Near West Side

About Near West Side

The Near West Side features vibrant street art and dynamic personalities — from artist and teacher Bob Niedzwiecki, who spends 100 hours a week painting at the Delavan Center, to community activist Mary Alice Smothers, who organizes field trips to Washington D.C. and New York City for neighborhood kids, and Luz Maria Trilla, who engages the Latino residents in dinners and cultural events at La Casita. Though residents say crime and violence plague the area at night, they also tout the area’s potential.

Main Character

The Queen Bee

By Aline Peres Martins

Mary Alice Smothers, the coordinator for the P.E.A.C.E. Inc. Westside Family Resource Center, runs summer programs, workshops, and attends every community meeting.

The room rumbles with voices as community organizers settle into every seat in Fowler High School’s library. A representative from Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today (TNT), the citizen engagement organization that facilitates monthly meetings in each of Syracuse’s neighborhoods, stands and tells everyone to quiet down. He introduces himself as Frank Cetera, and then instructs everyone else to introduce themselves as well. Each person offers a quick hello, stating their name and the organization they represent. Then at a table in the back, a freckled, 63-year-old woman, not taller than 5 feet 2 inches, stares at her iPhone through her short, dark bangs and a pair of thick reading glasses, and breaks the pattern. Without looking away from the screen, she barely lifts one hand up in the air and says just two words in a low, husky voice, “Mary Alice.” There’s no need for her last name — Smothers — or the organization she represents — P.E.A.C.E. Inc. — because everyone in the room knows exactly who she is.

Hailing from what neighbors call “the little house of hope,” her co-workers say Mary Alice Smothers possesses the street credibility of a member from the nationwide Hispanic street gang, the Latin Kings. In fact, she says she can’t walk out of her house alone at night without one of the Kings taking notice. She is well protected. Talk about street credibility,” says Sheena Solomon, the director of the Neighborhood Initiatives at The Gifford Foundation. “You have to be in the community to get that.”

Smothers spends most of her time in the community. She’s served as the coordinator of the P.E.A.C.E. Inc. Westside Family Resource Center for 12 years. More often than not, she can be found in her office on the corner of Wyoming and Marcellus streets, just two blocks down from Skiddy Park and on the edge of the Syracuse Housing Authority developments. Even when the little sign in the window says “closed,” and she’s not there, she’s out in the neighborhood. I lay my head down here at night,” she says. “I’m here with the drug deals on the corner, the high-speed chases, kids out on the streets — I’m here.”

So, while other community organizations come and go, Smothers remains. For years we done had people come in here saying, ‘Oh, we’re gonna do this,’” she says, “But all you’re doing is getting money off the backs of these kids and thinking that these are poor people who are dumb and ignorant; illiterate. No, you’re not throwing no crumbs here. It’s not gonna happen.”

That’s why, before doing anything in the Westside, you have to check with Smothers. “She’s the queen bee,” Solomon says. “We hear the voice of the residents through her a lot. And some other people, but she’s the loudest.” While Smothers admits that some people in the neighborhood have told her to calm down, she says, “it’s not about calming down. It’s about seeing these things being done.”

Since Smothers arrived at the P.E.A.C.E. Inc. center, a lot has been done to the building and the programs she runs. Within a month of starting her position, she enlisted her stepson to paint every wall in the building a different color. Smothers doesn’t like sterile, white walls. “When people walk in here, I want them to feel like they’re walking in their home,” she says.

She also started an annual Thanksgiving dinner after she noticed people in the neighborhood spent the holiday alone. She organized field trips to New York City and Washington D.C. for neighborhood children when she realized many kids had never left the Westside. And she created a “pocket park” in front of her house to add to the neighborhood’s limited green space and to invite members of the community to spend time together.

Smothers draws inspiration from people like Ruby Bridges — the first black child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana. But this is not because she looks up to her, she says, but because she’s walked in her shoes. She was born a year before Bridges, in 1953, and wasn’t allowed into an integrated school classroom until she started seventh grade. “I sit in the classroom, and I was the only black girl in there,” Smothers says. “When I raised my hand, they would not call on me. I could sit there, and I would have to go to the bathroom so bad and I would not be allowed to go.” But her mother taught her that the way to fight injustice is to speak out. “Holding stuff like that inside will eat you up. This is why I constantly speak out when I see an injustice done,” she says.

Others have noticed this ability. She just received an award from the Human Rights Commission. And Solomon credits Smothers as the reason the Gifford Foundation and the Near Westside Initiative have been able to get the community involved with its activities such as the Multicultural Block Party, Thanksgiving Dinner, Holiday Dinner and Light Contest, Stone Soup Garden, and Community on the Move. But Smothers doesn’t care about awardsl. “I don’t need that recognition,” she says. “That stuff don’t faze me. My mother always said, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about helping others along the way.’”

