Embers of Eastwood

Perspectives on the City of Syracuse from the women who stayed.

Lake effect. Orange pride. Salt potatoes. Wegmans. These are the terms that my eager family instilled in me upon learning that my alma mater would be Syracuse University, located in the very place that both sides of my lineage sprout from. As an Arizonian accustomed to readily available Mexican food and sprawling acres of saguaro cacti under open, dry skies, even the idea of snow was foreign to me. I cherished these new additions to my lexicon with excitement and care, looking forward to the day they would no longer feel strange rolling off my tongue.

Photo: Katy Beals

Explore Eastwood more with an expanded version of this project with more photos and stories.

Public safety notice. Forcible touching. Strong-arm robbery. These are the phrases I found myself encountering far more frequently than I had anticipated during my time as an SU student. As my four years at SU progressed, I began to realize that only a shell of the charming, prosperous, safe city that my grandparents and parents reminisced about about still exists, hollowed out from the inside by an epidemic of poverty and crime.

These impressions of Syracuse were confirmed in many ways this September when the U.S. Census Bureau released information that Syracuse has the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any large city in New York State.

As a college student from across the country, it was easy for me to ignore these rampant issues within the bubble of the university. I casually learned to avoid the streets that turned dangerous at night, accepting that walking them alone would be akin to shouting my death wish. When I made friends that had cars, I felt how automatic it was to speed through the sometimes necessary detours through rough Syracuse streets, keeping our eyes fixed on the road ahead, grateful for the layers of glass and metal that shielded us from the dilapidated scenes which abound.

But at times, I was forced to confront these issues. Last spring, three of my friends had cars that were broken into in a span of five days. Just before then, my off-campus housing complex — located one block from Chancellor Kent Syverud’s house — opted to upgrade all of its locks due to an influx of robberies in the area.


One would be hard-pressed to find someone as openly loving of her Syracuse neighborhood as Patty “Snooky” Jeschke. Her laughter echoes around the Eastwood block she struts down as she calls to her childhood friend siting on her stoop. “Hey, Jo, I was just talking about the neighborhood and how none of us leave!”

Snooky actually did leave her childhood home in Eastwood — alongside her husband, Eric, who grew up with her in the same neighborhood — and moved all of two blocks away. She and her husband, like so many Syracuse natives, opted to remain in the city for the proximity of family and for the hometown comfort of a tight-knit community that legacies like her own helped to build.

She recalls constant and gleeful chaos in her childhood, with upwards of 70 children on her block to play with. Though there are far fewer children on that street today, she strives to keep the neighborhood family alive by having an “open door policy,” where all neighbors, family and friends are welcome to come and go from her home as they please. She even openly welcomes Henninger High School students who she has kept in touch with from her time spent working at the same school she attended as a teenager.

“I tell the kids the only rules are make yourselves at home, don’t do anything illegal and put your dishes in the dishwasher when you’re done eating — which doesn’t always work, but I try,” she said, chuckling.

The bustling, happy past that Snooky longs for and fights to maintain harkens back to a time when the sky was the limit for the city of Syracuse. A Population Characteristics Special Report put out by the Syracuse Department of City Planning in 1965 estimated that the projected total population of Syracuse in 1980 would be 230,000; by the time that date arrived, it was approximately 60,000 people fewer than that estimate. Today, Syracuse’s population is more than 25,000 citizens fewer than the 1980 total projection.

According to Snooky, a huge factor for this is that the manufacturing industry in Syracuse began to slowly erode after World War II.

“The big thing in Syracuse right now is the lack of blue collar jobs...what are we supposed to do, put everyone to work in Destiny USA?”

Companies such as General Electric and Allied once provided thousands of jobs to Syracuse citizens. In the 1980s, the availability of this kind of blue collar work began a serious, steep decline. Many Syracuse natives had to either succumb to poverty or seek opportunities for steady employment in other job markets.

With a lack of jobs and decline in population came a suffering city economy. This has continued to leave a perilous mark on the Syracuse City School District. Currently, 18 of its 34 schools are classified as failing, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of New York’s Failing Schools 2015 Report.


Raquel Royal, a single mother of four who was born in Syracuse’s South Side and grew up in its East Side, knows the problem of this reality all too well. She has opted to work twice as hard — sometimes taking on extra jobs — in order to send her children to private school.

