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Street Art Aims to Mend a Torn Neighborhood [Updated With Video]

An exclusive look at graffiti legend ESPO’s “A Love Letter to Syracuse.”

We just got word that Samuel Macon and Faythe Levine have uploaded a beautiful video documenting the process of creating this piece. Check it out below. ? Ed.

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In Syracuse, New York, a hulking steel bridge divides some of city’s richest residents from some of the country’s poorest, in the infamous Near Westside. It symbolizes everything that’s gone wrong with the city, from socioeconomic segregation to crime. “The intersection is both the major gateway in and out of the city, and the biggest barrier between the wealthiest part of the city and the poorest part,” says Maarten Jacobs, director of the Near Westside Initiative.

So Jacobs’s group, working with Syracuse University’s COLAB — a program that focuses on design collaboration — hired legendary street artist Steve Powers to repaint it. In just a couple more days, A Love Letter to Syracuse will be finished; on one side, the bridge will read “Nothing to do is everything with you,” and on the other, “I paid the light bill just to see your face,” along with “Spring Comes Summer Waits” and “Fall Leaves Winter Longs.”

Powers — who’s better known by his graffiti name, ESPO (“Exterior Surface Painting Outreach”) — has long worked on reviving communities through street art, and, among other things, created a now famous project to repaint Philadelphia.

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Though the final painted words seem like whimsy, they’re actually inspired by an exhaustive research effort, involving hundreds of the neighborhood’s 5,000 residents. Powers and a team from the Near Westside Initiative talked with upwards of 400 people in the neighborhood, in five community meetings and three days of street interviews. “When we asked people what their favorite thing about Syracuse was, the most common answer was ‘nothing,'” Powers tells Co.Design, during a break from the final painting. “And there was a seventy year old man that said he only ended up here because his car broke down on the way to New York.”

But amidst that gloomy outlook, Powers detected a silver lining. “There’s a lot of love among the older people in the neighborhood, despite the violence,” he says. Many older residents simply told him, This town is what you make of it. In other words, We may have nothing, but it could be everything. And thus, “Nothing to do is everything with you.”

[Steve Powers]

“We’re trying to visualize the concerns of the community,” says Powers. “Even if it’s small or abstract like love, it can be made solid with art.” Powers points out that the bridges themselves are a potent symbol of what Syracuse once was: Massive achievements from the 19th century, built with steel from Andrew Carnegie’s plants. “We painted the new messages on the scale of the bridges, which were built when America was being built, in a prosperous time for America.”

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“Ultimately, we hope that by painting these massive barriers of steel, more people to walk under them, between downtown and the NWS,” says Jacobs. “We hope that it will show that we value every part of our city, no matter what the racial or socio-economic make up of the community is.”

[Photos by Sam Macon/Sign Painter Movie Productions, via COLAB]

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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