Category Archives: Community

Who will ride BRT?

Talk to non-bus-riders about Centro, and eventually they’ll say something to the effect of “you know a specific challenge that we have in Syracuse is that bus ridership is associated with socio-economic class, and so the question is how do we get people of all classes to ride the bus. How does Centro get me to leave my car at home?”

That question comes from a good place. Public transportation is a public service, and it should be no more stigmatized than checking out a library book or drinking water from the tap. Asking where that stigma comes from and how to eliminate it is good.

But instead of asking how better bus service will work out for me specifically, it’s better to work from the other end and think about who is most likely to benefit from improvements to Syracuse’s public transportation system.

Getting around on Centro takes time. Slow buses meander through City neighborhoods, and they run so infrequently that getting to and from anywhere includes a lot of wait time—you might only need a half an hour to shop for groceries, but if there’s an hour gap between runs, then an hour is how long you’re going to be spending at Tops.

This depresses ridership because it limits the number of places that any bus rider has time to get to in a day. Riding Centro to and from Tops takes so much time and effort that it’s often practically impossible to then ride Centro to and from the doctors office, a PTA meeting, your aunt’s house. Forget trying to run an errand by bus after getting off from work.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase immediately because the people who have to plan their whole entire day around running one errand by bus would all of a sudden have the time to ride the bus two or three or four places.

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Some people can’t or won’t abide Centro’s current inconvenient service, and they avoid it at all costs by walking and or biking around town. That’s not always convenient either, especially if you’re going very far, the sidewalks are busted up, and it’s snowing. Or maybe they bought a car, but can’t really afford to fill the tank or to keep it fixed up.

BRT can offer these people a better option: a service that’s safer, more convenient, and more economical than what they’re doing now.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase because more people will start riding the bus instead of walking 3 miles to work.

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In the long term, better bus service builds its own ridership by making it possible for more people to build lives that include the bus.

Imagine a person moving to Syracuse from Boston to start a new job. They might make enough to be able to comfortably afford a car and a house with a garage, but they didn’t drive in Boston and would be happy to use public transportation in Syracuse if it was convenient enough. BRT can offer that convenience, and it can precipitate a series of major decisions—apartment or house, city or suburb, car payment or no—that lead that person to ride the bus because they have built a life where riding the bus makes sense.

Or imagine a kid moving out from their parents’ house into their first apartment and needing to provide their own transportation for the first time in their life. Right now, that might mean getting a place with a parking spot and buying a crappy used car. With BRT, it could mean finding an apartment near a station.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase in the long term because more people will choose to build lives that account for and rely on the bus.

So to go back to that original question—”how will BRT get me to leave my car at home?”—the answer is that it might not. If your family owns multiple cars, if you don’t live within a short safe walk of a bus stop, if your neighborhood is so spread out that it can’t support good bus service, then there’s not a lot that Centro can do to create a service that will work for you. 

But there is so much that Centro can do to create a service that works for so many more people. Faster, more frequent service will get more people riding the bus more often. Better bus service will get current bus riders riding more often, it will get new people to ride the bus, it will make life better for people who rely on the bus in their daily lives, and it will come from making that way of living more attractive to more people.

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.

A $45 Million Jobs Program for City Residents

Jobs are the number one issue in Syracuse. Good jobs, ones that pay well, ones that don’t require unnecessary credentials, jobs that people can get to whether or not they own a car.

In a real way, the best thing that City Hall could do for the City of Syracuse would be to run a massive jobs program.

The bitter irony is that City Hall does run an enormous jobs program, but it doesn’t do a thing for people living in the City. Every year the Syracuse Police Department spends $45 million dollars to pay more than 400 police officers a generous salary, substantial overtime, and good benefits, and 95% of the people who receive that municipal largesse live in the suburbs.

That money—about a fifth of the municipal budget—should go to employing City residents instead.

That could mean hiring City residents to work in the SPD, but City Hall has been trying to do that for years, and they’ve got nothing to show for it. State law bans City Hall from requiring police officers to live in the City, and persuasion hasn’t worked either. On the one hand, the SPD built such an awful reputation that a lot of people don’t want to work for them. On the other, the sick culture at SPD rejects the City residents who do actually try to become cops.

