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I am a multimedia journalist currently working as a Senior Web Journalist/ Videographer with Khaleej Times in Dubai, UAE. Prior to this, I worked as a news editor with CNN’s Indian affiliate in Noida. I graduated from Syracuse University in New York state in 2012 with a Masters degree in Broadcast and Digital journalism. I have worked in video production, online journalism, features writing and market research over a period of four years.

Syracuse’s Near Westside: From a Struggling Neighborhood to a Neighborhood of Possibility

Residents make a difference to the community

By Nilanjana Gupta (SYRACUSE) – For decades, the Near Westside has been a hotspot for crack dealers, stray bullets and abandoned buildings. A neighborhood, where the unemployment rate tops 40% and nearly half of all families live below the poverty line. A sad world where only about 30% of high school students graduate. Some say it’s a “lost” neighborhood. However, things could be changing with the help of the people who choose to live in this “lost” neighborhood.

One man’s struggle to make ends meet

Kenny Suressi lives on the Near Westside of Syracuse, and he has learned how to stretch the $400 he gets each month on food stamps. His monthly social security check of $760 helps pay the rent of the house he hopes some day to buy, for that, he’s putting away $200 a month.

Kenny Suressi, Near Westside resident, struggles to make ends meet © 2012 Nilanjana Gupta

“Sian [his son] will always have a home, even if something happens to us,” said Suressi.

This makes meeting other needs very difficult, such as paying the National Grid bill, purchasing house cleaning supplies, and even simple things like paper towels.

For Suressi’s children it means, their wants may not be met. Only their needs are fulfilled.

Like many others in the Westside, Suressi used to sell drugs. But life changed for him five years ago when he volunteered to help at the St. Lucy’s food pantry in the Near Westside. He wanted to serve his community and in a way, he said, to deal with his guilt.

“When I interact with people and they become happier, it seems they have received the hope that they were looking for. And that also heals me,” said Suressi.

Although the Near Westside is a high crime and high poverty neighborhood, Suressi doesn’t mind living there.

“I know I am at home in this neighborhood… I don’t have to live down here. I choose to live here,” said Suressi.

Suressi said he has been offered jobs in other parts of the city, but he won’t accept them. He is committed, he said, to living and building on what the Westside has to offer.

“So I will never move out of the Westside. There’s a lot of ill people down here, and in there illness, is my healing,” said Suressi.

St. Lucy’s food pantry helps residents put food on the table

The St Lucy’s food pantry in the Near Westside serves about 550 neighborhood families every year, people who are just like Suressi, in a financial hole.

“The police should be able to get the drugs off the streets,” said Debra Sprague, a Near Westside resident.

“I used to like the Westside, it’s not for me no more. Just a bad side to live in I think,” said Michael Storms, another Near Westside resident.

However the food pantry director, Leslie Dubiel, said the Near Westside is not as hopeless as people may think.

“Often people here are surprised as they only hear about the awful things that happen here. You talk to a person, they have a sense of humor, they have a family, it changes perceptions I think,” said Dubiel.

Neighbors help each other in hard times

Jeff Bellamy works on the Westside’s economic issues and he said although he hasn’t seen much improvement, he has seen more neighbors come together to make a difference.

“The material and that wealth can help you, but if you don’t have that care and that love for your neighbors, to make sure that the folks around you are doing as well… doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. You are poor!,” said Bellamy.

Taywana James, a Near Westside resident is a mother of seven. Like Suressi, she has problems putting food on her table, paying her rent, and keeping her lights on. But in these hard times she said, she can count on her neighbors.

“I can go outside and say hello to a total stranger and they receive me well and speak back. I have been offered plates of food from people I don’t even know in my neighborhood just because they love feeding their community,” said James.

Near Westside Initiative helps residents buy homes

The Near Westside initiative started six years ago by Syracuse University, tries to help make housing more affordable for those who have stayed and  encourages new families to move in, to restore vibrancy to the community.

“Reduction in poverty is a matter of decades. But in every block you see some positive change… whether it be a new home, or someone new living in the community that owns the home.” said Maarten Jacobs, Director of Near Westside Initiative.

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