Arts of Assisi

Franciscan north side project expands horizon

By luke eggleston / sun staff writer

What exactly is a “collaboratory?”

Franciscan Collaborative Ministries (FCM) hopes this word will become as common in describing the north side of Syracuse as a phrase such as “run down” is now.

New eras demand new language and the Franciscans on the north side are envisioning a new dawn for that area.

The “North Side Collaboratory” is the brainchild of new Franciscan Collaborative Ministries members Dominic Robinson and Maarten Jacobs. It is a leadership model designed to facilitate the interests of the broad spectrum of institutions and individuals who have a stake in the north side.

Since the invitation from Bishop James Moynihan to expand their presence on the north side, the Franciscans have focused heavily on addressing the basic needs of people: food, shelter, healthcare.

The friars have bigger plans, however. Their vision includes a renaissance of sorts for the neighborhood.

Franciscan Father Canice Connors said that Robinson and Jacobs were brought on board to help create novel ways to help north siders shed the culture of poverty.

“We were looking for ways that we might reverse the cycle of poverty. So we brought them in to look at how we might collaborate with others in the city who also want to work with us to change the cycle of poverty,” Father Canice said.

Robinson and Jacobs recently moved to Syracuse and happened to acquire apartments next to one another. During their first few months in Central New York, they became fast friends. Both had startlingly similar backgrounds and training in social work.

In a document penned by Robinson, the “North Side Collaboratory” is described as a “convening place for community stakeholders.”

“The mission of the collaboratory is to assemble citizens, organizations, businesses and institutions to identify mutual interests and engage in collaborative projects that benefit the north side of Syracuse,” Robinson wrote.

Each member’s investment is based on the resources at his or her disposal. Le Moyne College, for instance, pledged a think tank, which advises and conducts research for FCM’s operation. Meanwhile, north side barbershop owner Curtis Levy, who has limited resources at his disposal, commits time and enthusiasm.

Among the larger community members who are already committed or are interested in participating are St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center, the North Salina Business Association, the Northeast Holly Development Association, SUNY-ESF, Home Headquarters, Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today, Metropolitan Development Association, 40 Below and Kennedy Hancock Realty.

Jacobs and Robinson (the son of Syracuse University football coach Greg Robinson) are expanding the scope of the project on the north side.

“We’re trying to make the shift from addressing basic needs to a holistic approach in the community,” said Jacobs, who attends Holy Cross Church in DeWitt where his wife, Andrea, is the youth minister.

The rising sun is an appropriate metaphor describing what the Franciscans are attempting to do, but a kaleidoscope could also describe the diversity of the community. Vietnamese immigrants and their children are a significant presence on the north side alongside the significant percentages of whites and blacks. Meanwhile, there is a broad spectrum in terms of economic entities. St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center, for instance, is one of the largest employers in Central New York. On the other end of the seesaw, a crackhouse, which has been raided by city police three times this year, sits on the far end of a street across from the Assisi Center.

Jacobs and Robinson envision each element of the north side as an agent for revitalizing the community. The various projects engineered by the pair, as well as FCM in general, contain a strong multicultural current.

A standard procedure for any social worker is going into the community and discussing with its members what they want and what they need. Initially, Robinson and Jacobs planned to survey the community in a conventional manner. They eschewed the plan when they realized how trite it was and how weary of that approach the north siders had become.

“We eventually realized that that’s pretty lame and kind of tired and that the people here experienced that a lot with different organizations coming in,” Jacobs said.

The pair decided to employ their interest in the arts in finding a voice for north siders. While Robinson is enthusiastic about writing, Jacobs is a freelance photographer.

The project has since blossomed. Each of Syracuse’s universities are participating in the project in varying degrees and Grant and Lincoln Middle Schools have agreed to incorporate the project into their curricula.

Robinson and Jacobs dubbed the alternative strategy for information gathering the Northside Mosaic Project.

“It’s a mosaic not so much in the sense that it’s a mosaic process as it is a metaphor for a lot of smaller projects creating one large body of work,” Jacobs said.

The idea is to have members of the community collaborate with those outside.

“Let’s have north siders as well as outsiders document the north side through a variety of mediums whether that’s photography, writing, painting or sculpture,” Jacobs said. “Let’s have them create stuff and then we’ll display it as this north side mosaic exhibit and it will be a real opportunity for people to learn about the north side and experience what’s going on here.”

Jacobs hopes the project will give north siders a creative outlet while also allowing other people in Central New York a glimpse of life in that community.

“We’re really excited to be doing it,” Jacobs said. “The goal is that it will continue on into the afterschool program in the fall when there will be more educational components included. Our whole goal is to improve the quality of life on the north side and we think that the arts can be a good way to do that. One, to show the real joys in these people’s lives. A lot of people think that there’s nothing good going on in the north side. But also, in art you can see the despair that’s going on. So we think that’s a method of showing what’s going on in the north side. It’s allowing us to show other people that something needs to be done.”

As the project accumulates entries, Jacobs hopes local businesses will contribute by hosting sporadic exhibits. Ultimately, the hope is to feature the best pieces from the project in the performance space at St. Clare Garden apartments.

The performance space at St. Clare Garden is of particular interest to Robinson and Jacobs. Both of them are music enthusiasts. They hope St. Clare Gardens will be used as a mid-sized venue for performers. Currently, the space is being utilized by the Salt City Center for the Performing Arts. In exchange for letting them use the space, the theater group is allowing FCM to use its sound equipment and lighting.

The first show is set for July 14. Jacobs said the bands are still being “firmed up,” but he expects five acts. Jacobs said that the free show will be composed of “louder, heavier bands.”

Robinson and Jacobs hope that the north side will blossom into a center for music.
Another project the pair is excited about is the Arts at Assisi summer program for middle school students.

The Arts at Assisi program is open to seventh and eighth graders and will run from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. starting June 25 and ending Aug. 16. It will accommodate roughly 75 kids. Participants will learn about sculpture, photography, painting and other artistic media. According to Jacobs, several professors from SU and other instructors are already lined up for the program. Ultimately, the goal is to expand Arts at Assisi into an afterschool program with a more educational bent, according to Jacobs.

Then, Sunday, Aug. 12 from noon to 8 p.m., a Festival of Many Nations is planned to showcase the diversity that exists on the north side.

”The whole idea again is of celebrating the culture that is on the north side,” Jacobs said. “It’s called a festival but I view it as an oversized block party.”

The intersection of Townsend and Lodi will be blocked off for the event which will feature food vendors, game stations for kids and a stage with music and dance acts representing different cultures.

The Vietnamese, for example, will offer a dragon dance; rap and hip hop featuring a local DJ will also be offered along with the jazz band from Grant Middle School and a salsa band.

For Father Canice, the ultimate goal of the operation is to reflect the example of Ss. Francis and Clare and their accomplishments in Assisi.

“Conceptually what we’re trying to do is look at the memory of what Francis and Clare did in Assisi to reverse the quality of life there and see if we can’t learn from that memory and see if we can have something like that here. That’s what we mean by the Assisi movement,” Father Canice said.

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