Smothers’ mother instilled these values in her and her 14 brothers and sisters as they grew up in Maryland, near Washington D.C. Smothers was the middle child, and, she says her mother called her the “worrisome child.” In school, she always stood up for what she believed in. Once, she yelled at her entire class because she noticed they kept making fun of a girl who had gray hair. “I would turn around and throw it back on them,” says Mary Alice. “’I know you ain’t talking to nobody with your nappy head. At least she got hair.’”

So her mother used to sit down and teach her life lessons. And she now tries to pass along those lessons in each of “her kids” — the 5- to 18-year-olds who participate in her annual summer program each June. “I don’t care how far you get, always reach back and bring somebody with you,” she says. “Because the only way you’re going to break this cycle of poverty is by being able to lift another person.”

Pictures of her kids line the walls — performing at dance recitals, graduating from college, getting married. She runs programs for them throughout the year such as a seminar she just organized on reducing neighborhood gun violence, but she also attends their football games, soccer games, and toastmasters speeches. “I have to support them,” she says. “They need that. I done had two strokes and a heart attack. And that’s why I said, ‘God’s not done with me yet.’”

Smothers plans on retiring from her position as coordinator of the P.E.A.C.E. Inc. center next year. But because parents have told her that they will no longer enroll their kids in the programs when she’s gone, she’s thinking about starting her own non-profit. Bill Delavan, who owns the Delavan Center across the street, has offered her a space. She says she’s been “wrestling with the idea.”

But without Smothers in the community, people worry the neighborhood won’t be the same. Dick Ford, who has been teaching free music lessons to children in the Delavan Center for more than 20 years, says he has seen organizations on the Near Westside fall apart. For instance, when former chancellor of Syracuse University Nancy Cantor left, Ford says almost all the funding for the Near Westside Initiative (NWSI) left with her. Not long after, the former director of the NWSI left too.

Ford credits Smothers as the reason he considers P.E.A.C.E. Inc. the most viable organization in the area. He says that because of her, P.E.A.C.E. Inc. is here to stay. “She has activities to keep the kids engaged and not sitting on the street corners,” Ford says. And while he admits no single person can fix all the poverty and violence in the Near Westside, he admires Smothers’ dedication to the neighborhood and her focus on the individuals who reside there.  “She can save one life here and there,” he offers. And that is more than most.  


The Netherland Dairy Company

At the corner of Tully and Wyoming streets sits an old building covered in layers of colorful graffiti. Today, the vacant building's walls make up the only legal building canvas to spray paint in the city of Syracuse. But, more than a century ago, it housed one of the area's largest employers: the Netherland Dairy Company.

Building Profile

Where Graffiti is Legal

By Sai Ibrahim

A psychedelic, spray-paint dream, this former warehouse offers street artists a lawful, visual playground.

The abandoned warehouse at 215 Tully Street that once housed a series of dairy companies delivers a vibrant shout to an otherwise quiet, dismal corner of the Near Westside. The building has amassed years of wear and, along with that, various coats of color that cover almost every inch of its maroon, shale structure. The aging but colorful dinosaur is one of nearly 1,800 deserted buildings that dot Syracuse’s landscape, according to the city’s vacant property registry. It and many of the other boarded-up relics serve as a testament to Syracuse’s position in the Rust Belt’s industrial history.

But unlike its fellow ghosts of the industrial past, this building now serves a very 21st century function, one that stands in contrast to mechanized productivity. According to Kate Auwaerter, Preservation Planner and Public Art Coordinator of the City Planning Division, 215 Tully is the only site in Syracuse where graffiti art can be practiced legally.

But it took a bit of a battle to make that happen. Thomas Ehle and his brother currently own the building, and it was Ehle’s idea to designate 215 Tully — or as Ehle calls it, the Syracuse Urban Arts Project — as a canvas for this type of artwork. Ehle’s acquaintance and veteran graffiti artist, who remained anonymous, approached him about the space; the building would either remain a place for vandalism, or be transformed into a space for street art to legally occur and evolve over time. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” Ehle says. “And I’m being a little facetious there,” he says. “They’re not really devils at all. They’re accomplished artists in their own right.” He admires the skill it takes to create graffiti art, and working to legalize it in his building was complex challenge.

For years the warehouse earned negative attention, and business owners filed complaints about the building’s frequenters. This brought Auwaerter, lawyers, realtors, inspectors, economic development department members, and a few of the building’s graffiti artists together to discuss the issue. “For some people, it’s an art, and for others, it’s vandalism,” Auwaerter says. “But the sense was that if the residents were not complaining, and it was contained to this one particular area, that it would make sense to allow them to continue.”

