You don’t know what it was like kid.

Those of us who have seen a few winters in this town remember.  There were bands playing seven nights a week, original music too, all of it good.  People went out. We had artists, photographers, galleries and openings. You just don’t know.

It’s true, I’ve told you about those days and then, things changed, almost over night.

The drinking age went up, the University became more and more estranged from the city that it’s named after.

The clubs closed, the bands broke up.  The artists took their cameras and paint elsewhere.

The live music scene got smaller, the art scene dried up too.

It got real quiet in Syracuse.

The city deteriorated.   You could shoot a cannon ball down Warren St at noon time and not hit a soul.

Armory Square had honest to goodness chickens get loose from time to time from the meat packing plants down there.

It was all very quiet.  It was a dead city in many ways.

Even the Grande Dame of our city, the vaunted Hotel Syracuse was falling apart, surely an appointment with the wrecking ball was just a matter of time.  The glorious rebirth of this historic property was unthinkable.

I will admit, in those days  I was one of the naysayers.  “Nothing ever happens here.  You have to travel to get exposure to any kind of arts scene, a  music scene.”  It was all gone in Syracuse.  Our best days were in the past.

Maybe that was true.

Maybe that was just the way it was.

Until it wasn’t.

Think of  a long untended park, full of potential but choked by neglect  and decay.  One day some caring people came by, saw the potential and made other people see both the potential in the space and within themselves.   Soon, the weeds retreated, to be replaced by wildflowers, beautiful, native to place and organic, sprung up out of nothing more than nurtured soil.

Once again maybe even more than before, Syracuse is a thriving arts community.  There are top notch, often world class bands playing every night of the week in this city. There is a burgeoning art scene with painters, sculptors, illustrators, crafts people.

Photo: Daniel Sterling

In Syracuse, art is everywhere.  It’s part of what will save our poorest communities.  It’s in ice cream stands where we have art and live music performances. Ice Cream Stands!   It’s on every corner.  Pop up art happening where folks can get involved and be creative, even  outside of restaurants downtown, like the event  Samantha Varga hosted not too long ago outside of Modern Malt.  Don’t tell Samantha you can’t be artistic, she’ll hand you a brush and something to paint on.   Local treasure & force of nature  Misse Thomas, had an opening to show off her artistic vision in a restaurant in Hanover Square, a party that spilled out into the street on a beautiful summer night.  Michael John Heagerty is making folks challenge expectations and limits while facilitating installations in long neglected alleys and under busy roadways.

A city once neglected, now is filled with activity.

There is so much to do, I can’t keep track of it all. I personally try to get to at least 3 to 4 events every single week, winter and summer alike.  You can go out in this city, every single night, and see high quality, locally sourced music, mostly playing original music.  I have been to more art events this past year then I had been during my entire life before.

I have seen a world class jazz trio play a show, just weeks after winning an international competition, for free, in a street side performance outside the Dinosaur BBQ.   I have seen my favorite band in the world, a locally sourced group,  play multiple times to sell out crowds, and watched them win over newcomers at festivals.  I’ve been to hear music, I’ve been to see visual art, I’ve been to a ton of events.   Turn out for these events has been mostly good, but we need to do better, and I think the shortcoming is that we aren’t thumping our chests enough about just how much is going on here.   When people think of this city, they should be thinking of culture.  We need to start being just a little self assured about our town and the things in it, if not entirely cocky.

In Syracuse?

Yeah, in Syracuse.

You have no idea.

If you have listened to me in recent days you know I have been using the word Renaissance to describe the current nature of Syracuse and I’m not alone.  I have made it my avocation to evangelize as much as I can the good news of the rebirth of a city. To give testimony to my experience as I wade through a flood of art, music, drama, comedy and activism, both political and civic.  To preach that THIS town, my town, is more than holding it’s own in the conversation of culture. I have made it my goal to get out and see as much of what this city offers in terms of music and art as often as I can.  In my travels in this town, the city of my birth, I have met other like minded people. Folks of various ages, backgrounds, genders and cultures, all being creative in Syracuse and with a sense of optimism and positivity that this town has been lacking for decades.  Many of these people don’t want to be anywhere else.  To an individual, I have found these folks to be the most welcoming and encouraging people I have ever met.

