The enactment of the Federal Highway Act in 1944 initiated an era of road construction in the U.S. New York’s highway engineers started developing a master plan for the state. The 1947 Syracuse region’s Urban Area Report portrayed a concept of the first of its kind for north-south highway passing through the Syracuse area, the Townsend Street arterial, which was incorporated in 1955 and published in the Yellow Book, a federal publication. It mapped out what would turn into I-81 Interstate highway systems, constructed in three stages and opened between 1959 and 1969. The construction of the I-81 Interstate in the 1960s plowed through Syracuse, a historically Black community, displacing hundreds, majority blacks and Latinos (Sawyer, 2021). Whether through design or blindness, construction of the I-81 Interstate destroyed homes and bisected communities, particularly in the 15th Ward, inflicting harm to those communities, including forced displacements and disenfranchising the historic black community, severing the community’s social fabric. I-81 Interstate displaced hundreds of Black residents and ensured that poverty, pollution, and lack of essential resources would hurt the community for decades; hence the proposed tearing it down will imply mending the legacy of discrimination and injustice done to the community.
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Over five decades ago, the Interstate I-81 Viaduct ripped through Syracuse, a working-class Black community, displacing hundreds and ensuring continued poverty that has persisted in the neighborhood to date. The I-81 Interstate Viaduct project encroached the Syracuse, historically Black community, displacing and disenfranchising hundreds of black people (Archer, 2020). Syracuse’s 15th Ward inhabitants were a close community of family units and black-owned businesses and companies. The region was home to about 90% of Syracuse’s black people and a common stop for black travelers seeking asylum from “whites’ only” establishments. According to the City leadership, 15th Ward was perceived as one of Syracuse’s failing neighborhoods, and the majority of its areas were marked as slums. Hence, when the federal bid for interstate viaduct came in 1958, the city leadership did not hesitate to allow elevated part of the highway to run through the city center, 15th Ward. Despite a series of protests from residents and some leaders, the whole 15th Ward was destroyed, and with it, several homes and businesses belonging to Syracuse’s blacks razed. Over 1300 families were displaced to pave the way to build Interstate 81 (Archer, 2020). One would expect that the construction of such a superhighway brought more opportunities to Syracuse’s downtown residents. However, that is not the case. The highway shifted the traffic and tax dollars out of the black neighborhood to the white suburbs, creating extreme social classes on the opposing ends.
A stretch of the highway separated the surrounding neighborhoods for a long time, creating two extreme social classes impacted differently by the highway. When the uprooted 15th Ward residents started to look for new places to relocate, deliberate housing discrimination again restricted them to particular streets and houses. The majority of them settled southern sections of the viaduct and established another black neighborhood with even fewer essential resources than the initial one. The segregation created two conflicting community settings. The eastern side of the highway comprises green spaces where university students reside and is well-maintained with a wall blocking the highway from view. However, the southern side of the highway consists of the mainly low-income and disinvested black community, where pollution from the highway worsens many of the inhabitants’ current health conditions (Archer, 2020). Since the highway physically divided Syracuse into extreme ends, it further entrenched discrimination and concentration of poverty.
Syracuse is ranked among the highly segregated American cities with the country’s highest concentration of poverty levels. According to research by the Century Foundation in 2015, using the U.S. census data found that among the United States 100 most prominent cities, Syracuse has the highest poverty level concentrated predominantly among the Blacks. The researcher established that the poverty rate was 50% upward in the tracts around the viaduct. About two-thirds of the blacks in these neighborhoods live in poverty (Paul J. 2015). The problem does not end there. Health inequality is rampant in these neighborhoods, according to a study.
