53 Minutes in Downtown Syracuse With Michael John Heagerty

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I desperately rubbed my scorched tongue against the roof of my mouth, trying to regain taste and feeling after taking a first sip from the piping hot tea I had just purchased at Nectar Espresso Bar and Vintages. I snapped a couple pictures of the McCarthy Mercantile, Syracuse’s approachable downtown artisan and maker space, as I anxiously awaited the arrival of Michael John Heagerty.

McCarthy Mercantile
Nectar Espresso Bar and Vintages

Michael didn’t know I was stopping into Syracuse until I messaged him and told him I was in his establishment just a few minutes prior, but he was kind enough to drop everything and meet me for what I thought was going to be a couple minutes.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” is all his message revealed.

A little backstory… MJH is sort of a Syracuse rockstar. While his influence on the city’s revitalization is multi-faceted, his greatest accomplishment to date is the founding of Wildflowers Armory, a multi-vendor artisan marketplace, and McCarthy Mercantile, Wildflower’s basement level artist storefront, popup and event venue. If you were to create Michael from scratch, you’d mix equal parts artist, entrepreneur, small business leader, advocate, visionary and networker, with all the ambitious spirit needed to get the job done.

A few minutes later, MJH poked his head down the historic basement staircase. After a quick fist bump, he unsurprisingly dispensed with any real pleasantries and went right into telling me about the progress that was being made on the McCarthy Mercantile. New shops and storefronts, plans for the future and more.

Michael then whisked me upstairs and across the street into The University Building, which he told me was built in 1897.

We stuffed into an elevator with 3 other people, all of whom he seemed to know, and we sped up to the top floor. Upon exit, we swung through a small unassuming door that opened to a narrow, dingy staircase upward into the mechanical “attic” of the historic building. After a couple of flights, Michael opened a door and we spilled out onto the roof, with an unimpeded 360-degree view of Syracuse’s sprawling city center.

As I shamelessly took photos in every direction, Michael continued to talk about what was happening in Syracuse, and what his grand plans were for the surrounding spaces, pointing out every one. If he were anyone else, I would have thought he was out of his mind. But I’ve learned never to doubt the vision of MJH, AND his ability to activate that vision. I have no doubt that his ideas about different event venues, public spaces and community resources will come to fruition, and they will all make the Salt City’s Downtown better.

Michael tells of his plans for Downtown Syracuse from the roof of the University Building

Something you just have to know about Michael is, as long as he’s talking, you should just probably follow him wherever he goes. So when we left the roof and returned to street level, I kept close by with open ears.

We exited the building and walked a few blocks. Michael pointed out the occasional building and storefront and talked about plans and visions for them. Some his own, others he was aware of.

When the brisk walk terminated at The Salt City Market, I finally understood that MJH was giving me a tour on his lunch break. But that’s how passionate he is about Syracuse. Here I was, stopping by unannounced, and yet Michael didn’t think twice about spending time with me and telling me all the exciting things that were happening in his city.

The Market is one of the most ambitious additions to Downtown Syracuse, featuring international eateries, baked goods, a juice and flower bar and a traditional bar. It also features The Syracuse Cooperative Market, which houses one of the best selections of groceries and fresh produce I’ve ever seen in a small downtown space. Mind you it was lunch time on a Tuesday and the entire market with jumping with activity.

We proceeded around the “block” where Michael showed me the relatively new Rail Line Event Venue, which is housed in an old elevated rail station above the street.

Michael then took me behind the Museum of Science and Technology to a fascinating little spot featuring a standing slab of the former Berlin Wall. I had passed it on foot on many of my visits but I never stopped to notice it.

I touched the slab and for a moment I really felt connected to the historical event that was part of my childhood. In fact, by chance, it was November 9th, exactly 32 years to the day after the wall came down.

Michael’s unrelenting pace led us to a tiny park, also adjacent to the museum. I had been there many times, pointing out the public workout machines and apparatuses installed a few years ago. This time Michael was eager to show me the new charging station for electric wheelchairs. Users could charge their wheelchair batteries and wait on the nearby bench.

Continuing on, we had almost made a full circle when we happened upon artist Ally Walker, who was diligently working on a mural on the backside of an old building. Ally’s beautiful creations were delightfully interactive and meant to weave her imagery with the human element.

Photo by Michael John Heagerty

After that, Michael said he had to pop into his family’s establishment Kitty Hoynes for a bit, so we parted ways. But in 53 minutes of following Michael John Heagerty, I felt inspired and reassured that the momentum in Downtown Syracuse had an explosive future and a powerful vision.

On November 9th 2021, I took the day off from work. I fully intended to take a train to Syracuse for a few hours for lunch and some exploring, then hop another train to Utica for a brewery visit and dinner. You see, my motivation for promoting urbanism has waned over the last year and a half, due to so many factors both internally and externally. Heck, even this trip was hard to justify in my head. But I knew I needed to reconnect with what always seems to make me happy, traveling to different cities and telling great stories of change. And while I didn’t mean for my Syracuse visit to turn into a blog post, MJH inspired me so much with his vision and talent that I just had to tell the story of our 53-minute adventure. It has been a tough time for so many in a multitude of different ways… but as long as there are people like Michael John Heagerty that remind us that we can still be hopeful, inspired and focused, our communities can continue to thrive, and we can continue to prosper.