Some neighborhoods were not worth fixing.
August 2, 2019 10:22 AM   Subscribe

In the 50s and 60s, Syracuse's 15th Ward was a thriving working class black community. Then the calls for “urban renewal” came, and the 15th Ward was destroyed to make way for Interstate 81. Today, the Syracuse portion of I-80 is at the end of its useful life. To determine what comes next, the city must come to terms with what the highway destroyed. But can tearing it down fix the sins of the past?

Urban freeway removal is a hot topic in transportation planning today, with scattered initiatives slowly gaining traction. But there's a long way to go before these policies become broadly implemented.

This article is by renowned transportation reporter Aaron Gordon, previously, previously, and previously.
posted by showbiz_liz (25 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes. Obviously. Tear it down. Tear down all urban freeways. They cause traffic, cause pollution, and ruin neighborhoods. Urban freeways are the single worst idea in the history of urban planning.
posted by weed donkey at 11:04 AM on August 2, 2019 [16 favorites]


Turn all urban freeways into parks!
posted by The Whelk at 11:23 AM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Turn all urban freeways into parks!

A great idea, as long as you don't mind years, years of fighting over what the park is going to look like (see: Boston).
posted by Melismata at 11:31 AM on August 2, 2019


I think the Mefite consensus on urban highway removal is one of violent agreement.

But when it comes to the sin of displacing a stable community, nothing is going to fix that. Nothing fixed the displacements from the West End in Boston. And nothing will.
posted by ocschwar at 11:35 AM on August 2, 2019 [18 favorites]


Funny thing, replace the freeway number with different numbers and you could be describing most any major metro in the US. "Use the highway to split the black neighborhood" seemed to be the modus operandi for urban planners back in the day. There is no fixing that.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:08 PM on August 2, 2019 [13 favorites]


Fuck "urban renewal" and fuck the suburbs. The processes of urban planning, highway construction, and suburban development have systematically robbed black people in an astounding number of ways. Turn over almost any logistical detail, and you'll find another black community getting screwed over.
posted by desuetude at 12:12 PM on August 2, 2019 [11 favorites]


There was a business district near my house from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1960s when they ran Rt. 65 through it and in the process split a multi-racial neighborhood in half and cut most of the residents access to the river. This before and after picture set captures what was lost. Here's another view. Everything was torn down just so that suburbanites could leave the city quicker.
posted by octothorpe at 12:21 PM on August 2, 2019 [6 favorites]


Funny thing, replace the freeway number with different numbers and you could be describing most any major metro in the US. "Use the highway to split the black neighborhood" seemed to be the modus operandi for urban planners back in the day. There is no fixing that.

They literally ran I-94 directly through the middle of the Rondo neighborhood in St Paul. Before it was cut in half by I-94, St. Paul’s Rondo was a thriving African-American cultural center
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:20 PM on August 2, 2019 [9 favorites]


I grew up in Syracuse, on the east side near an I-81 exit. My dad was raised in the 15th Ward, and they tore down his whole neighborhood to put in the highway.

The South Siders' fears that taking down the viaduct will bring gentrification is 100% valid. Right now, much of the property in that area is in poor condition. Even if newcomers only rehab abandoned property, not displacing anyone, taxes will go up. (In NY, property taxes are already breath-taking.)

I don't have a solution, but the downfall and glacially-slow re-build of my hometown is just sad. (One of the six downtown department stores of my youth, Sibleys, closed in 1980 and the building sat empty for thirty years. THIRTY. General Electric, Carrier, General Motors, Bristol-Meyers, Allied Chemical all moved south. Central NY lost tens of thousands of jobs just between 1980 and 1990.) In the past 10-15 years, insurance companies have been moving there, so there's some white collar work, but blue collar work is gone.
posted by corvikate at 1:26 PM on August 2, 2019 [9 favorites]


As corvikate touches on, pretending that 81 is the only factor in "fixing" Syracuse is shortsighted. Taking 81 out of downtown at this point is just going to make it harder to reach downtown (and I agree with some points in the article about how it will increase local traffic volume) and maybe make it a more desirable place to live (gentrification). It's not going to help with many of the economic and social problems caused or correlating with everything else that happened since the construction of 81. The jobs are not coming back to cny, and stores are not coming back to downtown.... Plenty of suburbanites are taking 81 downtown to all the new groovy bars and restaurants.

