The I-81 Story

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.

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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)

Williams Brothers - Grocers - corner of E Washington St and Irving Ave.jpg

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.

Interstate 81 construction - circa 1966 or 1967

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.

The Future

Now the viaduct has reached the end of its useful life and must be replaced. The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) has said its preferred path forward is to replace the viaduct with a walkable community grid.


Under the right conditions, the community grid could be the catalyst for knitting back together what the highway destroyed.  But details matter and certain aspects of the NYSDOT’s current proposal could lead to gentrification and displacement of the residents who live near the viaduct.

It doesn’t have to be this way. By taking a hard look at the harms done to people in the past, there is a real chance for the I-81 project to improve housing conditions, health outcomes, and economic and educational opportunity for all people in Syracuse.