81’s construction was a cataclysmic event in Syracuse’s history. Building the highway—and 690 soon after—meant tearing down dozens of city blocks and demolishing hundreds of homes. But although that event stands out for the scale of its destruction, it was neither the beginning nor the end of Syracuse’s campaign to demolish itself. Aerial images from 1938, 1951, 1966, and 2021 show how the area now known as Downtown has been gradually turned to asphalt in order to make room for cars over the course of decades. As NYSDOT prepares to remove the I81 viaduct from Downtown, they must account for the broader damage done to Syracuse by all of these cars.
To see some of the highways’ most direct devastation, look at the corners of Pearl and Canal Streets. That intersection used to be the northern edge of Downtown—now it doesn’t even exist. The three city blocks that surrounded it are completely covered by the 81/690 interchange.
But even through the interchange wouldn’t destroy these blocks until the 1960’s, the car had already started degrading the area by 1951. Compare the image from that year (second in the series) to the one from 1938 (first in the series). A handful of buildings and some green space from the 1938 image are gone just 13 years later, all replaced by surface parking lots.
The highways accelerated this degradation elsewhere in the City. 81 did less direct damage around Forman Park, but it preceded a similar scale of destruction by creating an enormous need for car storage that Syracuse supplied by demolishing dozens families’ homes.
Two church buildings survived this demolition derby, but their congregations didn’t. According to the logic of the day, I-81 should have made AME Zion and First Christian Scientist more accessible (by car) than ever, but destroying their neighborhood meant emptying the church buildings. Both congregations are still active in 2021, but they have had to build new houses of worship closer to their congregants’ new neighborhoods.
A little further south, Syracuse has tried to create institutions that can withstand the destruction of the surrounding neighborhood. The War Memorial, the Everson Museum, and the OnCenter are all supposed to capitalize on the highways by drawing people from the entire region. No one needs to live near these attractions because the car makes them accessible from any home in the County. There just needs to be enough space to store everybody’s car once they get Downtown, and Syracuse found that space by demolishing people’s homes (specifically, Black people’s homes).
City Hall cleared much of this land at the same time NYSDOT was building 81, but the War Memorial (and its parking lot) came before any of that wholesale destruction, and the OnCenter (and its parking garage) came much later.
Even places not directly affected by the highway construction program have seen this same pattern of car-driven demolition. The area around City Hall has been losing buildings—and even whole streets—to car storage since the 1920’s. The small park in front of City Hall is now car storage. So is the Yates Hotel and most of what used to be Genesee Street between Montgomery and State. All of this happened between 1961 and 2021, after the construction of the highways.
The highways aided, abetted, and accelerated Syracuse’s destruction, but they did not cause it. The City has been destroying itself ever since the first people bought cars, moved out of town, and demanded that Syracuse remain completely accessible to them.
So it’s been alarming to watch NYSDOT justify the Grid by pointing out how little it will affect driving conditions for suburban commuters, or to see their plans for replacing the West Street interchange with parking lots. Just removing the highway (or 1.1 miles of it) won’t fix the basic problem. We also have to make it so that people don’t feel the need to bring (and store) their cars Downtown.
That means deconstructing the system of arterial streets that feed the highways. It means building the grid so that it can’t carry the same amount of traffic that runs over the viaduct today. It means making it safe, easy, and pleasant to bike or bus across the City. It means building new housing on all of those parking lots so that more people can live in the City Center and get around it on foot.
Syracuse is a city, and cities are for people. For 90 years, our City’s leaders have been trying to replace people with cars, and they’ve done a pretty thorough job of it. The 81 project is a real chance to change course, but we have to make sure that NYSDOT understands that opportunity and acts on it. When they release their final Environmental Impact Statement this summer, watch to make sure that it goes beyond just removing the viaduct and puts Syracuse on a path to rebuild itself.