By Louise Brown Smith
Last weekend a few hundred enthusiastic or, perhaps, trembling students began a new term at Cazenovia College. They moved in with backpacks, books, pillows, and new expectations. The college campus is situated right in the middle of our village. The quad is lovely and the buildings seem to blend right in with the variety of our old established buildings. The college provides opportunity for community members to swim and to use the college gym. The Cazenovia Forum hosts a public lecture series on a variety of important issues in the college’s Catherine Cummings Theatre. Caz Welcomes Refugees is presently renting one of the college’s buildings for a family from Afghanistan. The students bring a cohort of youth and vigor to our village. They also bring a diversity of color, ethnicity, gender identity, economic resources, and more, to our community. *
Why do we hardly ever see the students? Do the students feel welcome in Cazenovia? What is our responsibility to the students?
Cazenovia is a small beautiful community miles away from our closest urban area. It’s easy to know our neighbors. Our children go to a small and excellent school and many freely walk to school, the lake, and the library. We have small shops lining our main street, and we know their owners. We gather for our farmers market, civil remembrances, and fun parades. We have a local police department.
But, as Debby Irving says in the eye opening book, Waking Up White, if we are curious in our belief systems, we always need to ask whose voices are present, what messages are being sent, and whose perspectives are being shared. Two years ago ARC-C sponsored a Black Lives Matter Chalk the Walk and BLM yard sign sale event. Lots of people from our community came as did many students from Caz College. It was fun and inspiring to see the beauty, humor, and seriousness present that day on our sidewalks and in our neighbors. One short conversation stood out to me. A friendly college student who was Black said to me, “This sidewalk chalk event and the BLM yard signs that are all around make me feel safer in Cazenovia.”
Our town and village both have adopted Anti-Bias Policies which is definitely a good thing. Ibram X Kendi, in his book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, champions creating anti-bias policies as being more optimal in developing racial equality than is trying to change attitudes. As many astute Cazenovians have mused, a policy doesn’t really do anything unless people act on it. The Town of Cazenovia is presently developing procedures that will promote anti-bias in its own actions and throughout Cazenovia.
There have been a few incidents of racist graffiti in our town. One in the little park behind the library and one at the trail head at Nelson Swamp. These incidents were dealt with promptly: photographed, erased, and reported to the Village Board and to the police. During a discussion to follow up on the library graffiti at a village board meeting, it was thought that perhaps a couple teenage boys were responsible and to preserve their feelings of worth they were mildly reprimanded. Is this possibly an indication of critical race theory right here in our small town?
Do we know our implicit biases? Everyone has implicit biases. When the Harvard examination of implicit bias was given to 30 white members of the Syracuse Peace Council, surprisingly, all but one member tested as preferring white people. What should we do with our implicit biases? How do we learn to be good neighbors to all? How should we act to be welcoming to everyone? A micro- aggression is a comment or an action that unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a biased attitude. Do we unknowingly commit micro-aggressions? Are microaggressions something we do or can they also be something we omit?
This week, the week that Cazenovia students have gathered here for another year, one business in our village displayed a ‘Welcome Cazenovia College Students.”
I wonder how the students would feel if “Welcome Students” signs were visible up and down Albany Street. If there were Caz College “specials” in many of the shops. If there were kiosks and pages on social media listing organizations and businesses as resources for the students. If there was a welcome student event such as a chalk the walk, or free apples near the old orchard where Frederick Douglas gave a speech. Might we need to ask the college students what would make them feel welcome. I wonder how we would do that.
By Louise Brown-Smith
After many years of discussion and planning, the reconstruction of RT 81 through Syracuse is about to begin. A ground-level parkway will be built through the city and RT 481 will be expanded and re-built around the city. Parts of RT 690 will be re-built to facilitate access to Syracuse University, the medical complex, and adjacent areas of the city. Reconstruction will take place in two phases and take about six or more years. The first phase which will take about 3 years, is scheduled to begin this year and will involve expanding Rt 481 around the east side of Syracuse. RT 481 will be renamed RT I-81. The second phase will involve demolishing the current raised section and building a street level road through the city. This reconstruction will include a series of roundabouts, which have been shown to be safer than we think! Commuter times from suburbs and out-lying communities will be affected by only a matter of a few minutes. Air quality, housing options, city connectedness, and city business possibilities should all be enhanced.
More than 50 years ago, the Interstate 81 viaduct was built straight through a working-class Black neighborhood in Syracuse. It displaced long-time residents and ensured that poverty, pollution, and a lack of resources would hurt the community that lived in its path. Despite protest from residents, some district counselors, and some county legislators, 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.
As a teenager when Rt 81 was built through Syracuse, I didn’t think much about it. I knew its construction disrupted my regular driving routes through the city. Also I knew that my father and the fathers of my friends all read 2 newspapers a day and they and so many other smart adults seem to read the news about the construction of RT 81, then known as the Penn-Can Highway, as good news. Later, in a class on segregation and the “Salt City,” I learned that Syracuse’s municipal leaders encouraged the newspapers to print misleading information on the impact that Rt 81 would have on Syracuse’s Black population. The new highway was built to the satisfaction of Syracuse’s leaders and business population and to the dismay of Syracuse’s Black people. Home, businesses, and churches were destroyed. Remaining homes were often mere feet away from the highways noise and air pollution, protected by ugly berms at the end of their streets. Displaced residents had great difficulty finding new homes, due to higher costs and red lining.
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, housing discrimination again limited them to specific houses and streets. Many of them ended up moving a bit south and formed a new black neighborhood, one that has 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 the families living within a thousand feet of the highway. And because RT 81 physically divided the city in two, it further entrenched segregation and concentrations of poverty. As reported in 2017 by the Wall Street Journal, Syracuse ranks among the most segregated metro areas in the country, and the 8th worst city in the country for Black Americans.
Cazenovia seems removed from Syracuse, and I love having such a lovely village to come home to. Many of us drive to Syracuse daily for work, medical services, music, theatre, and art events, etc. What responsibility do Cazenovians have to consider the impact of the rebuilding of RT 81? Why should we be interested? How has the city of Syracuse benefitted us? Have we benefitted from the demise of another community? What is the impact of our dependance on one of our country’s most segregated communities? How do we feel as a community that highly values our abolitionist history yet lives closely with de facto segregation? If the privilege of white leaders contributed to destroying an entire community in the past, how best might we make future decisions? How will we benefit from repairing some of the damage we have done to Syracuse’s Black community? Is rebuilding RT 81 a type of reparations?
Pete Buttigieg, the US Secretary of Transportation, visited Syracuse earlier this year. He said that he “wants projects like rebuilding Syracuse’s highway system to do more than reroute highway traffic around the city." He said it’s an opportunity to address past government decisions that often targeted and hurt Black communities. “It’s a chance,” he says, “to invest in those same areas that were affected by those historic mistakes.”
“We can’t change the past,” Buttigieg said during an interview with syracuse.com/The Post-Standard. “We have a lot of decisions to make about the future. And we can’t repeat the mistakes of the past and the harms of the past.”
“I hope that when I come back,” he said, “we see health is well-served, housing is well-served, community involvement is well-served.”