Amidst the mix of a multitude of happy and unhappy memories, the bleakest are of cny winter days of the 80's where one or more of my parents and relatives was unemployed...

**Basing this decision on nothing but weather, it makes no sense to continue to keep 81 elevated, where it freezes on many winter days and where there's nowhere to put plowed snow. Was it 81 or 690 that someone accidentally drove up the snowbank "ramp"and off the road?
posted by Tandem Affinity at 1:36 PM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


""Use the highway to split the black neighborhood" seemed to be the modus operandi for urban planners back in the day. There is no fixing that."

Agreed. Our example here in New Orleans is how I-10 destroyed the heart of Treme.
posted by komara at 1:37 PM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


A great idea, as long as you don't mind years, years of fighting over what the park is going to look like (see: Boston).

Eh? The process was protracted, but Boston is one of the few examples I can cite of reclaimed highway space being turned into proper park land. I live across the street from the Southwest Corridor, and it is just about as much as you could hope for in a green urban space: tennis courts, playgrounds, bike paths, and dog parks. I work across the street from the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which (admittedly) took a long time to gain its current shape, but which is another gem in the city. The reclamation of the almost-was-I-695 is just now taking shape, but I am hopeful for the chasm along Melnea Cass Boulevard, too.
posted by Mayor West at 1:52 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


See also Vancouver BC and Hogan's Alley, destroyed to build viaducts to almost nowhere (soon after, Vancouver halted attempts to build freeways downtown).

They are now demolishing the viaducts and activists are pushing for recognition of the cultural history and revitalization.
posted by lookoutbelow at 2:36 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


See also: The Empire State Plaza and I787 in Albany.
posted by mikelieman at 2:39 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Oh man, it hurts my heart to think of what could have been. What if we'd gone for a great rail system instead of highways? What if we'd really invested in cities and multiculturalism? What a loss.
posted by spindrifter at 2:47 PM on August 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


> the Syracuse portion of I-80 is at the end of its useful life

Should this have said "I-81" in the post text?

Assuming that - I do drive on the I-81 through Syracuse once in a while, and while it is a twisty, low speed limit, awkward stretch of highway with ugly merges, it's not in noticeably worse condition than the rest of I-81 heading south, is it?
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:53 PM on August 2, 2019


What a loss.

But we can fix it! I envision a world where people are strolling up and down the linear parks , up and down all day and all night! I see vast, carbon-sinking native plantings, accessible recreational spaces, community centers, garden allotments, and social services ringed with mixed use medium density affordable housing and everywhere, in both directions, electric powered public transportation!

My god, it’ll be beautiful.

/reverseJudgeDoom
posted by The Whelk at 3:25 PM on August 2, 2019 [11 favorites]


it's not in noticeably worse condition than the rest of I-81 heading south, is it?

Oh, it is. The structure is in very poor condition and must be replaced or removed. Moreover, the 50-year old design and construction standards are no longer acceptable (just as two examples, there is zero shoulder room and the twisty turns are too tight to match today's standards). "Rebuilding" the viaduct would actually require condemnation of a lot more land and demolition of maybe 20+ buildings. The owners of hotels outside the city and the Destiny Mall might have a colorable argument that eliminating I-81 through Syracuse could maybe impact their business at some de minimis level. But tell that to the building owners whose properties would have to be razed to upgrade ("replace") the viaduct.

