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'It's a wonderful thing': Auburn's historic, cultural sites participate in Holiday Traditions

AUBURN — Over a dozen families filled Auburn's Willard Memorial Chapel Sunday afternoon to hear Capt. Jack Christmas read the children's book "A Pirate's Night Before Christmas."

Children of all ages were captivated by the the pirate's long hair and red velvet coat, but mostly by the story he was reading, which describes Christmas Eve aboard a pirate ship as "mischievous brigands" await Sir Peggedy, the pirate version of Santa Claus. Then Capt. Jack led the audience in a pirate-themed "12 Days of Christmas" song, replacing the traditional lyrics with expressions such as "a parrot in a palm tree" and "five chests of gold."

The family-friendly affair was part of Auburn's Holiday Traditions event. Seven other historic and cultural sites in and around the city, including the Ward O’Hara Agricultural Museum, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park and Auburn Public Theater, participated in the event, offering free admission, entertainment and other activities for visitors. 

Children were given free books following the reading at the chapel, and then had the opportunity to get an autograph and photo from Capt. Jack. The reading was sponsored by the Literacy Volunteers of Cayuga, an organization that teaches adults in Cayuga County how to read and speak English.

Elisa Hunt, the executive director of the volunteer agency, said the event is a good way to encourage parents to read with their children. 

"It's important to get books in the house and get parents reading to their kids," she said. "It's important to get books in their hands — giving that gift to them." 

The Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center offered free admission and refreshments to visitors, who came to see the museum's two exhibits: "Quilts=Art=Quilts" and "Drawn and Stitched Spaces" by Amanda McCavour. Museum staff also handed out a scavenger hunt for children. 

Eleven-year-old Lily Darling and her parents participated in the scavenger hunt. Darling said it was fun to look at the quilts in the exhibit and answer the questions. Mom Patricia Bonfe, an art teacher in Syracuse, said it was a good way to encourage kids to really look at the art and become part of the experience. 

Next door at the Cayuga Museum of Art and History, visitors were able to tour the women's suffrage exhibit and enjoy hot cocoa.  

Executive Director Eileen McHugh said the museum's exhibit, called "Woman’s Protest: Two Sides of the Fight for Suffrage in New York," is special because it includes anti-suffrage materials as well, which is something many other museums do not feature. 

The Seward House offered free tours of the South Street museum. Volunteers stood in every room to answer questions and share stories with those walking through. The museum's former curator Betty Lewis started the Holiday Traditions event over 30 years ago.

The Seward House's Executive Director Billye Chabot said the museum usually gets around 700 visitors during the annual event. She said the event is an opportunity to bring the community together. 

"I've heard a bunch of people say today, 'I've always wanted to come (to the museum) but never have,'" Chabot said. "It's a wonderful thing." 

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Auburn bar closes after 23 years in business

"We'll miss you."

Regulars at Auburn bar Jitz's Tavern said goodbye to the business Sunday by writing messages like the one above in its windows.

Max Muhleisen, who has owned the bar for 12 years with his wife, Kitty, said Monday that they decided to close Jitz's due to high rent.

"The landlord's in New York City and thinks $3,400 a month is fair rent for a corner tavern," said Max, who lives with his wife in Auburn. "And we couldn't afford it."

According to Cayuga County property records, the three-story 65 Franklin St. building where Jitz's was located is owned by L Properties LLC. The owner could not be reached for comment.

Muhleisen said he did not know what would replace his business.

According to The Citizen archives, Jitz's Tavern opened in late January 1994. It was previously known as Walsh's Tavern, which was owned by Jitch and Ellie Walsh, said their daughter Barbara. The name "Jitz's" paid tribute to her father, she continued.

Muhleisen said the bar, located in the former Five Points neighborhood, had a loyal base of customers. Saying goodbye to them "wasn't easy," he added.

"But no more headaches," he continued. "We had 12 good years."

On an Auburn community Facebook page Monday, many patrons remembered Jitz's fondly.

"I will miss this place; fond memories made and good times had," said Jessica Armstrong, of Auburn. "One of the few bars that didn't have country or rap music playing all of the time."

Farrah Penird, of Auburn, added, "Good memories there with some amazing people who I knew already and some I met and I still call my friends. Nothing wrong with what others might call a dive bar or hole in the wall."

Robin Churchill Swietoniowski said she had a low opinion of the bar until some friends brought her there a year and a half ago.

"I found a great place to hang and now have a wonderful group of friends I consider family," she said. "I'm grateful I went in there and found happiness and fun. So sad to see it close."

Homelessness on the rise in Cayuga County

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress shows homelessness is increasing nationwide, and it's no different in Cayuga County.

As of this week, Cayuga County Community Services Director Ray Bizzari said there are 13 families and 46 individuals who are homeless. That's up from 11 families and 38 individuals in 2016, and 11 families and 41 individuals in 2015. 

"Our numbers here are up," Bizzari said. "We're pretty aggressive. We put a lot of case management on these cases, and we move people into permanent housing, but there's still quite a bit of people becoming homeless."

HUD's latest "point in time" count shows that nationwide in January 2017 553,742 people experienced homelessness, with about 65 percent of those in emergency shelters or transitional housing. According to HUD's release, homelessness is declining in most communities, but due to a lack of affordable housing in some major cities, it's actually up overall by 0.7 percent since 2016. There's been a decline, however, in homeless families of 5.4 percent. 

Gary Mann, program manager at Auburn Rescue Mission, said the mission took in 37 of 77 reported homeless families so far in 2017. Those the organization can't accommodate are typically put up in motels. It's a different view, Mann said, than what some people may have of homelessness. Many people, he said, think of panhandlers on the street.

"People have different visions of what a homeless person looks like or acts like," Mann said. "It seems like there's this huge issue that came out of nowhere, but this issue was always there."

Bizzari said besides a lack of affordable housing in the area, some individuals are struggling with mental illness and substance abuse. Cayuga County, he said, is working on some of those "pressure points." Some people are migrating from Syracuse to Cayuga County, too, where they get help or treatment for things like drug and alcohol abuse and end up staying. 

To view HUD's latest report, visit