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I-81 Impact on the Southern End Neighborhoods 

When: April 6th, 2017 at 6:00 p.m.

Where: South Side Innovation Center 

Address: 2610 S Salina St, Syracuse, NY 13205

            At 6 o’clock on Thursday, April 6th the South Side Innovation Center will be the setting for a panel about the future of I-81, and by extension, the future of the Southside and Valley areas of Syracuse. All are encouraged to attend. As I-81 reaches the end of its “functional life” in 2017 a replacement plan will fall in line. Regardless of the final selection, extensive impacts will be felt by The Southside and Valley neighborhoods within our community. Whether these impacts will be positive or negative depends on both our vigilance and capacity to unite as a community. The panel will be presented by Mark Frechette, the I-81 Project Director at the NYS Department of Transportation (DOT). Peter Sarver, the ACTS Convener of Moving People Transportation Coalition, will help represent our vision of a united Syracuse as an expert panelist. Among the remaining DOT proposals are the Community Grid or the enlargement of the I-81 overpass.

            In 1956 New York State approved funds for an overpass that would divide Syracuse in two. Construction of I-81 demolished what past city officials and development firms called “Slum Land,” a close-knit and vibrant black community. “Slum Land” was home to small businesses and black migrants from the racially-segregated South, and its destruction brought Syracuse’s own breed of segregation. I-81 marked the era of a divided Syracuse, with University Hill on one side, downtown in the middle, and miles of destitute neighborhoods on the south-side. Our south-side neighborhoods are amongst the poorest in the nation, as Syracuse has the highest rates of concentrated poverty for Blacks and Latinos. I-81 tore our city asunder, and caused Syracuse’s characteristic poverty.

            The plight of the poor worsens when they are surrounded by other poor people. Scholars call this phenomenon “concentrated poverty,” and the rest label these places the “ghetto.” In Syracuse, the “ghetto” appears as dilapidated Victorian-style homes, clean parks often void of children, and uneasy streets lined with greenery. The contrast is a hint to the generations of decline Syracuse has endured, and what this city could be with a revival. For now, concentrated poverty means only 50% of our youth graduate high school, and fewer attend college. Syracuse’s poor neighborhoods have struggling schools, fewer businesses and jobs, and more violence. Our city was not always like this though: since I-81’s construction, Syracuse has climbed from the 72nd to the 29th poorest city in the nation.


            When the 15th Ward, or “Slum Land,” was demolished in the 1950’s it prompted black residents to move to the south-side. This caused a migration of middle-class white residents to the suburbs, taking with them their incomes, businesses, and job opportunities. A vacuum was left for black residents that could not be filled. Racist practices prevented blacks from buying homes or finding jobs, and some of those practices have survived to the present. Today, only 30% of blacks in Syracuse own homes, while 71% of whites do. The flight of middle-class residents and inhibitions against social advancement for minorities means that many poor remain in the city, while the affluent leave.


The result, according to CNY Fair Housing in an article by Alana Semuels of  The Atlantic, is the Syracuse area “is one of the worst scoring cities in the country when looking at equality of opportunity based on race and ethnicity.”

            The chance to rectify the past comes with our decision on the I-81 challenge. No matter Syracuse’s choice, we should consider what is best for all in our community. Although not to be specifically discussed in the Panel on April 6th, this includes the Syracuse North Side, a neighborhood on the brink of renaissance which may lose many historic buildings to all of the current DOT options.


            The Community Grid, supported by Moving People Transportation Coalition and many other non-profit advocacy organizations, would demolish the overpass. Then, a main road at street level will be constructed, encouraging local businesses and community growth. This option would cost an estimated 1.3 billion dollars.


            The other option is an enlargement of the overpass, which offers no solution to the historic I-81 problem. Additionally, this option would cost 1.7 billion dollars.


            Advocates who want to “save” I-81 have often proposed a tunnel solution, which the DOT has previously discarded as unrealistic. A tunnel highway may become exorbitantly expensive, as with the Boston “Big Dig,” which flew 21.4 billion dollars over budget. This option is unlikely to return, though you may hear occasional mention of it.


            I-81 has drawn its dying breaths and signaled the possibility of a community-wide transformation. It would do us good to remember the mistakes of the past so we may reroute the future. Short-sighted thinking is what caused the blunder of I-81, and we should not repeat it.


            Through the Panel on April 6th, we hold a unique opportunity to create a more equitable Syracuse. Suburbs and city-dwellers alike must work together, as one cannot survive without prosperity of the other. We are in this together.

The Panel Moderator will be Angela Wright, executive director of Syracuse Model Neighborhood Corporation

Other panelists include:


Jim Bright (President and OwnerDunk & Bright Furniture Co. Inc.) 

Mark Nicotra (Save I-81 Town of Salina Supervisor)

Bill Simmons (Executive Director Syracuse Housing Authority)

Lemir Teron (Assistant Professor SUNY ESF, Environmental Justice)

acts syracuse



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