Also I would like to hand it to the author of this article for not ignoring the potential downsides of the "grid" approach, i.e., gentrification. And the pipe dream of just assuming tearing down the viaduct might magically revive the dense urban residential neighborhoods it destroyed 50 years ago. That said, the neighborhoods on the south side of Syracuse that abut the viaduct are blighted by it.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 4:19 PM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


Post Text needs updated. I-80 is East West and in PA. Though it does Intersect with 81.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 4:26 PM on August 2, 2019


See alsoAfricville, the destruction of which is a particularly ugly part of Halifax history.
posted by mrjohnmuller at 6:42 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


The Power Broker goes into great depth about how the Cross-Bronx Expressway tore apart that neighborhood. But also a little about how the Cambridgeport residents in Boston defied and beat away a highway through their part of town.
posted by M-x shell at 7:50 PM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


I guess we'll see how apt "violent" is shortly since I don't actually agree with wholesale removal of urban freeways, though I do completely agree that there are many whose benefits outweigh their ongoing cost of maintenance, repair, and eventual replacement and can and should be removed now and hopefully even more so in the future as usable transit expands its reach.

In other cases, capping and other techniques to mitigate their detrimental effects on neighborhoods is more appropriate than removal. Where alternatives are either not available or not usable by the majority of existing road users, removal increases traffic on surface streets, which increases both crash risk (which is especially dangerous for pedestrians) and the per mile pollution emitted by the remaining traffic.

It's certainly a worthy goal where it is both feasible and applicable, but it is not presently feasible and applicable in a lot (my guess would be most, outside of a few cities with widespread off-street transit) of this country.
posted by wierdo at 8:32 PM on August 2, 2019


Baltimore's stint in the news and this post reminded me of the tragic river of asphalt that the Robert Moses cult stabbed through the heart of living, energetic black neighborhoods, plunging through without interruption until they tried to go through a white neighborhood with a feisty Barbara Mikulski standing guard and that was pretty much that for Baltimore's urban planners try at a racist Cross Bronx Expressway of our very own.

Until a decade or so back, there were a few vestigial on/off ramps jutting skyward from I-95 just south of downtown, and I was bitterly annoyed to see them removed at great taxpayer expense, because like the Zeppelinfield at Nuremburg or the ridiculous warren of NYC's Pennsylvania Station, they stood as a memorial to stupid shit we should never do again.

When I'm venturing into the city on a Vespa, the feeling of being on that insanely wide swath of nothing where lives were once lived is almost overwhelming.

Why would anyone accept this?

But it happened everywhere, just like the plague, and here we are, with cities that don't work right and politicians who tell us these problems couldn't have been foreseen and probably can't be fixed. It's desperately sad and frustrating, particularly in a city where white folks with evil, ugly hearts joyously redlined us into this mess.
posted by sonascope at 7:35 AM on August 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this. I live in Syracuse and, like a lot of residents, have been anxiously following the news. Tearing down the viaduct is clearly the best option. Either of the other two options -- rebuilding the viaduct or the utterly insane tunnel idea -- are more expensive and will force more historic buildings to be torn down. It's not going to solve all the city's problems and it's going to suck while the work is happening, but rerouting 81 and developing the community grid is clearly the way to go. I hope that's what happens and I've made my voice heard on the issue, but I worry the suburban voters and the mall owners are going to wield an influence far out of proportion to how they are impacted.
posted by maurice at 1:30 PM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


Also I would like to hand it to the author of this article for not ignoring the potential downsides of the "grid" approach, i.e., gentrification. And the pipe dream of just assuming tearing down the viaduct might magically revive the dense urban residential neighborhoods it destroyed 50 years ago. That said, the neighborhoods on the south side of Syracuse that abut the viaduct are blighted by it.

Man, you just get to say the word 'gentrification' like it's equally magical and horrendous:
City Observatory write up of a gentrification study
"The study, which looked at households with kids in the Medicaid program, found that low income families living in gentrifying neighborhoods were no more likely to move than those living in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. The study, like others that have been published recently (and actually, for several years) undercuts the widespread belief that gentrification is synonymous with displacement. "


I mean people in this thread are talking about existing road users as a protected class, and that we need to take their input into account. Also, the effects of removing a highway and the reinvestment around downtown are not 'magic', they are just normal effects of pricing something that is valuable (ie: access to downtown) appropriately. It's not magic anymore than extending the highway and creating suburbs is.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:23 AM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


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