A renaissance is defined as a rebirth, a revival, a renewal of energy and spirit. I think it goes without saying that Oswego is undergoing its own kind of renaissance. Downtown is once again booming and building and the waterfront is being shored up, protected and modified for greater public access with the assistance of federal and state grant monies.
Many of its neighborhoods are undergoing a transformation as well, in no small measure due to an organization aptly called the Oswego Renaissance Association (ORA), ably headed by Oswego resident and SUNY psychology professor Paul Stewart.
Dr. Stewart is a native of the Saratoga area and chose to make his home in Oswego with his spouse, Fulton native Steve Phillips.
They have not only transformed their home on West Seneca Seneca (the former Sigma Gamma fraternity house), but their efforts have spilled over into adjacent neighborhoods with the assistance of the ORA and grants from the Richard S. Shineman Foundation. Since the organization was launched five years ago, Oswego residents have invested more than $3.25 Million in ORA participating neighborhoods.
More importantly, whole neighborhoods have turned around. You can get an idea of the enormity of their success by checking out their website, where you can see 150 before-and-after pictures of houses that have been rehabilitated.
Many are formerly semi-dilapidated student rentals that have been turned into owner-occupied dwellings. It is indeed a sight to behold. The home values in those neighborhoods have also increased by more than 20 percent in value during that brief time period.
The idea for the ORA evolved over a period of time, as Paul and Steve invested time, money and lots of sweat equity into restoring their chosen home. They banded together with neighbors to help restore Montcalm Park. Soon, the neighborhood began sprouting more trees and shrubs and flowers and lots of new coats of paint. It was a species of beneficent infection that continues to spread.
Stewart and Phillips’ house was part of the original Swits Conde complex, which at one point, encompassed the entire block. They painstakingly did research on the history of the structure, aided, abetted and encouraged by many West Fifth Street area neighbors. It became a labor of love and a springboard for taking some of their ideas, sharing with neighbors, and helping to create a social environment which translated into an organization that began to take on the refurbishment of whole neighborhoods. The basic concept is pride in home ownership, collegiality of neighbors, and a little helping hand to seed the restoration process. It is so successful an idea that Paul has been interviewed in several development magazines, and it has become a model for other communities to adopt.
Oswego has become a more desirable place in which to live in part as a result of their efforts, and the efforts of the state and city governments to help induce an overall renaissance.
Thirty-two years ago, when I first took office as mayor, my wife and I had many discussions about how to revive the community. In my inaugural address in 1988, I referred to the “aura of confidence and optimism” which Oswegonians exhibited when their city was first incorporated in 1848 and we plotted a plan to help bring back that aura. We looked first to the waterfront.
Harborfest was the lynchpin of those efforts, as were other community events like the children’s tree lighting at city hall, the creation of the civic plaza, and the rebuilding and expansion of Wright’s Landing Marina from 20 boat slips to over 200. There was also the expansion of the linear park along the Oswego River and the rebuildin of children’s playgrounds, like the one which was constructed, and has now been rebuilt in West Park, with the help of the ORA.
Collectively, those events and changes helped Oswegonians begin to feel pride again in their community. Looking beyond the waterfront to the very heart of what makes for a community, vibrant neighborhoods with proud occupants, the fostering of that same spirit of renewal is evident today, in no small part due to the efforts of Paul Stewart and Steve Phillips. Hats off to them and their continuing endeavors. Here’s to a true and multifaceted Oswego renaissance for a great little city on a great big lake, with great sunsets, and where the water never ends.
John T. Sullivan is a former Oswego Mayor and the author of three books, “Forks In The Road” parts I and II and an autobiography “Pee Not Your Pants — Memoirs of a small time mayor with big time ideas,” available locally in the river’s end bookstore and online. His column appears exclusively in The Palladium-Times on the first Monday of each month.