The US edition of the Guardian has picked up on the issue of the re-building of Interstate 81 through the city of Syracuse in an article entitled The NY Highway That Racism Built. According to the article it was built through a historically black neighborhood because of racism. I only want to post this article because the reality is that the location of the highway was dictated by geography.
Briefly, New York State wants to replace the highway through Syracuse because it is needs to be replaced. According to the Department of Transportation website:
Interstate 81 (I-81) is important to the Syracuse area. The highway serves as a major commuter route, providing access to jobs, businesses and services in downtown Syracuse and the hospitals and institutions on University Hill. It also serves as a national and international north-south trade route from Tennessee to the Canadian border. This connectivity is essential and influences the livability, economic vitality, and sustainability of the Syracuse metropolitan region.
Portions of I-81, which was built in the 1950s and 1960s, are deteriorating and nearing the end of their useful life. Also, sections of I-81 do not meet current standards and are experiencing high accident rates. This is especially true of the 1.4-mile elevated section, or “viaduct,” near downtown Syracuse. Now is the time to address I-81’s safety concerns and the structural integrity of the viaduct. In order to do this, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) are following an environmental review process. The purpose of the I-81Viaduct Project is to address the structural deficiencies and non-standard highway features in the I-81 corridor while creating an improved corridor through the City of Syracuse that meets transportation needs and provides the transportation infrastructure to support long-range planning efforts (such as SMTC LRTP, Syracuse Comprehensive Plan, and others).
According to the article:
In the 1960s, I-81 plowed through a historically Black neighborhood in Syracuse, displacing hundreds. Organizers’ dream of seeing it torn down may get new life under Biden.
Just south of downtown Syracuse in upstate New York, a stretch of highway has long divided surrounding neighborhoods.
On the east side are large buildings where university students live, well-maintained green spaces, and a wall that blocks the highway from view. On the west side is a predominantly low-income and disinvested Black neighborhood where the pollution from the highway exacerbates many residents’ existing health conditions
I believe that once the decision was made to bring the highway through the city that the location was destined to go through the neighborhood in question simply because of geographical constraints. There is an overview map of the Syracuse region in the introduction to the draft environmental impact statement. Not shown on the map are railroads that parallel most of the route of the interstate through Syracuse.
The Central Study Area map from the draft environmental impact statement shows the north-south route of I-81 through the city. The viaduct that is the cause of so much concern runs between Downtown and Near Eastside south of I-690 which runs east to west. Note that further south the viaduct separates Southside and University Hill.
There is a picture in the article credited to the Onondaga Historical Society that shows the highway being constructed that shows the hills to the south of the city that are a major reason for the location of the highway.
This picture provides the rationale for my argument that the location of the highway was due to geography. The picture looks south with University Hill, the location of Syracuse University, to the east and downtown Syracuse on the valley floor to the west. Check the overview map and you can see that to the north there is a lake that precludes building the highway to the west of downtown Syracuse. The most direct transportation corridor from the north into the downtown originally followed a canal which was followed by a railroad. The highway route replaced them both. Not shown in the picture is a railroad that cuts under the interstate at the end of the viaduct headed south along the hill on the left. The most direct route to the city from the south followed this transportation corridor into the city. In order to connect the two transportation corridors, the most direct route was through the predominately black neighborhood.
I don’t believe that the argument that the highway location was chosen specifically to target a black neighborhood stands up to the geography rationale. This does not detract in any way the very real environmental and health impacts of the residents near the highway. I have not doubt that in today’s political climate that the viaduct through this section of the city will be torn down and replaced by a community grid. The arguments for and against replacement of the viaduct versus the politically correct community grid option boil down to value judgements.
Ultimately the only thing I am sure that will not happen is that the community grid will ignite a renaissance of the city’s fortunes and revitalization of all the neighborhoods near the highway. There are too many other factors at play to believe that the simply changing the highway will solve the problems that advocates for the community grid option claim are due to the highway.