August 18, 2020
By Samuel D. Gruber (with research assistance from Bruce Harvey)
Today we think quite naturally about “The Westcott Neighborhood” though it is often hard to pin down exactly what this means not only geographically, but also historically, culturally, and socially. If we say we live “on Westcott,” that means one thing (our address) but if we say we live “in Westcott” that something else entirely, and most people in Syracuse understand. “Westcott” is a place and state of mind.
Westcott Street is named after dentist and Syracuse Mayor Amos Westcott (1815-1873). Westcott was a man of many talents and had an eventful life. He received a civil engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and became a teacher at the Pompey Academy. He then attended Geneva College and Albany Medical College and became a dentist. Later he helped found the New York State Dental Society and was its first president and the editor of Surgeon’s Monthly. Westcott established his dental practice, but he was also an inventor, receiving patents for locks, cranks, fans, and other implements. In 1860 he was elected Mayor of Syracuse on the Republican line.
Westcott’s life began to unravel when, as a gullible financial backer of the Cardiff Giant hoax, he was exposed and humiliated, and that event is presumed to have led to his suicide in 1873. At the time of his death his fellow dentists of Syracuse passed various resolutions of condolence and respect. For example:
“Resolved, That while we testify to the pre-eminence enjoyed by the deceased in the dental profession, we bear witness with equal emphasis to his worth and uprightness as a man. Genial in manner, he always stood ready to assist, by his counsel, those who were struggling upwards, taking a deep interest in the welfare of his fellow-men, and especially of the city of his adoption.”
Westcott Street was laid out and graded in the 1870s and 1880s as a straight north-south route from the Erie Canal into what was still partly undeveloped farmland, but which also included from 1868 until 1888 the Stanton Farm carriage-driving course set in the heart of what is now the Westcott Neighborhood. The streetcar was extended to bring thousands of spectators from the city to the racetrack, which was in use until 1888, and the later this streetcar encouraged residential development. The driving course was laid out when Stanton leased part of his farm to the Syracuse Driving Park Association. The course consisted of a half-mile track with grandstand with on-site stables and other outbuildings. The track was a large oval located between what is now Harvard Pl., Allen St., Clarke St., and Westcott St. In 1872, the 21 acres containing the driving park were deeded to the Association.
The racing track attracted thousands of spectators each season for the frequent races that drew horses from throughout the northeast. Westcott Street was extended south to the driving park. The East Avenue Hotel opened at East Genesee and Lexington Ave. Its popular bar served the horse and betting crowd who congregated there before and after the races.
An article in the Syracuse Courier of July 18, 1868 related that:
“ladies who attended the opening race in July 1868 “stood on the balcony of the new Club House built by the Association, which by the way is a splendid affair and adds greatly to the convenience and comfort of the visitors. The Judges’ Stand is also a fine structure and worthy of imitation by the management of all racecourses in Central New York. They are generally built so frail and weak that a person should first see that his life is well insured before entering them as judges and reporters of races. Not so with the buildings erected.”
Stephen Bastable bought the Driving Park property in April 1881. Despite the track’s popularity, Bastable sold the Driving Park in 1889 to Leonardo D.V. Smith who planned to turn the park into building lots. Work began immediately after the final race on October 12, 1889, and by October 20th the grandstand had been torn down and the streets were being graded. The area of the Driving Park was divided into building lots as the Hillsdale tract. The name Hillsdale came from Wickliffe A. Hill who owned a 1/3 interest in the tract from 1889 to 1890. Contrary to common belief, Concord Place, with its unusual elongated oval form, is not a continuation of the driving course.
The timing of the sale was remarkably convenient; it came just a month after the Genesee & Water Street Railroad announced plans to build a new streetcar line down Westcott Street and coincided with the grading of new access streets. By September 1889, Westcott Street had been extended to the south, while Croton Street (now Euclid Avenue) was opened from the west and Syracuse University.
