As others left, they came to one of Syracuse’s poorest neighborhoods to build a future

By Marnie Eisenstadt |

The house at 721 Otisco St. was a shell. It had been set on fire four times. And still, someone had scrawled “Burn Me” in black on a board covering one of the broken windows. The message: Try harder. Every window was broken. The Victorian details were covered by decades of institutional beige paint. The house was lifeless except when crack dealers ducked inside to do business.

Now, the home looks like the Victorian gingerbread house it was more than a century ago. Behind the purple door lives a mom, a dad, two kids and a yappy dog. The family and a handful of others came to Otisco Street like settlers. They work in art, architecture, education, construction and social work. They are do-gooders lured by a good deals: some homes were $1. Others cost more, but all were far cheaper than they would have been anywhere else in Syracuse. And the homes offered the opportunity to help change a neighborhood from the inside out.

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Otisco Street is the longest street in a targeted area of the Near Westside called the “Salt District.” It is in the heart of one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. A decade ago, a group that included Syracuse University, The Gifford Foundation and Home HeadQuarters pooled their resources to create the Near Westside Initiative.

Over the years, $96 million has been spent on residential and commercial development, and community building, in the urban revitalization experiment.

Home HeadQuarters used a state grant of $2.4 million to target 64 blighted houses at the center of the Near Westside — some were knocked down and rebuilt, others were sold “as is” with low-interest financing deals for renovation. On Otisco Street, nearly 20 houses were touched by the effort.

The people who came to rebuild Otisco Street are from no certain mold; all of them had different visions for their orphaned homes.

It is not a path for everyone, said Kerry Quaglia, executive director of Home HeadQuarters. “That type of thing takes a special type of person – as a rule, they are few and far between,” Quaglia said.

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There is the urban developer who turned a crack house into a family home, then bought a neighborhood problem house and renovated it, too. There is the couple that added solar panels to their renovation and turned the home into a co-op with an edible yard. Two artists bought a homestead that included two beat-up houses and an old dairy processing plan. Then there is the budding architect whose work became her life: She and her husband bought one of the homes she helped design and now they live there.

The urban settlers are part of the neighborhood now, but they see things like an outsider might. In front of each of their houses is a black trash can, staked to the ground. “We Care. Trash it” is spray-painted on each one. It is part of a quiet message that little things matter, along with the big things.

There have been some gains over the past decade: vacancy rates, code violations and crime have all dropped in the targeted area. But poverty persists: the median income around Otisco St. is around $15,000 a year.

And there is still trouble from time to time. In June, the Father’s Day shooting reminded everyone how violent Otisco Street can become. A block over, on Gifford Street, drugs are being sold day and night, residents say. That despair can creep onto their lawns.

It is a constant tug of war between where the neighborhood was and where it wants to go. The people who came to Otisco Street are not on some short-term reality show. The ups and downs are real and less dramatic than hidden plumbing disasters. They worry about raising their children amid poverty and struggling schools. They worry when they see people buying drugs at daybreak.

But they see the promise that goes beyond their transformed front porches. The energy of a neighborhood on the verge of so much good keeps them there, working for more.

Marnie Eisenstadt writes about people, life and culture in Central New York. Contact her anytime: email | twitter | Facebook | 315-470-2246