By Micah Castelo
It’s a Saturday afternoon in late October, and Syracuse local David Haas is driving me around the city’s neighborhoods — from the Westside to Eastwood, where he was born and raised — to show me some of his favorite buildings in the city. As we pass through homes of unique architectural styles and other structures from various points in history, Haas gives me their backstories, comments on the exceptional detail in their designs, or tells me what they’re being used for these days.
Haas isn’t a tour guide. He’s just someone who has a lot of love and pride for the city of Syracuse, its people, and its history and is eager to share that with others. Before our drive, he shows me a large 19th-century brick red and blue house with multicolored tiles on its roof and an enormous ornamented window on its façade, which was built by Syracuse lumberman, William Gillette, for his family in 1877. Today, it sits next to Salt City Coffee on West Onondaga Street, which Haas tells me is where many wealthy families lived back then. But it’s been vacant for decades and is now falling apart; the building’s backside has been left open to rain and snow for years. Yet Haas says he still considers it the most beautiful house in the city.
“There’s a ton of potential here, and it’s just been sitting and waiting,” Haas says. “I even put a sign up on this house a few years ago. I put it on the steps, and [it] lit up at night,” he says. “It just said, ‘Save Me,’ and so anybody who came by after dark [would see] there was a big sign up there.” He reaches inside his jean jacket for his iPhone and snaps several photos of the building’s exterior.
Haas started taking photos of different places, signs, and oddities in Syracuse back in 2012, the year he got his first iPhone and downloaded Instagram. Out of his own curiosity and desire to explore his urban environment, he took photos of the city and provided little tidbits that retold his subjects’ stories — from the smallest house in the city located on Danforth Street and owned by local resident John Weda, who had four televisions inside his 12-by-16 home, to the tombstone of Winston Churchill’s great-grandparents who once lived on James Street.
Initially, Haas posted the photos and stories on his personal Instagram account. But after his friends told him how they enjoyed seeing his posts on their feed, he decided to launch a separate page called “Syracuse History” where he details and showcases the city’s past and people through buildings, signs, art, and even doorknobs. Ever since he created the account on July 22, 2013, the page has garnered almost 20,000 followers and has been mentioned in numerous outlets, including the Syracuse Post-Standard, Syracuse New Times, and CNY Central, for various stories. His account has even received local awards such as “Best Blog” and “Best Use of Social Media by an Individual” from the Syracuse Press Club.
But Haas, who also works full time as the executive director of Sarah’s Guest House, a non-profit lodging facility for patients and families of patients receiving medical care in Central New York, isn’t just running the page during his free time to show tourists and locals interesting or nostalgic aspects of the city. Through Syracuse History, Haas is shining a light on local stories and voices that have been lost through time while inspiring the community to care about the city’s problems and fight for change.
As we made our way to the other side of the city, Haas points out the bridge over West Onondaga Street. It was being repainted as an effort to rebrand the area, which Haas says is going through a revival as new community-minded businesses like the future Salt City Market food hall are popping up. “You still hear people stupidly say things like, ‘I don’t go downtown, I’ll get shot.’ It really does not happen, but some individuals just can’t change their perspectives on something,” he says. “But that’s what the Instagram account is trying to do — change conversations and change perspectives.”
I just love how he’s bringing the community together, and it’s very low-key.Eileen Hollis, Director at Hollis Funeral Home
Haas is a resident of Eastwood, which is where he’s lived for most of his life. He left in 2005 to study health and wellness management at SUNY Oswego and in 2009 to get his graduate degree at SUNY Cortland in hopes of pursuing a career in kinesiology.
But his path took a turn when he was in graduate school. Haas, who has a fluency disorder, says that his stuttering quickly plummeted at that point. He’d been in and out of speech therapy starting from when he was four up until the end of high school when he thought he was “cured” of his stuttering. But with the heavy workload and additional stressors that came with graduate school, he says he lost control of his stuttering again. “I was in a dark place in my life, and I didn’t know what I would do in terms of if I’d get a job where I’d have to speak and what that would be like,” Haas says. “That’s when I started to question where I should be, where can I make an impact, and how do I find my voice again.”
When he returned to Syracuse, Haas threw himself into non-profit work with a desire to make an impact. It felt like helping people was just in his bones, he says. He had several family members who ended up working a helping profession, including his late mother, who was a social worker for Onondaga County, and his two sisters, one a nurse practitioner and the other a speech pathologist. Haas followed in their footsteps when he joined Launch CNY, a non-profit organization that supports individuals with intellectual disabilities, as a community services manager in 2011.
A year later, Haas discovered another way to make an impact outside of his work — inspiring community engagement through the Syracuse History Instagram account. “There’s a lot of people who can talk negatively about the city, certain sections, [and] certain streets,” Haas says. “I wanted to give voice to the positive stories that are never given light.”
Take Private Thomas F. Butler’s story, for example. Butler, a Syracuse resident who lived on Seymour Street on the city’s southwest side, joined the 13th Cavalry Regiment as the Mexican Revolution was happening. Along with 17 other Americans, Butler was killed at 28 years old in 1916 when a group of rebels, led by Francisco “Pancho” Villa, attacked the U.S. border town of Columbus, New Mexico where he was stationed, Haas says. Butler’s body was brought back to Syracuse, and he was honored the following day with an impressive funeral service, according to a Syracuse Herald paper that Haas unearthed.
Yet Butler was never given a tombstone or marker after he was buried. People in Syracuse forgot about him, unlike in Columbus where his name is read annually at Pancho Villa State Park’s commemoration ceremony of the Battle of Columbus. In an effort to remember Butler and grant him the honor he deserved, Haas started a community fundraiser last January to get him a proper marker. Catholic Cemeteries Syracuse helped Haas pinpoint Butler’s burial location at St. Agnes Cemetery, and Karl Lutz Monument Company, a local memorial business, gave him a discounted price of $400 to make the marker.
Meanwhile, Eileen Hollis, the director of Hollis Funeral Home on West Genesee Street, assisted with the funeral service held last June. With the help of her family, they were able to get a priest from Butler’s original parish and members of the Mattydale American Legion Post to offer a gun salute at the memorial. Hollis likens the experience to the French movie Amélie where the main character goes around Paris and does good deeds for people. “I just love how he’s bringing the community together, and it’s very low-key,” she says.
Hollis has been following the Syracuse History Instagram page for years; she was hooked after seeing Haas’s posts on Oakland Cemetery’s history, especially his features on its monuments like the lion statue that Thomas Haggerty, a Syracuse University graduate, sculpted as a memorial for his brother Michael, who died in a car crash in 1974. Hollis says she’s amazed by Haas’s attention to detail when he crafts his posts. “You forget that these people existed at one point,” Hollis says about the stories Haas shares on his Instagram account. “I hope that someone would be there to shine a light on the amajzing people in our community 120 years later.”
The Butler project wasn’t the first time Haas worked with Hollis. Around four years ago, he asked her if he could do a write-up on her family’s funeral home, which is where she also grew up. She says he visited the Victorian home, which was built in 1892, and helped them gather its history. “It made me just that more excited for the business and for our own house,” she says. She adds that it sparked her interest in history; she even visited Oakwood Cemetery to find the plot for the architect who designed the house.
Jesse Mosier, a nurse from the Valley neighborhood of Syracuse, also had a chance to give Haas a tour of his family’s house. He says he’s been a huge fan of the Syracuse History account for a long time. “I’m an old house lover too, so I share that with him,” he says. His wife Brandy messaged Haas on Instagram and told him a bit about the history of their 110-year-old house on Valley Drive, which is where they’ve lived in the last 10 years. Mosier says Haas was only able to stop by for an hour and 20 minutes because of his busy schedule, but he snapped a lot of photos and asked them questions about the history of their home and the artifacts and documents they had. “He was like a kid in a candy store,” Mosier says.
Haas ended up featuring their house on Instagram, and Mosier says the post led them to connect with a woman whose great aunts lived there. They were the last of the Harrison family — the family who built the home back in 1914 — to occupy it. “All of these memories of the people who lived here before us started bubbling up from her family,” Mosier says. “It’s crazy to think that we have some items with those ladies’ names on them.”
I definitely think he makes other people see things a little differently, maybe have a little more hope for the city and hope that we can do something good in the future together.Jesse Mosier, Syracuse History fan
The Syracuse History Instagram posts take a lot of time and effort to put together, Haas explains. He likens it to solving a jigsaw puzzle because one piece of information about his subject isn’t going to tell him what the whole story is, he says.
