Who Lives Downtown?

The dominant narrative of Downtown’s resurgence goes something like this: after years of neglect, a huge change in popular attitudes towards ‘the city’ have drawn people back to Downtown and supported millions of dollars in investment in new businesses, building renovations, and housing. No longer is Downtown just a place to go for work—a central business district—now it’s a real neighborhood where people actually live, a place where you can feel “the hum of city life.”

Which is why the people pushing this narrative cite Downtown’s rising residential population. 1,019 more people lived Downtown in 2018 than did in 2010. What better proof of the area’s resurgence than that more people are moving there?

But when you dig into the census data, that statistic doesn’t fit so neatly with the resurgence narrative. Focusing on the 1,019 increase in total population means ignoring the 2,146 people who already lived Downtown in 2010. Only talking about total population obscures the different reasons that people actually live within the 311 acre district, and it erases the people who live in public housing, the shelters, and the jail in Syracuse’s premier urban playground.

This 2010 map represents each resident of Syracuse as a single colored dot. The dots correspond to each person’s race—blue dots are White people, orange dots are Latinx, red dots are Asian, and green dots are Black people.

Here is that same map zoomed in on Downtown. The thick gray line that curves across the top and right side of the image is I81. The thick gray line on the left side of the image is the West Street Arterial. The thin horizontal line through the middle of the image is Fayette Street, and the thin vertical lines are, from left to right, Clinton, Salina, State, and Townsend Streets. The bottom of the image is Adams Street. Got your bearings?

One remarkable thing about this image is just how much of Downtown’s population is concentrated in just a few blocks. Nobody lives in the white space that dominates the map. People only lived on 21 of the 131 city blocks that make up the neighborhood. 

Old buildings with new lofts at Hanover Square

It’s not hard to break those 21 populated blocks up into four categories according to housing type and demographic profiles of their populations.

The biggest group is a single block that contains the urban renewal high rises at Presidential Plaza. In 2010 it was home to 668 people or about 31% of Downtown’s total population. 51% of the people living there were white, 38% were Asian, and about 8% were Black. This single block accounted for 85% of Downtown’s total Asian population in 2010. These towers are “popular with medical school students and staff,” and are much more likely to house people who commute to University Hill than the rest of Downtown. 

The next largest group was low-income housing—Clinton Plaza, the YMCA Senior Apartments and Mens’ Residence, and Catholic Charities. These three census blocks contained 27% (574 people) of Downtown’s total population, and they were 43% White and 47% Black.

The third most populous group was the County Jail. The 2010 census listed it as the “primary residence” of 548 people—a full quarter of all the people living in Downtown. The inmate population was 38% White and 61% Black. Those 332 incarcerated Black people accounted for 50% of all Black people living Downtown during the 2010 census (those living in low income housing were another 40%).

And finally, sixteen Downtown blocks containing 17% of Downtown’s total 2010 population made up what you might call the “resurgence” areas. This is Armory Square, Hanover Square, and the area around Dinosaur Barbecue where developers turned old commercial buildings into apartments marketed to white-collar professionals. These areas are not very densely populated—usually between 20 and 40 people living on each block—and they’re overwhelmingly white—85%.

The most recent population data for Downtown isn’t broken down all the way to the block-level—the Census Bureau only does that every 10 years—but by looking at block groups, we can make some educated guesses about the composition of Downtown’s population change. The census breaks Downtown into two block groups divided by Montgomery Street. Block Group 1—west of Montgomery, blue on the map—contains all of Downtown’s low-income housing and almost all of its resurgence blocks, but not Presidential Plaza and not the Jail. Block Group 2—east of Montgomery, red on the map—contains the Jail and Presidential Plaza, no low-income housing, and only two resurgence blocks which contain a total of just 18 people.

Between 2010 and 2018, Block Group 1 grew by 36% (326 people, or 32% of Downtown’s total population increase). The Block Group’s population became slightly whiter (from 58% to 60%), and it’s Asian population more than tripled (from 41 to 129 people, or from 4% to 10% of the total population). These changes are partly due to the growth of resurgence housing (like the Pike Block, a 2013 project that converted several 19th century commercial buildings into 67 apartments), but also new apartments (like Creekwalk Commons, a 2014 146-bed apartment building) that differed from older loft renovations in that they were marketed to students rather than professionals. In this way, the demographic profile of Presidential Plaza moved east as students moved further into Downtown. 

At the same time, the Black population in Block Group 1 actually decreased (from 279 to 261) even as the overall population of the area grew by more than a third. Consequently, the Black portion of Block Group 1’s population dropped from 31% to 21%. This is probably due to a decrease in low-income housing Downtown.

Over this same period of time, Block Group 2 grew by 56% (693 people, or 68% of Downtown’s total population increase). The vast majority of this increase came from growth in the White population (451 people, an 80% increase), so that Block Group 2’s total population went from 46% White to 53%. The Black and Asian portions of the population also increased (by 121 and 29 people, respectively), but their share of the Block Group’s total population fell (from 31% to 26%, and from 21% to 15%, respectively). This growth is partly the result of new housing in renovated high rises—like the new SUNY Upstate dorm that houses 272 students and opened in 2012—and partly the result of rising prison population at the chronically overcrowded Justice Center.

Geneva Towers, a high-rise SUNY Upstate dormitory in Presidential Plaza

So take this with a grain of salt, but here’s what it looks like the census data is saying:

New market rate apartments have accommodated modest growth in the resurgence population, and that population has spread over more of Downtown. Since 2010, developers have built new apartments marketed to professionals on Salina, Warren, and State Streets.

These same parts of Downtown have also seen an increase in the population that commutes to University Hill. Creekwalk Commons is explicitly marketed to students, and the terms of its leases (tenants rent bedrooms rather than full apartments) are similar to those of other new large apartment buildings on University Hill.

But these changes are dwarfed by the enormous increase of housing on Downtown’s west side, where a single renovated high rise accommodated more new residents than the dozens of tiny new projects around Armory Square, and where the system of mass incarceration has put even more people in prison.

And at the same time, all this growth has been counteracted by a decrease in the number of people living in low-income housing Downtown. That’s the definition of displacement, and it has probably led to a decrease in Downtown’s non-incarcerated Black population.

Some of those trends could definitely change in the near future. A redeveloped Clinton Plaza would bring back a lot of low-income housing, and Blueprint 15 could add new low-income housing if it expands its footprint as it should. New York State’s bail reform could significantly decrease the number of people living in the jail if it’s allowed to work right.

So when you hear people talk about Downtown coming back, about how so many more people are living there, remember that the numbers they’ll use to justify that narrative include the the high rises, include the shelters, and include the jail.