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Creating Murals to Brighten Vacant, Blighted Properties in Syracuse Neighborhoods

John Smith/WAER News

The Greater Syracuse Community and organizers want to uplift neighborhoods with colorful painted scenes on boards placed on decaying properties.  Their teamwork aims to improve neighborhood surroundings and to let residents know that others care.

A group gathers on a Saturday in the parking lot of a now defunct church on Syracuse’s South Side.  The Syracuse Land Bank owns the property at the corner of South Salina and Colvin Streets.  People are given large panels of primed boards set-up on horses to create some artistic flair.

“Yeah, I think that’ll brighten people up… (they) might get up and see something nice every day, you know.  Whether it’s a flower, painting, birds chirping.  Anything beautiful soothes the soul.”

Ronnie puts the finishing touches on a cartoon character his son created.  Unsightly broken or boarded up windows on select vacant homes are being literally swished away. 

“My son, he likes Dragon Ball Z. Who dat, Bro-Lee?” He chuckles.  His son Cameron says “You still gotta do the eyes.”  Ronnie replies, “You didn’t even give him no face Cameron.  He needs some DEFINITION” as he rapidly moves his paint brush at a fast pace.”

Credit John Smith/WAER News
Freshly painted murals.

The array of designs, specific scenes and objects is impressive, given that most people tell me that this is not their day job.  Although, Morgan Jenkins is a self-proclaimed artist in her spare time.

“So, I started out with just a blue and white background, sort of Jackson Pollock-esque.  I just kind of poured the paint on there and then brushed it together to make this blue and white background.  I mean, as you know, there’s a lot of vacant and boarded up buildings.  So, I think to make it a little brighter and nicer looking… if there’s bright, positive things out there, it changes everyone’s attitude, I think.”

South Side resident Ricky Burns recalls the moment he spotted the murals on homes.  It prompted his interest to join the “paint the town” gathering.

“My wife, we was coming through Midland, first ones we saw, my wife was like, look at that.  And I was like OH WOW!  Because I had thought about that a long time ago.  I was like some of these boarded-up houses need to have messages on them, or something.”

Burns thinks creating his murals can also empower people beyond just trying to improve the aesthetics of vacant homes.

Credit Logan Reidsma/Americorps/Syracuse Land Bank
Ricky Burns displays his inspirational mural.

“I figured just to give a message, you know, God loves you, stay blessed.  My next one would probably be the same thing, like the Serenity Prayer.  You know, we have a lot of people addicted in my community.  It’s sad, you know.  I suffered but, I’ve been going to A.A. meetings with my wife… going on 5 years.  No marijuana 5 years.  You know, and then, now when I look around, I’m like… lot of ‘em (them) just need a hand-up or a message,” he said.

Another group that has taken an active role creating the murals is 40 Below.  I caught up with Sofia Marquez and Eric Ennis at two of the properties where volunteers spent a day trying to beautify the properties.

“We actually cleaned out that entire garage and we took a whole dump truck of stuff came of there.  Old couches, furniture, rotten wood.”

Their members painted murals in advance that were also hung up at 4 properties on the 2,300 and 2,400 blocks of Midland Ave.

“Some members created just like a little stencil like what you’re seeing right there… that’s very simple right there on the far right.  Just some stripes and squares,” she said.    

“We call it the one house initiative and really the purpose is house by house, block by block, starting with public art.  By no means is that a permanent solution but, to take a property like this and improve it with public art, it at least changes the conversation on how you look at vacant homes in Syracuse and then, eventually, and just like we had an example of, somebody was interested in a property, immediately.  So, we were able to use those panels for something else,” said Ennis. 

The impact of the groups’ clean-up time was well received by a grandmother who lives across the street.  She’s concerned about her grandkids walking by glass and debris on the properties.

“It was very unsafe, especially for young children walking around and kind of traversing like this corner in particular.  So for her, she was just ecstatic, she was so happy.  She’s like, you know, I open my shades, I have a nice thing to look at.  And I know my kids are safe walking in front of the house,” said Marquez.

Credit John Smith/WAER News
A vision of what we might see someday looking into this home.

So, where do all of those ready to paint, primed panels come from? For that, we’ll head back to the church. 