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The numbers depict harrowing stories in these neighborhoods. The black residents staying closer to the I-81 Viaduct suffer the impact of traffic-associated air pollution, causing increased rates of impaired lung functions and asthma. The health data indicates that asthma-associated complications and hospitalizations are twice higher in Syracuse as the entire country. The rates of asthma and lung-related complications are rampant among the population living with 500 meters of the highway. More than one in ten adults in Syracuse has asthma, a rate higher than the New York state average (N.Y. Department of Health 2017). Further study shows that about 11.4% of the Central New York population between 18 and 64-years-old have a chronic condition involving airways inflammation, more than the state average, which stands at 9.7%. Asthma upstate is more prevalent in Finger Lakes at 13.4% of people aged between 18 and 64. The Southern Tier ranks the least with 10.2%. According to research, black women aged between 18 and 24 with income below $15,000 per annum are at the most significant risks of developing asthma complications in the upstate New York. Even though most researchers try not to link the asthma prevalence in central New York to I-81 Viaduct impacts, there is a high correlation between asthma and city traffic.
According to research, traffic is one of the primary courses of urban pollution, causing about 3% of life-adjusted disabilities globally (Lee et al., 2017). Studies in other cities, including European cities, reveal that about 14% of cases of asthma in children and 15% exacerbated childhood asthma cases in adults are linked to exposure to road-traffic-related pollutants (Lee et al., 2017). Hence supporting the fact that I-81 Viaduct is connected to a high prevalence of asthma cases in Syracuse. Over the years, several groups have advocated for the teardown of the I-81 Viaduct and replacing it with a design that can add value to the neighborhood alienated for decades.
The majority feel that tearing down elevated interstate implies mending the legacy of discrimination and injustice done to the black community in the region for decades. For many years, Van Robinson, Syracuse’s Common Councilor, has advocated for the benefit of tearing down the elevated interstate and replacing it with something that can add value to the community. Stephanie Minor, Syracuse Mayor, and other prominent figures from Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University, who perceive I-81 as an impediment to the institutions’ growth, have also expressed their support for tearing down of highway. Proponents of the teardown have proposed replacing the elevated I-81 with an urban avenue reconnecting the downtown neighborhoods, and should be economical to maintain and return the traffic and economic activities along the corridor (Sawyer, 2021). For decades, the state administrators have known that the aging I-81 overpass required radical redevelopment. Most public officials and residents maintain that the viaduct must be reconsidered for economic, public health, and safety reasons (Sawyer, 2021). However, for a community that has long been marginalized, removing the highway also implies mending the legacy of injustice committed to their neighborhood.
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Across the United States, community coordinators have long struggled to talk about the racist city planning policy, leading to highways being constructed through historically Black communities or neighborhoods, causing forceful displacements of people. The infrastructure projects essentially prioritized the needs of white commuters in the suburbs at the expense of the poor Black areas (Bullard et al. 2004). The trend was not limited only to Syracuse but across the country. Black residents in Portland, Oregon, have complained about a section of the Interstate 5 highway connecting Washington and California, while Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans has been called a racist monument (Crutcher 2010). With the sign of support from the Biden administration, community organizers in Syracuse have argued that the federal government has finally acknowledged the adverse impacts that I-81 inflicted on the neighborhoods and the new impetus around the idea of bringing the highway down (Sawyer, 2021). To the Blacks that the highway has segregated for over 50 years, the move to tear down the highway feel like justice is finally served.
Summary and Conclusion
Overall, I-81 Interstate marginalized the Blacks in Syracuse, destroyed homes, and bisected communities, particularly in the 15th Ward. Many people were forcefully displaced, and the community was dissected, creating two neighborhoods with extreme characteristics; the high impoverished Black neighborhood on the one end the white suburbs on the other end. The designers ensured that the highways displaced hundreds of Black residents and ensured that poverty, pollution, and lack of essential resources would hurt the community for decades. And for sure, the Black communities on the lower end of the highway have suffered poverty and pollution-caused diseases, including asthma and lungs impairments caused by traffic-caused pollution from I-81. With the highway’s usage life coming to an end and many leaders are proposing tearing down instead of renovation, the Blacks whom the highway has segregated for decades feel that justice has finally been served.