But don’t take my word for it, just recently Forbes magazine wrote an article about this very thing, they called it a Renaissance too. They said “Syracuse is one of America’s most underrated cities”.  The article was great, but it barely scratches the surface of a town with so much depth.

Logo design by Erin McKenna Nowak

In my own neighborhood, a place called Strathmore in the southwest quadrant of the city I am surrounded by creatives. Authors, better bloggers than myself, painters, illustrators, musicians, I know at least 3 bass players!   I know the drummer for a world renowned blues rock band. Civic visionaries live in my neighborhood.  I know people (I might be one of them) who produce a neighborhood art festival with regional appeal (about to celebrate it’s 20th year), I live just blocks away from the guy who produces the Syracuse Shakespeare Festival.  I know at least two fabric artists!  How many do YOU know?   All this in addition to creative teachers, doctors, lawyers, laborers, tree planters and it all works.  I live in a special place.

There is one woman in particular, a neighbor, who I don’t think is getting enough accolades in this town and like I said, the one thing we aren’t good at in this city right now, is tooting our own horns.    I’m going to toot a horn for someone in our community who should be celebrated.

Erin McKenna Nowak is that neighbor.  In addition to raising her three kids and hanging with her super cool husband, she is also one of Syracuse’s unsung art heroes and has quietly been that for a while now.  Erin worked for years designing and producing customized bridal stationary.  It was a pretty good business she had there, but her heart was yearning for different expression.  She gave up the lucrative bridal industry and became a full time visual artist.  Erin creates beautiful illustrations with a unique flair for the use of color and a definite celebration of childlike wonder. For me that has become her signature style.   She’s  also produced some Christmas ornaments that feature local landmarks in winter settings that convey the sweetness of the season.  These hit me right in the heart personally, one of her ornaments shows the landmark gazebo, another shows the iconic “green on top” traffic light of Tipperary Hill, one block from where I grew up, and where my grandfather was one of the young  stone throwers who caused the Irish green to top the British red. Another shows the Clinton Square ice rink with the tree.  These are now permanent fixtures on my family’s tree, along with my Star Trek ornaments and my skulls.  I can be sweet and weird at the same time!  Don’t judge me.

Impressed yet?  Well how about this?  Erin is a published children’s book illustrator.  I’ve told you about The Silent Nightingale in these pages not too long ago.  Go back and read that would ya?

That book and other wonderful items that have danced from the beautiful imagination of Erin McKenna Nowak can be found, right now, at Wildflowers Armory, the locally produced arts outlet in downtown Syracuse as she starts a three month residency with other local talent, such as my cousin Mary K Matthews’ Bird On A Wire.   Erin’s going to be working a shift or two down there so make sure you go take a look at her work, maybe get a head start on holiday shopping?

But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is the first time you’ve seen Erin.  If you have been around town at all, especially downtown, you have seen her all over the place in her work creating logos that help establish our local businesses and events.   She has also been a fixture at the last few Public Arts Task Force gallery shows.  I should know, I go to them all.

Erin McKenna Nowak has been all over town and you never knew it.  Now you do. I encourage you to go down to Wildflowers and check out her work and the work of all the other great creativity down there.

There is art and music on every corner in Syracuse and it’s infectious.

But a word to the wise, scenes like this don’t happen every day and sometimes they don’t last forever.  Take it from me.

The best way to nurture this scene is to get out there in it. Take in what there is to offer in this town and drink deep from that well.  There is room for EVERYONE and there will be things that surprise and delight you.

Stake your creative claim, get out of your comfort zone.

Or, if you are like me, get out there and be, to steal a phase from another Syracuse product, the great Maura Kennedy, “the kid on the dance floor”.

Go see art someplace.  Go see a show at Funk n Waffles one night.  Go to an opening.  Meet some of the most wonderful people you could ever imagine.

It’s not so quiet in Syracuse anymore and the sound is glorious.


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