The East Avenue Hotel closed within a year of the Racing Park’s demise. In 1891 the East Presbyterian Church occupied the sites of stables (the then equivalent of a parking lot). The building itself was moved to another site in 1901 when the city bought the block to create Columbus Park (now Loguen Park).
With the two principal axis roads of Westcott Street and Euclid Avenue now connecting Genesee Street to the north and the University to the west, and with the streetcar providing access along Westcott Street and, soon, along Euclid Avenue, the area was ready for development, and by 1924 most of the building lots will filled in the area that we think of as the University and Westcott Neighborhoods.
In the 1920s the Westcott Street Business District was named as a destination, especially after the opening of the Harvard Theater in 1926 and transformation of the adjacent properties into an array of convenient stores. At that time, the entire residential area – which had expanded rapidly in the preceding decades – had no single designation – was known generally as the Eastside, which until 1938 extended to the city line at Cumberland Avenue. But with the punctuality of the Westcott-Euclid streetcar, and thriving businesses on the street, Westcott became – for the first time since the Driving Park – a destination. Going to Westcott became a thing that continues today.
“Westcott” became the preferred designation for most of the area to the east. From the mid-1970s, this was coupled with the name “Westcott Nation” adopted first by participants in the local counterculture and is still often used today. The designation played on the appellation “Woodstock Nation” coined after the rock music festival of 1969 and the subsequent Abbie Hoffman book of that title. It referred to the hippies living in the neighborhood, and the types of new businesses including coffee houses, music bars and head shops that arose on and around Westcott Street. More generally, the name has stuck over time (when these businesses have moved on) to connote a general spirit of tolerance and cooperation in a neighborhood that welcomes all kinds of people and allows them – within limits – to “do their own thing.”
As much or more than any neighborhood in Central New York, the Westcott neighborhood is diverse in age, gender, race, nationality, and class. While the general impression is that Westcott is the most politically left of Syracuse neighborhoods, there is, in fact quite varied political affiliation.
As a place the “Westcott Neighborhood” bumps up against “The University Neighborhood” and in recent decades as the University has expanded its footprint and its enrollment, the latter appellation, and its association (and Associations) have gained prominence. Initially there was no University Neighborhood at all, though “University Heights” and “The Hill” were recognized places. In the post-World War II period, however, the broad name “University Neighborhood” referred to the areas west, north, and south of the campus.
The creation of UNSAAC (The University Neighborhood Service Agreement Advisory Committee) in 1993, which arranged for the University to fund neighborhood projects as remediation for its impact, however, acknowledged the University’s dominance – or at least influence – far across the city’s Eastside. For the thousands of students transitioning in and out of the area every year in the ever-growing number of rental houses, any place students lived was an extension of the University. Neighborhood identity seems to be changing again, however. Big new student apartment complexes and even the COVID crisis are causing a shift in student housing patterns, and the Westcott area seems to be attracting a new mix of post-college residents and even young families. The neighborhood is maintaining its multi-generational mix, but with many new faces. This is hardly the first time that Westcott has changed with the times. Like the man for whom the street is named 150 years ago, Westcott has been, and remains, multi-faceted.
In subsequent decades most of the other streets in the neighborhood were first imagined, and then actually laid out and developed. Just as the rural farm landscape of the area changed, so too did a lot of the first street names in the area: Croton became Euclid; Phelps became Harvard; part of Clarke became Clarendon; Wickcliffe became Avondale and Concord; South Park, Henry Ave and Locust are now Columbus Avenue; Hopper became Greenwood; Curtis became Cambridge; Hayden became Bristol; Frank became Redfield; and so on. Columbus Park has also been Lexington Park, and today Loguen Park. But through it all, Westcott Street remains Westcott Street, and as it was extended a considerable way south, its role as the major north-south artery on the Eastside, and the defining space – and ideas – of a neighborhood was literally cemented.
You can read more about the history of the Westcott neighborhood in the WSCT walking tours. What are your stories of Westcott? Whether an old-timer or a newbie, share your impressions of our neighborhood by writing for Westalk.