Interstate 81’s Urban Boulevard Creation is Urban Renewal Under a Different Name

Unlike other cities we, in Syracuse are located at the crossroads of New York State. Re-routing 81 will disrupt a route that’s been in place since Syracuse was a Canal Town.

Despite claims to the contrary, the Interstate 81 Highway has never been a “Berlin Wall”. As a lifelong resident of Syracuse, I find that insulting.

Education and lack of diversity in our workforce are the great divides, and it has nothing to do with a highway. When barely 50% of SCSD children are graduating, you can’t blame that on a highway. When 30 people die from gun fire and stabbings, you can’t blame that on a highway. We must increase the “opportunity index” for residents which includes; increased graduation rates and a marked improvement in local employment prospects, failure to so would be akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Decision makers seized upon this moment to justify the elevated highway’s removal. Interstate 81’s construction resulted in the absolute destruction of an African-American economic, political and social infrastructure, vaporized by Urban Renewal.

Now, some fifty years later after the highway has met its expected life-span. This means that, it’s time to examine our options as we seek to replace the aging Interstate highway, which runs through the heart of the city.

Interstate 81 new viaduct “click on image to enlarge.

In 2017, the process is different. They’ve held dozens of community meetings, forums and focus groups all intent on coming to a consensus on what to do with a highway snaking through the middle of our city. The trend around the country has been to discard these elevated transportation relics of the past and return to a natural urban grid.

As previously stated, Syracuse is not your typical American city. We are at the crossroads of New York State. You can’t take an historic crossroad and turn it into a traffic light ensconced nightmare. Remember, Clinton Square’s Federal money came from assertions that redirecting traffic at Clinton Square will alleviate traffic congestion. Nothing could be further from the truth.

African-American residents will be impacted more than anyone in Central New York as an 8 lane urban “boulevard” is carved through neighborhoods. Glowing words of support flow from some of our leaders making this an urban highway with stop lights and urban bike trails, a viable replacement. Just as in 1960, African-Americans find themselves residing on land that’s now desired by someone else. Back then it was called Urban Renewal, quickly earning the nickname, “Negro Removal” based on the mandated shifts in population. Transitioning to an Urban Grid will be Urban Renewal under a different name.

Properties will be condemned along the route. Developers and regional players, Syracuse University and SUNY Medical University are salivating over the new opportunities for their expansion needs.

How would you like to live near an 8 lane Blvd.? Don’t worry, you might be relocated. But, what will the people in these neighborhoods who remain will have to endure? Traffic jams for dome events, which will be more plentiful after Syracuse University completes its $248 million dollar extreme make-over. Traffic from south of Syracuse will not go to the newly minted 81 North by-pass. They’ll exit 81 and travel through the city to reach Destiny USA. During the winter months, 481 North is dangerous going from Brighton Ave towards Jamesville and Dewitt; it ices regularly and has an odd grade. Look for lots of accidents on that stretch if the Interstate 81 by-pass is a reality.

81 through City of Syracuse

Businesses that have developed over decades, based on our current traffic patterns could fail, possibly falling victim to unintended consequences.

As with any project of this magnitude there will be mitigation funds and programs targeting the displaced.  If this happens, it can’t be more of the same. Don’t create additional useless, ”Sugar Teats” for government and quasi-government agencies, appropriating useful programing dollars to current stakeholder agencies.

If there’s going to be massive change, this is the time to look at things a little differently. Do something new, bold and different.

Models of worker-owned, democratically run businesses exist which could pull people out of poverty and eventually into ownership. These have to be the new tools of developing human capital. Not programs packed with administrators and counselors.