This year marks the 100th anniversary of the city’s Parks Department. With over 170 parks covering over 1,000 acres of land located within the city of Syracuse, each facility adds value to our landscape and offers the opportunity to bring joy and recreation to the children, adults, and families utilize these treasured public places.
In addition to their facilities, the Parks Department aims to cultivate and sustain leisure programming for its residents by organizing countless events each year. From annual tree lightings to weekly basketball games, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in Central New York that hasn’t enjoyed at least one event coordinated by the Parks Department.
An integral piece of our community, each park operated by the Parks Department and each event organized by the Parks Department has its own unique history. Take the building that houses the Parks Department, for example. Located at 412 Spencer Street, the building was built in 1931 as Syracuse’s municipal baths. Designed by Melvin L. King, a local architect featured in a recent article, the building sat above an underground mineral spring that the city harnessed for use. The building featured baths, showers and steam rooms.
A report from 1958 stated that the service, “Appears to appeal to business executives, professional men and clergymen as well as to individuals suffering from arthritis, rheumatism and other such ailments.” The report also mentioned local laborers who lived in buildings where bathing facilities weren’t adequate. On busy days, the building would see as may of 300 visitors a day.
Until 1963, residents could bring their own soap and towel to the building and receive a free shower from one of its 36 units. For a small fee, you could enjoy a massage, or take a sulphur bath or steam bath.
With more fascinating tales that stretch far beyond the building they call home, the Parks Department has teamed with Storycuse.com to tell a monthly story that reflects on the history of several of our local parks, while highlighting some of their yearly events. These articles will feature historic photographs and memorable moments to help commemorate the centennial.
To kick off the celebration, Mary Beth Roach, Deputy Commissioner, checked in with Lazarus Sims, Parks Commissioner, to learn what the parks have meant to him, now and in the past.
Mary Beth: You were a kid who basically grew up in Syracuse parks. What were some of the parks that you hung out in and what are some of your favorite memories?
Lazarus: I grew up in the old and now-gone Mulberry Square Apartments in the Wilson Park area. Then we moved to the Kirk Park/ Southwest Center side of town, so my sports years, I was a Southside kid. I mainly played at Kirk and Higher Onondaga Park. But I played all over, I played baseball at Elmwood Park & football for LeMoyne Dolphins in the Lyncourt area. I did soccer at Barry Park and swimming meets at Southwest. Kirk didn’t have a pool then.
Mary Beth: You played a lot of basketball in the parks in your youth. How did that help you in your basketball career with Syracuse University?
Lazarus: It helped me because I grew up with my friends Joe’von and Jesse, Terry, Moe, Antwon Rucker, playing on the monkey bars at Kirk, until we could get good enough to play on the two courts that the older guys played on. We had to earn our way, but we respected the process. We would try and play with them or stand our ground, and they would kick our ball over the fence and tell us to go back to the monkey bars; we’re not ready. So we worked even to the point we would come back at midnight and play games to develop our skills, until it became a trend and now the city was coming to our court at 12am to play night ball. We had one of the only courts in the city with light poles. I got my toughness from that experience, I got my drive, I got my you-are-not –going- to- stop-me- from- being- what -I- want –to-be (with respect to others before me and the right way of getting my respect). In short, it taught me to earn mine and be respectful doing it.
Mary Beth: When you were a kid in Syracuse parks, did you ever imagine that you’d one day be the Commissioner?
Lazarus: No, not at all.
Mary Beth: Now that you are the Commissioner and as the Parks Department marks its 100th anniversary, what are some of your goals? What accomplishments, to date, are you most proud of?
Lazarus: My main goal is to leave the parks a better place then I got it. I want the Syracuse community to be proud of itself and to be able to come outside and enjoy its beauty within the Parks with no worries. Every day is a proud moment for me at the parks department because my staff is great and we do our best to make kids happy, safe and have a positive place to use their imagination. I know this is a thankless job, but I get it every day when I drive by one of my parks and see a child or family enjoying my parks. But to be honest, my two biggest accomplishments are that my loving wife and kids get to be a part of my great city’s growth that I have a hand in. And to bring the Challenge Course and Sports Complex and Center to Burnet Park and our city. To date it’s the only one in New York State.