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Celebrating Urban Life Since 1989

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A Highway Runs Through It: Syracuse and the Future of Interstate 81

Our story begins in 1948 with the passage of the Federal Highway Act which eventually would become our Interstate Highway system.  The Central New York region would have a north-south highway through what was then known as the Townsend Street Arterial, 1.4 miles of the highway would be elevated as it passed through the heart of Syracuse.

The character of the City of Syracuse was altered; neighborhoods that once housed African-Americans who also owned businesses were in the way of progress. Entire swaths of land containing homes and businesses were slated for demolition. Significant historic structures were razed to make way for this urban transformation.

A large cluster of African-Americans inhabited the political subdivision called the”15th Ward”; the area was just a portion of the black community’s economic and social activity. However, the 15th Ward had evolved into an integrated community with thriving businesses commercial centers like E. Genesee Street contained a shopping district that included Liberty Market, Harvey’s Drug Store, Essie’s store, A Five and Dime, liquor store, Sam Teckler’s furniture, the Regent theater, Jean’s Fish and an assortment of small bars including the original Phoebe’s part of a thriving urban socio-ecosystem. Houses and apartments lined E. Fayette, S. Crouse, and Irving Ave. These business names don’t include dozens of small stores which had their own butchers like Schor’s Market on Walnut Ave and E. Fayette Streets. Townsend, McBride and many other streets had sizable businesses catering to the entrenched African-American community.

We lived right smack dab in the middle of shopping access, across from Walnut Park, equal distance from our home on Harrison Street stood Marshall Street, the Syracuse University targeted business district, and two blocks north coexisting was the E. Genesee Street business district. East Genesee Street stores catered to the ethnic stew of neighborhood resident’s needs. People occupied the dozens of apartments that rose above the vast variety of storefronts. At its heart was the Regent Theater (now Syracuse Stage). At that time it seemed like everything we needed was located within two blocks of where we lived.

Reverend Leo Murphy our Pastor from Bethany Baptist Church lived two blocks up from us on Harrison Street near Thornden Park. Church was two blocks away on the corner of Irving and Harrison Street, in the early days there were nothing but vacant lots surrounding the vacant Washington Irving School. Central Technical High school was closed in 1975 and Madison School had long been converted into condominiums. These elements were part of a vibrant urban community caught between a growing Syracuse University, Syracuse’s Urban Renewal Plan and the Interstate Highway System.

Madison School (now condo’s)

At the other end of progress was the widening of lower Harrison Street to what it is today. Gone were Joe’s Store, Meltzer’s, the ESSO “filling” Station at Renwick Ave. Renwick Avenue itself was gone as was Harrison Bakery relocating to W. Genesee Street. It was a time of tumult the combination of Urban Renewal and Interstate 81 closed Washington Irving Elementary School and thus my introduction to bussing.

Our classes were split-up; bonds that were formed in those early years were broken forever. We were assigned to new schools; there were kids I knew that I never saw again. Kids whose parents knew my parents and would come to the house, you know? Like a real community.

As children we had no idea the community we grew up in was about to be obliterated. We had fun. Entire blocks populated with vacant homes awaiting demolition became makeshift community centers for children our vast network of vacant “club” houses we’d play in. Interstate 81 had cut a path through the hearth of the city. My Harrison Street was no longer a sleepy tree lined residential neighborhood. The Dutch Elm disease raced through Syracuse’s urban forest eradicating the canopy of shade that provided respite from the hot summer sun.

Now some fifty years later it’s time to do it again. In addition to neighborhood disruption large numbers of public housing residents will be forced to move due to construction. These disruptions are inevitable due to the developments proximity to Interstate 81’s construction footprint. Whether its construction of the new highway or removal of the old, regardless there will be relocation of residents due to Interstate 81’s reconfiguration.

As a senior at Ithaca College I took a class which studied the legacy of New York City’s master builder Robert Moses. The class included a field trip to New York City. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, author Robert Caro describes his subject’s development tactics. Moses not only built highways, he also built public authorities into political machines. Using Moses as a model, Caro exposes how power works in all cities in America.

We students each picked a topic, a city, and of course I choose my hometown, Syracuse, N.Y. Lucky for me, while on spring break I gained access to the original Urban Renewal plans for Syracuse.

Poring over the master plan’s old, yellowed maps, I found many areas identified as “blighted.” In fact, entire blocks were slated for demolition. I became obsessed with what was planned and what was actually built based on the grand plan that removed inhabitants from the entire 15th Ward area and beyond.

The plan called for a New City Hall and other civic buildings in a cluster around a grand plaza. According to the plan Washington Irving School would be preserved and Central Technical High School was finally going to get those athletic fields. High-rise residential towers were to replace the run-down structures that were the primary focus of Syracuse’s Urban Renewal Program.  Massive condemned units were replaced by high-rise structures that didn’t fit the demographics of the population. Units for families were replaced by high-rises that never attracted the population required to fill tiny one and two bedroom apartments.

