For more than 50 years, the Interstate 81 viaduct in Syracuse has stood as an unsightly monument to the failures of top-down thinking.
It cuts through the heart of the city, much of it crumbling, while the federal, state and city officials consider how to replace it. Their deliberations have left communities bordering the viaduct anxious about their futures, fueling worries that officials could repeat the same missteps as the original planners, who decimated neighborhoods to build the roadway.
Whatever replaces the viaduct must be the result of community input, with a particular focus on the concerns of the people who will be most impacted by the massive, years-long construction project.
The History (1950s)
To its residents, the 15th ward in Syracuse was a close-knit community of families and black-owned businesses. In 1950, it was home to nearly 90 percent of Syracuse’s black population, and a frequent stop for black travelers who needed a safe haven from “white’s only” establishments.
To city leadership, the 15th ward was seen as a failing neighborhood and its different areas were labeled “slums.”
So when Syracuse put in a bid for federal money for an interstate in 1958, despite some disagreement from local elected officials, the city administration eventually agreed with Federal and State officials to run the elevated part of the highway through the center of the city.
Despite protest from residents, some district counselors, and some county legislatures, the entire 15th ward was razed, and with it the homes and businesses of most of Syracuse’s black community. More than 1,300 families were displaced to make way for the construction of Interstate 81.
The Impact (1960s to today)
Instead of bringing more opportunity to Syracuse’s downtown, the highway carried traffic—and tax dollars—out to the white suburbs. And when the 15th ward’s uprooted residents looked for new places to live, blatant housing discrimination again limited them to specific houses and streets. Many of them ended up moving just south of the viaduct and forming a new black neighborhood, one with even fewer resources than the original.
The problems didn’t end there. The black residents nearest to I-81 suffered the brunt of traffic-related air pollution, which is linked to increased rates of asthma and impaired lung function, especially for people living within 500 meters of a highway. And because the viaduct physically divided the city in two, it further entrenched segregation and concentrations of poverty. Today, Syracuse ranks among the top ten most segregated metro areas in the country.
Fifty years later, the I-81 viaduct has reached the end of its lifespan, and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) must decide what to do with it.
Option one is to update the existing viaduct to current standards, a process that will take four to seven years and cost an estimated $1.7 billion. The upgraded highway would be safer for drivers, but won’t address the air pollution, noise, and segregation that has plagued the city for decades.
Alternatively, NYSDOT can take down the highway and replace it with one of two choices: a tunnel which could take over ten years to complete and cost 3.6 billion dollars; or a walkable community grid that would cost $1.3 billion and take four to seven years to complete. Of all the options, the community grid would result in the least impact on community displacement and building demolition. Traffic that used to run through I-81 would instead be diverted to the streets or nearby I-480.
Each option will change the course of the city's future and the everyday life of the people who live closest to the current viaduct.