Saturday, May 2, 2020

All's Quiet on Westcott Street and a History of Huckster Hill (Westcott & South Beech Streets)

Syracuse, NY. Huckster Hill seen from the south. Photo: Samuel Gruber April 2020.
Syracuse, NY. Huckster Hill seen from the north. Photo: Samuel Gruber April 2020.

All's Quiet on Westcott Street and a History of Huckster Hill

By Samuel D. Gruber

[n.b this post has been updated and corrected May 3, 2020. Thank to Owen Graham O'Neill for putting me straight!]

It is weird to walk on a totally deserted Westcott Street, especially after the continuing uptick in business and street activity over the past few years. Normally, as we enter into springtime there would be scores of students, dog-walkers, long-time neighborhood residents, and day-trippers out enjoying the vibes, and the many food and drink offerings. 

I did not even have a chance to try out several new eateries around Westcott and Dell Street before things closed up due to the pandemic. A few restaurants are still offering take-out orders, but with students gone, even this has to be a struggle. I hope our many bars and restaurants can recover - either as they were or reinvented for post-Covid times. Without people, however, the neighborhood certainly looks clean! 

Syracuse, NY. Alto Cinco's and the Westcott Theater.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2020.
Syracuse, NY. The south part of the commercial strip. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2020.

On a recent walk, the area at the intersection of South Beech Street and Westcott looked especially pretty. This is the grassy knoll that was once the front yard of a house on South Beech Street, and since 2015 has been called Huckster Hill, and serves as a new little park in our neighborhood; just a relaxing punctuation mark at the south end of the commercial district.

Syracuse, NY. Huckster's Hill seen from the south. Photo: Samuel Gruber April 2020.

This intersection has gone through a lot of changes. Long before my memory, the corner was marked by a two story house built with a commercial space on the ground floor (a similar example still exists on Dell street). There may have been a grocery store here early in the 20th century, and by the 1930s it was the Ostrom Pharmacy. By the mid-1960s the building was sitting empty until it was torn down, according to Owen O'Neill who remembers the event, around 1968 or 1969.

When the old Ostrom pharmacy was torn down the city decided to change the street lay out and cut the end of South Beach, so the street turned into Westcott Street at more of a right angle. The present day building where the mural is painted sits behind (north) of the old pharmacy building. South Beach had previously continued straight until it hit Westcott Street in a V or Y intersection. This made  a left turn from South Beech onto Westcott difficult and dangerous, especially when cars were parked along this area limiting visibility. So when the old pharmacy building was torn down, there was a large enough lot for a safer new intersection. The cast block hardware store  was built behind it - we're still trying to clarify the date - but its featureless south wall now fronted on the intersection.  

Presently the home of Yeti Frozen Yogurt & Cafe, the hardware store closed in 1997, and since then the space has housed a variety of commercial enterprises. Tenants and the exterior paint jobs change, but the building has remained essentially the same.

Syracuse, NY. Intersection of South Beech and Westcott Streets. This two-story frame building housed a pharmacy until it was torn down in the late 1960s. Historic photo from Eva Hardin Papers, Syracuse University SCRC.
Syracuse, NY. Scharf's Hardware at Westcott and South Beech Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber 1996.

Syracuse, NY. 558 Westcott Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2011.
Syracuse, NY. 558 Westcott Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014.
Syracuse, NY. 558 Westcott Street with Westcott Community Mural. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2020.
Syracuse, NY. The Michael Moody Community mural (1997) seen from the Huckster Hill. Photo: Samuel Gruber April 2020.

The Westcott East Neighborhood Association commissioned local artist Michael Moody in 1997 to paint a mural on the hardware store wall, about the time the business closed. This developed out of a community project to revive the Westcott Commercial District. The scene represents neighborhood residents, including Tony DeLuca, long-time resident and proprietor of Abdo's grocery store who died the year the mural was completed. Abdo's, operated by the DeLuca family since 1936, was later sold, and the name of the small store has been changed to Casa de 'Cuse. Now a new "Westcott Nation" mural is being painted by Jacob Roberts just up the street on the large wall overlooking Dorian's parking lot.

To learn more about all the murals on Westcott Street go here.

