Imagine a place bustling with life. Serene streets, lined with sturdy houses, where the sidewalks are teaming each morning with adults and children, walking to work and school. A place where a Saturday afternoon’s errands can be done on foot, and where you know the owner of each business you visit. A place where children play in yards, on streets and in parks, and parents and neighbors look out for them. There is a sense of community in this place and a quality of life that is hard to measure.
This place existed on the Northside of Syracuse for the better part of 100 years. The mostly German and Italian families that settled the Northside were hardly rich, but they lived in abundance. Throughout its history, the neighborhood was defined by its quality of life, at least until after World War II. Then the factories started to leave, and the highways were built, choking the neighborhood and luring families to newly built suburbs – an exodus fueled further by racial tensions that emerged as the area started to diversify. Over time, the place was filled with vacancy. Houses were abandoned and storefronts were boarded. Those who remained found that their neighborhood was less safe and offered fewer opportunities.
It’s important to remember, however, that while the Northside has declined in many respects, it has never lost its vitality. Even in the midst of many challenges, the Northside has remained true to its roots, existing as a place of refuge and hope. As the neighborhood lost much of its original population, new communities moved in – from African Americans, spreading throughout Syracuse after desegregation – to immigrants and refugees, from South and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East – to mostly white young professionals, searching for an urban environment. All of them came seeking something better, just like the first Northsiders. One needs only to stand on a street corner to feel the energy here. Watch, as people from almost every part of the world, many dressed in bright native clothing, walk down sidewalks, past majestic churches, in and out of laundromats, bakeries, and markets. A world’s worth of music projects from cars and apartment windows, while the scents of varied cuisines waft from kitchens into the streets. Things might not be perfect, but life still abounds.
The big difference today is a lack of economic opportunities. Most Northsiders are still working class; it’s just that many of them can’t find good work. People here still dream of owning homes and starting businesses; they just have a harder time turning those dreams into reality. This lack of opportunities translates into more poverty, which means greater instability – which results in pockets of crime and blight. These challenges are only part of the story, however, and they are certainly not the end of the script. Slowly, but surely, the Northside is coming back. Every month we see new investments in the community. Historic buildings are being rehabbed, luring middle class residents and new business owners. Meanwhile, some Northsiders are working up from poverty and are buying homes and starting businesses themselves. Pockets of the neighborhood are emerging as creative hubs, as young artists and professionals congregate and convert abandoned places into vibrant spaces.