Syracuse is no exception to the consequences of the past. The city ranks number one in the nation for concentrated poverty among Blacks and Latinos; and Onondaga County is the ninth most segregated county in America. 41,000 people in the city of Syracuse lived below the poverty line in 2016. The neighborhoods where this poverty is most prevalent can be directly linked back to the city’s history.
City Limits: A Poverty Project is a year-long podcast produced by WAER. Recently, City Limits examined how the construction of Interstate-81 affected the region.
In the late 1930s, policy makers were determined to not repeat the Great Depression. One effort concentrated on increasing homeownership in America. The concept was to provide federal-backed mortgage loans to those residents who they determined were most likely to maintain their payments.
Two criteria were set for federal mortgage qualifications: the condition of buildings and the racial makeup of an area in which someone lived. The racial makeup criterion discriminated against Black, Jewish and foreign-born people.
To visualize the criteria, the federal government created confidential residential security maps. Green colored areas meant residents could receive 100 percent backing and blue meant 85 percent. By contrast, yellow signified only 15 percent backing and red zero percent. This is how the term ‘redlining’ came to be.
The 1950s introduced more institutional discrimination. The 1956 Federal Highway Act was a major infrastructure bill meant to connect American cities through a network of highways. While the highways helped make traveling and commuting more efficient and convenient, it also divided American cities on a micro level. Highways were built only within yellow and redlined areas. This was the case in Syracuse upon the construction of Interstate-81 (I-81).
Richard Breeland, a Syracuse resident since he was two years old, lived in the 15th ward of Syracuse. The 15th ward was a hub of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. As a redlined neighborhood, it was demolished to construct I-81. Breeland told Kijin Higashibaba of WAER that the 15th ward was a homey, quiet and thriving neighborhood. City officials saw it differently.
“It was called Jew town, it was called the slum area, and it was called the ghetto. Those were the three names that were associated with our community,” Breeland said.
Redlining was banned in 1968 through the Fair Housing Act, but its ripple effects are still seen today. Comparing the 1937 residential security map of Syracuse against the 2012 maps of poverty and median household income, it is clear that yesteryear’s redlined neighborhoods are still rampant with hardship; the yellow and red designations match up congruently with the city’s highest rates of poverty and lowest median incomes.
Cities grow and thrive through investment and development, and some critics argue I-81 makes progress extremely difficult for Syracuse.
I-81 was declared to have outlived its useful life as of late 2017. Many people in the city of Syracuse see tearing down the portion of I-81 that runs through the city as an opportunity. Their solution entails replacing the 1.4 mile stretch of the highway that runs through the middle of the city with a street level community grid. Community grid advocates argue that getting rid of the viaduct will offer new opportunities for taxable land, affordable housing, economic development, and environmental health. Opponents of the community grid argue that I-81 is a vital part of the economy and quick commutes are a major asset to the city.
Beyond justice and poverty, the I-81 viaduct decision may impact the entire region’s ability to prosper. Residents far and wide, businesses wishing to thrive, and even entire neighborhoods could be impacted by the decision.
Listen to the entire City Limits segments about I-81:
Learn more about the I-81 viaduct and get involved: