perception that people say, ‘You’re just gonna gentrify the neighborhood.’ Usually that just comes from people who haven’t spent a second in the neighborhood,” he said. It’s not “people just flipping houses.”

For the past several years, (R)Evolution has been a fixture on the increasingly robust Westside scene. The group has hosted art shows at the Gear Factory and the Case Supply Warehouse as well as enticed hundreds of artists to show their work.

“In November 2006, we came in and cleared out the entire second floor of the Gear Factory,” said Jake LaManna, one of the founders of (R)Evolution. “We threw an art show with about 50 artists and 500 people came. And that was really the start of the art happenings.” Since then, (R)Evolution has hosted shows at least twice a year at the Gear Factory and, most recently, the Case Supply Warehouse. The group offered free gallery space at each and attracted a wide range of artists: 8 to 86-year-olds, people published in The New Yorker to high school students.

“Any local artists, any type of art. They could come in and hang their work and sell it. No commission,” LaManna said. “Our whole mission at (R)Evolution was to involve the local community through the arts, and do so at no cost to the artist.”

(R)Evolution succeeded: thousands attended their shows, and hundreds of artists have displayed their work. “I’ll hear comments, this feels like a city show,” LaManna said.

“This doesn’t feel like Syracuse. It’s something new, something different that no one had ever seen on a scale like that, at least in this area.” He added that the Westside offers the only place the group could host shows of that size.

Often, LaManna would go outside and find people hanging outside the space, watching others walk by the building. “I’d walk out front and say, ‘Hey, come on in, it’s an art show. It’s open to the public,’” LaManna said. “And they’d say, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know you guys were doing this around here. I live right around the corner.’”

This month, (R)Evolution will close their doors. “We came to have an impact on the area, and I think we did,” LaManna said. The group wanted more freedom but now the other arts groups on the Westside have to establish their identities.

“I’m comfortable closing up (R)Evolution now, because I think we have become established as a Westside resource for art,” he said. “And I think that’s what the other art entities in the area need to do. They need to establish themselves as a Westside fixture. And I think they’re working towards that, but it’s like chipping away. People have to attend things, people have to go there, and people have to tell people it’s there. So it’s time and establishment are the next things.”

Zagyva and Regner hope for such establishment. “We want to be here long-term,” Zagyva said. She is already planning to buy a property on Otisco Street with Regner, an old milk factory that they want to remake into a “studio-slash-experimental art space.” Zagyva hopes her work will influence the Near Westside.

She doesn’t expect her audiences to recreate her vessels, but at the very least, she hopes that they will rethink their surroundings. “[We’re] not making houses out of trunks,” she said. “But what can you do with the things you do have. And not just to see it as waste around you, but potential for something else.”

Illustration by Emmett Baggett