Highway Robbery

Urban planning says a lot about a city’s character. In Syracuse, New York, Interstate 81 separates those who live on the right side of town from those who do not. For this piece, we paired two longtime residents—an award-winning poet and a photographer—to tell the Syracuse story in pictures and words.

IT HAS TO GO—the 1.4 miles of elevated highway running right through the heart of Syracuse, New York. Sixty years in and it has deteriorated to the point where it will require prohibitive maintenance just to keep it from falling apart. The irony is that it has always been a problematic structure, riddled with original-sin design flaws, found wanting in both form and function—an obstacle course of narrow lanes, twisty S-curves, and sight-blocking hills, with no shoulders for emergencies or emergency vehicles. It has to go.

The crucial junction: I-690 meets I-81.

Since it was built, elevated highways cutting through urban downtowns have been found to be notorious city-killers, and the 855 miles of I-81 bypass every other downtown but Syracuse’s. The 15th Ward is the working-class black community Syracuse sacrificed to the vision of I-81. Now, instead of a viable community, the area under the viaduct is a dead zone, the city center a ghostly remnant bereft of jobs and economic opportunity, spiritually and physically cut off from the city growing on the other side of the viaduct.

Ernie asking for change under the overpass where I-81 meets I-690.
Biker riding around Pioneer Homes, one of the oldest public-housing projects in the U.S. The community is right next to I-81.
Woman carries groceries home under the overpass, in a neighborhood east of I-81.
At least the highway doesn’t block all the sunlight.
Boy playing basketball on the courts at Libba Cotten Grove, west of I-81.
But now the viaduct is falling apart. It has to go.
Terry, attending Tucker Missionary Baptist Church on Easter Sunday.
Li, a Syracuse University graduate, on commencement day.
Poetic garbage.
Mao, walking under the I-81 overpass.
Hand-painted "billboard" in the Northside neighborhood, situated to face cars passing on I-81.

The options are: rebuilding it, redirecting it, tunneling under it, or some hybrid multimodal concept incorporating bikes, pedestrians, and alternative public transportation, in a fluid mix that encourages area development and economic opportunity, environmental justice and sustainability, street vibrancy, public areas, and effectively gridded traffic patterns.

The dismantling efforts of cities such as Portland, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Oakland, and others have generally found these initiatives to be successful revitalization efforts. Caltrans used the rebuild of the Cypress freeway to reunite the Oakland it had originally sundered. Change is always a challenge, but if you get ahead of it, it can be shaped. Some businesses, some commuters have objected to the possible removal of I-81, but the City of Syracuse has decided to use this opportunity to try and position itself for a 21st-century viability that has so far eluded it.

Brian walking in the Northside neighborhood.
Houses in the Northside neighborhood near I-81.
Syracuse University commencement day. The campus is one mile from I-81.

Come, then, and let us pause in perusal of a moment pregnant with significance, a world that may soon no longer be. Here we see its people, its communities, its edifices—witnesses asking what kind of city do we want to live and work in, how will we nurture our communities, our populations, ourselves? How do we, in our little slice of reality, help forge a world that benefits us all? This time, we vow, this time we will get it right.

Kris B, a rapper, has hope that the city will improve highway-adjacent neighborhoods.

Well. Likely we will fumble it again, but we will try, and try again, doing the one thing humanity is really good at: doing what it can, when it can. Humanity builds to last, but time chips away all things, times change, the social contract evolves, today’s answers become tomorrow’s questions, 50 years from now the experts will likely be wondering what we were thinking. All we can do is give our generations the best we have to give, using the lessons of what has come before to do it better this time—a legacy of redemption caught in time and art, images of what is, visions of what is to be. Testimony.

Forman Park, a small area of green space near I-81.
Visiting a family grave at Oakwood Cemetery, close to I-81.
Landscaping along the I-81 and I-690 intersection at the Syracuse Center of Excellence.
Looking down Bear Street at construction lots near where I-81 cuts by Syracuse's mall, Destiny USA.

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