Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear a couple of times each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
I am a lifelong resident of Syracuse. I have lived in many different neighborhoods and went to a suburban high school. However, whenever I describe myself I always say, “I’m a Nortsider”. The misspelling is intentional, it’s a part of the neighborhood dialect. I grew up on Mary Street directly across from the old North High School. I attended Our Lady of Pompeii school kindergarten through eighth grade. During that time my father, Armondo, maintained a family business on North Salina Street. It was a camera repair shop. He was an old world craftsman, a toolmaker. His ability to repair and rebuild tiny watch-like mechanisms was legendary. When I grew up I wanted to be just like him.
I went into business with my father in 1974. An economist had just finished a study of the North Salina business district. The result of the study labeled our business district a victim of “urban blight”, distressing bad news. However, it made us eligible for certain kinds of state and federal money in the form of both loans and grants. The city Department of Community Development directed a “facade improvement” program for the 300-900 blocks of North Salina Street. We received a grant and were able to strip off 50 years of paint and expose the natural brick. Many other North Salina business owners were able to do the same. It spurred a great deal of activity and interest. When I first joined my father in business there were 37 vacant store fronts on North Salina. Within a few years after the facade improvement program the vacancies disappeared.
We brought the dormant Northside Business Association back to life, organized a street festival, and advertised cooperatively to promote the business district. It was our hope to interest urban professionals to live and work in the neighborhood. We believed having the street declared a national heritage zone would both preserve the architecture and attract investment. We never had a coordinated effort to achieve that goal. It was sporadic at best and not able to pull all the community interests together.
Eventually a changing economy and changing technology made it impossible for our family business to function. We closed our doors in 1992. I always felt the effort we made in the 70’s and 80’s had a chance to succeed. At times I wanted to go back to finish but never got the chance. Finding out about Northside UP has been an inspiration to me. The movers and shakers with Northside UP appear to have pulled many important ingredients together and formed a vision that can truly succeed.