        But before it became a cavernous, art-filled shell of a structure, it housed the business end of a milk empire. The building formerly served as headquarters for the Netherland Dairy Company. When John G. Peare of Oswego founded the company in 1914 — hiring dozens of employees to produce, package, and deliver milk to the front doors of the city’s residents — it bustled with activity before things began to turn sour. Nearly a decade later, milk wagon drivers went on strike, protesting wages and conditions, and 25 plant employees walked out.

But this wasn’t the only controversy at 215 Tully St. After about five decades of business, Crowley’s Milk Company bought the Netherland Dairy Co. in 1961. Six years later, a milkman was killed on the job after his truck — weighed down with milk — slammed into another car. Clair F. Walter, 48, was the second driver within three months to be killed en route. And nine years after these tragedies, Crowley garnered headlines for putting additives in its milk. The rest of the warehouse’s history — from Crowley’s ownership to its neglected present-day status — jumps from one realtor to another.

        Currently, the building is on the market. A “for sale” sign bears JSE Associates’ company name. There have been interested parties, says coordinator of the P.E.A.C.E. Inc. Westside Family Resource Center Mary Alice Smothers, but none with the ability to take on such a large project. Smothers refers to one interested party as the “great white hope” who came to the Westside to save the neighborhood and expressed an interest in the building. What this woman didn’t understand, Smothers adds, was the price it would take to make a change. “Gifford [foundation] did a feasibility study on it,” Smothers says. “She ain’t got enough money to fix that building. She’s going to do all this?”

So the decrepit century-old factory lives in limbo, collecting dust and fresh coats of spray paint on its walls. A caricature of a cow — with disturbingly erect utters — painted on its everlasting concrete interior serves as the only reminder of the building’s colorful past.



By Aline Peres Martins

Timeline loading graphic
Canal-side Lots Attract Industry

The state legislature erects the first solar salt evaporation fields for mass-producing salt, in what is today the Near West Side. In addition, the area’s canal-side lots attract lumber yards, warehouses, and mills.

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Salt Production Begins

Salt production begins on the Near Westside and helps define the neighborhood’s industrial character. The rapid increase of salt production in this area leads to Syracuse’s nickname: “Salt City.”

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City Welcomes a Second Wave of Immigrants

The increase in factory jobs attracts a second wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Italy flock to the area.

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Nickname Endures Despite Industry’s End

Salt production ends in the Syracuse area. Yet, the nickname “Salt City” remains, leading people to believe the city has salt mines, although according to the Onondaga Historical Association this is nothing more than a common myth.

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Neighborhood Embraces its Diversity

More than 40 percent of the household heads in the neighborhood are foreign-born. Taverns and churches retain specific ethnicities such as The Welcome Inn on Tully Street — a Ukrainian staple. Diversity remains a defining characteristic of the neighborhood.

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Local Institutions Join to Revitalize Neighborhood

The Near Westside Initiative spearheads renovations of the 100-year-old, four-story Lincoln Supply Warehouse to house La Casita, Central New York Care Collective, and loft apartments. NWSI was formed in 2006 as a collaboration with Syracuse University, the Gifford Foundation, Syracuse Center of Excellence, SU’s School of Architecture, area residents, and civic leaders. It aims to revitalize the area through the power of art, technology, innovation and community engagement.

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The Things She Carried

By Aline Peres Martins

A pair of white gloves on display in La Casita Cultural Center holds memories of one community member’s move from Puerto Rico to Syracuse.

In May 2016, with just two suitcases in hand, Luz-Maria Trilla, 57, better known as Luma, boarded a one-way flight from Puerto Rico to upstate New York. Now, Trilla stands in the open space of La Casita — a Syracuse University-led community project in the Lincoln Supply Company building — next to a wall of pictures and family artifacts from Syracuse’s Latino community. As she stares at a pair of pearl-white gloves encased in a glass box on the wall, she shares details about her decision to leave her warm, sunny, Caribbean hometown for Syracuse. Trilla, standing no taller than 5 feet, with long red hair down to her waist, smiles, bright-eyed as she remembers her excitement for the move.

Then her face loses the vibrant smile and her bright demeanor fades as she continues the story of her journey. On January 7, 2016, Trilla was living in San Juan when the person closest to her — her mother, Luz Carazo — passed away. Her mother had struggled with Alzheimer’s Disease, and for 10 years, Trilla’s main job was to take care of her as her memory began to unravel. Trilla says they had grown very close.

So, last January, after her mother died, with no remaining family, no children, and no job, she decided to move. “There was nothing left in Puerto Rico holding me back,” Trilla says, “And the economic situation in Puerto Rico is very bad right now.” Since her best friend, Rita Paniagua, the director of La Liga, the Spanish Action League, lives in Syracuse, Trilla decided it was the place for her. She was excited to join her friend and become part of the Latino community in Syracuse that Paniagua had told her all about. But, she was worried that two suitcases lacked the space to accommodate her family’s history.

