When he left Central New York 14 years ago, Rick Destito had the same attitude many people still have. He complained about high taxes and the weather, and he yearned to leave town.
When he returned here a few years later, Destito had a new outlook and ideas about how to change people’s perceptions of Syracuse. He wondered if bringing what he admired in other cities to Syracuse could make it a better place to be.
The house and multi-purpose building that Destito owns in the Near West Side are testaments to his new attitude and vision of a vibrant Syracuse -- full of artists, innovation and positivity.
“That’s what really makes a place,” he said. “The attitude of the people really has a lot to do with what a place becomes or how fast it dies.”
A tall, burly man in his mid-30s, with short-cropped hair and slightly graying temples, Destito is constantly moving, thinking and working. Whether it is work on his home, one of his rental properties, or The Gear Factory, Destito has plenty to keep him busy.
Originally, he planned to purchase a few homes and fix them up into rental properties and free himself for other projects. "Free didn’t work out so well; I’m constantly working,” he said. “But I like what I’m doing. So it doesn’t really feel like a job.”
When he was renovating apartments for other people, Destito found that working for others did not offer creative freedom. A self-described artist of sorts, Destito acknowledges that he’s got some creativity, but just wants to build things rather than play music or paint. His boyish face lights up when he talks about his projects, like a giant bug frame he made out of piping, or a giant wooden dart impaled on the sidewalk just outside the front of The Gear Factory.
Destito grew up in the city of Sherrill, just outside Oneida. He left the area as soon as he could after college. Looking for the perfect place to live, he spent time in South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Colorado and Georgia. After three years of different cities and places, Destito came to realize how much he liked upstate New York. However, in some of those other places, public art, music performances, painting, and other activities could be found any day, as part of the fabric of the cities themselves. This vibrant culture is what drew him away from Central New York in the first place, so he began to consider how a city such as Syracuse could have a culture that would make people excited to stay in the area.
“What if we try to make where I’m from what everyone would like it to be, instead of having to take off and have to move somewhere else for it?” he asked. Destito sees a future where people can say they’re from Syracuse and be proud. “When people can feel proud of where they’re living, that’s a good way to look at success,” he said.
The growth of The Gear Factory
With the purchase and renovation of not only his house, but also The Gear Factory, Destito has made significant strides toward making that a vibrant reality. Inside The Gear Factory’s large freight elevator, Destito lifts and opens the three large entrance gates with little strain. He bought the old factory building in 2005 and began renting shortly thereafter to the first group of artists and entrepreneurs.
After a misstep with fire-safety compliance in 2010 that closed the building, Destito was able to re-open The Gear Factory later that year, with the first floor open to tenants. Covering a wall in the lobby with blueprints, reproduced photographs, new floor plans, artist’s renderings and news clippings, Destito has created a visual map of The Gear Factory. A short history of the building, located on the wall, describes the original occupants as part of an unstructured creative industrial lab where ideas were shared, and inventors fed off of one another’s creativity. That same atmosphere is what Destito hopes to bring to today’s artists and entrepreneurs in The Gear Factory.
According to Destito, “Accidental opportunity for people to bump into each other, to share ideas, exchange thoughts, that’s where new ideas will come from."
Some of the tenants are painters. Others are seamstresses. Soon musicians will fill the basement. Renovations are under way for new practice spaces in what once was a fallout shelter at the bottom of the building. The basement floor plan hanging on the wall has large black X’s through the studios already rented.
An old rickety ladder sways back and forth as Destito climbs up from the fifth floor to the roof. Standing in the sun on The Gear Factory roof, he spots his house just a few blocks away. In 2008, Destito and his wife, Michelle, purchased a home for one dollar, on Otisco Street in the Near West Side. The nonprofit housing agency Home HeadQuarters sold the Destitos the house as the first part of a program to encourage residents to move into the area.
After two years and an additional $60,000, Destito and his family, which had grown to include two children, began to settle into their new home. Destito did a good amount of renovation on the house.
“He did all that beautiful work on his own, in terms of really turning that house, that vacant, abandoned property, into a beautiful home,” said Karen Schroder, resource development and government relations manager at Home HeadQuarters. “He’s certainly a creative, driven person. He’s able to have a vision of how things could be and he makes it happen. I think he makes a great addition to that neighborhood, and his neighbors are lucky to have him.”
The project garnered so much attention that the Destitos’ home was featured in a New York Times article.
“To say ‘I moved in with my wife and two children, and we’re making a home here and a life here,’ I think it’s been so helpful for the broader goals of the Near Westside Initiative, in terms of letting people know this is an ideal neighborhood to think about living in and raising a family, and all the benefits associated with it,” said Maarten Jacobs, director of the Near Westside Initiative. He has worked with Destito in a handful of different ways during his tenure with the initiative.
Destito is a member of Near Westside Business Association and the commercial and marketing committees of the initiative, and is part of a focus group on a new development project in the neighborhood. The Near Westside Initiative is a nonprofit organization supported by a number of institutions, including Syracuse University, dedicated to revitalizing the neighborhood through the use of art and technology.
Destito got involved with a number of other Syracuse organizations, including the 40 Below Public Arts Task Force, and Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today as a facilitator for the West Side, according to Luke Dougherty, director of community engagement at City Hall. These activities helped him gain a level of trust with both government and the community. Destito advocates and speaks out for the neighborhood. Jacobs considers that critical to the success of the initiative’s work.
Destito’s purchase of The Gear Factory and its renovations may have helped energize redevelopment on the Near West Side, but it is his attitude that has garnered him most of his success.
“Attitude is huge,” Destito said. “Stop complaining about stuff, and start focusing on solutions, that’s where we’ll start getting somewhere.”