Home » Syracuse Trailblazers » Frank Malfitano

Frank Malfitano

“I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. … First,
the streets were not paved with gold. Second, they weren’t paved at all. Third, I was expected to pave them.” – An Italian Immigrant whose words are posted at the Ellis Island Museum Frank Malfitano cites this quote, inscribed on a mural in the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration, as one of the things that inspired him in his latest project in the public arts.

If I were to say, “Frank Malfitano,” to most Syracusans, our first thought would without a doubt be Syracuse Jazz Fest. A fan of the art form, Frank traveled the country attending jazz fests until he thought: why not Syracuse? And the rest, as they say, is history.

For Malfitano, art is a living, breathing, growing opportunity to bring a community together to celebrate not just the art, but the place, the people, their history, and importantly, their future. As each year of the Jazz Fest became a bigger success and
a “must-see” event, Syracusans were the lucky recipients of an open, free, and stellar moment each summer.

“When we were hit with Covid,” Malfitano said, ”one of the real setbacks was not being able to get together freely and enjoy the performance, music, and the arts.” In his travels, Malfitano had seen many cities that celebrated their city and some of its stars with huge public art – murals that graced the walls of buildings and reminded people of the many ways in which their city had contributed to the world. “Just as with the Jazz Fest,” said Malfitano, “I thought, why not Syracuse?”

“It actually hit me,” he explained, “when I was visiting Detroit. I saw a giant mural of Stevie Wonder. Not long after that, I read an article about a mural that could brighten up Lemp Park. And finally, when a couple of musician friends passed away, that was the trigger. I called some people on the Common Council and asked them to meet me in the park. And I asked them to envision a mural there. They said we need to assemble a good team – it takes a village to raise a mural,” he added, with the good humor and determination Malfitano is famous for.

Nothing happens overnight, but Malfitano is nothing if not tenacious. If he can “see” it, it can be done. And with the virus shutting people away from other people, from meeting to enjoy good times and make memories together, he became all the more determined to find a way to make a mural, perhaps many such murals, happen in Syracuse.

After drafting a preliminary proposal for the Mayor, Malfitano met with Public Arts Commission Coordinator Kate Auwaerter, met the Public Arts Commission, and the project began to take shape. He had run the idea by several friends in the African American community in town to let them know what he had in mind. His idea was to identify Syracusans who were athletic champions, who broke racial and ethnic barriers, and who spoke for communities too often unheard. The project took on the name, Syracuse Trailblazers.

“Syracusan Breanna Stewart survived childhood sexual abuse and went on to win a state High School championship, four NCAA Championships, and MVP awards, and went on to become the reigning 2-time WNBA Champion. Sports Illustrated recently named her Sportsperson of the Year, and she’s recognized as a courageous leader in her stance against racial inequality and gender equity in sports. That’s one story.”

He went on to describe Syracusan Manny Breland, who survived Tuberculosis and Jim Crow-era segregation to become SU men’s Basketball’s first African American Scholarship player, leading the team to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1957, and staying on in Syracuse after graduation to become the city’s first African American Science teacher, and later High School principal.

Syracuse National and NBA great Dolph Schayes stood up to the anti-semitism that lingered in the post-war 1940s, becoming a record-setting world champion and “One of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.”

And fellow Syracuse National and NBA pioneer Earl Lloyd Jr., the first African American player in the NBA in 1950, and the NBA’s first African American Champion in the league’s 1954-55 season.

With his roster of honorees selected and in agreement, Malfitano and the team started looking for the right canvas. And they found it. 333 E. Onondaga Street, the Monroe Building, seemed the perfect spot, to begin with, what he hopes will be a series of murals that help decorate the city and remind us of how much we have to be proud of.

“We had space, the dimensions, now we needed the right artist. I’d become aware of a great Street Artist in Los Angeles who specializes in photorealistic murals. He’s done a large number, his work is really impressive, and he has a national profile. So we asked Jonas Never if he’d be interested in painting a mural for our city that spotlighted social justice pioneers in our community. What we needed was something to show people so they could envision what we had in mind. He’s done a great layout proof shown as it would appear on the side of the building. It’s already wonderful but not nearly as beautiful as it will be when he’s added the color and his signature style.”

The final step is sponsorship, and that’s the stage the project is in now. He has gotten firm commitments from Price Chopper, National Grid, and the public sector. “I’m convinced that once we get this first mural done, there will be more to come. There are so many great stories in Syracuse. It’s time to tell them.”

Finally, he added, “The greater the art is, the greater the community is. Art is one of those things that people can enjoy and share. We can learn about one another, and about people who have made a big impact not just in our city, but nationally and even globally. It reminds us of what a special place we’re part of – past, present, and future. We can look at this as a community and say, ‘This is great, this is good, we did this together.’”

Malfitano welcomes interest in the project as it reaches out for funding and other forms of support, and can be reached at fmalfitano@syracusejazzfest. com.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.