The Near Westside Initiative, comprised of neighborhood residents and local organizations, is restoring a vibrant urban neighborhood in Syracuse, New York dubbed: the SALT District (stemming from a long history of salt mining in the area). Within the SALT (Syracuse, Art, Literacy, Technology) District, a small neighborhood adjacent to downtown, they are testing the premise that art and culture can unite to create a revitalized community that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but true to the social and cultural values of its residents. Most recently, in partnership with ArtPlace, they have started a new effort called SALTQuarters which will consist of a renovated, formerly abandoned restaurant in the heart of the district into four affordable living quarters for artists, along with three artist studios and a wonderful gallery. As part of the project, two artists in residence will be provided one of the apartments, one of the studio spaces, and a stipend to support their work. These artists, one local, and one national, will spend one year developing professionally and using their craft as a strategy for placemaking in the neighborhood.
ArtPlace recently spoke with Maarten Jacobs, Director of the Near Westside Initiative, about their new project, SALTQuarters, and how ArtPlace’s Creative Placemaking Summit this past January in Miami Beach, Florida influenced their work moving forward
ARTPLACE: What ideas did you gain or lessons did you learn at the Creative Placemaking summit that you plan to apply to your initiative?
JACOBS: The Creative Placemaking summit was incredible. It was such a privilege to be with a hundred or so other practitioners, from around the country, all doing amazing work in their communities by harnessing the power of creative placemaking. During the summit I took dozens of pages of note with lists and lists of new and creative ideas based on the work of the other ArtPlace grant recipients. A few of the biggest takeaways for me were:
The “soul poll” done by the McKnight Foundation showed what we people in our cities value most. The simple question asked was: “What binds you to your community.” Most city leaders assume the answer to be jobs, schools, housing, etc. Instead, people overwhelming said that what binds them most to a community is the “availability of social events and attractions, particularly arts and culture.” This further confirmed and affirmed our need to focus on creative events and attractions in the SALT District if we want to restore vibrancy in our community.
We need “culture creators” in our communities. These are people who are artists, designers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders all rowing in the same direction to increase a sense of culture and vibrancy in the neighborhood. By ensuring that these “culture creators” have access to modest resources and have all the assistance available to them, a neighborhood will organically become a more interesting and interactive place. Instead of focusing on buildings, properties, and infrastructure, we must spend an equal amount of time, if not more, on assisting the “culture creators” in our neighborhoods.
ARTPLACE: What from the ArtPlace summit did you share about your initiative that was surprising to you or to other participants?
JACOBS: What was clear by the end of the summit was that the SALT District is as much committed if not more committed to genuine resident engagement and overall community revitalization than most of the creative placemaking initiatives going on around the country. While others arefacing the challenge of how to better engage more residents in the initiatives, our resident engagement has been built in from the start and has only been growing since the SALT District was formed. It was gratifying to see that our model is working and that others are interested in learning about our community engagement and ways to replicate that in their our own community.
It was also a great reminder that creative placemaking is a constant balancing act in which you must constantly ask yourself, “who have we engaged in this initiative thus far? Do we have a broad range of personalities, skillsets, and interests? Who else needs to be at the table.” If you do not have a comprehensive group of collaborators, your project is sure to fall flat in one area or another.