Today, I want to discuss art and community-building. With all this talk about preparing folks for jobs, and about entrepreneurial skills that we need to teach our students, let’s not forget this “frill,” which isn’t a frill at all. Art is a powerful human capacity that we can call upon to motivate and empower people for change and growth.

What got into me? Did I just overdose on a museum trip? No, I went to Syracuse.

As you may have heard, over the last few decades, Syracuse lost a lot of its keystone industries, such as heavy manufacturing, chemicals and automobiles. What got left behind was a lot of empty buildings, urban blight, unemployment and pollution. As you may also have heard, it snows there in upstate New York. Even worse than here.

So. Climate, bad. Infrastructure, bad. Economy, bad. Young people, leaving. Sound like anyplace we know?

But Syracuse is recovering nicely. There is a terrific partnership among city, county, state and federal governments, Syracuse University, State University of New York and other colleges and universities, and a host of businesses, philanthropies and nonprofits. They are doing a monster list of projects together, creating new businesses, revitalizing the streetscapes, doing sustainable “green” infrastructure and gaining population after decades of brain drain. The most interesting partner in all of this recovery may be the people of Syracuse’s neighborhoods. And how did they get involved? Often, through art.

I was there for only a couple of days, and there’s no way I am going to tell you a complete history and give the proper credit to all who deserve it. What struck me about Syracuse’s renewal story, however, was how art opened up people’s thinking so they could envision a desirable future and work together to get there.

How did that happen? They put art in there from the beginning.

Here’s an example from one part of one neighborhood: in Syracuse’s Near Westside, they created the SALT District (Syracuse. Art. Literacy. Technology) to focus their efforts, and then they invited artists to live there. They held arts and craft fairs.

Students and faculty from Syracuse University got involved. Art students taught the neighborhood kids photography, drawing and painting. They displayed the results, sometimes on large buildings. The architecture school had design competitions for affordable and energy-efficient houses. They’ve built several. They deconstructed eyesores and re-used the materials in new ways, often starting innovative crafts businesses. They rehabbed abandoned buildings and found new creative tenants. There were parties and celebrations. They were doing actual projects, but strengthening people’s imaginations was also part of it.

Another example: An interstate overpass goes through the middle of Syracuse, cutting off the SALT District from the rest of the city. This overpass was turned into a mural, using comments and observations from the community’s residents, and it changed the barrier into an eye-catching place for a positive message about the neighborhood and the city.

One more Syracuse story that is also about revitalization, not in the SALT District, but close to it. A few years ago in this column, I wrote about the San Antonio Riverwalk, and how it changed the city’s ecosystem, revitalizing an undervalued central city feature and turning it into a tourist attraction, a magnet for redevelopment, a new venue for art and cultural events, as well as a new transportation corridor for walking, biking and other human-powered locomotion.

Someone from Syracuse went to San Antonio, too. And now there’s the Onondaga Creekwalk there. It goes from the central city to the shore of Onondaga Lake, a mile or so away. The Creekwalk is only a few years old, but already you can see the changes happening. People walk to work on it. There are sculptures alongside for kids to play on, and they do. You can even now live in the Creekwalk Commons apartments. Additions to the trail already are planned.

The Creekwalk transformed a trashy, overgrown, polluted and neglected natural feature and made it safe and attractive. People use it, and they care about it. I heard that they care about it so much that it is now a priority for the city to plow the Creekwalk in the winter. In Syracuse, that is a serious commitment.

If art can lead to revitalized neighborhoods and even help to get the snow plowed in Syracuse, we’d better pay attention.

Theodora J. Kalikow is interim vice chancellor and president emerita, University of Maine System. She can be reached at [email protected]

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