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.”