SYRACUSE, New York – For more than 50 years, Interstate 81 has cut through the heart of hard-luck Syracuse, New York, raining vehicle exhaust on its Southside neighborhood, where most residents are Black and poor.
Now, New York State wants to replace that elevated stretch of freeway with a street-level boulevard to knit the city’s urban grid back together. Construction could begin as soon as next year.
The plan has stirred visions of renewal in a city where one in three residents lives in poverty. Some here say it could also make amends to Black residents who were displaced by Interstate 81’s construction decades ago and have been living in its shadow ever since.
“When they put that highway up they destroyed this community,” said David Rufus, a lifelong Southside resident who is now an organizer for the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). “Now here’s an opportunity to right that wrong by bringing it down.”
Such efforts have support in Washington. U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed $20 billion to help “redress historic inequities” caused by transportation projects routed through low-income minority neighborhoods. Biden has cited Syracuse as an example.
It’s not certain whether this project will deliver on that promise. The state’s last blueprint, released two years ago, aims to make this Rust Belt city of 142,000 people a more pleasant place to live. But some residents and public officials say it must provide more safeguards, such as community control over newly cleared land, to ensure that Black residents won’t get displaced yet again.
“Syracuse is a perfect case study for how we can address this issue systematically across the country,” said Mayor Ben Walsh, whose grandfather served as mayor while the freeway was being built. “We just happen to be at the right place at the right time.”
Factories, highways, displacement
Syracuse has not had that sort of good fortune for decades. Nestled in rolling farmland about 320 kilometers northwest of New York City, the city has lost one-third of its population since its mid-20th century heyday, when its factories churned out televisions, air conditioners, even automobiles.
Those plants drew thousands of Black migrants from the segregated South. Most crowded into a neighborhood east of downtown known as the 15th Ward; discriminatory practices prevented them from settling elsewhere.
Government policies reinforced that prejudice. The federal Home Owners Loan Corporation, a New Deal agency to help delinquent homeowners, colored the 15th Ward bright red on a 1937 map to indicate that the federal government should not back mortgages there. “Undesirable both as to improvements and class of occupant,” the agency wrote.
Syracuse resident Charles Pierce-El, 74, recalls it differently. The 15th Ward of his youth was filled with Black-owned tailor shops, bakeries, grocery stores, nightclubs and funeral parlors. Parents watched each others’ children and traded produce from backyard gardens, he said.
“I had a lot of fun being a child,” Pierce-El said.
Things changed in 1954 when construction began on Interstate 81, part of then-President Dwight Eisenhower’s national freeway-building program.
At that time, highway engineers were largely unburdened by environmental or social factors when determining where those roads should go, according to Joseph DiMento, a University of California, Irvine law professor who has written about the era.
More often than not, that meant routing those freeways through Black neighborhoods, where land was cheap and political opposition low.
In Syracuse, the move was championed by city officials as a way to clean up a neighborhood they viewed as “slum and blighted,” DiMento said. Some 1,300 people were displaced.
Today, Interstate 81 serves as a concrete barrier between the universities and hospitals that drive the city’s economy and a stretch of decaying homes and public housing projects where much of the city’s Black population lives.
As the freeway approached the end of its functional life span, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) said it would assess whether it would make sense to rebuild it. In April 2019, the agency said it planned to replace a 2.25 km stretch near downtown — including the former 15th Ward — with a surface-level boulevard flanked by trees and bicycle lanes. High-speed traffic would be routed around the city.
At least 18 other U.S. cities have removed freeways or plan to do so, according to the Congress for the New Urbanism, an advocacy group.
In San Francisco, streetcars and rollerbladers now cruise a stretch of waterfront that had previously been occupied by the Embarcadero Freeway. In Rochester, New York, some 145 km to the west of Syracuse, a hotel and hundreds of housing units are sprouting where the Inner Loop freeway once served as a moat around downtown.
Who gets the jobs?
On a rainy afternoon in April, Rufus and fellow NYCLU staffer Lanessa Owens-Chaplin walked alongside the elevated Interstate 81 freeway in Ward 15. Rust ate at the joists and rainwater sluiced through a broken drainage pipe onto the sidewalk.
Removing the highway would be a big improvement, they said. But, as written, the state’s plan would place an access ramp to a high-speed portion of the roadway just 76 meters from an elementary school. Federal guidelines encourage officials to locate classrooms at least 500 feet from highways when possible.
Mayor Walsh said he is likewise concerned about how the state’s plan would impact the elementary school.
The state would also use a neighborhood park as a construction area.
“Seeing children play in the middle of a construction zone is something I don’t think any other community would accept,” Owens-Chaplin said.
Construction noise and dust are additional worries for residents who already suffer disproportionately from asthma and other respiratory problems, they said.
So are jobs. Major construction projects in the past have largely been staffed by White, suburban workers, according to Deka Dancil, president of the Urban Jobs Task Force, a community group that is pressing state officials to ensure that some of those jobs will go to city residents. The state has made no guarantees, she said.
“Nothing that they’ve done or said has led me to think they see this as a racial justice issue,” Dancil said.
Glenn Blain, a spokesman for the state transportation agency, said the NYSDOT has worked closely with area residents to ensure their concerns are heard. He declined to discuss specifics such as jobs for local residents, as the project is currently undergoing federal review.
‘We’re not out parents’
The state’s plan disappointed suburban officials and businesses who had pushed for a new tunnel or elevated highway to keep high-speed traffic flowing through the city. NYSDOT rejected those options as expensive and impractical.
But advocates of removing the freeway say the state’s proposed surface street still prioritizes cars over people through design choices like 12-foot-wide traffic lanes and broad intersections. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects has asked for the state to narrow the roadway to discourage speeding.
The state has also said it plans to keep control of roughly 7 hectares that would be opened up by the freeway’s removal, including a large chunk of what used to be the 15th Ward.
That could prevent Syracuse from setting up a so-called community land trust to give residents some control over how that land would be developed.
Such trusts have been used successfully in Washington, D.C., Denver and other cities, and the idea has broad support among local leaders here.
“If the state did not do that, that is a mistake and it’s a lost opportunity,” said Onondoga County Executive Ryan McMahon, a Republican who represents Syracuse and its surrounding suburbs.
Walsh, the mayor, said his staff is researching how land trusts work in other cities. He acknowledged that so much public discussion has focused on getting the highway removed that “we haven’t spent enough time answering all the other questions that come after that decision’s made.”
Worries about gentrification loom large. In Oakland, California, for example, the Black population decreased dramatically in one neighborhood after an elevated freeway was converted to a surface street in 2005, according to a University of California, Berkeley study.
Southside residents like Pierce-El have been rallying their neighbors to make sure they aren’t marginalized this time around.
“We’re not our parents,” he said. “You’re not going to come in here and underhand us. We’re not going to accept that.”
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