Restore the canal without recreating its problems

More and more people are starting to talk about the benefits of rewatering the Erie Canal in Downtown Syracuse. Old photos of Syracuse are tantalizing. Clinton Square is full of people watching the canal, and the City looks like Venice or Amsterdam or Suzhou. Compared to the Erie Boulevard of today, it can seem like Syracuse was crazy to erase this urban waterway 100 years ago.

But back then, a lot of people thought the canal was a huge nuisance, and they were happy to see it go.

If Syracuse is going to rewater the canal—and we should—then we have to understand why people wanted it gone, and we have to make sure that a restored canal doesn’t recreate the original canal’s problems.

Syracuse filled in the canal for three very good reasons. First, it was gross. 19th century industrial cities used waterways as open sewers and garbage pits, and the Erie Canal was no exception.

Second, the City wanted more roads. Car ownership was exploding in the 1920s and real estate developers were building new neighborhoods—like Scottholm—out of walking distance of the City’s center. That meant a lot more cars driving across Syracuse, and they wanted more room on the roads.

Third, and most important, the canal blocked traffic and divided the City. Dozens of bridges crossed the canal (and dozens more streets just dead-ended at the water), many of those bridges moved up and down to let boats pass underneath, and they broke down all the time so people couldn’t get across the canal.

These are real practical problems, and it would be crazy to bring them back into Syracuse today.

Luckily, it’s possible to get the best of both worlds—to bring water back to Erie Boulevard without bringing back the nuisances of the original canal. NYSDOT already intends to build a fountain at the corner of Oswego and Erie Boulevards as part of their plan for a ‘Canal District.’ They should simply extend that fountain into Erie Boulevard and stretch it west to Clinton Square.

Combined with Clinton Square, this would recreate a 3-block stretch of the Erie Canal’s original path through Syracuse, and it would sidestep the three main problems that led Syracuse to fill in the canal 100 years ago.

First, cleanliness. Syracuse’s rewatered canal will be a large fountain instead of a working waterway. That means boat crews won’t use it as a sewer, factories won’t use it as a trash bin, and dead mules won’t fall into it. It also means the water won’t stagnate, and it can be treated to prevent algal blooms. A canal fountain will be a lot cleaner and smell a lot better than the actual canal did.

Second, road capacity. When Syracuse built Erie Boulevard, it was the City’s primary east/west highway and carried a lot of cars. But now we have 690 for that, and nobody in their right mind would drive from DeWitt to Camillus on Erie Boulevard anymore. The two blocks between Salina and Montgomery Streets, in particular, are not useful for getting from point A to point B, and Syracuse could easily repurposed them without any noticeable effect on road capacity.

And third, bridges. A rewatered canal stretching from Montgomery Street to Clinton Square wouldn’t require dozens of bridges like the original canals did. A rewatered canal would also not carry any barges, so the one necessary bridge (at Warren Street) wouldn’t need to move to allow boat traffic to pass underneath.

A two-block fountain stretching from Clinton Square to the site of the Erie/Oswego confluence at Montgomery Street will restore the canal’s presence in the City’s center without recreating the problems that made the canal a nuisance.