Decisions in Onondaga County’s 16th district get made at 5:30 Friday nights.
That’s when rookie Democratic County Legislator Charles Garland gathers his community advisors to talk about how legislation might affect Syracuse’s South Side.
This Friday, committee member Jackie LaSonde drags an easel in front of four others. They sit on a second-floor porch in the back of 2219 S. Salina St.
The group talks about city redistricting and a debate for Congressional candidates. Last week, they held a four-hour marathon meeting, in part because the county executive’s controversial aquarium proposal was on the agenda.
Garland’s profile has risen in just seven months in office. His district will see well over $2 billion of development in the next 10 years, including the teardown of the Interstate 81 viaduct and the proposed revamping of public housing. He’s drawn other public officials’ frustration by opposing both projects.
Now, he’s set to be a key vote on County Executive Ryan McMahon’s proposed aquarium.
“He has a greater influence on a greater amount of money, so it makes it a totally different opportunity now for folks,” committee member David Rufus said. “I think that’s why he got so many of us involved.”
Garland, 56, sees the district at a crossroads. He represents a predominantly Black population living in the South Side and Southwest neighborhoods surrounded by Strathmore, the Valley, Syracuse University and downtown.
The record investment could boost the regional economy while maintaining the culture of the South Side or it could push longtime Black residents out and lead to gentrification.
Fifty people participate in Garland’s committee — some via email and others by calling Garland. Many are clergy. Some have served in public office, including Van Robinson, who was president of the city’s Common Council and Frank Fowler, a former police chief.
A smaller group meets every Friday. They’re all established Black organizers on the South Side.
Charles Piece-El runs the Greater South Side Homeowners Association. Jackie LaSonde runs the food pantry next door to the red building where the group meets. David Rufus is a community organizer for the New York Civil Liberties Union and Alfonso Davis is a community activist and Council candidate.
As a Democrat in an all-city district within the Republican-controlled Legislature Garland has a specific power: He can stamp legislation with bipartisanship and the approval of a predominantly Black district.
McMahon has courted Garland for his support of the proposed aquarium, as he searched for nine votes to move the project forward.
Garland has considered flipping his vote from no to yes. He has brought committee members to meetings and taken proposals back to them, all while negotiating with McMahon’s office.
“I have to face the reality that I have a window of opportunity right now,” Garland said.
‘The root of it all’
Garland remembers just before he started elementary school, his family had to move so their home could be torn down for a housing project.
His political lens can be traced back to the Kennedy Square project, which opened in the 1970s – and the city’s decision to displace residents from their houses to build the apartments on the East Side.
Garland’s family funeral home at 813 E. Genesee St. had been in operation for more than 30 years.
Many of his relatives lived within a few blocks before the construction on Kennedy Square started. Garland rattles off their surnames: the Blakneys, the Murrays, the Garlands, the Combs.
After the city bought the land, his family scattered. Some left for California. Others stayed but moved to other parts of the city. Garland moved to Rochester and then Michigan, before coming back to Syracuse.
Kennedy Square was left in disrepair and demolished in 2009 to make way for a biotech center, a project of SUNY Upstate Medical Center and the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Garland Brothers Funeral Home is now located at 143 Martin Luther King Drive, just down the street from where the city plans to redevelop public housing in the shadow of I-81. Garland took over running the funeral home from his aunt Lulu and uncle Benjamin.
The displacement led to a rattling experience: Garland has met extended family scattered by the Kennedy Square development while making their loved ones’ funeral arrangements.
“That’s the root of it all, all evil,” Garland said of Kennedy Square.
The experience ingrained in Garland a deep skepticism and made him keenly aware of the long-term effects of policy decisions.
He often jokes that the phrase, “we’re from the government, and we’re here to help,” is one of Black folks’ least favorite.
Garland said he’s concerned current economic development — like the teardown of I-81 and Blueprint 15 — is being done “under this false altruistic guise of helping the African-American community.”
He maps out his worst-case scenario: Tearing down the viaduct isolates the suburbs from the city and creates a suburban economic disaster.
Garland worries Black residents will be blamed for the failure. He does his best to sway how the projects unfold.
So he repeats the same question repeatedly in meetings and interviews: “What about us?”
‘It makes them think’
Last year, Garland teamed with Save 81, a group of suburban politicians and businessmen, to support a skyway-and-grid proposal that was summarily dismissed as neither feasible nor prudent.
It cost him political capital with city administrators and other public officials, who saw him as espousing falsehoods and using Save 81 for his own political gain.
“It’s important for all of us to be at the table to have a discussion,” Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens said, “but that discussion has to be based in fact. And that’s where it’s gray sometimes.”
The city kept its meetings with Garland, but the relationship was strained.
On a hot July afternoon, urban planning consultants and the city’s chief policy officer Greg Loh met with Garland and two members of his advisory committee.
Garland rearranged the chairs in his funeral home from rows to a circle. He pinned up posters showing his various doubts about the ongoing projects.
He printed copies of “Rethinking I-81,” a 2009 study by the Onondaga Citizens League. In Garland’s view, the report focuses more on how removing the I-81 viaduct benefits the economy and less on how removing I-81 benefits the Black community hurt by the highway. To him, it’s evidence that community leaders aren’t being fully transparent about their motivations.
Garland walked the planners from Dover, Kohl & Partners, a consulting firm hired by the city, through his concerns.
He said he doubted state Department of Transportation traffic projections for the South Side. He questioned whether tearing down I-81 would redirect harmful fumes from the highway into Black neighborhoods.
