Strong Streets: Syracuse's Armory Square

Strong Towns member Arian Horbovetz lives in upstate New York and blogs at The Urban Phoenix. Horbovetz, a photographer, has got a keen eye and a way with a camera, and recently did a photo essay about a neighborhood in Syracuse that exemplifies so much that’s right about the traditional urban development pattern. It’s actually the second time he has written about this area, called Armory Square, so we’re sharing excerpts from both essays with you today.

And you can help us out in the future! In September, we put out a call for readers to tell us about your favorite street, whether it be one that is a textbook example of a strong place, one that is bursting with potential but not quite there yet, or one that has an interesting lesson to teach. We often get requests to provide more concrete illustrations of the kind of principles we talk about here—fine-grained, mixed-use, walkable, human-scale development built incrementally over time—and what they look like on the ground. So if you’ve got a place you’d like us to give this same treatment to, send your submission to our Content Manager at, or post it on social media with the hashtag #myfavoritestreet and tag @strongtowns.

And now, we’ll let Arian Horbovetz take it away and lead you on a tour of Armory Square. [Section headings have been added by the editor.] These are excerpts, but you can find the full posts, with additional detail and many more photos, at:

Syracuse’s Armory Square: Urban Done Right

The Beautiful Bones of Armory Square

Arian is on Twitter at @Arianhorbovetz.

A Strong Street Can Feel Like a Magical Discovery

On a pleasant, sunny day late last summer, I stepped out of my car and straightened my tie as I eyed the Courtyard By Marriott Syracuse Hotel across Fayette Street.  I looked down at my watch and saw that I had about 20 minutes to kill before I started photographing the wedding I had that day, so I took a little stroll east and stumbled upon an urban pathway, The Onondaga Creekwalk…. As I made my way over to the hotel, I gazed westward and saw what looked to be a bustling city neighborhood.  Little did I know it was a place that would leave me in awe just 8 months later.

As I continued south on the trail… as if by magic, [it] opened up from a secluded mix of nature and offices to an urban roadside pathway, leading me in to the heart of Armory Square…. I was completely unprepared for the urban exhibition that unfolded before me… gorgeously re-purposed buildings full of restaurants of all types, bars, independent retail stores, and more.  This was an urban planning junkie’s playground, with narrow streets to slow traffic and improve walkability (a walkability score of 89!), pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and “parklet” space, adding a comforting accent and a place to rest.

Suddenly realizing this was a far more vibrant place than I could have ever imagined, even on a painfully cold day.  I quickly locked up my bike and started on foot.

A Strong Street Needs People to Bring It to Life

The corner of Walton and Franklin led me into Ish Guitars, where I was greeted by gorgeous instruments illuminated by abundant sunshine streaming through the large south-facing windows… and by Jesse, the owner.

Jesse of Ish Guitars

Jesse of Ish Guitars

“We moved into Armory Square two years ago.  It’s amazing, just over the two years we’ve been here it’s changed quite a bit.  The city’s been doing a really good job with everything, a lot of new development, a lot of housing is going in downtown… the housing actually is a really big thing, so [residents] can have all of this so close by.

“This used to be only bars and restaurants down here, but more and more retailers are coming down, and I’m hoping to try to get even more to come so we can make [the neighborhood business scene] a little move diverse.

“Everyone gets along really well, you almost don’t ever have to leave because you’ve got pretty much everything you need here, except for a grocery store,” Jesse said, laughing.

“A lot of people still don’t come downtown a lot.  They say ‘parking is so hard’ but then they go to Destiny USA and park a half mile away when here they can park a block away.  People still have this perception, but that perception is slowly changing.  Now they’re starting to think ‘hey I wanna go hang out, I wanna go somewhere fun, walk around,’ now they can come down here and have more of an experience.  It’s a little bit more interesting.”

Jesse touched on the shift from “mall culture” to what I like to call New Urban Malls, or neighborhoods that provide an enjoyable shopping, entertainment and dining experience with a fresh, local feel that departs from the “big box” mall model.  Today’s young professionals are increasingly wooed by vibrant urban areas rather than the typical suburban shopping and dining experience.

A Strong Street is Your City’s Living Room

I headed to my final destination of the day, Funk ‘n Waffles. Funky art and the delicious smell of waffles blended with a sort of “come as you are” atmosphere. Though I was completely full from my late lunch, I had to try something, but first I spoke with Craig and Craig.  No joke.

The two Craigs, of Funk ‘n’ Waffles

“It’s very historic here.  This building alone has been here for about 200 years.  [Armory Square] is just a great spot to come and check out different foods, different cultures, and there are beers from all over the world here.  During the summer there are all kinds of festivals, there’s just a lot to do.”

The other Craig spoke up.

“Even in the winter, we just got done with the Wing Walk, where people buy tickets and they can go to different spots, grab a few wings and move on.  They have awards for best wings, best Bloody Marys… seems like every other week or so there’s a festival going on, even in the winter.”

Diners at Modern Malt

Back to Craig one.

“A lot of the enthusiasm is for the food and the music scene in this city.  I don’t think you see that in a lot of other cities.  And actually, the gentleman over there, Mike Heagerty, he’s Mr. Syracuse, he knows everything about this town.  He spearheads a lot of the stuff downtown.”

A Strong Street Has Local Champions

The Craigs pointed out Mike Heagerty sitting in the other room…. By chance, the guy everyone told me I had to talk to was right in front of me.

“I want to bring people to Syracuse, so I’m always thinking about tourism and prepping the area for that… that means promotion, contact contact contact, telling the tales of the city besides the history and the culture… these all help us move toward a not-so-distant goal of being able to have unique experiences that other places don’t have.”

In every urban revival, there is at least one Mike.  Every city seems to have someone that everyone points to and says “that’s the person who’s doing it.”  What Mike and other effective community citizen-leaders all do best is just what he said… get people from similar and different walks of life talking, communicating and collaborating.  It’s not so much the brick-and-mortar part of the rebuild, rather it’s the knowledge that someone from over here might be able to help this other person over there, and so on.  People like Mike are the conduits, the connectors that allow change to flow smoothly, and simultaneously promote and popularize everything that’s happening.

A Strong Street Has an Enduring Sense of Place

A few weeks ago I revisited Armory Square and was reminded of why I love it. Red brick and amazing brews, great food and a dense, people-first street orientation that reminds us all of what great cities looked like before the horrors of urban renewal and highway expansion.

As I walked the streets, I remembered just how much I enjoy the feel of rugged brick buildings that hold you in, embracing you in all their classic urban glory.

A Strong Street Gets the Human-Scale Details Right

Streetside cafes, colorful awnings, well placed trees and lamp posts from another time dotted the streets, providing a sense of welcoming detail.

The first hints of fall color and weather were beginning to show on the bustling streets.

Sure, I’ve been here before. I’ve eaten the food, sampled the drinks, enjoyed the shops and walked the streets… but when you truly love the energy of a place, there’s nothing wrong with reminding yourself and the world how much you enjoy it. Cheers Syracuse, you’ve got a forever fan in me!