Downtown mural to resurrect memories of canal

Volunteers from 40 Below are working on a mural spanning two blocks to remind people of the impact the Erie Canal once had on the Salt City.

A dozen people clad in sandals rolled out baby blue paint onto Erie Boulevard in downtown Syracuse Saturday night between Montgomery and Salina streets, a two-block stretch converted from a fraction of the Erie Canal into dry land less than a century ago.

Approaching 9 p.m., the former national power building shone out down the boulevard, and the fountains bubbled behind public works barriers. To the South, the sky loomed dark and opaque.  

Photo: Raymond Thompson
Rich Hydock rolls paint on to Erie Boulevard to resemble a scannable barcode and represent the artist vision of the Erie Canal.

“That doesn’t look good,” said Nick Williams, a volunteer from 40 Below’s Public Arts Task Force, which spearheaded the art project and which William said contains 15-20 volunteers.

 But the sunset cast watercolor pink and orange from the west. Besides, Jason Evans, who drew up the design, later pointed out, the blue stripes of all different widths, spanning from curb to curb and will run the length of the two city blocks, only take about ten minutes to dry.

 The paint job — dubbed the “arterie” by the task force — is an initiative on the part of 40 Below and the Erie Canal Museum to remind the city of the source of its economic growth in the 19th century and the catalyst for its rise as an industrial capital: “Salt City.” The canal allowed for vast shipments of the product, made in Onondaga County, to flow as far as Chicago, and ran down what is today Erie Boulevard.

Natalie Stetson, the museum’s director of marketing, said she doesn’t think the city has forgotten its historical ties to the canal.

“I think — I hope people know that the Erie Canal was the root of the city,” she said, but added they might not know it ran through downtown Syracuse. Visitors often ask why the museum, a block from the arterie, isn’t on the canal. Before the Erie Boulevard route was closed in 1917, the building was a station where boats were stopped, drained, weighed and billed with a corresponding toll.

 Inspired by a Dutch artist who paid tribute to a Netherlands canal by painting a blue, kilometer-long stretch of a former waterway and writing over it “Water is life,” the task force started talking in November about ways to bring a similar project to downtown.

 The stripes, which from an overhead view might resemble an extra-long beach towel, are meant to conjure up shimmering water.  If one were to snap a photograph of the artwork from a helicopter — in which cars and pedestrians steered clear — the photo would serve as a functional bar code that when scanned would read “arterie syracuse,” and lead the photographer to the project’s website.

“In terms of its scale and location and concept,” said Kate Auwaerter, the city’s public arts coordinator, “it’s new and it’s very exciting. We love getting these large scale public arts projects which have a lot of visibility."

Micha Crook, a task force volunteer, said the project’s interactivity renders it modern and functional.

 “We want to remind people how the city was made, but at the same time we’re looking forward,” she said. “It’s contemporary, yet there’s historical remembrance.”

 The task force had three colors to work with: parking-space white, handicap blue and curb yellow. Their canal blue is a blend: equal parts of the first two colors. 40 Below bought the paint with a $1,000 grant from We Live New York, a statewide young professionals’ organization, as well as with its own fundraising money.

 This particular coat could last up to two years before succumbing to salt and snow, said Evans, the project’s designer. He pulled a small-scale image of the barcode from his pocket that he and other volunteers used to map onto the pavement. 

Some volunteers squatted with short rollers while others stood, working longer handles back and forth like they might a garden hoe. They flapped open coolers in the middle of the street to retrieve water bottles every so often. Two men walking down the street asked a painter about the project.

A few patrons lingered outside J. Ryan’s pub. A man in a chef’s shirt and cap smoked a cigarette in a doorway down the block. On the street in front of him, two volunteers repainted stripes faded by dirt-tracked tires since their appearance the day before. 

“I think it’s good for the city, if anything,” said passerby, David Vieu, who lives in nearby Hanover Square. 

Three friends, non-task force volunteers, crouched to paint the code near the Montgomery Street barrier, among them Yu-Ting Feng, 33, of the Eastern Hill Artists Community.

Feng heard about the project through an email from 40 Below. “We want to get engaged in local arts,” she said. “You know, this is cool.”

Tim Ferlito, right, dribble paint on to Erie Boulevard to assist with the installation of 40 Below’s Public Arts Task Force and Erie Canal Museum public art project called arterie.

Tim Ferlito, right, dribbles paint on to Erie Boulevard to assist with the installation of 40 Below’s Public Arts Task Force and Erie Canal Museum public art project called “arterie.” (Photo: Raymond Thompson)

Upcoming “Arterie” events

  • Erie Canal Trivia Night on July 27 will benefit the project: at Bull & Bear, 125 E. Water St., where drinks start at 5:30 p.m. and trivia at 7 until 8:30 p.m.
  • The opening celebration for “arterie”: on July 29 at J. Ryan’s, 253 E. Water St., 5 to 8 p.m.


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