Much easier would be to take a bunch of money away from the police, eliminate a bunch of police officer positions, and create new positions in other departments to do a lot of the same work—work that shouldn’t ever have been left up to armed officers in the first place. Police are City Hall’s highest paid employees—often making more than $100,000 with overtime—so for each officer fired, City Hall could hire multiple City residents at a salary of $56,000 (the County’s median household income). And since these wouldn’t be police officer positions, City Hall could restrict its hiring to City residents just as it does with civil engineers, paralegals, mechanics, and just about every other position on the municipal payroll. Call them Public Safety Officers, give them official uniforms, and have them report to the Parking Violations Bureau.

Instead of sending cops to stand around at street fairs, hire people from the neighborhood to keep an eye on things. Instead of paying out $750,000 in overtime to have police follow protesters around, pay City residents to do that same work. Instead of having cops sit in their cars looking for Black drivers to harass, hire people to watch the intersections in their own neighborhoods and ticket people for running the stop sign.

A third of the City is poor. People need work. City Hall has the money and the need to employ a lot of them, but instead it’s sending its money out to Camillus and Salina and Manlius. Enough. Fire those suburban police officers and hire City residents to do the same work.

Pools, Police, and Priorities

It is such good news that the pools will open up, that children and families will be able to cool down during this historically hot summer, that kids are getting at least one thing that they’re asking for.

But it is ridiculous that it took a GoFundMe to make it happen. After City Hall announced that they were closing all the pools for lack of money, they found the funds to open two, and then went out to the community to ask for $100,000 to open two more.

And Syracuse responded because this town is full of good people, so it worked out.

But how about at the same time that City Hall was passing the hat so it could open two pools (and at the same time that people are out in the streets calling to defund the police), the Mayor was also talking about increasing SPD’s budget?

City Halls pleads poverty whenever people ask for better municipal services. And they’ve got a valid point—the whole system of taxation, transportation, and education in CNY is set up to rob Syracuse of money so that the suburbs can thrive. City Hall does need more support to provide all the services that the community needs.

But it’s also true that even in 2020, in the middle of a fiscal crisis, City Hall is planning to spend about $250 million dollars, $50 million of that on police, and $6.5 million of that on overtime.

Yusuf Abdul-Qadir shows how much of City Hall’s budget goes to police and how little goes to parks and youth programs

A budget is a moral document. There isn’t enough money to pay for everything Syracuse needs, so City Hall has to make decisions about what matters most. It’s easy to see what City Hall prioritizes by looking at what makes it into the budget and what doesn’t.

So you look at City Hall’s budget, and it’s clear that police are a really big priority, but pools are not. There’s no ‘they’re both important’ there’s no “investing in police and redirecting money to community initiatives shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.” Police are the biggest thing in the budget, and pools aren’t even halfway in it at all. Police are the priority, and pools are not.

And that’s a problem, because it means that City Hall’s priorities are not in line with the community’s. City Hall asked people to pay a voluntary tax in the middle of a recession, and the community came up with $100,000 to open up the pools. So you can bet that if the community was in control of the municipal budget, pools would have been in it, and maybe SPD would only have $6.4 million to spend on overtime.

That’s what #DefundPolice really means. It’s not about retribution, it’s not about cutting the police budget just to put cops in a hard spot. It’s about the fact that the City has higher priorities than the SPD. It’s about how when City Hall spends a fifth of the public money on armed officers and incarceration, it necessarily neglects other programs and services that would do more to make the community safer. It’s about how giving kids a safe place to cool off in a historically hot summer is a genuine public service—a service that makes Syracuse safer by making it happier. Let’s make that a priority.

Why Do We Need This Many Police?

Syracuse needs a new idea of public safety—a new paradigm that sends healthcare and social workers to deal with health and social issues. A new paradigm that significantly reduces the number of interactions that police officers have with the public and significantly reduces the number of police officers employed by City Hall.

New ideas threaten those who benefit from the broken status quo, and so a lot of people have responded to this new idea by saying that it’s impractical—that Syracuse needs 400+ police officers and that those officers need to be involved in every traffic stop, overdose, housing failure, and mental health crisis in the City.

Here’s PBA president Jeff Piedmonte giving a version of the argument:

“One of the things they bring up is have mental health people to respond to calls, which would be great,” said Piedmonte. “But, if a mental health person goes to help somebody and then they pull a gun or knife on them, what are they supposed to do?”

Let’s not be coy about what he’s saying. A healthcare worker would have many options to deal with this potential but not obviously common situation. They could de-escalate, they could flee, they could call and request assistance from an armed officer.

