What Urban Renewal Didn’t Destroy: Que Reunion Recalls the 15th Ward


They were regal as they entered the University Sheraton for their semi-annual “Que” Reunion, celebrating a time in Syracuse where you didn’t have to lock your doors and everyone knew everyone. The lobby was abuzz with greetings, hugs and waxing nostalgic about days long past but never forgotten.

When listening to people, including my own parents, talk about the City of Syracuse in the 1950s and beyond recall a time when the black community of Syracuse was a village. The Syracuse black population was an eclectic mixture either coming from the same town in Alabama, Georgia, or some other southern state to families who’s history date back so far that the rescued slave “Jerry Henry” could be conversation at their dinner table.

In 1950, 92.8 percent of Syracuse’s black community was housed in three census tracts – 32, 33 and 42. The community was small yet concentrated in what was known as the 15th Ward. That area, now home to Upstate University Hospital, various parking garages, highways and an expanding Syracuse University, was once a vibrant black community.

A commercial district catered not only to black residents but also to the variety of ethnic groups that lived side-by-side, sharing a space once called Jew Town. The area included Almond Street, Harrison Street, State Street, Madison Street, East Washington Street, East Fayette Street, and other streets that no longer exist – like Renwick Place.

Stores like Schor’s Market on Townsend Street, and later Liberty Market in the East Genesee Street business district, catered to a population that preferred Alaga sugar cane syrup over maple syrup, or Washington Brand Corn Meal instead of the standard northern style baking products and foods. Harvey’s Drug Store carried all the black magazines and newspapers and “down home” ingredients all in consideration of his customers. At a time when black hair care products were only sold in special places, Harvey’s was one of those places.

Those who grew up in Syracuse attended Washington Irving School, which now houses the city school district’s offices, and Madison School, now a condo development. The area surrounded by Hutchings Psychiatric Center – high-rises and future commerce – once housed hundreds of black families in wooden houses.

The Genesee Grand’s predecessor was the Mohawk Motor Lodge; the corner of East Genesee Street and Irving Avenue – now Phoebe’s – was not always a Garden Café.

BEYOND GEOGRAPHIC BOUNDARIES

For those who grew up in the area, ties extended far beyond the geographic confines of any given ward or election district. What the bulldozers didn’t destroy was the feeling of hope, optimism, hard work and basic principles of respect. Not a single person interviewed talked about not having things or being poor or not having a sense of pride in who they are. The Que Reunion represents remembrances of a neighborhood that still refuses to die.

Maurell English opened the English Inn at 447 Hawley Ave. in 1965.”I had Syracuse University students coming down four or five days a week, the beer bus,” he said. “Four years later Dr. King got killed and I saw a change. Everything changed. When I first opened up Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Dave Bing they all patronized me. I had groups come from all over the state.”

Clarence Dunham, the former Onondaga County Legislator who represented the south side for a generation, beams when he reflects on the efforts that culminated with last weekend’s event.
“There are seven of us, there were 12 of us but we’ve lost a few due to death and retirement,” Dunham said. “Eugene ‘Moon’ Williams, John Clair – all those guys from the old neighborhood the old 15th ward we called Jew Town – they all got together in 1975 back in Moon’s basement and said ‘Let’s have a picnic’ and out of the picnic came this reunion. So they’ve been doing this every two years for 32 years. We’ve moved into giving scholarships to high school graduates going to collage. We’re giving out 5,000 this year.”
Dunham continues, “Urban Renewal came along and destroyed our neighborhood. All the blacks and majority of Jews lived together there were a mixture or Italians, Irish and other ethnic groups. Back in the 1930’s and 40’s our neighborhood was very small so everybody knew everybody – every family knew every family.”

In between greetings, hugs and hellos, retired nurse and tenant leader Gladys Smith was looking to see if any old friends had arrived.
“I lived right where Upstate is,” she said. “Then when I got married I moved to Renwick Place.” After living in various apartments in the area Smith settled on the city’s west side. Gladys has worked to improve conditions in public housing through her leadership of tenants.

