MPA Student’s Asphalt Mural Brightens Syracuse City Hall
June 27, 2023
Jessica Whitley ’18/’23 M.P.A. says her colorful design represents the city’s past, present and future.
The paved area in front of Syracuse City Hall that was used as a parking spot is now a vibrant space to be enjoyed by the public, thanks to the efforts of city officials and a member of the Maxwell School's current cohort of master of public administration students.
Jessica Whitley, who will receive the M.P.A. at a convocation ceremony this Thursday, June 29, designed the colorful asphalt mural painted on the pavement in front of city hall. The winning submission in a contest offered by the city last year, the image shows a skyline bordering a vibrant tree supported by several hands.
During a recent ceremony celebrating the mural’s completion, Whitley told a crowd gathered in front of city hall that her image is a nod to the city’s rich, diverse history and signals hope for the future. The latter is represented by the vibrant leaves, she said, adding that the hands symbolize the community, supporting the tree and reaching toward city hall, “where change and active facilitation can happen.”
“As a Syracuse local, and somebody who grew up very close to city hall,” Whitley said, “I feel very strongly that we as a community—and we as a city—have room for growth and this tree represents that growth.”
The space contains street furniture—tables and chairs—and is blocked off by flower planters. Additional planters are planned for the area, said Brooke Schneider ’21 M.P.A., senior public information officer for the City of Syracuse.
Schneider is part of the team that helped Whitley coordinate the project and is one of many city employees who walk by the mural on the way into work. “We’ve watched it evolve over the last few weeks,” she said. “It certainly has been neat to see it develop, and it’s nice to see so much color reflected off such a big gray building.”
The project was funded by a $25,000 grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Asphalt Art Initiative. Last year, Adapt CNY partnered with the city to issue an open call for artist submissions for the driveway. Whitley entered her submission and was selected as a finalist. Her design subsequently garnered the most votes in a public contest.
Whitley earned a bachelor of fine arts from the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) in 2018 and went on to work at the Maxwell School as an administrative assistant for the dean’s office for just over three years. While the mural contest was underway, she found out she had been accepted into Maxwell’s M.P.A. program, which runs for 12 months starting in late June.
In the year that followed, Whitley juggled coordination of the mural with her coursework and other program experiences. She was co-treasurer of the student chapter of the International City/County Management Association and served as a research assistant for Tina Nabatchi, Joseph A. Strasser Endowed Professor in Public Administration and professor of public administration and international affairs—an experience that led to a trip to Budapest to attend the International Research Society for Public Management conference. She also took part in a competition to create a wildfire mitigation plan, attended Syracuse University’s “winterlude” session in Washington, D.C., volunteered with community nonprofits including We Rise Above the Street and helped the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency report possible economic impacts related to large-scale development projects like Micron.
While the timing brought challenges, the mural project complemented Whitley’s studies. The M.P.A. program, after all, is focused on developing skills that were necessary to bring the project to fruition, including public service and leadership.
“Public art requires community engagement which is a focus of my studies,” she said. “Courses such as Metropolitan Governance focus on how we can make space for residents to enjoy for free. This project is a way residents can have a say in their city and utilize a space that was once just a driveway. Combining collaborative strategies and organization skills learned at Maxwell with technical skills learned through VPA, was a great culmination of my interest in public art.”
Whitley has been selected as a Local Government Management Fellow through the International City/County Management Association. After receiving her M.P.A., she will work under a city manager in Pennsylvania, gaining first-hand training and supporting projects that examine topics such as climate change, civilian response and safe housing.
Back at the mural celebration, Mayor Ben Walsh ’05 M.P.A. told the crowd that the mural replaced his parking spot. Giving it up was a “no brainer,” he said. “When the team came to me with this idea, I thought about it for a minute and of course, considered my own situation,” he said. “I said, ‘You know what? It’s just too important a space to let it be taken up by a car, whether it’s my car or any other car for that matter.’”
Walsh was among those who helped paint the mural early in the spring. The dozens of painters also included Girls Scouts, the Syracuse Crunch, and Whitley’s Maxwell School classmates and friends.
Michael John Heagerty, chair of the Syracuse Public Art Commission, was heartened by the response. “It was meant to be a community-based effort,” he said. “There was a slew of volunteers—everyone put a roller down.”
Heagerty said the mural not only brightens the city, but also serve as a conduit for connection. “I believe in the city of gray skies, all kinds of color can work wonders here,” he said.
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