Beyond the Hill

Syracuse residents will use $25,000 grant to decorate space in front of City Hall

Max Mimaroglu | Contributing Photographer

The underused stretch of asphalt in front of City Hall is getting revitalized thanks to a $25,000 grant.

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For the last several decades, the space in front of Syracuse City Hall has been fairly understated. A blank stretch of asphalt framed by two narrow sidewalks, with a red “No parking” sign watching over it.

But that space hasn’t always been this way. In the past, the area leading up to the front steps of City Hall was a public plaza, a wide space for city residents to gather. A new project backed by a $25,000 grant and spearheaded by public art leaders in Syracuse wants to bring it back.

And it all starts with a little paint.

“Good public art, and vibrant public art programs, really are a reflection of the community and what it values,” said Kate Auwaerter, Syracuse’s public art coordinator. “We’re a diverse city. We’re a welcoming city. All of those things can be tied into this project.”


Mayor Ben Walsh announced in early October that Bloomberg Philanthropies had granted Syracuse $25,000 to decorate the space in front of its city hall. The grant is part of the organization’s “Asphalt Art Initiative,” which provides funding and technical support to cities to redecorate and reinvent public spaces through art.

Adapt CNY, a local nonprofit, will oversee the grant’s use alongside the Syracuse Public Art Commission and the Department of Public Works, with technical support from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

According to those familiar with the project, painting the strip in front of City Hall is the first step in a larger project — one that will seek to transform the area into a place for residents to gather, celebrate and demonstrate. The plan also seeks to add color and liveliness to the space, but to do so in a way that reflects the character and culture of Syracuse.


“We’re looking for murals that reflect our community identity, that talk about diversity, that lend a sense of vibrancy to this space in front of City Hall,” Auwaerter said. “This is a really positive step forward, to get it back into the public’s mind that this is an area for public gathering, for civic engagement, for protests, for celebration.”

Before the 1970s — when Auwaerter said the city added the parking area to the front of City Hall — the space was a raised pedestrian plaza, flanked by two large planting beds. Even in the plaza’s absence, city residents have continued to use the area for demonstrations and public gatherings.

We want to have a space that people are proud of but also one that is more vibrant, more bright and engaging than it is right now
Eric Ennis, President of Adapt CNY

The project will aim to set apart that space as safe for pedestrians and demonstrators to gather and move freely, said Michael John Heagerty, chair of SPAC. That could include physical markers, like planter boxes, to separate the plaza from the street.

“We want to have a space that people are proud of, but also one that is more vibrant, more bright and engaging than it is right now,” said Eric Ennis, president of Adapt CNY.

The city is still “fleshing out” the timeline for the project, Ennis said, but he expects significant developments by early 2022. According to Auwaerter, that could include sending out a public call for artists to submit their ideas.

Adapt CNY and SPAC won’t just seek submissions from experienced muralists, Auwaerter said. Instead, decision-makers want to focus on picking the best concept, and will then leverage Bloomberg Philanthropies to help the chosen artist scale up their design.

“It really allows emerging artists to be able to participate and throw their ideas into the ring,” she said.

Haggerty said the commission also wants public involvement in the process to go beyond selecting a public artist.

“We’re going to have people actually physically involved in being able to put brush to asphalt,” Haggerty said. “We want to create a real sense of empowerment within the community to take a leadership role for this particular grant … and create something special.”

Ennis, Auwaerter and Heagerty agreed that plans to reinvent the space in front of City Hall will continue after this project is complete.

In the future, it could include not just asphalt art, but outdoor furniture and landscaping — something more akin to the plaza that stood in its place decades ago, yet more representative of Syracuse as it exists today.

“Anyone who comes into the city to do any kind of business will have to cross through this awesome artistic space that everyone was involved in,” Heagerty said.

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