Financial interests and the pending reconstruction of Interstate 81

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 Manhattan. 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 the inhabitants of the whole 15th Ward.

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.

Several pages had interesting signatures and notations of pledges made by community stakeholders. Syracuse’s great real-estate families, Eagan and Sutton, pledged not to “colonize” residents displaced by Urban Renewal. That’s exactly what happened, however, as inhabitants were relocated to the city’s South Side. Other signatures on the plans included the ranking elite African-American clergy.

An interstate highway was going to plow right through the black community, a community with an economic ecosystem which included all the things that made segregated immigrant neighborhoods flourish. The black business district was arrested in development, uprooted and dispersed.

Why do you think there’s a community called Tipperary Hill (Irish) and the enclave on the North Side once inhabited by Italian Immigrants? They flourished by trading with each other. We now have Little Italy, a re-creation of an Italian community and a culture long-gone. You can’t recreate Caroma’s.

We are now being asked to provide feedback on the future of a highway that needs to be replaced, perhaps by another elevated system or perhaps by a boulevard.

Focus groups have met repeatedly, and we are told that there will be a plan that addresses the “community,” but this highway elimination will create instability in an area that is attempting to build itself up. A large road will have to go through a black neighborhood that is now hugging vast parcels of land to be re-claimed by this re-invention of the interstate.

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 impact of the interstate construction and Urban Renewal on our citizenry.

Syracuse Common Council President Van “Berlin Wall” Robinson, Syracuse University’s Chancellor Nancy “Our Supreme Leader” Cantor and others have argued that the interstate creates a “wall.” Excuse me, people, but it’s an urban walkway.

The walls that separate our communities were built by those same entities that claim to be trying to “tie the city together” with this idea that once the highway is down we’re free from the barriers that have prevented true community to occur.

Did the “Berlin Wall” highway prevent the city of Syracuse under Mayor Lee Alexander from having federal funds threatened due to the city’s refusal to hire minority police and fire personnel?

Did the “Berlin Wall” prevent African-American political participants from being fully included in the patronage system of either party? Did the “Berlin Wall” cause some of the most segregated neighborhoods in America?

Did the “Berlin Wall” highway cause more than 60,000 people to pick up and leave the city of Syracuse?

There are many walls erected by this community that dwarf challenges presented by an elevated highway. The organization that pre-dates the United Way made sweeping recommendations to improve the education system in Syracuse. These recommendations were never implemented. We were warned decades ago about what would happen if we neglect poor children.

Syracuse University initiatives that claim to assist the urban community include their own branded publication as another way to achieve their community realignment goal. The university must control the dialogue because its ultimate goal — once that highway is torn down — is to acquire every piece of property available. On the University Hill, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) has grown so close to Oakwood Cemetery you could vomit out a dorm window and hit a gravesite.

This is more than a story about an update of an interstate. It’s a story of competing financial interests colliding at the off ramp of Interstate 81.

Originally printed in Syracuse New Times June 5, 2013