The Erie Canal is maybe the most important thing that ever happened to Syracuse, but there’s hardly any trace of it left in the City. That’s bad—it makes it harder for people to tell their City’s story, and that makes it harder for them to place themselves within that story. Anything that restores the canal’s place in people’s lived experience of the City also strengthens the community by making that shared story more accessible.
Where the canal has been obliterated, symbols can refer to its place in the City. Brickwork on J Ryan’s patio shows where canal boats used to wait to enter the weighlock across the street, the Arterie project painted part of Erie Boulevard blue to mimic water, and Erie Boulevard’s name itself refers to the canal that used to run in its place. The best of these symbols is the fountain in Clinton Square—look at it from certain angles, and it actually looks like the canal still runs through Downtown.
But there are also places where parts of the canal still exist, and we don’t need symbols to mediate our experience of it. Just outside the City in Camillus and Dewitt, the canal itself still runs through public parks. In Syracuse itself, the old weighlock building is now the Erie Canal Museum, and City Hall recently carefully restored the aqueduct that used to carry the canal over Onondaga Creek.
Right now, Syracuse has an opportunity to do more of all of this. NYSDOT’s DEIS includes a plan for a ‘Canal District’ around the intersection of Oswego and Erie Boulevards. That plan is not very ambitious At the same time, the Reimagine the Canal’s taskforce is working to make the canal more culturally relevant to Upstate communities. Syracuse can harness that energy to do something big to restore the Erie Canal’s place in the heart of Downtown.
That could take a lot of different forms, but here’s one suggestion. Close Erie Boulevard from Clinton Square to Oswego Boulevard—those blocks are basically a parking lot anyway. Excavate the original canal walls—the Clinton Square fountain revealed a small section of the wall, but without context it’s turned into a trash pit. Fill that entire two-block section with water, extending to the wide area where the Erie Canal intersected with the Oswego.
This would essentially extend the idea of the Clinton Square fountain over three full blocks, creating an artificial body of water that’s more recognizable as a canal because of its length. It’s an idea that works in Buffalo, where Canalside recreates a portion of the piers and slips that made that city into an artificial archipelago.
Syracuse doesn’t make sense without the canal. By obliterating it so totally, we have scrambled our relationship with the past and thus with each other, unable to answer the community’s existential question ‘why are we all here?”
An enormous part of the answer to that question is ‘the canal.’ Restoring it, bringing it to the surface, making it a familiar part of people’s daily lived experience in the City is a good thing.