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Syracuse embracing art revitalization through public pieces

The steady loss of manufacturing jobs in upstate cities has caused a similar decline in their downtown areas. But cities like Syracuse are hoping to change that perception through art revitalization projects aimed at promoting the city's center while beautifying neighborhoods.

Ty Marshal was the artist in residence and curator at The Tech Garden in Syracuse, but is also a central New York native. He walks down the sidewalk, but stops to point at a portion of Steve Powers' "A Love Letter to Syracuse," a mural of words painted on train bridges linking downtown to the near west side.

"It's a token that says 'Hey, stop and look.' Stop and experience, and do so with wonderment. Do so with a kind of looking through a child's eyes," Marshal said. "I encourage people to walk the Creekwalk. Like take a walk."

Marshal is leading us on a walking tour of the city's downtown art. He walks quickly, stopping to discuss the artistry behind two atom-shaped bike racks in front of the Museum of Science and Technology, or MOST. On the other side of the building there's a section of historic concrete.

"Behind you is a piece of the Berlin Wall," Marshal said, pointing toward the slab surrounded by weeds. "Why it's hidden behind the MOST, I don't know, but it's a token. It's says like, 'Oh look, here we have a piece of history right here.' Nobody walks by it and says, 'Oh look, there's the Berlin Wall,' but there it is.

Credit Gino Geruntino/WRVO
From afar, the Salt City Mural on the side of Lemp's Jewelers takes the form of a barge on the canal.

Although some of the pieces seen in Hanover, Clinton and Armory Squares are readily recognizable as art, others simply blend into the urban scenery until someone else points them out. In recent years, neighborhoods throughout the city have been transformed from a dreary reminder of days gone by into inviting open spaces.

Brett Snyder is another contributor to Syracuse's downtown art. His architectural design firm, Cheng+Snyder, created the Salt City mural, seen on the side of Lemp's Jewelers on East Fayette Street. The piece is an amalgam of the city's historical past and its technological present, using quick response, or QR codes, which are square barcodes that can be scanned by smartphones, to recreate a photo of an old pump house and brine distribution center.

"I think just the idea of these new types of urban gentrification that are, in some ways, different than the gentrification that happened during modernization and the modern movement," Snyder said. "Yeah, there's something a little bit different about it."

But painters and sculptors aren't the only ones promoting the concept of using art to boost downtown. Kate Auwaerter, Public Art Coordinator for the city of Syracuse, says the city helps foot the bill for installation, though many of the pieces are paid for by public and private groups.

"This administration in particular, it seems, is very interested in the cultural and the quality of life here in the city," Auwaerter said. "This is a really important component of creating an interesting, vibrant community that we can all enjoy."

Credit Gino Geruntino/WRVO
Upon closer inspection, QR codes can be scanned by smartphones to visit the websites of local arts groups and other cultural spaces.

She says city officials work closely with community organizations and neighborhood groups, like the Connective Corridor, which promotes the bond between University Hill and downtown. Artists also become involved, holding public meetings and gathering neighborhood input on what they'd like to see.

The result is that very few of the finished pieces have caused controversy, though Auwaerter says people might be confused at first by a piece like "Walt, the Loch West Monster," a giant blue sea serpent mad of sheet metal and wood, rising out of the dirt.

"We're all trying to look for ways of reinventing ourselves, and part of that creative process is bubbling up now with new and emerging artists that are interested in sort of helping with that process," Auwaerter said.

Artist Ty Marshal, says the goal is not only to bring more people to downtown Syracuse, but to inspire revitalization in other rust-belt cities.

"What's drawing me on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon to go visit Utica from Syracuse, or vice versa," Marshal said. "Conversely, what in Syracuse do we have going on that's going to draw Uticans here. I think that's where it starts, too, is we all ought to start visiting each other's cities and seeing what we're doing in those places."

He also says the movement helps bring people back to the downtown area while building a unique and appealing landscape.

"You have kind of this mix of history also in there," Marshal said. "It's not just arts. It's not just the culture of shopping at a record store or buying local. It's also recognizing the historic tokens that are in your city, as well."

Those involved in downtown art revitalization projects are quick to note that more art isn't going to be the cure-all for decades of declining population and manufacturing, but say it's a good start.