As we review possible solutions to our teen violence challenge, I can’t resist looking at my youth growing up in Syracuse. Being a child of the 1960’s and being in Syracuse, we were on the front lines in the War on Poverty. Based on our size and demographics we were ideal for testing new products and government programs. We had a network of community centers that employed people from poor neighborhoods, providing much needed support from our government.
P.E.A.C.E., Inc. had a network of centers some small some large, they provided clothing, a small food pantry, a place to get surplus foods such as cheese. Home Energy Assistance type program applications were also available if you were having problems with your utilities. Centers were also a resource center for job postings, health information and at times social events. Most of these P.E.A.C.E., Inc. centers were within walking distance to our distressed neighborhoods. All but a few are now closed, casualties of budget cuts.
A local Bank had a program in our public schools. Tuesday was Banking Day where you would get out your little bank book and note the deposit you were making; it may only be $1. We learned about banking in elementary school.
School in the 1960’s and 70’s had, high school athletics, gym, art, and music; for some kids, these amenities were the difference between staying in school and dropping out. Don’t forget Metal and Wood Shop classes as these were also eliminated. In elementary school, I recall at lunchtime going outside when the weather was nice, even if it were only for 15 minutes. Most kids walked to school, as only those displaced by Urban Renewal were being shuffled to different corners of the city.
During the summers, I remember Thornden Park and the recreation programs. Children with adult supervision staged plays at the amphitheater. We had structured time in the parks with Arts & Crafts where we made Boondoggles, Popsicle stick Jewelry Boxes, and Ash Trays to bring home. As I recall the parks were staffed with young people, assisting young people.
We lived on Harrison Street, one block away was Grace Episcopal Church, one block away from there was University Methodist Church. There were so many children in the Madison Street area that there was programming for us. Between 10 am – 2 pm; as pre-teens and young teens, we started at Grace Church and after a snack we went to University Methodist Church. Having these places to go as young teens gave us something to do, some place to go. We weren’t “free range children.”
When it was time for High School, we had Upward Bound at LeMoyne College, Syracuse was one of the first in the nation to receive this “opportunity program” that focused on getting young people to complete Highschool and college. During the summers, we spent 8 weeks at LeMoyne College living in the dorms, coming home for the weekend. Each Friday there was a field trip, usually, it was to a place that we’d never seen before, Letchworth State Park, Niagara Falls, or some other educational adventure. We even had an Upward Bound Band as we had music classes. Mario DeSantis and company taught most of us how to play instruments. These skills culminated with a grand performance at Convocation when the program ended in mid-August.
There was also Soul Generation, followed by Jr. Soul Generation, where kids got to perform and expend some of that creative energy. All volunteers, people like Eleanor Russell and others introduced us to theater. Speaking of theater, Salt City Playhouse was like a second home to me living a block away. I spent lots of early evenings rehearsing for an upcoming play. By 17 myself, Thomas Grimes, Rick Torrence and others had taken over the Second Theater. We were writing and producing our own one-act plays.
On the city’s North side, Our Lady of Pompeii Parish under the direction of Monsignor Charles L. Borgognoni produced Broadway Plays that had long since closed. The neighborhood groups was called, “The Pompeian Players”. These shows were performed on the Loew’s (aka Landmark) Theater stage. Somehow, “Father Charles” managed to get discarded original sets to hit shows which were now closed. The entire church was involved, if you weren’t on stage, you were backstage doing something. Rehearsals started in the summer with production in early September. An entire section of this Northside neighborhood was involved.
We don’t require new programs to change our city. We only need to revisit the past, what we defunded. What we decided we couldn’t afford as a community. What was finally cut in the 1980’s, as the nation embraced “Trickle down economics”.
Review all of those program cuts we’ve suffered at the hands of Federal and State budget reductions. Look at the job program cuts; the P.E.A.C.E. Inc. Community Center cuts, the City Parks & Recreation budget cuts, School staffing cuts, the list can go on and on. The point is that we’ve cut and or gutted the very programs that made us a community. The only way to reverse the trend of violence among today’s youth is to invest in their future as we once did. This is not reinventing the wheel; it’s putting air in our societies flat tire.