Drawing from his personal experience, he argued Blueprint 15 would lead to gentrification.
“We’re going to have this vibrant area right here, community. Mixed-use or whatever you want to call it,” Garland in the meeting. “We consider it, we’re going to have this exclusive high school, an area for professionals on the Hill to live.”
Garland was referring to the science, technology, engineering, arts and math school planned for downtown. Loh tried to ask Garland why the legislator thought it would be exclusive.
Garland fired back: “Make it selective. Make it exclusive. Those soccer moms are gonna want a great selective high school with an entrance exam for their kids to go to.”
Syracuse City School District leaders have said the school will use a mix of criteria for admittance including grade-point averages, aptitude tests and interviews.
Garland predicted many people living in public housing would have to move out during the construction and redevelopment.
An urban planner from Dover asked Garland about his vision for the area.
“Our vision is just having a place for four to five thousand people to live,” Garland said. “Can you understand that?”
He’s unapologetic and intentional in his approach. Half the room grimaces, the other half laughs, he said, “but it makes them think.”
‘It’s about the people over there’
That approach doesn’t always win him friends in rooms where key decisions get made. After winning his seat on the Legislature, Garland expected to be put on the Blueprint 15 board.
Until earlier this week, the organization listed Vernon Williams, Garland’s predecessor, as the district’s representative.
The exclusion is a sore spot for Garland despite his opposition to the project. Garland said he’d like to advocate for South Side residents from within the group and ensure transparency.
Alfonso Davis, who is on Garland’s advisory committee, suggested the move circumvented accountability. Why not add him to the group, “unless you don’t want nobody to question what you do,” Davis said.
Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens, the Blueprint 15 board president, told Garland he didn’t have to be put on the board but could be considered later this year.
Owens and Garland have never sat down one-on-one to talk about Blueprint 15 or the changes coming to the South Side, though it’s a conversation Owens said she would welcome.
Garland’s approach may be grating, but his concerns are warranted, Owens said. She too worries about displacement of residents and gentrification.
“How can you redefine a neighborhood without displacing the people in it?” Owens said. “There’s a lot of weight on our shoulders to get this thing right.”
Owens sees a way forward despite Garland’s exclusion.
She recognizes the value in the relationships Garland has built. His family’s funeral home has buried loved ones from the South Side, and he’s formed relationships with their living relatives along the way. She said she knows Garland sometimes helps families free of charge when they struggle to pay for funeral expenses.
Owens has her own tie to Garland’s funeral home. About 28 years ago, she lost a child. She went into labor 27 weeks into her pregnancy. The baby died.
Garland Brothers Funeral Home buried her son.
“There’s just something unspoken when someone touches you and meets a need that’s here like that,” Owens said, touching her chest above her heart.
Owens only recently learned of Garland’s story: about the funeral home’s location on the East Side before it was on Martin Luther King West and how Kennedy Square displaced his family.
“We’re on the same mindset,” Owens said. “It’s about the people over there.”
‘EYE ON THE PRIZE’
Garland sat with his committee on the back porch on a recent Friday. They debated the merits of focusing only on the 16th district versus widening his focus.
The committee members have told him to “stop talking talking about other people,” Garland said.
“Because they’re not talking about us,” LaSonde said, cutting him off. “… What we find is no one rallies for us.”
Garland formed the committee to not lose sight of who he represents. Rufus said the group keeps Garland’s “eye on the prize.”
“The prize is the 16th legislative district,” Rufus said. “Don’t spend your time weighing out what they’re going to do for some other district. Your challenge is what they’re going to do for your district.”
Garland’s not the first South Side politician to take that approach to governance. Rufus, who has spent about five active decades in the community, said Junie Dunham and Althea Chaplin were among those who invited residents in on their decision making.
Van Robinson, who asked Garland to run in 2019, also used a committee.
Garland doesn’t just incorporate his committee members in decision-making; he brings them into meetings they would otherwise not be in.
LaSonde and Rufus sat in on a June meeting in which city and county officials discussed requirements for hiring minority- and women-owned businesses for the proposed aquarium.
Until then, Garland had signed letters opposing the aquarium and advocating to spend money helping Syracuse’s housing stock and abating lead hazards.
The meeting prompted Democrats in the Legislature to hold an “intervention,” Garland said. But he continued to negotiate with McMahon’s office anyway.
Now, he’s positioned to be a key vote.
Garland doesn’t have to be the ninth and deciding vote to matter. His vote could give the aquarium the token of bipartisanship and support from an all-city district.
The legislator said he believes that McMahon will get the aquarium simply because he wants it. Put another way by Davis: “The county executive is used to ramming things down people’s throats.”
Where will that leave Garland?
“I don’t need a moral victory,” Garland said.
McMahon’s office has since made larger concessions. The county has proposed a $10 million grant program for market-rate and low-income housing and setting aside $3.7 million for lead abatement.
“He wants to be able to make that his crowning jewel,” LaSonde said of McMahon. “Well, we need something that’s not only sustainable but more than lip service.”
Those proposals are not enough to flip Garland’s vote, but they are a start, he said. He wants to see the commitments announced at a press conference and in writing, the difference between a promise and a guarantee in his mind.
Garland hasn’t decided how he’ll vote. He knows he’ll have to decide soon — likely by Wednesday — whether to let this opportunity pass.
“We’re a means to an end, like we always have been,” Garland said. “They’re always gonna have their own agenda. The only help we’re gonna get is the help we give ourselves.”