What a healthcare worker could not do—and what Jeff Piedmonte is suggesting a police officer would do—is shoot the patient. That’s the final answer you’ll get from people who think Syracuse needs enough armed officers to respond to every 911 call, who think that public safety needs to be in the hands of police officers rather than social workers—cops can kill.

And just think about what it means if that’s what defines police. It means that police officers are themselves a threat to every single person with whom they interact. Jeff Piedmonte created a hypothetical situation with almost no detail, just that there’s a mentally ill person and a healthcare professional, and his first thought was ‘might have to shoot them.’ I was in boy scouts, and a police officer came to talk to the troop—he told us that he was always looking out for the threat of an attack, constantly evaluating how he would fight back, and he explained exactly how he would have used the furniture in the room to incapacitate us children.

There may be a place for that kind of neurosis, but it isn’t in an organization in charge of public safety. When armed men roam City streets thinking that every person they encounter might be a threat, that makes Syracuse less safe. It’s what led SPD officer Chris Buske to beat Shaolin Moore in the street—Buske imagined that Moore might have had a weapon that didn’t exist. He imagined that because he was afraid of Syracuse and the people who live in it. That fear warped his understanding of reality and so he reacted to Moore’s black skin exactly the way that Jeff Piedmonte says he should have—with unjustified violence.

After decades of police abuse, people are in the streets asking if there isn’t a better way to secure public safety in Syracuse. That’s a threat to the SPD, to their privileged positions of power and their paychecks padded with fraudulent overtime, so you can bet that Jeff Piedmonte is going to come up with some reason that Syracuse really does need the SPD, as it is currently constituted, to keep the City safe.

But really listen to what he’s arguing, take seriously what he’s saying. He’s not saying that SPD would be better than healthcare professionals at caring for a mentally ill person, or that SPD would be better than social workers at finding shelter for an unhoused person. He’s saying that police officers are the only municipal employees who will shoot people.

If that’s not an argument to defund the police, I don’t know what is.

Systematic Reformation of Public Safety

Protests across the county have shown that American policing is broken—every single city has local cases of abuse, brutality, and murder to march against, and in every single city police have responded to criticism with military force. The problem isn’t just ‘a few bad apples,’ the problem is a broken institution that replicates the same unacceptable, anti-democratic, racist problems no matter where it’s implemented and no matter who is in charge.

So it’s good to hear that elected officials across America—including those with power in this City—are listening to the protesters. The Mayor is talking about structural reform to combat this systemic problem, and the Governor will withhold state funding from police departments that refuse to “reform themselves.”

But ‘reform’ can mean a lot of different things, and the kind of ‘reform’ that we’ve all seen for years—more training, new technology, revised codes of conduct—are clearly insufficient to meet the demands that protesters are making today.

In Syracuse, protesters have issued the People’s Agenda for Policing: a list of nine demands that could make real change in the SPD—not the kind of weak ‘reform’ that tinkers with the existing system—a system that is hopelessly broken—but a real reformation of the institutions of Public Safety in this community.

Reducing the “oversized role of policing” means taking traffic enforcement out of armed officers’ hands. Traffic enforcement should make our streets safer, but instead racism and the incentive structure of policing serves to make the traffic cop a threat to safety on the street—people don’t get stopped for breaking the law, they get stopped in order to make the department money, or to get a drug bust press release, or to just perform dominance.

Instead, use cameras and unarmed municipal employees—in the mold of crossing guards—to enforce the law without ulterior motives, to remove the inherent bias that comes when a driver tries to ‘argue their way out’ of a ticket, and to avoid unnecessary escalation. When someone runs a red, send them a ticket in the mail. If someone’s tail light is out, let them know and provide a new bulb on the spot.

Reducing the oversized role of policing means sending someone else when people call for help with domestic problems. Armed officers focused on ‘compliance’ and ‘order’ are ill-equipped to mediate these kinds of conflicts, and the predictable result is that they respond inappropriately, escalatorily, and they end up beating a man for no reason and costing City Hall $1.5 million in a police brutality lawsuit.

Instead, send social workers and trauma specialists who can mediate and de-escalate domestic disputes. Send people who have the professional judgment to determine when to attempt reconciliation or when to help a person escape an abusive relationship.

These situations—and so many others like them—do not require a gun. They do not require handcuffs or a taser. When City Hall equips police with those tools—but not the training to actually address the needs of the community—what can we expect but escalation? When the person responding to a minor traffic violation carries a gun and is empowered to take away people’s freedom, it’s no wonder that a disagreement over when to signal a turn ended with the SPD drugging and sexually assaulting Torrence Jackson. It’s shocking, appalling, disgusting, infuriating, but it’s not surprising.

