By Eric King
With a home healthcare non-profit, a thriving salon, and a knack for bringing in business to the community, Michael DeSalvo plays a key role in the life of Hawley-Green.
At the Harrison Center next to All Saints Parish in South Syracuse, fluorescent lights on the low ceiling cast a sterile glow on the white dry-wall and cinder block-basement. Folding tables, chairs, and a buffet of vegan food attended by volunteers in chef’s whites fill the space. People share exclamations about the meal being served. “Have you tried the curry soup?” an older woman wearing a pink “pussy” hat asks as she wanders around the room. The crowd of mainly gray haired diners easily easily boasts an average age of 60.
A line builds at the door. But the people aren’t trying to get in — they are headed out. But they also want to talk to Michael DeSalvo, who just finished another successful fundraiser dinner for the Friends of Dorothy House, his home-based service that provides end-of-life care for people with AIDS. At tonight’s dinner, the exiting guests feel more like a church congregation leaving a service and waiting for their turn to chat with the priest and earn his blessing. At 58, DeSalvo, totally bald and goateed, towers over the grandmas that shuffle up to him to say goodbye, leaning over to hug them, his eyes expanding with interest as they share the details of their lives. The comments and the questions come at DeSalvo in rapid fire: I want to do a fundraiser for so-and-so’s liver surgery. Can you draw me a map so I know how to get back here? What is the recipe for the roasted beets? A woman in a jean jacket asks him, “Were you at the march?” It’s late January, just three days after the Women’s March on Washington. “I didn’t go to the march because we cooked. So, I did my part here,” he says. His husband, a chef who caters the fundraisers, cooked for 200 people. 300 showed up. DeSalvo, who is a Catholic worker, tells her, “Everybody got fed, and then we had like six pieces of chicken left over for the people that helped us cook. It was loaves and fishes!”
His home at 212 Wayne St. in Hawley Green works with Hospice of Central New York home care, medical care, and nurse visits, and they depend on donations from the community and fundraisers like these. He and his husband Nick Orth have cared for more than 40 people with AIDS, with some becoming healthy enough under their care to leave. But the Friends of Dorothy House serves as just one of their community efforts. He is a perpetual fixture in the activism and peace movements in Syracuse, members of which make up the majority of the dinner patrons. DeSalvo and Orth provide housing and support for the people who protest the use of military drones at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base and visit them when they are arrested. They also cook and deliver food to charities in Syracuse that help people living in poverty.
DeSalvo says his career in activism and service started in 1986 when he began working with Jail Ministry at a group of Central New York prisons. The first person DeSalvo visited in prison was HIV-positive. In fact, DeSalvo was one of the first people to start HIV support group in prisons. “I was the only one willing to go in and sit with the dying,” he says. DeSalvo describes the conditions as inhumane. “There were points where they were chained to the beds,” he says. After that, he dedicated himself to advocating for people with HIV. “It kind of put me on my path because he came out to me right away that he was positive, and what was going on, how people were being treated,” he says.
A few years later, in 1992, DeSalvo and Orth moved into the house on Wayne Street. Two weeks after moving in, a friend of his asked if he would cut someone’s hair who was living with AIDS and very sick. That friend was Michael Cassler. He lives on Gertrude Street in Hawley-Green, and he used to volunteer in the house. He considers Michael and Nick family. “I was taking care of a friend who was dying. I was basically going to work, going to his house to take care of him, going to my house to take care of stuff, then going to a part-time job,” Cassler says. “I was kind of burned out. It was my first close experience dealing with someone with HIV and AIDS on a personal level.” When DeSalvo arrived at the house, he saw how dire the man’s situation had become. “I saw all the rotting food. He was filthy, ” DeSalvo says. He offered to take the sick man home with him. He said yes, and moved in three weeks later. “So, shit now I have to figure this out,” DeSalvo recalls. “It just was not an ideal thing to do when you just move in with somebody. And the house was worn down, but we did it.”
DeSalvo and Orth have cared for people living with AIDS ever since, regardless of race or religion, free of charge. “Almost anyone can come to our house and be O.K.,” DeSalvo says. He remembers when they started the service in the early ‘90s, they were housing everyone from poor people of color to well known, affluent white people who had lost everything because of HIV. “We thought, this is a neighborhood where it was diverse enough that almost anybody could come, so we liked that about it,” he says, referring to that time as “the days of the dancers and the lawyers” and noting that those days have faded. Now, in 2017, people who have the financial and personal stability to get treatment and take their medicines are doing well independently. “Our house has really changed,” he says.
Their 25 years of service has delivered many unexpected gifts and head-scratching coincidences. For example, when their first guest died, someone showed up unexpectedly to pay his respects. When DeSalvo opened the door, he recognized the first person he had visited in prison. The former inmate and the deceased were friends. Then, four years later, the first person Michael visited in prison would die in his arms.
