By Riyana Straetker, Photos by Taylor Baucom
Among run-down Victorian houses with broken windows, chain link fences, and piles of cinderblocks and bricks sits Laci’s Tapas Bar. Strings of fairy lights line the well-kept railings and porch leading up the front door, and a weathered red sign hints at the décor hidden within the brick walls.
Inside, a small group gathers in a private party space dubbed the Moroccan room. Teal walls topped with elaborate gold-painted cornices and eight brown armchairs lend a Mediterranean feel to the otherwise rustic-chic restaurant. The group of strangers chats, getting to know one another while their tour guide waits for stragglers outside. “Well, this is awkward,” one woman laughs. “But that’s how Michael’s events always are.”
Michael John Heagerty is the founder and CCO (that being Chief Connections Officer) of NOexcusesSYR. He’s brought together this group of 12 strangers to serve as a test group for his brand new project. According to the website, the program wants to “show you the tucked away places and underground events you never knew about in Syracuse.” But the clinical description on the website doesn’t do the service—or its founder—justice. Launched on March 7, Heagerty is jumping headfirst into this full-time experiment, leading his first-ever tour of the Hawley-Green neighborhood this rainy April Saturday.
Back inside, Heagerty bounds in and brings everyone back together with a big smile and loud hello. The self-proclaimed short guy stands at the head of the group, clad in green chinos, a plaid shirt, cable knit sweater, and denim jacket, topped with a brown fedora, the antithesis of every expectation of a tour guide. Heagerty prefaces the tour with a brief introduction, and without divulging any details of the itinerary, leads the group down the narrow staircase and out into the streets.
Hawley-Green is just one of the many neighborhoods of Syracuse that often gets overlooked because of its grimy exterior. Pilfered houses, industrial chain link fences, and cracked sidewalks mar the historically LGBT friendly area, keeping visitors far away. But a look beyond the exterior reveals undiscovered gems like Laci’s. And that’s exactly what Heagerty is going for.
“People always say, ‘Get Michael for something to do,’” Heagerty says. So he decided to take his inside knowledge and make it available to anyone who wants it. He says on any given night, he can name a handful of things going on that would make anyone say, “Holy shit dude.”
“In Syracuse, no matter where you are, where you stand, in the past 100 years, something historic has occurred,” says Heagerty. “You have to remember past so you can make future better.” NOexcuses wants to introduce visitors to two things: the history of the area and it’s undiscovered treasures. The details of Hawley-Green are the focus this time, and Heagerty stops to explain architecture, old buildings, and faded murals. The scheduled stops are Heagerty’s way of cluing visitors in on his personal Syracuse. From his experience, most people do not know what’s going on just down the street. NOexcuses is his way to share his knowledge with both visitors and community members who are looking to learn more.
Heagerty works the tour down different streets of the neighborhood. See the house with the shattered windows and peeling paint? The two female owners of Laci’s, who are also life partners, just bought it with intentions to open a neighborhood café, although the plans have yet to be announced. Those Victorian houses with circular, tile-like windows? They’re significantly more valuable because the windows were thought to be bulletproof during the era. And that empty lot littered with trash smashed between rows of houses? Every Sunday during the spring, the space is transformed into a free potluck brunch. During the summer, the lot is a community garden.
A self-admitted naming wiz, Heagerty says NOexcuses was born out of word play. “There are no excuses and no ex-Cuse’s,” he says. By that he means no reasons not to get out and enjoy the city, and no ex-residents who leave and never want to come back. That clever wordplay, delivered with a cheeky grin, is a glimpse into the man behind the operation.
Heagerty is the kind of guy who would rather hug than handshake; who excitedly fidgets with his fedora when talking; and scratches his beard while thinking. Standing in Empire Brewery for an hour means a friendly hello from 10 different patrons. Heagerty seems to know everyone, and everyone seems to know him, which goes a long way when it comes to putting together tours.
The group comes to a stop in front of 505 Hawley Ave, the location of ArtRage, a grassroots gallery curating art that pushes buttons, with exhibits on topics ranging from the environment, to mental illness, to child abuse. The space’s normal Saturday hours are 12 to 4 p.m., but Heagerty knows someone at the gallery, and has struck a deal to have the space open specially for the tour, giving guests a sneak peek of the newest exhibit. “I’m finding my way for these places to work with me,” he says. “And my way is for them to be hospitable. They opened the doors to us and they helped us out; none of them were not interested. It didn't take much negotiation.”
It doesn’t hurt that he’s also got celebrity power on his side. Heagerty might be better known as his alter ego rapper, ToTs, who busts rhymes exclusively about potatoes. “ToTs has gotten my foot in the door because everyone knows the potato rapper,” he says. Heagerty’s even got handshakes and a French fry costume to go along with the gig, which started as a joke. ToTs is all about the entertainment factor, and getting on stage to engage an audience, a skill Heagerty thinks is necessary to bring to his tours.
The tour continues down S. Crouse Ave to Burnet Ave to the intersection at S. McBride. On the corner sits Sparky Town, a hole-in-the-wall diner-esque restaurant with only enough tables to seat 18. Heagerty has arranged for Sparky’s to prepare a selection of snacks for his tour, including vegan chili and chocolate almond butter squares. While guests sample the signature vegan cuisine, Heagerty walks around to every table to talk about the tour, the food, the weather, and the experience. He then strolls over to Sparky’s owner to tell her about the amazing brunch he bought from them earlier that day.
All the places on Heagerty’s tour are spots he enjoys going to. He’s on a first name basis with all of the employees in every restaurant and gallery, and knows things about the menu and spaces that only a regular would—like how Laci’s beer caddies are handmade, or that the passing of Sparky, for who the restaurant was named, is still a sore subject in the restaurant. He cares about the success of each of the businesses, and expresses it through his passionate and enthusiastic descriptions preluding each stop.
As darkness falls, the tour winds back to Laci’s in the rain, pausing to admire Victorian carriage houses and old railway buildings. Heagerty points out a former gentlemen’s club and a mysterous set of two stairs. A woman on the tour offers up that they might have been used to climb into carriages, and Heagerty’s eyes light up with possible new information to research.
The historical information for tours comes from some research, but Heagerty prefers a more hands on approach. “I like the exploration half of things—a little bit of Indiana Jones rather than opening up a book,” he says. Heagerty gets out into the neighborhoods and walks around, talking to passerby and waving as cars drive by experiencing all that the neighborhood has to offer—good and bad. Those walks have taught him what streets to avoid, information he values when doing tours. He’s not looking for danger, but not shying away from it either.
“The houses aren’t in as good shape—but that doesn't mean the people aren’t as friendly,” Heagerty says as the group settles once again into the Moroccan room at Laci’s. The bartender passes out a specialty rum-based cocktail, just for the tour group, as Heagerty praises her mixology skills. As everyone settles in, Heagerty fields questions about his plans for NOexcuses. One man, a producer for a local network, asks if he’s ever considered a TV show. “I am a media whore,” Heagerty says with a wicked grin, and agrees to set up a meeting. Others chime in ideas for potential tours, and community involvement.
It’s clear that Heagerty is in this for the long haul—he’s looking to make NOexcuses his full time gig, with no costumes this time around. As the conversation dwindles, people start to leave, congratulating Heagerty on their way out. The general consensus seems to be that Heagerty has created something truly special. The quiet charm of Laci’s has entranced his group, with many planning on returning for dinner or drinks. Heagerty looks around with a growing smile. “That’s what NOexcuses is all about.”