A fairly large room of the church where presumably smaller services were held has a crucifix centered at the front with a pulpit and a large bible.  The seating of the defunct church is long gone.  The floor is now covered with boards being primed that will become murals.  Liam Kirst and Logan Reidsma received approval for a project they pitched as part of their positions with Americorps.

“It’s definitely meant to empower the community.  We feel like this is a good way to engage everybody kind of what the problem of vacancy is in Syracuse.  It’s a way to teach the community what the land bank is,” said Reidsma.

As Community Outreach Coordinators for the Greater Syracuse Land Bank,  they wanted to positively impact people and neighborhoods.

“What this project could also do is serve as a reminder that people are interested in helping the community that’s struggling in Syracuse in a city with a high rate of concentrated poverty that, even if the city lacks resources, it doesn’t lack creativity and there’s ways that we can at the very least improve quality of life for kids growing up in the city,” said Kirst.

Credit John Smith/WAER News
(L-R) Logan Reidsma and Liam Kirst.

“I remember when I was little, taking art classes in elementary school and that used to be one of my favorite subjects.  So, we thought this was a way for them to get engaged and get involved,” said Reidsma.  

U.S. Census Data released in 2015 shows that 51 percent of children in the city live in extreme poverty.  That’s about one out of every two children.  Students from several City Schools were asked to paint murals for homes.  Kirst points out the homes sitting idle in poor condition can be a real negative in a child’s eyes.

“For a kid I think on their way to school, it’s just a daily reminder of the economic realities around them.  So I think, in our opinion, giving Kids and Adults the ability to kind of address this issue on their own in a really creative way is a productive use; especially, if it’s just going to be sitting there with plywood.  So, it really contributes to the (Greater Syracuse) Land Bank mission, I think.”

They both agree the project won’t end the problem of Syracuse’s vacant home issue.

“…but, I do think it’s a chance to give power back to communities that have, I think, too often been overlooked.  And the purpose of the Greater Syracuse Land Bank is to put properties back into productive use,” said Kirst.

Syracuse Tenants and Citizens Advisory Board Member to the Land Bank, Sharon Sherman says some neighborhoods have seen a dramatic change.

“Particularly that place where their might be only one or two bad properties on the block that for 10 years, they’ve been abandoned and the city has foreclosed, the land bank has sold it, they’ve been fixed.  But the more blighted areas in the south side and the north side, it’s going to be a very long process.”

Credit Logan Reidsma/Americorps/Syracuse Land Bank
Liam Kirst puts the finishing touches securing a mural on this home.

She adds the Land Bank still retains a portfolio of homes it hasn’t been able to address and countless homes are still stuck in the foreclosure process.  She reflects back on a home that sat vacant for several years in her own neighborhood at the corner of Westcott and Genesee Street.  Murals were also placed on it.

“It had something to say the neighborhood cares.  So, I’m hoping that the same thing happens on the areas where they’re doing the murals now.  they are working on buildings that hopefully can be sold at some point,” said Sherman.

At a “Paint the Town” mural session outside the church, Kirst and Reidsma both reflect on the project.

“It’s just been cool for Logan and I and Jake from the Land Bank just to see the way it’s kind of… just went from an idea into something that’s actually happening and something that a lot of people are enjoying.  The community has just had an overwhelmingly positive reaction,” said Kirst.

Credit Logan Reidsma/Americorps/Syracuse Land Bank
A group of volunteers painting murals this past summer.

“I saw some little girls earlier like jumping in that little puddle, and you know, they were having a good time getting paint all over the place.  And then I saw some adults out, making some works of art.  It was really beautiful,” said Reidsma.

This Land Bank property is technically closed for church, however, it still has a way of bringing people together.  In this instance to create some art that might aid in the healing of blighted properties and neighborhoods in Syracuse.

The final opportunity for people to create murals happens this weekend during the Northside Festival.  The event will be held at Bova Center at Schiller Park at the corner of Whitwell and Farmer Streets on Saturday from 1 to 4 P.M.

Credit John Smith/WAER News
A view inside the church where boards have been primed for murals. If only we could hear the organ play.

John Smith has been waking up WAER listeners for a long time as our Local Co-Host of Morning Edition with timely news and information, working alongside student Sportscasters from the Newhouse School.