Artist's 'Love Letter' to Struggling Neighborhood

Nonprofit hopes to boost revival with a bold message.

October 14, 2010, 1:33 PM

Oct. 15, 2010— -- Sixteen-year-old Shavonna Sullivan runs across three lanes of highway, hurdles over a steel railing and safely lands feet-first on a patch of grass. As she walks to cross the next three lanes, waiting for a gap in traffic, and head home, Sullivan looks up in confusion at the train bridge above her.

The words, "Nothing to do is everything with you," sit brightly painted in orange lettering against the black background of one of two bridges that connect the Armory Square district, in the heart of downtown Syracuse, N.Y., with the area known as the Westside.

"I don't really get it," she said.

Not everyone does, but the artist who painted the letters wanted to send a message to the residents of Syracuse.

Stephen Powers, the creator of the hip lettering, was hired by Syracuse's Near Westside Initiative -- a nonprofit launched three years ago that seeks to bring art and culture into the Westside. His goal: to revamp the graffiti-laden bridges that run over West Fayette Street and West Street.

While the Armory Square district is vibrant and booming with businesses and affluent residents, the Westside is full of weathered houses, abandoned buildings, and less than well-off residents.

"The goal of the Near Westside Initiative is to revitalize that part of the city that's adjacent to downtown," said Maarten Jacobs, director of the Near Westside Initiative. "We feel that the neighborhood has suffered for so long that it's lost population, and there's so much vacant property."

Jacobs said the Initiative offers access to housing and employment to Westside residents. The organization has also collaborated with Syracuse University to utilize bus routes that go through the neighborhood and revitalize the area.

But even with bus routes into the area and attractions such as two arts centers -- the Delavan Center and Gallery, and the Redhouse -- Jacobs said the stigma of the Westside still lingers. Few people from the Westside cross over to downtown and people who visit downtown rarely walk the few blocks over to the Westside.

"The stigma of the neighborhood is that it's a dangerous neighborhood, a place where, really, people from the outside are hesitant to come," said Isaac Rothwell, a neighborhood resident and a member of the Westside Arts Council.

So to encourage a merger, Jacobs and his board of directors from the Initiative decided to revamp the barrier between the two parts of town.

Powers said he was inspired by the phrase when he heard from dozens of young people from the Westside complaining that there was nothing to do in Syracuse.

Powers knocked door-to-door in the Westside and held community meetings to give people the opportunity to voice their opinion about Syracuse and their neighborhoods.

He says he found that many of the people he talked to love Syracuse but thought there was nothing to do in the city. And the one thing they hated the most was the long winters.

Messages on Bridges

So Powers came up with four messages to paint on the bridges:

"Spring comes, summer waits, fall leaves, winter longs."

"I paid the light bill just to see your face."

"Now that we are here, nowhere else matters."

And, "Nothing to do is everything with you."

The last, Powers said, has gotten the most response.

"They're not meant to be sentimental; they're not Hallmark cards," Powers told "It could mean a variety of things and it's not to be taken in any particular meaning. The fundamental way is: As long as we have each other, we don't need anything else. We have everything as long as we have each other."

After a year of planning and almost a month of painting, the Syracuse project finished in September.

"I guess it means some people have nothing to do here," said Pete McAllister, 51, Syracuse. "No work makes things go slow here," he said as he sat on a bench located beneath the bridge.

Quincy Sharper, who works in the Armory Square parking lot, located beneath the bridge, says people stop to take pictures all the time. "I was trying to figure out what it means," he said "I just like it. It makes it look better."

To Powers, the bridges were a natural canvas for his work. As a former graffiti artist in New York City and the Philadelphia area, Powers said he prefers bridge painting.

"They're train bridges," Powers said. "They're beautiful, they're monumental, and they connect Syracuse to the rest of the world. And just by painting the bridge and putting some primer on the bridge, we extend the life of it—just like we hope to extend the life of Syracuse."

A year ago, Powers worked on a similar project in Philadelphia called "A Love Letter for You," with art displayed on buildings and bridge surfaces. Similar to the goal in Syracuse, Powers aimed to give the city a new persona by turning areas that once seemed unkempt into beautiful works of art.

Shavonna Sullivan lives and goes to school on the Westside of Syracuse. She says, for the most part, she doesn't cross the train bridges to go downtown. Sullivan says she doesn't know anybody who lives there, nor does she have a reason to hang out outside of her neighborhood, but now she'll consider walking under the bridge more often.

"I like it," Sullivan says as she continued to walk home underneath the bridge. "It's something different for Syracuse. They usually spray paint up there. But they actually put something that looks nice." contributor Sierra Jiminez is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Syracuse, N.Y.

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