LIFE IN THE 1940S

Que Reunion honoree Willard Waller founded Char-Wall’s Restaurants – home of the famous steak sandwich and Texas hot sausages. At age 95, he reminisces about life in Syracuse in the 1940s.

“I came here from Georgia in 1940,” he said. “I have to give Syracuse credit we’ve come a long way. We used to say that if you couldn’t make it here you couldn’t make it anywhere. None of us was past Adams Street heading south. It was 1957 Chancellor Tolley made a speech on radio one Saturday evening to the people of Syracuse. He said, ‘It’s time to clean up the University’s front yard.’ That’s when urban renewal came in. I know in 1960 I was living on Renwick Place. After that I moved up to Genesee Park Drive.”
Waller continued to share his memories.
“I retired from my job 2nd day of August 1968,” he said. “The 22nd of September I opened up Char-Walls Restaurant. Under Harvey’s Drug Store I was in the basement. I came to Syracuse in 1940 they were just moving the Greyhound from Lackawanna. I asked them where the colored folk were they said up on East Washington, I saw the 800 Club on Irving Ave. I got to Syracuse [at] 12:00 Saturday night went to work Monday morning and I stayed in the same business – construction – 38 years in there.”
At one time Char-Walls Restaurants were on South Avenue and Crowley Street and other locations in the black community.

“Anybody could cook meat but you had to have something to sell it,” Waller remembered. “I stared to worry about how I was going to season it. So I’m layin’ awake at night planning how I was going to make this sauce. Anybody can cook meat but that sauce! I wanted to do something in life. The lord has blessed me. You gotta love people and you gotta love yourself. Through life we all have problems and wanna blame everybody else … fault yourself.”

LONG-TIME SYRACUSANS

The second Que Reunion honoree, Lorraine Merrick, served as deputy superintendent of Syracuse City Schools. The native Syracusan speaks from a perspective of a long- time Syracuse family.

“We’re an old Syracuse family,” she said. “The Wells family has been here for at least 150 years in Syracuse. Sometime we think about leaving but there’s something about Syracuse. The 15th Ward was a community. People who didn’t know the 15th Ward have different perceptions about what the 15th Ward was all about.”

Merrick continues, “It was a very diverse community. A real community, extended family didn’t necessarily have to be an aunt or an uncle. It could be a next-door neighbor. Families worked together. I lived on Almond Street right where the garage they just tore down was. It’s unfortunate that young people can’t experience the things we had. There was Dunbar Center, Huntington, Father Brady Center. If everybody on the block didn’t have a bike we all shared them. We have to help our young people look at what they can do with their leisure time.”

Merrick also emphasized the need for young people to make the right choices so they can become good citizens and role models for their children. “We come back to the Que Reunion because we remember the feeling of community,” she said.

And helping young people is exactly what the Que Reunion in 2007 accomplished by awarding five scholarships of $1,000 each to area high school graduates entering college. This year’s winners are: Anthony Brown, Delaware College of Art & Design; Reva Culpher, Cornell University; Raymond Blackwell, Onondaga Community College; Tamisha Wright, Mohawk Valley College; and Stephen Alleyne, Colgate University.

There are future plans to possibly merge with a group of native Syracusans that have relocated to Atlanta. Led by Theresa Hightower, the group has harnessed the energy of a generation that, like their parents, had to relocate from “Home” for jobs and opportunity.

As Waller exchanges stories with fellow “Que” honoree Lorraine Merrick he proclaimed, “Syracuse have come a long ways from those days. They used to tell us ‘Well how long you been here?’ They’d say, ‘Once you drink Skaneateles water you may leave but you’re gonna come back.'”

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Photo Caption: Clarence “Junie” Dunham, Gladys Smith, Calvin Hightower and Sandra (Harlow) Hightower gather for The Que Reunion, a semi-annual event celebrating Syracuse’s legendary 15th Ward.