On September 22, 2016, the Syracuse Housing Authority published the East Adams Street Neighborhood Transformation Plan. This document promises improvements to both the housing and services in Pioneer Homes, Central Village, Toomey Abbott Towers, Almus Olver Towers, and McKinney Manor–a set of highly visible and tightly grouped public housing complexes located at the southern edge of Downtown Syracuse.
SHA is right to treat this area as a neighborhood with needs beyond housing. The people living immediately south of Downtown do need quality housing, but they also need equitable access to transportation, good food, and community services. These are features of any healthy neighborhood, and without them no collection of housing units can adequately support its residents.
SHA is also right to encourage economic integration. Currently, this area is made up of “islands of affordable housing.” By clustering so much of the County’s public housing in such a tight area, local government has created all sorts of problems for the people who live there. These include, but are not limited to, inadequate political representation, social stigma, economic inactivity, and alienation. All of these problems could be helped by integrating people with a mix of incomes in the neighborhood.
There’s a lot that’s right about SHA’s vision of a healthy, economically integrated neighborhood, but its plan to make that vision a reality is dead wrong.
With all of the problems plague the area south of downtown SHA seems to think that the existing neighborhood is beyond hope. SHA can’t imagine how something so undesirable could turn into a neighborhood of choice, and so it has determined that the situation calls for “the complete demolition of existing out-of-date, poorly designed public housing and replacement with all new housing in a mixed-income community.”
In this city at this time, that’s a thoughtless thing to say. When the I81 project has reminded the City of urban renewal’s worst excesses, how can anyone hear SHA’s call for “complete demolition” without thinking of the racist, classist, muddled motives that lurked behind the demolition of homes and communities during the middle of the last century?
“It is stipulated that construction of new housing be accompanied or followed by the equivalent elimination of substandard housing. “Elimination” in this case means demolition or rehabilitation”
Sergei Grimm, Secretary of the Syracuse Housing Authority, 1949
In both 1949 and 2016, SHA made the same mistake. It assumed that government intervention could create a neighborhood out of whole cloth. It thought of a neighborhood as a collection of parts–housing units, a grocery store, a library, a rec center–all of which it had the power to build.
A neighborhood is more than that. It is the intertwined histories of its residents. It is the systems of trust and mutual support that bind its people together. The rec center has no meaning unless people have played inside of it. The library has no purpose unless people have used it to broaden their horizons. The grocery store has no value unless people trust it to provide healthy food. Housing units are nothing unless people call them homes.
Neighborhoods are not built, they grow. People have been giving meanings, purposes, and values to the neighborhood just south of Downtown for decades. They’ve made homes out of the housing units that SHA built. The people who live there may not have a grocery store, but they do have more of a community than SHA could ever build on its own.
If SHA demolishes those homes and dislocates those families, it will sever the ties that bind the neighborhood together. That rupture will alienate current and future residents from each other, hindering SHA’s attempts to create a true neighborhood. It’s both wrong and counterproductive.
The area south of downtown can and should be a healthy neighborhood. Its residents should enjoy quality housing, good food, and community services. SHA has the power to move the neighborhood in this direction, but not through wanton demolition. SHA needs to act humbly and incrementally, respecting the neighborhood’s decades of growth while making targeted interventions to support its future. That’s the right way to help the neighborhood grow.