The Highway Was Supposed to Save This City. Can Tearing It Down Fix the Sins of the Past?

“Helen Hudson will tell you what the 15th Ward was like when she was a girl. In the 1950s and early ’60s, the Syracuse neighborhood was home to thousands of predominantly black residents who had settled in the growing upstate New York city during and after the Great Migration. Those who remember it, like Hudson, describe it as thriving, self-sufficient community they were proud to call home. … Charlie Pierce-El will tell you all about it, too. His eyes will light up when he does. Mr. Betsy’s was the first grocery store in the neighborhood. Restaurants lined Harrison Street, many of them serving soul food. Pierce-El refused to pick a favorite, because ‘they were all favorites, back then, being a young man.’ He frequented the five theaters available within a short walking distance, once to see James Brown. He spoke lovingly of his mother’s garden and the resources she pooled with neighbors to create fresh meals for his father, an auto detailer, and his 11 siblings. Hudson, Pierce-El, or any other former residents of the 15th Ward won’t lie and say it was a rich neighborhood. But it was the type of working class community where blocks were extensions of families and lack of material wealth was compensated by a sense of belonging. Yet, to others—to the newspaper writers and the city planners and the real estate developers who had no desire to sell homes to black people—the 15th Ward was a slum, filled with cockroaches and blight. To them, it didn’t need to be fixed. It needed to be knocked down. Then the calls for ‘urban renewal’ came. And not long after that, the highway came too. Today, Syracuse is a city reckoning with the sins of its past. Sins that built a highway right through and over the 15th Ward to enable quick travel out to the suburbs, and consequently enabled white flight away from the city that destroyed the city’s tax base. The highway, part of Interstate 81 which now runs from Tennessee to Canada, contains a 1.4-mile elevated section called a viaduct right along the former 15th Ward and the current Syracuse neighborhood, the South Side, which is still predominantly African-American and has a median household income just under $23,000. But the viaduct—which was completed in the early 1960s along with a junction to I-690 right at the heart of Syracuse, combining for over one million square feet of deck space—is at the end of its useful life, like many urban highways across the country from that time. It will soon cost too much to maintain. Something needs to be done. …”
W – Syracuse, New York

Several hundred civil rights demonstrators gather in Syracuse, N.Y.’s Clinton Square, May 5, 1965, to take part in CORE rally aimed at “northern hypocrisy.” CORE also protested against homes being destroyed in the 15th Ward.

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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