“There’s a public school three blocks from here, but I wouldn’t dare send them,” said Raquel, shaking her head as we talk in her Eastwood home. “The teachers don’t care anymore. A lot of the kids are coming from poor and broken homes and give them such a hard time that they give up.

"But you can’t give up.”

Raquel touches on a frightening reality. One in two children in Syracuse lives in poverty, explaining why Syracuse is ranked among the nation's top school districts offering breakfast to its hungry children. But this kind of positive support is not enough to curb an approximately 50 percent graduation rate and abysmal district test scores.

Raquel credits this issue partially to parents having children too casually.

“It makes me so angry to see people not doing it right,” she said. “It’s possible, but you have to take it very serious. I think a lot of parents just have kids and don’t take it serious. I do take it very serious. I want my kids to be proud of me.”

Raquel has had to overcome more than economic hardship as a single parent. The father of her oldest three children went to jail in 2004 for his involvement in a shooting and is still serving time. She has to fight to keep her children, especially her two boys, from falling into that same fate — one which seems to be an imminent danger when a father figure is absent.

Shiquinn, a 16-year-old friend of Snooky’s that grew up in Syracuse’s South Side says father figures are a must.

“I think that the problem with kids out here is the lack of father figures, honestly,” said Shiquinn. “Kids need a father to teach them right from wrong. Mom can’t do that in the same way.”

In addition to the decrease in job opportunities and in quality of education, gang violence in Syracuse has escalated in recent decades.

“It’s getting worse,” said Raquel. “It used to be 20-year-old kids getting involved in gangs and drugs, and now it’s 10- and 11-year-old kids. And I have 10- and 11-year-old kids, so that makes me really sad.”

Syracuse Police Department’s Gang Violence Task Bureau was created in 2003 as the result of a meeting between the city police department and the United States Attorney’s Office. It was held due to increased suspicion of gang activity in Syracuse. Its site claims that it has brought “more than 100 hardened gang members to justice.”

But with 50 percent more murders in the first five months of 2015 than in 2014, and with less than half of the city’s 2014 homicides solved, Syracuse is, to put it in Raquel’s words, “down and out.”


Sue Smithers is someone who feels optimistic about Syracuse. As a gay woman growing up in the city, Sue says she didn't really know what "gay" was.

"We were taught you were supposed to play and go to school, and not have attractions to anyone,” she said before laughing. “It wasn’t until college that I realized I was in love with a woman.”

It took Sue seven years after that to come out to her family and friends, and she did so around the same time the city began to be more accepting of gays. Being gay in Syracuse was not something anyone openly discussed or many dared to flaunt until as late as 1985, with the inception of the first Syracuse Pride Parade.

Sue notes that opportunities for people on the LGBT spectrum to meet and socialize with one another were few three decades ago in Syracuse.

“There was one gay bar for men, and one for women. That’s it,” Sue said.

This wasn’t for lack of trying; zoning for homosexual bars and hangouts was denied throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Evidence of discrimination against and oppression of the homosexual community continued into the early 2000s, and some remnants of it can even still be seen today. Just in June, Syracuse’s Rain Lounge reported multiple acts of vandalism on its premises.

But Syracuse on the whole has made great strides for its LGBT citizens. It has more resource centers than ever, and this year marked the first LGBT Day at the New York State Fair.

As a gay woman, Sue feels that this is a huge accomplishment. However, she is adamant that first and foremost to her identity is the fact that she is a parent. Sue has found her home in the gay community mostly among other gay parents that are trying to live — for lack of a better word, I will use hers — “normal” lives.

“We’re a support group for each other without being a support group for each other, if that makes sense,” Sue said.

So while Syracuse may still be rooted deeply in traditional family values, it has made incredible strides in redefining the constraints of what kinds of people can qualify as fulfilling those values.


Syracuse has had a positive history of embracing and even growing from diversity in its population. In its report “The World at Our Doorstep,” the Onondaga Citizen’s League described Syracuse as “a city shaped by immigrants.”

is one such immigrant. As she hustles to fill out her eager customers’ orders for specialty meats and cheeses at Thanos Import Market, effortlessly holding multiple conversations at once with the slight twang of a Syracuse accent, she ensures that every visitor to her store is treated like a long-awaited guest. Her quick feet dance across the same floor that she first stood upon at age six soon after immigrating with her family from Greece to Syracuse.

She purchased the Salina Street store in 2008 when she learned its then owner planned to retire.

Syracuse Neighborhoods

“I just couldn’t bear to see it close,” she said. “I went there with my family as a kid, and then brought my kids here when I started a family. I felt that it was important to keep it going.”

