"Lives Change Here": How one bridge prompted the Near Westside community to take action

When an impoverished, run-down neighborhood in Syracuse needs improvement, who gets to decide what to do?

The Near Westside neighborhood needs a name; that’s one thing people who live and work in the area can agree on.

For more than a quarter of a century, that area of Syracuse has suffered from increased crime, poverty and homelessness. The 2014 U.S. Census Bureau reported about 35 percent of Syracuse residents were living in poverty, and more than 50 percent of residents living west of downtown were impoverished.

Syracuse community leaders want to help rebuild the area, but no one knows – or can agree on – where to start. However, one neighborhood controversy is beginning to bridge a compromise.

Back in 2012, a 60-year-old railroad bridge was painted by the Rescue Mission Alliance. The mission, located in the Near Westside on Gifford Street, is a nonprofit organization that provides services such as food and shelter for people in need.

They sought out permission and a permit from the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway to paint the bridge that overlooks West Onondaga Street. Owner of Ace Signs Ken Burke was hired, and painted the bridge with a red background. In white block letters he wrote, “MISSION DISTRICT.” The opposite side of the once-rusty bridge reads, “LIVES CHANGE HERE.”

Rescue Mission Chief Development Officer Carolyn Hendrickson said other nearby railroad bridges with similar designs inspired her. But community members who live and work near the Westside have been fighting with the Rescue Mission since the paint dried.

“I started getting phone calls and people were really agitated,” Hendrickson said. “They thought we were renaming the Near Westside.”

The bridges that inspired Hendrickson were part of an initiative led by Maarten Jacobs, the director of the Near Westside Initiative.

New York City-based artist Steve Powers spent a week in Syracuse to meet and talk with residents before coming up with the concepts reflective of the community. He painted poems on the bridges like, “NOTHING TO DO IS EVERYTHING WITH YOU” and “NOW THAT WE ARE HERE NOWHERE ELSE MATTERS.”

Same district, different message

Marilyn Higgins was Syracuse University’s vice president of community engagement at the time, and said she was surprised when she saw the painted Mission District bridge. She said she wanted to know if the Rescue Mission talked to anyone in the area before painting it, and quickly found out through media reports and community complaints that they hadn’t.

“I think 20 years ago the ‘Mission District’ might have had a different brand than it does today,” Higgins said. “People feel the policies lead to an extreme amount of street and drug trafficking. The underlying message is different now.”

Loitering and reported drug use in the area represent this underlying message, and have more to do with what happens under the bridge than the bridge itself, according to the West Onondaga Street Alliance.

Robert Bucklin, WOSA president, is leading the effort to redesign the bridge in collaboration with the Rescue Mission, as well as other residents and business owners in the area. He started the conversation with Rescue Mission CEO Alan Thornton by volunteering at the mission with his WOSA members, providing and serving lunch for 300 people.

“A lot of people were mad [when the bridge was painted.] They came at the Rescue Mission and they weren’t as friendly as they could have been,” Bucklin said. “I asked Alan if I could talk to him, and I just wasn’t mean about it.”

Bucklin organized a committee of Near Westside neighbors and business owners to meet with the mission and work on the bridge’s redesign.

Committee members include Ed Riley, owner of the newly-renovated Hotel Syracuse; Ben Walsh, business development director at a local law firm; Owen Kerney, assistant director for city planning and about a dozen other community leaders.

Along with redesigning the bridge, Bucklin explained the entire area needs a name and a rebrand.

“We need to clean up the area – not necessarily end the loitering because those people live in this area too,” Bucklin said. “But to clean it up, make it look nicer.”

Committee members described their vision for the Near Westside, including an open-air market, a walking neighborhood and a space safe enough for Hotel Syracuse guests to walk to. 

This envisioned scene is far from the current reality, where volunteers picked up used needles and human waste during a neighborhood cleanup event last fall.

Bucklin said the Rescue Mission accepts some responsibility of the street loitering, due to an overflow from their facility. The mission provides about 700 meals a day, and has a 24-hour facility with 183 beds. They’ve suggested the possibility of hiring off-duty law enforcement officers to police the area, Bucklin said.

“There’s nothing exciting about being homeless and I feel for them,” he said. “But they need to be respectful of people's properties.”

Bucklin has lived in the Westside for about 22 years, which he said was once considered the “grand avenue of Syracuse.”

“It’s never going to get back to the wealthy state it was in,” he said. “But you can’t use our neighborhood as a dumping ground.”


For the past year and a half, WOSA has raised money for community beautification projects, organized Westside cleanup events and started a neighborhood watch program. They’ve also started a “walk-and-talk” initiative, informally chatting with people out in the area and giving bathroom glow lights to people who are homeless. This spring, they are organizing more formal tours of the West Onondaga Street Corridor with support from local businesses.

Bucklin said while the social service organizations in the area fulfill an important purpose, “some things you have to do yourself.”

There are at least three social service providers in the Near Westside, Onondaga County WIC, CNY Dual Recovery Program and the Rescue Mission.

“I love what they [the Rescue Mission] do. It’s great work,” Bucklin said. “But I’m kind of against having a ‘Mission District’ as a whole. We shouldn’t coin that area as the homeless campus – how does a city benefit from having a mission district campus?”

Thornton said he doesn’t recall how much it cost to paint the bridge in 2012, and isn’t sure how much it will cost to repaint it. But the mission and WOSA are working together to cut costs.

“I think Robert [Bucklin] is the reason this is happening,” Thornton said. “We don’t own the bridge. Our intent is to be a good neighbor and to represent the people we serve.”

The rebranding committee hopes to have one side of the bridge completed by spring or summer of 2017. For now, they are trying to define the neighborhood’s brand, and come up with a new design for the bridge, either a phrase or visual artwork. Whatever they decide to call themselves, Bucklin said his goal is to be as open and transparent as possible to all community members.

“We just want people to look at the bridge and feel invited,” Bucklin said.

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