Skiddy Park becomes a home for music every Sunday

By Marnie Eisenstadt | meisenstadt@syracuse.com

Syracuse, N.Y. — Melissa Gardiner sat on her back deck. The neighborhood was still, except the birds and her son, who was talking about his toy lawn mower that blows bubbles.

Gardiner lives a little more than a block from the Father’s Day melee that left one man dead, two injured and a neighborhood in upheaval on Syracuse’s Near West Side.

After the shooting and the police raids that followed, you could feel the fear and the tension on the streets, Gardiner said.

Gardiner, a musician, had planned to start a community drum circle in Skiddy Park the following Sunday, June 26. But maybe it would be better to postpone it?

“It wasn’t a question,” she said. It seemed clear to her that the neighborhood needed the music then more than ever, she said.

So that Sunday, June 26, Gardiner went to Skiddy Park with her son, Julian, and the handful of professional musicians she’s hired from the neighborhood to be a part of the circle. (She’s paying them through a grant from the Near Westside Initiative.)

They played drums and trombones. Kids and adults who wandered by were offered shakers and drums to play, too. The turnout was small, Gardiner said. Maybe 10 people stopped.

“I know, that first week, people said they were afraid to come to the park,” Gardiner said.

But Gardiner wasn’t disappointed or dissuaded by the turnout. She and the other musicians set up again this past Sunday. They hung their sign announcing the “Summer Music Series at Skiddy Park” on the chain link fence that surrounds the park.

They set up the drums and began to pound out a beat. Gardiner’s son, Julian, played the shaker for a while. She riffed along on the trombone. The sound drifted, reaching past the edges of the park, into the public housing complex and down the street toward Gardiner’s house.

This time, the music pulled more people in. About 20 stopped by to play, or to dance or to just stand and listen, as Jose Berrios did.

Gardiner hopes the music will help others see the energy and promise of the neighborhood she has grown to love and call home.

Gardiner, who teaches music at both Syracuse University and Cornell University and plays trombone in several bands, bought the house on the Near West Side four years ago. The home’s renovation was a collaboration between Syracuse University, the Near West Side and Home Headquarters. It was also a chance for the single mother and musician to afford a place all her own.

On Tuesday, the headline out of the Near West Side was that 10 people involved in the Father’s Day conflict were charged with rioting.

Gardiner is careful to make clear that she is no spokeswoman for the neighborhood. But what happened on Father’s Day is not all her neighborhood is.

“This is where I’ve set my roots,” Gardiner said. “I didn’t want to be in a cookie cutter place. I like the energy where people are outside, on their porches, riding by on their bikes and saying ‘Hi’.”

This coming Sunday, and all the summer Sundays that follow, Gardiner will hang up her sign in Skiddy Park again and set up instruments. The voice of her trombone will slide in between the drumbeats and sail out of Skiddy Park.

She invites anyone, everyone, to come see and hear the rest of the Near West Side.

The Summer Music Series in Skiddy Park Latin Drum Circle is from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. every Sunday this summer in Skiddy Park on Otisco Street in Syracuse.