Soula is also the mother of a local Republican politician and the wife of a State Supreme Court judge. She is currently in the midst of campaigning for her son, Joseph Carni, who is running for the Syracuse City Counsel’s 1st District.

“I think he loves the city like I do, and if he were elected he would do great things for the community,” she said.

The district he is campaigning for is one of increasing diversity. If the city of Syracuse is shaped by immigrants, it is largely shaped by the refugees who comprise one half of the city’s immigrant population. Syracuse welcomed its first wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1978, and has since been an increasingly popular resettlement site. Though the landscape is always shifting, the largest current refugee population in Syracuse comes from Burma, and second Bhutan.

Approximately 12,000 refugees and former refugees currently reside in Syracuse, according to InterFaith Works Center for New Americans. They are mostly settled on Syracuse’s North Side, attractive for its low cost of living and history of diverse occupants.

Though Soula remarks that while some Syracuse natives might find the intensely diverse North Side population intimidating, she sees it as encouraging. “As an immigrant myself that has been very successful and happy here, you hope to see that for others.”

It is then fitting that Thanos is located in Little Italy on the North Side. Selling Italian, Greek, French, Middle Eastern, Polish and Slavic imported goods — as it has since opening in 1919 — it is a hub of culture welcoming to all Syracuse residents, old and new alike.

In addition to its multicultural goods, Soula’s generous energy is what helps keep that welcoming spirit alive.

“Our customers come from all over, and I’ve gotten to know them and their extended family … the store has really become a part of my family,” Soula said.

Attitudes like Soula’s, with her eagerness to keep even a small corner of Syracuse history alive in the present, is what gives life to the city and hope to both its longtime citizens and its newcomers.

And while the native population continues to decrease and the population of immigrants continues to increase, those fresh faces are the people who need that hope the most.

Stoking the embers

Through the many conversations I had with these four women and the people they introduced me to, I felt a common reluctance to talk about the increasingly powerful dark side of Syracuse’s present and future, but an undertow that kept pulling our conversations back to it. While some, like Snooky and Raquel, voluntarily initiated the topic, it was clear that discussing these issues was emotionally taxing, or at least uncomfortable, to all.

“Ignorance is bliss,” joked Anna Jeschke, Snooky’s 16-year-old daughter, when asked if she felt the need to know everything negative happening in Syracuse. Her comment is sadly valid. For people to live comfortably in Syracuse, particularly the people who so fiercely love the way it once was, they must walk the line between being overwhelmed by the city’s mammoth issues and ignoring them altogether in order to live peacefully.

Sue navigates that boundary by remaining optimistic, and putting her passion for social work to use by volunteering in any way she can to help individuals suffering in Syracuse. Raquel fears that the city’s issues have avalanched and are now unstoppable, to the point that she plans to move elsewhere once her third eldest child has started college.

Soula veers toward the side of aggressive optimism, but as a keystone participant in her son’s campaign, she is working toward the end goal of invigorating and strengthening the city. Snooky tiptoes on the line by boldly welcoming people from all walks of Syracuse life into her home and heart, wanting to understand the roots of the city’s issues, and with motherly boldness, love it into being better.

Ultimately, Syracuse’s heart still beats, but it is in desperate need of a transplant. This is not to say that ingenuity, innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit are completely lacking in Syracuse; but no common identity, voice or direction seems to persist in guiding the city into a new era. A new identity needs to emerge from the remaining rubble of its once glorious past, to unite both its old and new citizens in the common goal of rebirth. Whether that new identity will directly link to its history or will deviate from it altogether remains to be seen. Hope can be found in the thriving academic community surrounding Syracuse University, the prestigious medical complexes of Upstate and St. Joe’s, and even in the quirky, artsy, Earth-friendly Westcott neighborhood.

But in the meantime, in the words of Beatrice, Snooky’s 19-year-old friend born and raised for the first eight years of her life in a refugee camp in Tanzania, what ‘The Salt City’ needs is “a wake-up call.” The socioeconomic trends of past decades have shown that this city will not regenerate through silence and blind faith. A new voice needs to erupt from its current half-hearted denial that things will be okay continuing as they are, because the city and its people deserve more than that empty, impossible promise.

The embers are still here. All they need is a gust of wind that starts in the form of passionate, informed, open discussion, to fuel the fire in Syracuse's belly to roaring heights once more.

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