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Wood Work: Artisanal Craftsman Jobs for Syracuse Immigrants

Wood Work:  Artisanal Craftsman Jobs for Syracuse Immigrants

Before becoming a carpenter with Salt Works, the most extensive woodwork Pedro Ignacio Díaz Ramos had done was chopping down trees to sell as firewood in his hometown of Guantánamo, Cuba.

Whenever money was tight, which was often, he would bike nearly 10 miles to the mountains where the wood made for good kindling—not far from the mountain range where Fidel and Ché plotted the Cuban Revolution.

“Day after day, my situation—my life—became much harder,” said Ramos.

While Ramos, 47, sold the bundles of wood for only 20 cents each in Guantanamo, he now helps pull in several thousand-dollar woodworking projects for Salt Works, a Syracuse-based handcrafted furniture business collaboratively run by the Near Westside Initiative and Northside UP.

Salt Works opened in May and is one the latest businesses in a fast growing trend of social enterprise, a type of for-profit work that creates fair-paying jobs for those who might not have access to them otherwise. According to a 2011 study by the General Entrepreneurship Monitor, nearly 5.1 percent of the adult U.S. working population works for businesses that self-identify as social enterprises.

In Syracuse’s case, social enterprises have a considerable resource in the city’s immigrant and refugee populations, which account for 11 percent of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census data. Salt Works’ director Janie Mills, 28, said the program was designed with not only Syracuse’s economy and complex social fabric in mind, but also the environment.

Wood Bench

Using 150-year old reclaimed wood, scrapped from the Case and Lincoln Supply Buildings, Diaz and his coworker Luis Vilella, 21, craft stunning, warm-hued tables, benches and desks.

“The wood comes from trees that started growing before the city of Syracuse was founded,” said Mills.

Ramos and his coworker Luis Vilella, a 21-year old from Puerto Rico, seem to be the right people to handle the rare old-growth spruce, hemlock and yellow pine. They attribute their materials-based problem-solving skills to lessons they learned about resources in their home countries.

“In Cuba, we try to fix things by looking, analyzing and inventing how to fix them,” Ramos said, referring to the need to maintain goods in post-embargo Cuba.

Vilella, a young man with intensely friendly eyes and a hip buzzed haircut with a ponytail in back, explained that he had a similar history with limited resources in Puerto Rico, which translated well to his job—his first ever—at Salt Works.

“Here, we save a lot of wood,” Vilella said, “because we don’t just want to throw away our scrap pieces.”

Wood Table

 

Vilella and Diaz’s optimism shines through in the final products: scrap items have included candleholders, cheese boards and children’s building blocks.

Diaz and Villela were hand-picked out of nearly 100 applicants from Northside UP’s affiliated program Green Train, an environmentally conscious construction training program that teaches not only career, but life and language skills. To date, Green Train boasts an 85 percent job placement rate.

Salt Works was designed as a supplement to Green Train, and is the brainchild of Northside UP’s director Dominic Robinson and Maarten Jacobs, director of the Near Westside Initiative. The idea came when they heard the Case and Lincoln Supply Buildings were about to send their wood to scrap. They saw an opportunity and started to plan.

“Just a few years down the line, it all just came together,” said Stasya Erickson, 28, Northside UP’s program manager.

Everything fell into place when Habitat for Humanity lent them an unused workshop and when Zeke Leonard, a Syracuse University design professor, offered his students’ design skills. Ramos and Vilella worked back and forth with students to see a project develop from concept to creation, parsing out feasibility from aesthetic.

Wood Bolts

While Salt Works only employs two for now, Erickson said that they hope to expand shortly.

And it seems entirely possible. After landing an $8,000 project to design furniture for Tech Garden, a local eco-friendly tech company, and a bench-making project for St. Joseph’s hospital, the business-to-business model is putting Salt Works on the upward trajectory. Not to mention the requests they’re getting from interested private parties who are commissioning smaller projects for home decor.

Since starting at Salt Works this past spring, Ramos and Vilella already made enough money to buy their own cars.

“More important, they’ve been able to secure a regular living and support their families,” Erickson added.

As the two men proudly gave a tour of Salt Works, they bragged about how they cleaned up the workshop from its dingy past as a forgotten cabinet-building space. In its current state, the room—filled with lathes, table saws, drill presses and joiners—was brightly lit and smelled of clean-cut wood.

As they finished up their tour in the upstairs showroom, where several finished pieces were on display, Ramos spoke about their love for their work, but the sadness of seeing it go.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to sell something you fall in love with,” he said.

About The Author

Liam Pierce

Freelance journalist currently on a Syracuse immigration beat, soccer aficionado, professional gondolier, beloved 1920s film star.

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