Category Archives: History

“Rethinking I-81”: OCL’s Study Blog

Stent (or Dagger?) in the Heart of Town: Urban Freeways in Syracuse, 1944-1967

The 1961 Decisions in Syracuse, by SU political scientists Guthrie Birkhead, Roscoe Martin, and others, explored a series of case studies of metropolitan action in Syracuse in the Post–World War II era. The study focused on public decision-making and the relative influence of various interest groups in the power structure at a time of emerging demographic change and suburbanization.  The case studies are fascinating glimpses at how important metropolitan issues, from sewage treatment and water district  to government reorganization and real estate development were approached in a regional context.

Although it occurred in the same time period, the I-81 construction was not a subject of the book. Creation of the highway system in and around Syracuse was much less a local, or metropolitan, process than a process in which federal and state plans, and dollars, determined transportation developments.  The recent study, Stent (or Dagger?) in the Heart of Town: Urban Freeways in Syracuse, 1944-1967, published in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Planning History, takes a look at decision-making on the urban freeways in Syracuse.

Author Joseph F. C. Di Mento, a professor of Law and of Planning Policy and Design at the University of California Irvine, concludes that the timing of transportation decisions in Syracuse was important.  Before the evolution of environmental law, and at a time when the urban renewal goals of “slum clearance” and redevelopment converged with the funding opportunities of the federal highway fund, the fiscally conservative city administration deferred to state highway plans.  A relatively weak city planning function and a “strong engineering-driven state highway bureaucracy and gubernatorial positions” influencing choices Syracuse made, “ …led to an outcome different from what city fathers and officials had envisioned…”.

The approaching need to reconstruct parts of the freeway through the city gives Syracuse an opportunity to develop a new vision for the community.

“Rethinking I-81” – OCL’s Study Blog

Post #3


(Based on presentation to OCL by Dennis Connors, history curator, Onondaga Historical Association)

How the Interstate Highway System Divided Syracuse

It’s ironic that a city that was so vocal and concerned in 1927 about the possibility of an elevated railroad line creating a hostile barrier could allow one to be built between its downtown and its major educational and medical institutions 30 years later.  What happened?  Where was civic planning?

Note that I-81 and the entire national interstate highway system were a part of post-World War II planning system to provide for fast ground transportation as a military advantage. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 authorized the biggest public works project in the nation’s history, and completely altered the course of America’s urban development, which would thereafter be based on the automobile.  The roads had economic implications for the communities with easy access to these interstates, contributing to the growth to new areas, and shifting focus away from the local thoroughfares they replaced.

The NYS Thruway had avoided going through urban areas when it was complete in the 1950’s.  That led some local business interests to complain that the road moved business away from the city center.

The north-south highway that became I-81 was previously intended to follow Townsend Street through downtown. Earlier (late 1940s) a boulevard that would run along Townsend had been conceived to relieve traffic congestion but the city didn’t have the money to construct the road. Ten years later, the federal government appeared with funding for the highway system and the idea of an arterial/elevation evolved.

Syracuse’s Mayor Henninger opposed the elevated highway, seeing it as an ugly wall dividing downtown. According to an article in The Post-Standard of April 13, 1958, Mayor Henninger praised the newspaper for bringing to the light the fact that the state had been developing plans for an elevated highway through the city, apparently without any word to the public, and the mayor expressed surprise at the extent of the plans. Most city leaders were “definitely opposed to such a plan”, agreeing with the mayor who said such highways “have ruined other cities.”

To counter the state’s plans, the mayor proposed a depressed highway which would run underneath a civic plaza near today’s Everson. The state opposed this, citing concerns about drainage and cost and the city backed down. The proposed elevated corridor was moved east from Townsend to Almond Street, farther from downtown. There the highway would only encounter what was considered substandard housing, most of which was to be demolished under Urban Renewal.  At the time, the late 1950s, downtown Syracuse still had a bustling economy and a link with the University was not a major concern.  Downtown business and retail interests could not foresee the benefits of a connection to the expanding institutional complex on the Hill.

