Believe In Syracuse: Westcott edition

Community organization Believe In Syracuse aims to raise morale and awareness of the neighborhoods in Syracuse.

When John DeSantis graduated from Syracuse University in 2008, he noticed a trend that alarmed him.

“I loved my time here and so I decided to stay in Syracuse,” DeSantis said. “But I saw all of my friends move away. No one wanted to stay and I thought, ‘Man, there must really be a lack of enthusiasm about living in Syracuse if everyone is moving away after they graduate.’”

"I really felt that there was a need in the community for someone to be promoting the positive things about Syracuse."
John DeSantis

It was this kind of cynicism that prompted DeSantis, who grew up in DeWitt, to start a social media campaign in 2013. He created a Twitter account and a Facebook page and dubbed it “Believe in Syracuse.”

“I really felt that there was a need in the community for someone to be promoting the positive things about Syracuse,” he said.

As the social media accounts started to gain a substantial following, DeSantis realized that he had gathered a lot of support from the community. He had the idea that he could do more than just get people to "like" a page and decided to host a launch party.

“We had the party at Al’s in Armory Square and over 60 people showed up. I was like, ‘Wow. I just put this together on my own and got this much support.’ That’s when I realized that people really did want to get involved.”

Believe in Syracuse continued to grow and DeSantis decided that the organization had enough steam to become a non-profit. BIS now has a board of directors comprised of ten people, an email subscriber list of 1,000 people and nearly 5,000 Twitter followers.

BIS looks for opportunities to volunteer in the community and helped advocate the restoration of the Babcock-Shattuck House, which sits at the corner of East Genesee and Westcott streets. DeSantis views the renovation of the house, which was boarded up and covered in graffiti for years, as representative of Syracuse coming alive again.

DeSantis also said that the revitalization efforts need to move beyond Armory Square and into areas like the Westcott neighborhood.

“We talk a lot about downtown and, yeah, downtown is great and there’s a lot to do there, but our neighborhoods are really important too because that’s where people live,” DeSantis said. “I think it’s important that we have sustainable, walkable, enjoyable neighborhoods.”

BIS also aims to promote local businesses. A networking event held last year at Beer Belly Deli & Pub on Westcott helped draw attention to the fledgling restaurant.

“Last summer there was a construction project happening on the street and it had kind of an unforeseen consequence of hurting our business a little bit,” Lauren Monforte, Beer Belly’s owner, said. “The Believe in Syracuse event really helped us to get attention for all of Westcott Street, but especially for our restaurant. It helped us get through a hard time.”

DeSantis echoed Monforte’s statements.

“They were dealing with people not going into their business because of the construction and people not even knowing that they were open because you could hardly get to it,” he said. “So, we decided to have the event there, and more than 50 people showed up and bought food and drinks. Lauren spoke at the event and told everybody, ‘Because of your business today, we’re able to stay open for another week.’ They were able to hang on until the SU students came back for fall and today they’re doing really well.”

BIS will be hosting another event at Beer Belly on Sept. 30. The event, called “Syracuse Rising: Westcott Street,” will feature speakers from several local organizations including Home Headquarters, Say Yes to Education and the Westcott Neighborhood Association. A portion of the money raised during the event will go to help support BIS.

“These events bring people in if they’ve never been here before and it gets the word out, not only about the restaurant, but about people who are doing good things for Syracuse in general,” Monforte said. “We try to support any event that supports Syracuse.”

Despite a few of the organization’s loftier ambtions, DeSantis’ true vision for BIS is quite simple.

“The goal of all of this — promoting Syracuse and talking about how great it really is — is not only to convince people to stay and live here, but to get them involved in their community,” DeSantis said. “We want people to be at least civically engaged enough to the point that they know what’s going on in their community.”

The Syracuse Rising: Westcott Street event takes place at Beer Belly Deli & Pub, 510 Westcott St., on Tuesday, Sept. 30 from 6 to 8 p.m.

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