A look at Interstate 81 in Syracuse
It was developed in the 50s and the 60s as a way to transport people to Canada and major cities in between, like Syracuse. When Interstate 81 was built in the city, it brought out both good and bad feelings. Now, as parts of the structure are nearing the end of their lifespan, the major highway is once again a hot topic. In part one of a series about the interstate, YNN's Erin Clarke gives us some history about I-81 in Syracuse.
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Planning for what we know today as Interstate 81 began just after World War II.
"The idea was, at that time, there were no interstate highways, so people were using the regular routes that you would travel across the states and went right through city
streets. So in the case of Syracuse, the main North-South Route was Route
11 and that went right up Salina Street," said Dennis Connors, Onondaga Historical Association Curator of History.
For truck drivers back then, like Robert Potter, having a highway built was a blessing.
"Driving up and down those hills, especially in the winter. It was just terrible," Potter said.
But not everyone embraced the idea of a highway through Syracuse. For some, it robbed them of a culture. A neighborhood between downtown and the university hill area known as the 15th Ward, a place where many African-Americans lived.
Connors said, "They arrived in places like Syracuse and realized that in terms of housing options there were very few and the one housing opportunity really was the 15th ward, it was a double edged sword because you were forced to live there, but it created a very tightly knit community,"
In the 50s, the 15th Ward had been slated for wholesale clearance, known as urban renewal. Parts of the 15th Ward were scheduled for demolition, so plans to build the highway through there seemed an easy fit for planners.
To build Interstate 81, the 15th Ward was essentially sliced down the middle. A couple of the original Pioneer Homes were removed, the neighborhood destroyed and the community that lived there felt betrayed.
"Right in that area there was a pool hall, a barber shop, a couple of barber shops, a couple of restaurants, all black owned which were demolished," said Emanuel Breland, a former 15th Ward resident.
After residents of the 15th Ward were displaced, they sought places to live in other parts of the city. Efforts that proved difficult because of housing discrimination.
"People would just say no. They'd say well the place is for rent and then when they go there, oh we rented this," said Breland.
Now as discussion about the future of Interstate 81 is happening, old wounds are being reopened.
“They're skeptical of what it's going to do to even what's there now. The projects and all that stuff," Breland said.
Transportation officials know there is still ill will and distrust lingering and hope opening up the dialogue among community members will help avoid the problems of the past.
On Tuesday, we will take a look at present day Interstate 81 and the discussion about its future being facilitated by The Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council with the I-81 Challenge.
If you missed the organization's public meetings, you can get caught up with a virtual workshop on the I-81 challenge website.
The next public meeting will be held this Wednesday at the Oncenter, from 2 to 8 p.m.