When he’s not moonlighting as a hospice manager and HIV/AIDS awareness advocate, DeSalvo runs Hairanoia, his salon at 101 Green St. in the Hawley-Green neighborhood. He went to beauty school after growing up on the North Side. “I’m not a transplant,” he says. “I had friends in the neighborhood growing up.” With his home, charity, and business in a two-block radius, DeSalvo demonstrates a tangible investment in the area. But his involvement in the neighborhood doesn’t stop at activism or service; it extends to advocacy for his neighborhood and its businesses. In fact, Hairanoia sits at the center of a commerce bloom in the rapidly revitalizing Hawley Green. In the past eight years, DeSalvo has brought three new businesses to the corner. Laura Serway and Cindy Seymour of Laci’s Tapas bar, located directly across the street at 304 Hawley Ave., moved into the space in 2010 because they knew DeSalvo. “I knew Laura for years and years,” DeSalvo says, adding that she said she wanted to be across from him because he’s “a good anchor.’” But “magnet” more accurately reflects his ability to draw businesses and new residents to the area. “I love connecting people,” he says.
Across from Hairanoia sits Syracuse Soapworks, owned by Rick Reina, who moved his business into the space two years ago after DeSalvo hinted to him that the camera store at 226 Hawley Ave. was about to close. “When the camera guy retired I said, ‘Don’t put it on the market. Let me call a couple people,’” DeSalvo says. “I called the Soapworks guys. They were there in an hour.” Reina credits DeSalvo with much of the neighborhood’s improvement. “He’s very outgoing. I think he was one of the pioneers down here,” Reina says. “The neighborhood was still in pretty rough shape when he came down here.”
Then there’s Thanos Import Market, which moved in next door to Hairanoia last summer after DeSalvo told Joe Carni, a client of his and Thanos’ general manager, that the wine shop next door was leaving, and a space was opening up. Next door to Soapworks on Hawley Avenue is The Bear Garden, where Willard Doswell, an event manager, and Joe Downing, an associate professor at Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music, live and put on cabarets throughout the year for charity causes. Proximity to DeSalvo and his activities sold them on a new home on that block. “We’re very close friends with them, and they wanted to come be in the neighborhood with us,” DeSalvo says.
Before DeSalvo bought Hairanoia in March of 2000, it was an adult video and book store, a place where people bought crack and prostitutes worked out of the back. He tells stories of seeing people in the neighborhood who would walk almost to the corner but then turn around and walk back because they were too scared to go any further. “I came in, and this corner was like abandoned,” DeSalvo recalls, adding that the blight meant few people wanted to live in the neighborhood. “It was pretty bad around this spot. Then I did my thing, and I’m a networker.” Now his salon serves as a visual welcome mat with a bright yellow exterior and well-maintained planter boxes on all the windows. A hand-laid, mosaic tile floor greets patrons in the salon waiting area, which features a huge black-leather sofa, a coffee table filled with foot-high stacks of magazines, a pastry case, a coffee maker, and a humidifier. Photos on the wall show the building’s original use as a pharmacy, but DeSalvo insisted on keeping the original architectural elements (tin ceiling; commanding crown, door, and shoe moldings; light fixtures), which add to the salon’s charm.
DeSalvo’s work also played a role in developing Hawley-Green’s identity as a LGBTQ neighborhood — even though he never saw it as such and pushes back against what he calls “gay gentrification.” Driving through Hawley Green, a newcomer sees rainbow flags that pepper houses, windows, and porches. The owners of Laci’s, Soapworks, and The Bear Garden all identify as gay or lesbian. DeSalvo says gays and lesbians began moving into the area between around 1992 and 1997, and the calls for it to be a gay neighborhood began at that time. “But early on, it was weird, because people didn’t feel like being called ‘the gay neighborhood,’” he says. Since he had lived there for his whole life, he knew the residents of color, the interracial couples, and the diversity of the community, and he had witnessed what happened when gay people came into and gentrified neighborhoods, pushing out people of color and poor people. “I did not want to see that. It was going to be gay gentrification,” he says. And, as Michael points out, the neighborhood could never truly gentrify because of the multiple services and programs such as subsidized housing in the immediate area.
That’s why, when the Syracuse Post Standard published an article that dubbed Hawley Green the “gay neighborhood,” DeSalvo felt frustration and confusion. “They were coming in with the sense of ‘we own this neighborhood now,’” he says. DeSalvo wrote an editorial for the Post Standard countering the idea of labeling the neighborhood, saying that LGBTQ people belong anywhere they want to be, and that Hawley Green wasn’t a gay neighborhood, rather a diverse neighborhood. “If you want to promote the neighborhood, then promote it on the dog-groomer and the dry cleaner, and that it’s close to the university, close to the hospitals. Promote it on that stuff,” he says. He remembers going to a block party during the “gayborhood movement” and being shocked at how white it was. “Where are the people of color? Since when is it only white people,” he asked the neighbors in attendance.
