Local downtown mural project aims to honor social justice figures, revitalize city

Local mural project aims to represent fight for social justice

The mural, which is to be painted by Los Angeles based muralist Jonas Never, will feature local athletes Breanna Stewart, Dolph Schayes, Earl Lloyd and Manny Breland.
Published: April 5, 2021
The Monroe Building on East Onondaga Street will serve as the canvas for this mural project, featuring four local athletes. Courtesy of Frank Malfitano/Jonas Never (Artist)
The Monroe Building on East Onondaga Street will serve as the canvas for this mural project, featuring four local athletes.

Inspired by murals across the country and the impact of street art as a form of social justice, Frank Malfitano is looking to lift people’s spirits during the pandemic and revitalize the city of Syracuse with the Downtown Mural Project.

The mural will feature four local athletes and social justice figures Breanna Stewart, Dolph Schayes, Earl Lloyd and Manny Breland on the Monroe Building on East Onondaga Street. Malfitano, the project’s organizer and founder of Syracuse Jazz Fest, said this mural will be an important representation of the fight for social justice.

“I think it’s important that people understand that we’re still fighting the good fight for social justice so that’s really what this mural is all about,” Malfitano said. “I don’t want to say it’s not about basketball, but it’s really about something larger than the game. You know, it’s about what we as a city have done to help advance the cause of human rights.”

Jonas Never, a Los Angeles-based artist, is expected to begin working on the mural this summer. Some of Never’s works include murals of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Jackie Robinson. Malfitano said he was looking specifically for an artist who had experience creating murals dedicated to pop culture, African-American culture and sports.

“This guy’s the best of the best so he’s a perfect fit for us,” Malfitano said.

The City of Syracuse’s Public Art Commission helped to choose the mural’s location based on its centrality, as well as visibility and condition of the wall, Public Art Coordinator Kate Auwaerter said.

“There is real value to having a vibrant public arts program here in the city,” Auwaerter said. “Public art fosters dialogue, fosters interest, it improves the overall aesthetics and quality of life here in the community. So having this mural, to be able to add this to our public art collection, as it were in the community is fantastic.”

The project has already received pledges of financial support from Price Chopper, National Grid, Syracuse University as well as Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter and Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli. The Syracuse Common Council unanimously approved a resolution to urge Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh to support the city’s funding of the project in the amount of $75,000 at the March 29 meeting.

“They’re so excited about what this can do for the city, what it can do for civic pride, what it can do for downtown revitalization, what it can do to tie people into our history,” Malfitano said of the council’s support.

Frank Malfitano, the project’s organizer, said public art in cities like New Orleans, Chicago and Los Angeles inspired him to propose a large-scale project in Syracuse.
Frank Malfitano, the project’s organizer, said public art in cities like New Orleans, Chicago and Los Angeles inspired him to propose a large-scale project in Syracuse.

Malfitano initially brought his idea for the project to a community advisory group to gauge their support. Melanie Littlejohn, a member of this group and National Grid vice president for New York, said the mural would be a great way to visually represent the history of the region.

“[The project] represents the power of perseverance against the odds of race, gender and religion,” Littlejohn said. “It’s just a wonderful representation and it’s a wonderful reminder of who we really are as a community.”

Though city funding for the project has not been confirmed or finalized, Malfitano said he is optimistic.

Greg Loh, Syracuse’s chief policy officer, said in a statement, “The Downtown Mural Project can be a positive addition to the downtown landscape. The Council resolution did not identify any source for its proposed city contribution. The administration will consider the resolution, listen to community input and continue working with the organizer to identify support for the project.”

Syracuse Common Councilor Patrick Hogan said these athletes were and are pioneers for social justice and the mural will allow the community to look forward to the future while remembering the past. He said public art does a lot for the community, not only to improve aesthetics but also to promote economic development.

“All the people that we’re remembering are part of Syracuse history and they faced a lot of obstacles and prejudices and bigotry and everything else,” Hogan said. “I think it makes a statement about what this town is about and it’s through the prism of basketball—this town’s always been a basketball town—but these are more than basketball players. These are stars of life, people who really made a difference.”

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is a News Lead Producer for The NewsHouse.