Can this American city heal racial wounds by destroying its highway?

SYRACUSE, NY (Reuters) – For more than 50 years, Interstate 81 has traversed the heart of bad luck Syracuse, New York, raining exhaust fumes in its Southside neighborhood, where most residents are black and poor .

View of the I-81 freeway in Syracuse, New York, United States on April 28, 2021. REUTERS / Zoe Davis

Now, New York State wants to replace that elevated stretch of highway with a street-level boulevard to replenish the city’s urban network. Construction could start as early as next year.

The plan sparked visions of renewal in a city where one in three people live in poverty. Some here say he could also make amends for black residents who were displaced by the construction of Interstate 81 decades ago and have lived in its shadow ever since.

“When they built this freeway, they destroyed this community,” said David Rufus, a longtime Southside resident who is now a New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) organizer. “Now here is an opportunity to correct this problem by bringing it down.”

Such efforts have support in Washington. US President Joe Biden has offered $ 20 billion to help “correct historic inequalities” caused by transportation projects being carried into low-income minority neighborhoods. Biden cited Syracuse as an example.

It is not certain that this project keeps this promise. The state’s latest plan, released two years ago, aims to make the Rust Belt town of 142,000 people a better place to live. But some residents and public officials say it must provide more guarantees, such as community control over the newly cleared land, to ensure black residents will not be displaced again.

“Syracuse is a perfect case study of how we can systematically solve this problem across the country,” said Mayor Ben Walsh, whose grandfather was mayor during the highway construction. “We happen to be in the right place at the right time.”

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Syracuse hasn’t had this kind of luck in decades. Nestled in rolling farmland about 322 miles northwest of New York City, the city has lost a third of its population since its mid-20th-century heyday, when its factories produced televisions, air conditioners, and even automobiles. .

These factories attracted thousands of black migrants from the segregated South. The most populous in a district east of the city center known as the 15th arrondissement; discriminatory practices prevented them from settling elsewhere.

Government policies have reinforced this prejudice. The Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation, a New Deal agency to help delinquent homeowners, colored the 15th neighborhood bright red on a 1937 map to indicate that the federal government should not support mortgages there. “Undesirable both in terms of upgrades and occupant class,” the agency wrote.

Charles Pierce-El, 74, a resident of Syracuse, recalls it differently. The 15th district of his youth was filled with tailoring shops, bakeries, grocery stores, nightclubs and funeral homes owned by blacks. Parents watched over other people’s children and traded produce from home gardens, he said.

“I had a lot of fun being a kid,” Pierce-El said.

Things changed in 1954 when construction began on Interstate 81, which was part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s national highway construction program.

At that time, road engineers were largely unburdened by environmental or social factors when determining where those roads should go, according to Joseph DiMento, a professor of law at the University of California at Irvine, who wrote about the time. .

More often than not, this meant routing these highways through black neighborhoods, where land was cheap and political opposition weak.

In Syracuse, the move was championed by city officials as a way to clean up a neighborhood they saw as “a slum and a ruin,” DiMento said. Some 1,300 people have been displaced.

Today, Interstate 81 serves as a concrete barrier between the universities and hospitals that boost the city’s economy and a stretch of decaying houses and social housing projects where much of the black population of the city lives. city.

As the freeway nears the end of its operational life, 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 announced that it planned to replace a 2.25 km stretch near the city center – including the former 15th arrondissement – with a single-storey boulevard flanked by trees and tracks. cycling. High speed traffic would be routed around the city.

At least 18 other U.S. cities have cut freeways or are planning to do so, according to the Congress for the New Urbanism, an advocacy group.

In San Francisco, streetcars and inline skates now roam a stretch of waterfront that was previously occupied by the Embarcadero Freeway. In Rochester, New York, about 90 miles west of Syracuse, a hotel and hundreds of housing units are growing where the Inner Loop Freeway once served as a ditch around downtown.


On a rainy April afternoon, Rufus and her NYCLU colleague Lanessa Owens-Chaplin walked along the elevated Interstate 81 in Ward 15. Rust ate the joists and the rainwater sank. slipped into a broken drainage pipe on the sidewalk.

Removing the highway would be a big improvement, they said. But, as written, the state’s plan would place a ramp to a high-speed portion of the road just 250 feet (76 m) from an elementary school. Federal guidelines encourage officials to locate classrooms at least 500 feet from freeways when possible.

Mayor Walsh said he was also concerned about the impact of the state’s plan on the elementary school.

The state would also use a neighborhood park as a construction area.

“Seeing kids playing 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 concerns for residents who already suffer disproportionately from asthma and other respiratory problems, they said.

The same goes for jobs. In the past, large construction projects have been largely led by white suburban workers, according to Deka Dancil, chair of the Urban Jobs Task Force, a community group that lobbies state officials to that some of these jobs go to the townspeople. The state made no guarantees, she said.

“Nothing they did or said made me think they see this as a matter of racial justice,” Dancil said.

Glenn Blain, a spokesperson for the state transportation agency, said NYSDOT has worked closely with residents of the area to ensure their concerns are heard. He declined to discuss details such as jobs for local residents, as the project is currently under federal review.


The state’s plan disappointed suburban officials and businesses who had been pushing for a new tunnel or elevated highway to keep high-speed traffic in the city. NYSDOT dismissed these options as expensive and impractical.

But supporters of the highway removal say the state’s proposed surface street still prioritizes cars over people through design choices such as 12-foot-wide lanes and wide intersections. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects has called on the state to narrow the roadway to discourage speeding.

The state also said it plans to retain control of about 18 acres (7 hectares) that would be opened by the highway withdrawal, including much of what was once the 15th Arrondissement.

This could prevent Syracuse from creating a so-called community land trust to give residents some control over how this land would be developed.

Such trusts have been used successfully in Washington, DC, Denver, and other cities, and the idea has wide support among local leaders here.

“If the state hasn’t done this, it’s a mistake and it’s a missed opportunity,” said Ryan McMahon, a Republican who represents Syracuse and its surrounding suburbs, the county manager of Onondoga County.

Walsh, the mayor, said his staff are studying how land trusts work in other cities. He acknowledged that so much public discussion has focused on removing the highway that “we haven’t spent enough time answering all the other questions that come after this decision has been made.”

Concerns about gentrification are significant. In Oakland, California, for example, the black population declined dramatically in one neighborhood after a raised freeway was converted to a surface street in 2005, according to a study from the University of California at Berkeley.

Southerners like Pierce-El have rallied their neighbors to make sure they aren’t marginalized this time around.

“We are not our parents,” he said. “You are not going to come in here and underestimate us. We will not accept this.

Reporting by Andy Sullivan in Syracuse, New York; additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; edited by Scott Malone and Marla Dickerson

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