81 through City of Syracuse
Replace, Rebuild or Remove

The elevated portion of Interstate 81 has becomes dated and is in need of Replacement, Rebuilding or Removal.  This time local, state and federal resources came together in an effort to solicit as much public input as possible. Meetings in various parts of the region were held to discuss options available for the future of the highway, citizen focused forums, and business groups expressed their opinions for options to replace the aging roadway.

What were once, thriving neighborhoods ensconced in the tree lined City of Syracuse fifty years ago are gone, lost forever. Now it’s time to do it again, meaning fifty years after getting the original path of Interstate 81 wrong, how do we reconfigure this highway we’ve used to conveniently zip around the area? How do those interests compete with those who interpret the highway as the equivalent to the Great Wall of China, separating the have from the have-nots?

Street level view

There are now well meaning activists, politicians, planners and entrepreneurs drooling over the availability of land along the Interstate 81 corridor and new 6 Lane Boulevard accommodating local traffic and development projects. The boulevard can also be used to create economic development opportunities as traffic patterns and roads change, shopping needs will follow. Just imagine an Erie Boulevard type configuration near Townsend, Martin Luther King Drive or State Streets. These roads will lead towards downtown, hospitals, neighborhoods and educational institutions.

Not everyone is onboard with eliminating the elevated portion of the highway replaced by a boulevard. The Onondaga County Legislature has approved a resolution on May 7th 2013 Memorializing the Intent of This Legislature Regarding the Need to Maintain the Existing Alignment of Interstate 81 through Syracuse; which in part states,” RESOLVED, that the Onondaga County Legislature hereby rejects the concept of replacing I-81 with a boulevard that halts traffic flow with a series of traffic lights; and, be it further RESOLVED, that this Legislature memorializes its determination that the existing Interstate 81 alignment through Syracuse a nd Central New York must remain and its function and designation as an interstate highway must not be removed or impaired;”

The aforementioned view is counter to most options currently on the table for final review. These options were chosen after meetings, focus groups, and extensive community dialogue.

Enhancements for Pedestrians and Bicycles
Enhancements for Pedestrians and Bicycles

The most vocal about tearing down the highway comes from people who view the highways physical structure as a barrier, Syracuse Common Council President Van Robinson, an early proponent of tearing down the elevated portion of Interstate 81 says, “The highway is dividing our city”. He lays out a litany of reasons why taking the structure down would fuse these areas into one contiguous community.

The city is not divided by a highway, Syracuse is divided by poverty.  You can take down the highway, replace it with a yellow brick road, mount a white Unicorn and add a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow Syracuse’s staggering poverty levels are still here.

What happens to Central Village and Pioneer Homes?75th-Button_small2

Properties under the management of Syracuse Housing Authority known as Central Village and Pioneer Homes will undergo massive reinterpretation.  Hundreds will be forced to move; first towers housing individuals, Syracuse Housing Authorities Headquarters will be demolished along with standard units located near Interstate 81. If the boulevard option is chosen, a 6 lane traffic artery will cut through the oldest public housing project in New York State reducing the density of the project while re-purposing the valuable land left in the wake of reconfiguration of the highway.  For the record Syracuse Housing Authority Board of Directors are committed to “what’s best or the community”, they’ve not committed to any proposal designed to transform this corridor.

How many homes, businesses and lives will be uprooted in this latest attempt to revitalize our urban core? Who will benefit? It took decades to fully recognize the unintended consequences of the interstates construction and Urban Renewal on our residents. Easy access to 81 accelerated the flight away from a city that once hosted 210,000 inhabitants, were now down to 147,000.

Recent plans for the highway which has reached its lifespan have taken a different approach. When the original Interstate 81 plan was developed for Syracuse, community involvement was not considered in their master plan. Many promises were made and not kept.  Urban Renewal combined with the Interstate highway system construction was a disaster not just in Syracuse but all over the United States. In the 1950’s the policy became known as the “negro removal” program. Syracuse was not alone as this practice of constructing highways precipitated urban flight and the mass migration of the middle-class from urban neighborhoods.

As these projects reach their expected lifespan, communities have taken the initiative to re-visit the original purpose of highways routing through their cities. As they’ve been re-examined some cities have decided to tear the elevated portions of highways down making way for additional creative use of space.  What we have before us in Central New York is the question of how we plan our new highway configuration in concert with economic development and quality of life for everyone not just for those who can afford loft apartments and condominiums.


A Celebration of Black Icons in Dance

Community Folk Art Center 805 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, NY, United States

Join Classical Dance Trailblazer, Charles Haislah, The Creative Arts Academy, and CFAC-DanceLab for an evening of captivating performances and dance history. This event is free and open to the community!

Free and open to the community

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