So systemic reformation means fewer police officers whose very presence necessarily implies violence and incarceration, and more municipal employees who are trained and equipped to treat root causes of the problems in the community. It means taking money away from the SPD and using it to pay for staff and programs that support public safety. That’s the kind of reform that can actually deconstruct the present unacceptable system and build a new one that makes the community safe.

Quit asking if the protests are peaceful

After night fell on a day of speeches and demonstrations, a number of the protesters attacked the building where the police were waiting. The protesters were breaking the law, and they knew it, and the police responded with force.

It was 1851. It was the Jerry Rescue. There’s a monument to it in Clinton Square.

That event—one that we valorize and memorialize—parallels the protests going on in the City today, and acknowledging that means grappling with these complicated facts:

the fight against racism and white supremacy is not always legal

the fight against racism and white supremacy is not always peaceful

the fight against racism and white supremacy cannot be judged purely on its legality or its nonviolence

That’s hard for a lot of people. It’s so much easier to ask ‘well are these protesters peaceful, do they obey the law?’ Asking that question puts the burden on the protesters. It allows people to think of themselves as outside observers and to pass judgment on the protests based on how the protesters act. It puts the protests themselves on trial, and once they have been judged—peaceful, legal, good or violent, illegal, bad—then the neutral observer moves on, having made their decision, without ever actually addressing the content of the protests.

Taking these protests seriously, respecting the history of the Jerry Rescue, means instead asking ‘what are they saying, is it true, how am I implicated?’ It means hearing the names of the men, women, and children brutalized and killed by the Syracuse Police Department. It means examining the relationships between those beatings, those killings, and your own life. It means putting yourself on trial, recognizing the ties that bind you to the people whose lives the police have cut short, and deciding what you’re going to do about it.

And once you’ve done that, who cares whether or not the protests broke this curfew or smashed that window? What does any of that have to do with you, with your own action, with your response to the racism and injustice that permeates the United States, New York State, Syracuse?

How Far From Minneapolis, Syracuse?

This weekend’s protests are about Syracuse Police Department as much as they are about George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Eric Chauvin. It might be comforting to those in power to pretend otherwise, to think that it’s all about something that happened in some other community, somewhere far away from here, but that’s a lie.

Those protests are also about how police dragged Shaolin Moore from his car and beat him in the street, how their justification was that they were afraid of the communities they serve, and how they arrested Yamil Osorio in retaliation for filming the whole thing.

And those protests are about how police officer Chester Thompson used the power granted him by his badge and the gun on his belt to rape multiple women—including Maleatra Montanez—while on duty, and how the Syracuse Police Department just let it happen.

And they’re about how the Syracuse Police Department ordered medical professionals at St. Joseph’s Hospital to drug Torrence Jackson and then to sexually assault him with an anal probe.

And the protests are about how Syracuse police officers Paul Montalto and Damon Lockett beat Alonzo Grant because he punched a screen door in his own home.

And they’re about how the Syracuse Police Department singled out Elijah Johnson while breaking up a party near Syracuse University, beat him, and then falsely charged him with inciting a riot.

And those are just some of the highest profile cases of the last couple years. This list could go back for decades, more than a century, as far back as police kidnapping William “Jerry” Henry to sell him into slavery in 1851, and it go much broader, encompassing every racist traffic stop that traumatizes a family but somehow isn’t ‘newsworthy’ enough to make it into the paper.

If the people in power are actually listening, if they have ears to hear what protesters are saying, they’ll acknowledge this abuse, and they’ll use their power to end it.

Coronavirus, the Sidewalks, and Race

The coronavirus has disproportionately hospitalized black people in Onondaga County. The County’s population is 76.5% white, but only 54% of people hospitalized for coronavirus are white. The County’s population is 11.5% black, but 27% of people hositalized for coronavirus are black.

Looking for a possible explanation, the County Executive “speculated that the trend might be due to the fact that African-Americans have, as a whole, larger percentages of diabetes and heart disease, preexisting conditions that can make the virus much worse.”

That checks out. The overwhelming majority of black people in Onondaga County live in a few segregated neighborhoods in Syracuse, and those are the very same neighborhoods where the CDC has found the highest rates of diabetes and high blood pressure.