DeSalvo knew that the neighborhood’s strength resided in its diversity. He agreed that the neighborhood struggled with crime and that the people of color and the poor faced considerable challenges, but he thought the new residents were mishandling these issues. “It would just be the white people just bitching at the people,” he says. “Build a relationship with them! The very people you were struggling with are the very people you should be inviting to your party because they’d know you as something other than not being kinder to them.” He says there are still people in the neighborhood who don’t talk to him because of his outspokenness on this issue. He and his husband were not invited to the next block party. “People wouldn’t invite us to things, so I just went to things whether I was invited or not,” he says. “I didn’t give a shit. This is my neighborhood, our neighborhood, and the idea that certain people have power or ownership of it isn’t good.”
And that wasn’t the only time in his history with the neighborhood that he waded into controversy in an effort to strengthen the community. In 2013, the Samaritan Center of Syracuse, which serves meals to those in need, tried to move its operation to the corner of James and Catherine streets, just two blocks north of his salon. “I hated the model,” he says. “It’s like the big-box Walmart-style of soup kitchen, and I think smaller is better.” His wanted the organization to break up their services, add satellite locations, and utilize churches and kitchens on each side of town to make it more accessible. Spreading the outreach seemd key to DeSalvo, who pointed out that those in charge of the decision resided far from the proposed location. “No one on their board lived in the city,” he says. “They were all wealthy, living in the suburbs.” When Michael called their offices, he asked the man on the other end of the line, “Could you put something like this in Dewitt without any dialogue in the neighborhood?” The board member replied, “We don’t look at you as a neighborhood because most people rent.” Then DeSalvo recognized the board member was — they had knew each other as kids — and prodded, “You grew up on the North Side. Why’d you leave? Too tough? Not white enough? Wanted a better school district for you kids?” He asked the board member, “Why are your kids more important than the kids in this neighborhood?”
Other business owners and Hawley-Green residents organized against the the proposed new kitchen. The owners of Laci’s even hired a lawyer and hosted a town-hall meeting that attracted about 40 neighbors who gathered to voice concerns to Samaritan Center board members. “They never expected us to be able to organize the way they did,” DeSalvo says. “And we did organize, and they didn’t come. They were very bitter.” At the meeting, DeSalvo argued that there wasn’t going to be a balance between services in the neighborhood such as federal halfway houses, subsidized housing, and the Syracuse Behavioral Center. He also pointed out that dumping more services into a neighborhood saturated with programs for the poor, addicts, and mentally ill would cause businesses and other community anchors to leave. “The kids in our neighborhood need something other than more poverty,” he says. “They need to see people working, they need to see people picking up litter, painting their building and going to work.”
DeSalvo is critical of organizations that put the neighborhood in jeopardy, but he also takes on individuals — particularly absentee landlords. A few years after opening his salon, DeSalvo began having problems with the people living and hanging around the apartments across from him on Catherine Street. He worried the building was evolving into a drug-dealing and prostitution hub and about the violence and high arrest-rates that followed. DeSalvo blamed slumlords (not tenants) who bought cheap property, ran it into the ground, and then demonstrated no concern for the property or the community. He threatened to take the landlord to court if he didn’t remedy the situation by putting up wiring in front of the building. “What would happen is people would be hanging out up front, then they’d be selling drugs, then they’d be fighting, and then prostitutes would come along,” he says. DeSalvo reached his breaking point when he witnessed one prostitute stab two men in front of the building, and then saw the two men retaliate by hitting her with a brick. “This is where little kids are around,” he adds. When DeSalvo knew there were enough arrests in the building to prompt a nuisance abatement, which forces the property owner to address the problem. WIth that, DeSalvo successfully pressured the landlord to reduce the crime in front of his building.
Although DeSalvo demonstrates a determination and passion in his protection and support of the neighborhood, he arrived here by happenstance. He bought his home, what became the Friends of Dorothy House, from an older Italian woman he knew from the block. “She kept asking me to buy her house,” he remembers. When DeSalvo divorced from his first spouse, he was looking to move. So he called and asked the woman if she still was looking for a buyer. The woman had signed a purchase offer to her grandson, but reversed course and sold it to DeSalvo instead. “She really wanted me to buy the house. And it was weird — her husband’s name was Giuseppe Joseph — and she would say, ‘Oh, I prayed to St. Joseph every day that you would buy my house.’” As DeSalvo points out, St. Joseph is also patron saint of the Catholic worker. “I just think it had nothing to do with me. The house picked me. The universe picked me. It was just going to happen.”