To find the history behind the people, places, and things that he captures on camera and shares online, Haas relies on numerous resources including old census records, city directories, newspaper clippings, and obituaries. He also spends time at the Onondaga Historical Association office whenever it’s open to find archival documents. It gets quite tedious to sift through them, especially when information changes over time, such as street names and addresses, but Haas says he’s developed a process over the years.
When he first started the account, Haas carried a business card on him at all times in case people were suspicious of him taking pictures of their houses or their street. And initially, Haas’s posts were just a few lines about the photo he took, but then he started telling long-form stories that chronicled the history of the people behind the photos. He makes sure his posts are condensed and clear so his followers can easily read it. He also tries to follow a format — he starts each post with a picture, then shares the address, and goes on to tell the story. “With the stories I tell, it’s like yes, there’s a backstory to it, but know where it is on the street. It’s an approachable history, like get out, go look at it, it’s right there,” he says. “You drive by it, you see it, and you’re a part of it. It’s not just history in a textbook kind of thing.”
Haas says he also keeps track of when he’s going to post his pictures. He tries to set aside time on the weekends so he can interact with commenters and answer their questions right away. And since he’s passionate about sharing the city’s history and wonder with others, Haas says he doesn’t mind the work. “If you really enjoy something, you make time for it, no matter what,” he says. “And I kind of always make time for the city and its stories because that’s where my interests lie.” He uses his free time after work, during the weekends, and even on his lunch break to do his research. And he says that he’s grateful for having a supportive community that opens their doors to him, allowing him to be creative and do what he does.
But telling those stories isn’t always so easy, especially when there’s backlash. When he posted a photo of the bridge over West Onondaga Street and used the hashtag #westsidebestside, somebody made a snarky comment about how the Western corridor’s recent revival doesn’t exist and that it’s still not a good part of town. In response, Haas was quick to give him the facts and pointed to the growth of businesses in the last few years — from Salt City Coffee to the Spa at 500, which are both housed inside 19th-century style homes. Yet the barrage of negative comments continued, so Haas turned off the comments section, which was the first time he ever did that. “If anybody’s educated enough, and you spend enough time in this area, you’d see and understand that things are changing for the better all around,” Haas says. Meanwhile, Mosier says the Syracuse community has been beaten down for quite a long time economically, but Haas has tapped into a sense of identity and helped create it with the Instagram account. He says he’s impressed with the amount of energy and enthusiasm Haas brings to the table. “It’s infectious too,” Mosier says. “I definitely think he makes other people see things a little differently, maybe have a little more hope for the city and hope that we can do something good in the future together.”
Haas’s storytelling also extends beyond his Instagram account; he also freelances for various local publications such as The Stand and The Catholic Sun. Last March, he even won an award for a story he wrote in the Syracuse New Times about how Interstate-81 displaced hundreds of the city’s residents, such as those living in 15th Ward, known in the 1950s as the slums where many refugees and African Americans resided after World War II. When Haas tells stories — whether it be posted on his Instagram account or published in a newspaper — there’s always the bigger picture of him advocating for a specific change or building awareness about an issue. “A call to action is important to me,” he says. And he walks the talk; over the years, Haas has worked on several projects to improve the city, including putting up historic signs at parks, getting bike racks, and helping save historic buildings from demolition. With the help of a non-profit organization called Adapt CNY, Haas is also trying to get a book-shaped bench installed at a park by the house where Helen Durney, the artist who illustrated the original Dumbo, lived.
And when Haas isn’t telling stories, he’s listening to them. At Sarah’s Guest House, the healthcare hospitality home where he works, Haas has conversations with individuals who rely on their services. Most of them are people who live outside Syracuse or New York who either come to the area to get treatment at the local hospitals or help support a loved one who is. Their stories are too personal to share, but generally, everybody that comes through the house is going through a difficult experience, whether it be caring for a loved one with an illness or dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis, he says. Although everyone’s story is different, Haas says his own experience of dealing with his mother passing away has helped him connect with the guests. “[My staff and I] all understand that there are grim times, but that there’s also good that can be had during those times,” he tells me when I visited his office. “We try to spark that, and we try to keep that positive energy going.”
Back on our drive, we enter Syracuse’s Northside. We pass by a small tailor shop where his parents first lived after they got married, which, coincidentally, was right next to my apartment. Haas continues to talk about the changes he’d like to see in the near future, like the government replacing I-81 with the community grid and investing in urban corridors throughout the city. And when he talks about the people who are working hard to make the city a better place for all, his eyes sparkle.