Why though? Why is it that black people in Onondaga County are so much likelier to have been sick than white people, even before all this started?

The CDC also keeps data on factors (like lack of sleep) that contribute to health outcomes (like diabetes and high blood pressure). Here are maps of obesity, lack of sleep, and lack of exercise.

Put all this together, and you get a pretty stark picture. Black people are segregated into specific neighborhoods where environmental factors like polluted air and lack of access to opportunities for exercise have made it difficult for people to maintain their health, contributing to chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension which have put them more at risk to contract coronavirus.

So it was a good thing that City Hall had announced its intention to maintain the sidewalks. Better sidewalks are the kind of positive environmental factor that would improve health outcomes by making it easier to get around on foot, making that light exercise a more prominent part of the routine of daily life. This is particularly true in those neighborhoods where people are less likely to own a car and more likely to live within walking distance of job centers like University Hill and Downtown—neighborhoods like the segregated ones where negative environmental factors have made coronavirus so much of a problem today.

But on the same day that we learned of coronavirus’ disparate racial impact, City Hall postponed that plan to maintain the sidewalks because the coronavirus has blown a hole in the municipal budget. City Hall was going to introduce a new frontage fee to pay for that maintenance, but Mayor Walsh explained that “we didn’t feel it would be fair to constituents to bear that burden now.”

But why should it take a new fee to pay for the sidewalks when DPW manages to maintain the rest of the street with money from its regular budget? Why can’t City Hall just redirect some of the road repaving money to fix the sidewalks? Why is the funding so fragile for a public resource primarily used by Syracuse’s poorest residents while the funding for the roads driven on by relatively richer City residents (and County commuters) is so resilient?

Taken together, these environmental conditions that contribute to poor health in black neighborhoods and particularly fragile funding for the mitigation of those conditions amount to an instance of structural racism—a series of seemingly neutral, unrelated, and agentless decisions that conspire to yield inequitable outcomes divided along racial lines.

Clearly, the Mayor isn’t postponing his sidewalk maintenance plan because he’s racist. And clearly, fixing the sidewalks would not, on its own, mitigate coronavirus’ disparate impact on black people in Onondaga County. And that’s the problem with structural racism—when inequity is the unintended effect of boring stuff like appropriations, when no one makes those original decisions for racist reasons, and when unmaking any one of those decisions will only have a slight and delayed effect on the enormous overall problem of racist inequality, then it’s too easy to put anti-racist action off indefinitely.

But we have to take that action now. The truth is that it’s never easy to dismantle the racist structures that hold up our municipal government. The coronavirus may make it seem like now is a particularly bad time to start, but a look at the racial disparity in infections should be enough to prove that Syracuse needs to do this work now more than ever.

What if they had put the trains in the Erie Canal bed in 1925?

Early in the twentieth century, Syracuse was facing two huge shifts in transportation. The Erie Canal became obsolete after New York State built the Barge Canal in the Seneca River north of Onondaga Lake, and railroad traffic through Downtown had gotten so bad (158 trains a day) that the tracks had to be moved off of Washington Street. City leaders saw an opportunity to deal with both problems at once by putting the railroad tracks in the old Erie Canal bed.

What if the New York Central Railroad had moved its tracks from Washington Street to the Erie Canal bed after the Barge Canal was finished?

The New York Central main line entered Syracuse from the East between Burnet Avenue and the Erie Canal. It ran at grade level through that industrial valley to about Teall Avenue. There, the tracks crossed the canal and ran in the middle of Washington Street all the way through Downtown. Past West Street they passed through the rail yard between the Canal and Fayette Street, and then followed the path of the current New York, Susquehanna, and Western tracks out of town.

A 1917 report on grade crossing elimination proposed maintaining the line’s eastern section to Teall, turning to enter the Canal bed at Beech Street, running in that trench all the way to Montgomery Street, turning north into the Oswego Canal, and then following the path of the West Shore Railroad (present-day 690) on an elevated route out of the City. A new passenger station would go at the corner of West and W Genesee Streets, and the old station would be used for Interurban Trolleys (a precursor to Centro’s intercity coach service). That same report also recommended elevating the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western tracks along Armory Square.

What actually happened is that, in 1936, the New York Central elevated its tracks on a berm in the West Shore Railroad right of way along Burnet Ave, Noxon St, Belden Ave, and State Fair Boulevard (that embankment now supports 690 through the City), and the new passenger station went up at Erie Boulevard and Forman Ave (the current Spectrum Cable building). (The DL&W elevated its tracks in 1941, just as the earlier report proposed).

