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Celebrating Urban Life Since 1989

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Requiem for a festival

Juneteenth as organizers envisioned it is dead, a victim of violence that it tried so hard to avoid by moving the festival to downtown Syracuse’s Clinton Square. As people at the scene filed out with comments like “it was just a few people that ruined it for everyone,” disillusioned attendees were seen scurrying to get away.

Organizers vowed to meet in emergency session to determine what happened and how to prevent a reoccurrence at next year’s event. Few realize that hundreds of volunteer hours and days where tossed away by the behavior of a small number of people.

Newsclips played like a cynic’s dream come true: “See, I told you they couldn’t do this without something bad happening.” The “bad happening” occurred the moment it was realized that there were control issues at its previous home on South Avenue. At the time, organizers were convinced that shifting locations would solve the problem of unruliness and unmanageable crowds.

But just like running five miles, getting all sweaty, putting on new clothes and a dab of Old Spice cologne without showering, changing the location of Juneteenth simply re-located the problem.

There were methods never employed to keep Juneteenth on South Avenue. Before you Syracuse Juneteenth organizers spit rusty nails at this column, please hear me out.
The South Avenue area has experienced a dramatic rebirth during the last decade with dozens of new homes constructed. It’s one of the few neighborhood centers that still have a full-service bank, a community-operated credit union and a drug store.

The failure of Juneteenth at Southwest Center is an urban failure because that that corridor was never fully embraced by our Community Development programs. This failure led to a domino effect on the street. But this didn’t happen overnight – the cistern has been filling with bile for decades.

When you build houses, there must be a residential economic infrastructure to enhance the quality of life so people will want to live there and invest their hard-earned money in a home. Before Jubilee Homes built Time of Jubilee and Jubilee Park, the area was a vast wasteland of urban decay and abandonment.

While Jubilee Homes built houses, the city of Syracuse should have been hawking and placing businesses on South Avenue to support the lives of people who had purchased a home, many in a six-square block area. Perhaps the city pursued that route, but a bottle and can redemption center is not an anchor for a residential neighborhood.

There’s a way to make South Avenue better and make Juneteenth work in the neighborhood of its birth.


First, dismantle Southwest Community Center program by program. This will be possible with the careful establishment of a Community Development Corporation to oversee this entire redevelopment. Infuse the CDC with a one-time grant of $20 million over four years to put the center formerly known as SCC out of business.

Between the annual operating budget for the center, support from Community Development Block grant funds, state and federal dollars for traffic improvement and creation of a special lighting district, these suggested improvements would easily pay for this structural realignment of services provided to one of our poorest neighborhoods.

Programs that are now housed there would remain in the neighborhood. Health programs would be shifted to the Syracuse Community Health Center, which has a satellite center on South Avenue.

The structure formerly known as Southwest Community Center would undergo a change. The front portion of the building would be turned into retail opportunities including a community run year-round farmers market with glass doors opening to the street on warm days and an indoor market during our brutal winters serving as a Community Town Center.

Private sector goods and service providers, such as Aspen Dental or private practitioners, would be invited to set up shop. Build a new library structure on South Avenue, which could be incorporated within a new interpretation of Southwest Community Center.

But what about our young people? Instead of relying on government-funded teen “programs,” lets tap into the private sector to offer jobs and entertainment to keep our young people interested and active in their home neighborhood. Those initiatives deemed effective would be housed in the neighborhood but not necessarily in the old “center” model.

The center would house a new state of the art urban YMCA, membership would be based on a sliding scale with full paying memberships being the primary focus.

Paul Robeson Performing Arts Center could establish a center, complete with dance/recital space for Onondaga Dance Institute and a screen for movies. Eastwood has the Palace, the “Westcott Nation” has the Westcott Theater. South Avenue could have the Paul Robeson Performing and Visual Arts Center with assistance from Onondaga Community College and Syracuse University.

The remaining storefront establishments would get an extreme makeover. Timbuktu African Imports, Jackson’s Beauty salon, the Christian Book Store, all getting new facades. The apartments that are located above these stores can be renovated to become state-of-the-art housing units for neighborhood artists, and Jerk Hut would be expanded to include a drive-thru.

Right smack dab in the middle would be a community policing station. This would be the headquarters for Syracuse police officers that walk the beat in the commercial district giving residents and visitors the reassurance that everything’s fine. You see, capital (money) is a coward and investment dollars for businesses run away from a neighborhood whenever there’s a sense of unrest unruliness or violence.

The commercial district would get new curbing and sidewalks with ornate lighting, cobblestone crossings and street vendors who’ll sell items from seasonal hot dogs to barbequed ribs. Street improvements could be paid for partially by the federal government similar as to how Clinton Square’s redevelopment was financed.

There’s an impression out there is that the south side is full of poor black folk that don’t care, the opposite is true. The area that includes what was once a vibrant commercial district has new homeowners and people with disposable income. But most of their dollars are spent several miles away from the ‘hood.

The formal name of Southwest Community center is the Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility. Is the center still that model?

It’s time to re-evaluate our goals in “developing community.” Are these goals simply to perpetuate the status quo? Is the Southwest Community Center “model” for delivery of mandated government services outdated when the basic content of that very community it serves has changed?
Southwest Community Center’s Director Jessie Dowdell has a saying that sits on his desk, “think outside of the box.” My question to the black community, Mr. Dowdell, and Southwest Community Center is simple and direct: What happens when you become the box?
Ken Jackson spent five years Director of Development at the New York State Fair, coordinated Pan-African Village and the re-interpretation of Iroquois Village at the Fair. also 4 ½ yrs as Exec. Dir of Westside Innercity Association


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