I spent a good portion of yesterday walking around Oswego during Harborfest and — at the risk of sounding like a homer — I don’t think the city has ever looked more beautiful. And that’s despite Harborfest being a time that can put stress on its neighborhoods.
Terry Prior, as good of a public historian as I’d ever met, said that during the Port City’s shipping heyday, the west side neighborhood nearest the lake, down the hill from around West Fifth to the river, was known as “The Flats.” It was where sailors could find everything they were looking for: women, fights, intoxicants and related items, or some combination. And for decades after, despite the lack of sailors and other “services” that supported them, it would not be unfair to say these neighborhoods still could look a little rough.
I took a turn on West Second from Lake Street, going through a stretch where I previously may have seen run-down houses, wild and unruly lawns, discarded items and refuse. Instead I saw renovated and new structures, neat lawns and hardly any litter. On one side, construction for the new mixed-use buildings rose toward completion, while on the other Skip’s Fish Fry had out a shiny and neat food truck. Sure, I passed a few parties and the occasional drunk, but it most certainly wouldn’t be a walk I’d fear making with a six year old.
Around town, I saw so much improved curb appeal, construction and renovation, new businesses. Water Street Square, the brand new pocket park, looked ready to open and cast an attractive and welcoming presence. The new brickwork in the sidewalks and the remade storefronts are so much more pedestrian-pleasing and inviting. I learned the city has gained a new gaming store called Convergence (bravo for the ascendance of nerd culture!). And the festgoers themselves, local and visitors alike, were the most diverse I’ve ever seen in every measure.
Much of the credit can go to groups like the Oswego Renaissance Association, which has supported with money and positivity the rebuilding of neighborhoods across town. The $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grants are evident in the new, rehabilitating and rising buildings. Mayor Billy Barlow has made improving neighborhoods, and getting more people to want to live and work downtown, priorities and it seems to be working.
Look, I know Oswego is far from perfect. Some people could use more tolerance, more empathy, more understanding. You can find plenty of areas for improvement, such as the zombie properties that still cast a blight over too many neighborhoods. Pockets of crime and drugs still exist.
But on the whole, I agree with what Bill Reilly of River’s End Bookstore said during a Friday visit: He’d never seen so much activity in Oswego before — and he wasn’t talking about Harborfest. Bill was talking about year-round, of touches large and small, immediate and ongoing. As I walked along the West First Street business district after the fireworks, I noticed strings of lights illuminating the heart of downtown. They were both quaint and sophisticated, in the best senses of those words. I smiled and, thinking of everything else I passed that day, realized I’ve never been more proud to call Oswego my home.