These three maps show the situation in 1917 at left, the Grade Crossing Commission’s recommendation in the middle, and the eventual 1941 elevation on the right. Red lines are train tracks at street level, blue are lines running below the streets, and green are those lines running on bridges over the streets.

The difference between the Grade Crossing Commission’s recommendation and the eventual 1941 elevation amounts to moving about 1.5 miles of track 300 feet to the south and putting those tracks in a ditch instead of on a berm. It doesn’t look like that big of a switch, but it would have been huge for Syracuse’s development.

First, tracks below grade are very different from those above grade. The pictures on the left show the New York Central’s elevated line in Syracuse, and the pictures on the right show the canal bed in Rochester after that city repurposed it as a below-grade rail line. Imagine standing at the back of City Hall and being able to see into the Northside versus the situation we have now where that view is blocked by a two-story berm.

Second, running the trains in the canal bed would have kept Erie Boulevard from becoming a major East-West crosstown route for car traffic. It’s possible that the City Planning Commission would have turned the canal into a road east of Beech Street, west of West Street, and connected those two segments with Canal or Washington Street (at the time, they were very interested in joining streets to create more crosstown routes), but it’s just as likely that another street would have taken on the role that Erie Boulevard East has come to occupy—Burnet Ave, maybe. Then, Salvation Army, Lowe’s, Price Chopper, etc. would all be in Eastwood instead of on the Eastside.

It is also possible that the canal might still run through part of the City. The main reason to fill it in was to get rid of the unreliable mechanical lift bridges that crossed it Downtown. That wouldn’t be a problem anymore if trains ran in the canal bed, some businesses did still use the canal for shipping, and cutting out the middle section would have made Erie Boulevard much less useful for getting across town, so—instead of cutting it off at Butternut Creek—the City and State might have allowed the canal to run all the way to Teall Ave or so.

Third, Syracuse would have gotten a different train station in a different place. The Grade Crossing Commission called for a new passenger station at the corner of West and W Genesee Streets. It would have sat back from the street on a new plaza at the Western edge of Downtown, and—having been designed and built in the 1920’s instead of the 1930’s—it would have been in a different architectural style from the late Art Deco station that Syracuse actually did get on Erie Boulevard outside of Downtown. That station is pictured on the left. The other pictures show some of the New York Central’s slightly earlier stations built in other New York Cities.

Of course, that station plaza is now the site of the West Street interchange, and imagining a train station there raises questions about how this all would have changed the decisions that politicians and engineers made about where to put the highways.

81 could still run where it does now. It’s just worth pointing out how crazy it’d be to walk up North Salina Street with a train rumbling along below your feet while cars roared overhead.

690 is a different case. It’s built on the embankment where the New York Central elevated its trains in 1936. If the railroad had put its trains in the canal bed, then that embankment wouldn’t exist, and so 690 would have to go somewhere else.

Initial plans for 690—made before NYSDOT knew that the railroad wanted to abandon its elevated track—ran the highway on a viaduct between Washington and Fayette Streets to an interchange with 81 at Almond Street. From there, the highway curved around the northern side of Downtown to follow the elevated train tracks out of the City. If the train station were at West Street, however, that route would not work. In that case, NYSDOT may have adopted a part of the City Planning Commission’s proposal to route the highway along West Street to Erie Boulevard West, and from there to State Fair Boulevard out of the City.

This would have shifted the highway several hundred feet south, covering dozens of city blocks and hundreds of acres of land—not very different from the terrible plans that NYSDOT has drawn up for rebuilding the I81 viaduct. It would have destroyed City Hall, the weighlock building, put the highways within a block of Clinton Square, and cut the train station off from Downtown.

Of course, all of these adjustments to the City’s transportation infrastructure would have had rolling implications on Syracuse’s development. What would it mean for the Westside if the Geddes Street exit from 690 was right at Fayette instead of Marquette Street? What would it mean for Eastwood if Burnet Ave had room to breath instead of being overshadowed by 690? How would Centro’s bus lines change if the train station was Downtown instead of all the way at the City’s northern edge? Would more of the factories off Carrier Circle have located on Canal Street if freight trains could still run through that valley?

For all those questions, we do know this: if they had put the trains in the canal bed after New York State built the Barge Canal, it would have shaped Syracuse very differently over the course of the twentieth century.