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Protect & Strengthen Democracy

When the Viaduct Comes Down

For more than 50 years, the Interstate 81 viaduct in Syracuse has stood as an unsightly monument to the failures of top-down thinking.

Cutting through the heart of the city, the original construction devastated a neighborhood that was home to Syracuse’s working- and middle-class Black community. Because of its concentration of Black residents, the neighborhood was considered “blighted” and subsequent redlining opened it up for “urban renewal” projects like the highway.

The I-81 severed the social fabric of the community, destroyed swaths of buildings, and physically isolated the neighborhood from wealthier ones across Onondaga County. This isolation has made it difficult for residents to safely and easily get to other parts of the city, stifling job and educational opportunities. The highway has also spurred high concentrations of housing and school segregation. Now, the once vibrant community is Syracuse’s most vulnerable, with some two-thirds of residents living in poverty.

The necessary replacement of I-81 presents an opportunity to right these wrongs. However, the various agencies involved have so far failed to collaborate on a plan that is in the best interests of all Syracuse residents, especially those that live a stone’s throw away from the highway. The Department of Transit (DOT) has not shared information about road closures, air quality, transportation access, or noise pollution. Syracuse Housing Authority residents have not been given a viable plan for relocating while the construction is underway. There is also no information from the DOT or Syracuse City School District about how the plan will affect the more than 500 students at the local Dr. King Elementary School.

The second option, the “community grid,” is emerging as the favored proposal, with both the DOT and the governor signaling support for it. There are many benefits to making a neighborhood friendlier to pedestrians, bikes, and public transit. It also opens up the neighborhood to gentrification, which will force current residents out just as highway construction did 50 years ago. By elevating the voices of neighborhood residents in these early planning phases, the NYCLU is laying the foundation for inclusive development.

“This is not just a transportation project,” said Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, the NYCLU’s I-81 Project Counsel. “There’s a lot of civil liberties and civil rights issues ingrained into this.”

NYCLU is dedicated to working with community members to ensure that the injustices of the original construction are not repeated. We are amplifying the voices of community members — especially residents in the public housing complex and towers alongside the highway — through weekly check-ins and community forums held in partnership with community-based and faith organizations. We held a panel discussion ahead of the release of the DOT’s draft environmental impact statement as part of an effort to educate residents about how to provide commentary in the agency’s public comment period. We continue to conduct extensive media outreach, adding background and nuance to public discourse through in-depth local coverage of the issue.

In August, we worked with ArtRage Gallery to host “A Shadow Cast: Interstate 81,” an exhibition of more than 500 historical documents covering the timeline of the development and demolition of the 15th ward. These documents were presented alongside photographs made by Shane Lavalette, whose work considers the implications of urban planning decisions surrounding I-81, and his selection of work made by the late Marjory W. Wilkins, who spent her lifetime photographing in Syracuse. During the weeklong exhibition, we sponsored a series of events, including an opening reception, a film screening, a panel discussion, and closing remarks.

It is clear that no matter the proposal, replacing the I-81 viaduct can either entrench existing segregation or it can create openings to rebuild Syracuse along more racially and socioeconomically integrated lines. The people who stand to gain and lose the most by what comes next must have their voices heard.

Photo: Details of what will replace I-81 are still in dispute, with two competing proposals under consideration: rebuild the viaduct right where it stands, only bigger, or tear down the viaduct and replace it with a street grid, routing traffic either locally or around the city entirely.

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Learn more here about the history of the I-81 in Syracuse and the opportunities for the city’s future.