Still, she made space for that small pair of pearl-white gloves, adorned with an intricate pattern of shining beads. Her mother wore them the day she married Trilla’s father, Emilio Trilla, in San Juan in 1959. “The memories of my mom,” Trilla says, “there’s no price attached to them.” Trilla’s family includes members who played important roles in Puerto Rico’s history. For example, her great uncle on her father’s side was Jesus Piñero, the only native Puerto Rican ever to have been appointed governor of Puerto Rico by the U.S. government. Puerto Ricans only began electing their own governors in 1948, when Piñero left office.

But, despite that legacy and the objects and mementoes attached to her family’s history, when she moved to the U.S. last spring, she had to leave most of her things behind. So, when sifting through all the objects she could bring with her, she decided to pick what her mom treasured most. “I was honoring my mom’s tradition of collecting things,” Trilla says. “So, I made a selection of things that I knew were important to her, and to me.”

After the move, she planned to make an album of her mother’s memories, including pictures of Trilla’s childhood, important objects, and notes. But two weeks after she arrived in Syracuse, she landed a job as the programming coordinator at La Casita. When she realized La Casita was organizing a display of objects representing the Latino community in Syracuse, she decided to put her mother’s wedding gloves, and the wedding pictures that accompany them, up on the wall.

And when she looks at the wall, she enjoys seeing her family object alongside those from people she has met in the Latino community who helped her adjust and feel at home. “This is the first time I’ve moved out of Puerto Rico, and it’s really hard for me, but the people I’ve met have given me a different community in Syracuse,” she says. She also enjoys sharing her mother’s memories with everyone who visits La Casita. “This is my album,” Trilla says. “I don’t know where I’m leaving these stories, but, like this, I can share them with you.”

Three Questions

The Education Advocate

By Aline Peres Martins

Jesus Gonzalez grew up on the Near Westside and remembers a time when he could sleep with his windows open. But he believes activities for youth and educational opportunities would help the neighborhood.

Since 1970, when his family moved to Syracuse from Puerto Rico, Jesus Gonzalez has lived in the Near Westside. His family relocated when he was 2 years old. Now, at 49 years old, he is disabled and lives in a Syracuse Housing Authority apartment on the corner of Tully and Wyoming streets. He doesn’t have a full-time job, but you can usually find him translating at the P.E.A.C.E. Inc. Westside Family Resource Center, helping people apply for public assistance programs, making sure neighborhood kids are in school, or cooking up some seafood and tostones (fried plantains), which he delivers to Near Westside residents for $10. He graduated from Fowler High School at 21 and credits his mother with that achievement. "My mother always was there pushing me and telling me to focus and get out of the streets because you're going to go to jail if you stay in the streets," he says. Now, Gonzalez brings his mother’s philosophy to those in his Westside community.  

How would you describe this block?

My block? Oh, it’s seen a lot of changes — lot of clean up. And more help in housing [Syracuse Housing Authority]. Years ago, housing used to be dependable, but now they’re kind of slow. Here in the Westside, we’re in the center of the Westside, so I call it the heart of the Westside. You’re getting blacks, Puerto Ricans, whites. You know, it’s a lot of mix. Now you got Africans moving into housing, you’ve got white people moving in.
My block, the area where I lived, was always quiet. You know what I mean? If you go down to the park, that’s the part that’s not good.

What’s your favorite memory here?

A good time? I don’t know. A good time was when my son was born. That was the best for me. In 1988 and 1989, it was good times. When you could go out. Like ‘82, ‘83, ‘84, you could sleep with your windows open. You know? No problems.

What future do you see for this block?

In the future? Nowhere. Because people don’t help. And you ask people for help, and they don’t help you. But I think, to help the neighborhood around here, you have to try to get a kids program. It’s not just 15 or 14 or 16 years old. At least all the way to 21, and you get all those kids out of the streets. Because they learn what they see. But I think it would be good to bring in a GED close to home. You got even older people that want to do a GED. I got people like 26, even 50. And before, they had it in housing, but they took it away. I mean, they want to help, help, help, but how are you gonna educate somebody if you’re not helping them?
It’s a lot of things they could do here. Like the Casita is there. I know a couple years ago, they wanted to buy the housing. But they have to understand, the housing is for people with low income. Now if SU takes over, it’s gonna be high. And then they want to rent it to the students. O.K., but they’re gonna charge the students a lot of money. They don’t think about that. They only think about making money. There’s a lot of things they could do in the Westside.


10,000 Hours of Painting

By Sai Ibrahim

Demographic Data








Median Age


Median Household Income


% Below Poverty Line
All data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, broken down according to the census tract in which the block is located.