Syracuse, NY. Huckster Hill seen from the south. Photo: Samuel Gruber April 2020.
The Huckster Hill park project began in 2010, the brainchild of Damian Vallelonga, a graphic designer and neighborhood activist, and Brendan Rose, a sculptor. The two are longtime friends who grew up in he neighborhood and followed careers in art and design. Damian is also now part-owner of the new St. Urban wine bar and restaurant, where Taste of India used to be. Damian and Brendan are partners in the art and design collective Echo, and have contributed designs for several other local amenities, including the bus shelter at Westcott Street and Euclid Avenue, sponsored by the Westcott Neighborhood Association (WNA) with funding from UNSAAC. 

Over the years the WNA gardening committee had tried to keep the little knoll planted with flowers, but it was always an ad hoc activity. Mostly, the space was orphaned and under-utilized. The bench and trash can at the edge were ugly, and made the place uninviting. Now there are attractive new benches that are frequently used, and WNA has created another art-bench across the way, a complex wood construction designed by Diana Jaramillo. The space is kept clean and trimmed by WNA volunteers.

Syracuse, NY. Park bench at Huckster Hill before the area was renovated. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2009.
Syracuse, NY. Neighborhood activist and Community Choir director Karen Mihalyi relaxing at Westcott Street Fair - at the old Huckster Hill.. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2011.
Syracuse, NY. Brendan Rose and Mark Povinelli built a concrete bench at Huckster Hill. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

Syracuse, NY. Artist Mark Povinelli adds a glass mosaic to the largest bench at Huckster Hill. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.
Syracuse, NY.  Bench at Huckster Hill. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2020.
Syracuse, NY.  Bench at Huckster Hill. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2020

Extensive street work of Westcott, including Save the Rain and traffic calming projects slowed progress, but offered new opportunities, too. The new "necking" sidewalks are wider than before, and create a link across South Beech to the little green space in front of the Moody mural. The turn from South Beech onto Westcott is now sharp, requiring drivers to fully stop. The designers kept, but cleaned and thinned the park's center of trees and bushes, and a brick path, added unique benches and retaining walls to delineate the park. The three benches are a combination of poured concrete and repurposed wood from Cosmo Fanizzi of City Woods. Local artist Mark Povinelli added a glass mosaic to the largest bench. A large LED light was  installed under the seating to provide a warm glow under each of the bench. The project was funded with several city grants totaling $4,050. The all-volunteer effort involved about 500 hours in the design, construction, coordination and art work.
To celebrate the project Vallelonga and Rose came up with a new name for the previously anonymous space. Reaching into Westcott Nation tradition, they learned that a fruit vender known as Huckster Jack used to sell his produce on the hill in the 1960s or 1970s, though the practice of street venders goes back at least to the 1920s.  Hence the new name.

Syracuse, NY. Westcott Community Mural. Michael Moody, artist, 1997. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2020.
Until 1960, when the present-day Petit Library opened on Victoria Place, this area around Huckster Hill was a very lively place. The previous library location was right here, at 746 South Beech Street, in a house that has since been torn down, where the parking lot and storage building are now located next to 744 South Beech Street.

Syracuse, NY. 746 South Beech Street, formerly Petit Library. Demolished.
Syracuse, NY. Parking lot on site 746 South Beech Street, formerly Petit Library and still-standing 744 South Beech. Seen form Huckster Hill. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2020.

Petit Library, then called Westcott Station, first opened in the Lawrence Drug Store at the corner of Westcott and Dell Streets in 1912, but this was discontinued in 1926, when the Douglas E. Petit Branch, opened in a “temporary” space on Nov. 20, 1928 in a first floor apartment at 746 South Beech Street. Though that space was soon over crowded, the  library waited for decades for a new facility. In 1952, the situation was described like this: “Hundreds of eager children are among the 7,500 branch users crowding into the small five-room flat every year, leaving little room for the reference patrons and none for the person who just likes to sit and read.” The library moved to its present building on Victoria Place in 1961.

For many years the lot and storage garage behind it have belonged to Boom Babies owner Lorraine Koury. During the year the garage houses sartorial overflow for Boom Babies,and the lot provides extra parking. Once a year at the Westcott Cultural Fair the parking lot is alive with activity and music.

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