The city was promised an “artistic and beautiful” elevated highway, not a wall, but an open system of trestle construction compared to the elevated highway along Boston’s waterfront, then under construction (and of course now replaced by a tunnel to reconnect the city and the waterfront).  By 1967 Syracuse newspaper editorials were already calling the elevated highway an eyesore, pleading for “… landscaping and beautification of the unsightly route 81 elevated highway and other elements of the ugly Onondaga Interchange now nearing completion in the heart of Syracuse.”  And from a transportation standpoint, in 1973 the Syracuse Herald-American called Route 81 through Syracuse a “multi-million dollar mess” and blamed it on “poor planning.”

Ultimately the forced compromise of an elevated I-81 though Syracuse came down to lack of  public input, the community’s inability to enact a local vision, and an incomplete grasp of the long term implications of an elevated highway.

“Rethinking I-81” – OCL’s Study Blog

A westbound NY Central passenger train circa 1920's about to cross South Salina Street.  Photo courtesy Onondaga Historical Association.


(Adapted from a presentation by Dennis Connors, history curator, Onondaga Historical Association)

History can give us perspective.

When considering the future of the I-81 viaduct, it’s instructive to look back at past transportation corridor decisions that had major and longlasting impact on the area.

When the Erie Canal became obsolete in 1918, the city had to decide what to do with it. Little thought was given to the canal’s  potential as an aesthetic feature for the city; assuming maintenance of the locks  was not of interest to the city and the  often malfunctioning bridges that spanned the canal impeded movement throughout the city. The canal was seen as a transportation corridor holding the city back in the booming 1920s – to get rid of it was not a controversial decision.

The Washington Street railroad corridor, however, was an even greater divider of the city, but because its station was used by more people than the canal, decisions related to its fate were far more divisive. By the turn of the last century, every single passenger train on the New York Central ran down Washington Street and all the DL&W trains ran through the Westside, many of those freight trains hauling coal. AT STREET LEVEL! No safety measures such as flashing lights or arms existed, causing numerous vehicle and pedestrian accidents. Opening a window in a nearby building at the wrong time meant a face full of soot and smoke.How did the rail lines get there in the first place?  In 1837 when the little village of Syracuse granted the perpetual easements to the Syracuse and Utica Railroad for a little set of rails, for trains that barely reached 20 MPH speeds, Washington Street  was only developed for a couple of blocks before it ran out into the country. And it was convenient to the canal packet boat lands a block away so people could make their intermodal connections.

Eventually, S&U RR became part of NY Central and technology and lifestyle changes made the decision a major problem by 1907.Any solution to the growing problem had to involve the agreement of the privately-owned railroads.  Ultimately, two plans were advanced and went to public referendum. 1) Reroute the railroad far to the north. 2) Elevate the track just north of the Erie Canal, on a secondary  right-of-way owned by New York Central. In an era when passenger railroad travel was a main mode of transportation, and downtown was clearly the hub of the city, the population couldn’t envision their major transportation center located away from the downtown. Also, the railroad interests wanted to remain downtown.

In the ensuing public debate, some people envisioned a growing downtown, others a lessening role.  People saw the elevated tracks in different aesthetic lights.  The promise that the railroad elevations could be made attractive and the sense that the railroad interests wouldn’t cooperate if the public voted to relocate passenger lines outside downtown, led citizenry to vote the second, more expedient solution of elevating track.  However, it was a very public debate with the issue of the aesthetics playing a major role.  elevation-cartoon-1(Newspaper cartoon from the 1920’s courtesy Onondaga Historical Association).

What the public couldn’t foresee was how the railroad would almost immediately begin to lose ground and how radically the transportation landscape would soon be altered. By 1962, when passenger traffic had nose-dived, NY Central moved the passenger lines to the Northern route, the original rerouting plan for trains, and the route that is still used today.  And the old elevated railroad tracks became the route of the East-West Highway, I-690.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when the route for an elevated Rt. 81 was being planned, the negative aesthetics were again raised by some, but the decision was not subject to a public referendum.

These historical precedents show us that there are several factors that should be considered by a community when it is planning transportation corridors, in addition to simply cost and the fastest movement of traffic. The design and location of transportation corridors can have long-lasting impacts on quality of life issues and adjacent land use economics.