Syracuse is and has always been a crossroads city. Civic boosters used to call it “the Central City” and “the Hub of New York State” because it is so easy to travel from Syracuse to other parts of the state.
Some highway enthusiasts have pointed to this history to argue that removing the I-81 viaduct would go against Syracuse’s very nature. Here’s how AM Bill Magnarelli put it in a letter published in the Post-Standard last August:
For some 60 years, Interstate 81 has served as a major thoroughfare and economic driver for the entire Central New York region continuing and reinforcing Syracuse’s historical identity as the “Hub of New York”… Why should I-81 in Syracuse be the first Tier One Federal Highway in the United States to be decommissioned? It has served as a north-south conduit for people and goods for decades. It is part of what makes Syracuse the “Hub of New York.”
Historically, this argument is half right. Analytically, it’s all wrong. Syracuse has benefitted from access to intercity transportation routes throughout its entire history. However, the benefit has been that people can travel to and from Syracuse—not through it—and the community has always tried to keep intercity transportation infrastructure out of the City’s center and away from people’s homes.
Removing I-81 from the middle of town fits right in with the City’s long struggle to improve quality of life by pushing highways, canals, and railroads out of neighborhoods.
New York State built Seneca Turnpike in 1794. Syracuse didn’t exist then. Onondaga Hill was the county seat, Onondaga Hollow (now called the Valley) was the biggest settlement, and Seneca Turnpike runs through both.
By 1806 Onondaga County’s population center had shifted north, and the State built a detour from the Seneca Turnpike between Seneca Falls and Chittenango. This detour passed through Elbridge, Geddes, Fayetteville, and Manlius. Today we call this intercity highway Genesee Street, and it crossed the road between Onondaga Hollow and Salina in what was then a swamp but is now the site of Clinton Square.
This northern branch of the Seneca Turnpike helped create Syracuse. Henry Bogardus built a tavern on the Turnpike at the Salina road to serve stagecoaches, and the hamlet that formed around the crossroads was initially called Bogardus’ Corners.
As the hamlet grew into a village (and renamed itself Syracuse), it began removing parts of the intercity highway within the populated part of the community. First, the Erie Canal diverted the road in front of Bogardus’ tavern to form Clinton Square. Then as the village spread east, it built Centre Square and Forman Square (now Fayette and Forman Parks) on top of Genesee Street. This turned an intercity highway into quiet greenspaces surrounded by residential buildings.
In the time since, Syracuse has turned several more blocks of Genesee Street into parks and building sites. The improvement is obvious at Hanover Square, which transformed from a sea of asphalt into a leafy city square.
The Erie Canal came to Syracuse while the hamlet was still just a handful of houses. As Syracuse grew from its starting point at Clinton Square—the intersection of the Seneca Road and the Erie Canal—the Canal became a major dividing line that separated the Northside from the Southside (as those terms were understood at the time).
Crossing the canal could be a hassle. The bridges that crossed it moved up and down to allow boats to pass below, but they often malfunctioned and blocked all horse, trolley, and automobile traffic.
So, when NYS routed the Barge Canal north of the City in 1918, Syracuse was all too happy to fill the canal in and eliminate all those bridges for the benefit of local movement between the two halves of the City.
New York Central Railroad
The Village of Syracuse granted the Syracuse & Utica Railroad a perpetual charter to run trains at street level along Washington Street in 1837. In the early 19th Century, Washington Street was still outside the middle of town, so it seemed like a good place to put this new kind of intercity transportation infrastructure.
That changed fast. The train station at Vanderbilt Square became a hub of activity, the Village grew to surround it, and train traffic became a nuisance. Soot covered the buildings, trains hit people, and by the 20th century more than 100 daily trains blocked the streets for hours everyday. Eliminating “grade crossings” became the local issue in Syracuse.
City Hall finally got the trains out of the streets in 1936 by building a new elevated rail viaduct just north of Downtown. Even that incredibly expensive solution was not enough, though, as the new viaduct still brought intercity freight trains through the center of town. When NYSDOT started looking for a route to build 690 in the 1960’s, Syracuse gladly offered up the rail viaduct and pushed the trains out north of the City where they still run today.
Syracuse sits at the mouth of a long valley along the foothills of the Allegheny Plateau. It is a natural crossroads, and the City has long benefitted from intersecting intercity transportation infrastructure.
But for just as long, Syracuse has also taken great pains to mitigate the negative impacts of that transportation infrastructure by either slowing intercity traffic’s movement through the City, or by shifting intercity routes out around the city. Removing the I-81 viaduct and replacing it with a locally-oriented network of safe streets in order to improve the quality of life in city neighborhoods is simply the next step in this long history.