The most striking change in Downtown Syracuse’s building stock over the last 100 years is the almost total removal of apartment houses.
Downtown’s old apartment houses weren’t as famous as major public buildings like the Third County Courthouse of the Yates Hotel, but they were home to hundreds of people at any given time, and their loss explains why Downtown is home to less than half as many people today as in 1930. And because they were less photographed and less missed, it’s easy to forget just how numerous they used to be and just how many people used to live Downtown.
As Syracuse seeks to unmake this Urban Renewal era mistake and knit Downtown back into the the City’s fabric, it’s helpful to see pictures of these lost homes remember that the neighborhood was full of housing for most of its history. Here are some rarely seen photos of just a few of Downtown’s demolished apartment buildings.
This short list doesn’t capture anywhere near the volume or variety of housing that existed Downtown before urban renewal. It doesn’t include other apartment buildings like The Mabelle (513 S Salina St), the Gendreda Flats (620 S Warren St), the Adella Flats (616 S Warren St), the Langdon Flats (614 S Warren St), the Kenyon Flats (610 S Warren St), the Westminster Flats (206 E Harrison St), the Lydon Flats (129 N State St), the Charles Flats (417 E Jefferson St), The Madison Flats (315 Madison St), The Mowry Apartments (100 W Onondaga St), The Florence Flats (101 W Onondaga St), Lyons Flats (200 W Adams St), or Merrick Place (201 W Adams St). It also doesn’t include the many boarding houses, rooming houses, and tenements that used to cover the land bounded by and underneath today’s elevated highways. And it doesn’t include the dozens of hotels that housed both short- and long-term residents before urban renewal.
But this short list does show that there used to be a lot more housing Downtown and that recent residential construction in the City’s center is a reversion to our historical mean rather than some strange new phenomenon. We’ve got a lot more building to do before Downtown can house as many people as it did 100 years ago, but we’re getting closer all the time, and that’s a good thing.
Syracuse has a housing crisis, but when a new apartment build gets proposed there’s usually someone who asks whether Syracuse really needs any new housing. The thinking behind that question goes something like this: ‘Syracuse’s population is basically stagnant, we already have plenty of housing, why should we build any more?’
There’s good sense there. Syracuse’s overall population is stable, and it is good to invest in the City’s built infrastructure like its existing but deteriorating housing stock.
But there are plenty of reasons Syracuse also needs more new housing and why any new construction is, all else equal, a good thing. Here are three of those reasons.
population change from 2000 to 2020 (blue is growing, red is shrinking)
Some neighborhoods are growing
Syracuse’s overall population stability masks wildly divergent trends between neighborhoods. In general, since 2000, while the City as a whole has neither gained nor lost population, there has been a huge surge in the number of people living on the Northside, University Hill, and Downtown. At the same time, the South and West Sides have seen significant population loss.
Many growing neighborhoods compete for residents with suburban areas rather than other City neighborhoods. When these places put artificial limits on the number of families who can move in, they spur sprawl and rising prices.
Existing housing is falling down
It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Syracuse has lots of uninhabitable housing. In neighborhoods with fewer families than homes, lots of older houses and apartments have sat vacant for years, and our harsh winters and wet summers have done lots of damage to their roofs and foundations and walls.
Some of these houses can be rehabbed—and some contractors make money flipping dilapidated Land Bank houses—but many will simply never house another family. There just aren’t enough people willing to pay enough money to cover the enormous cost of renovating them—at least not at scale—so they sit empty until they fall over or get demolished.
With so much housing rotting away every year, Syracuse needs new construction just to house a stable population. That’s the idea behind City Hall’s Resurgent Neighborhoods Initiative. They assemble contiguous vacant parcels in targeted neighborhoods and build brand new houses to fill the space left by demolished dilapidated housing.
Households are shrinking
More than 2 out of every 5 housing units in Syracuse were built before World War II. Life’s changed a lot since then, and Syracuse’s existing housing doesn’t exactly match the community’s needs. In particular, households are much smaller than they used to be (this is true across America). The average Syracuse household in 1940 contained 3.6 people. In 2020, that number was down to 2.6.
This demographic shift creates a need for new housing in two ways. First, smaller households mean Syracuse needs more housing to accommodate even a stable population. 205,967 people lived in Syracuse in 1940, but they only made up 57,009 households. 2020’s census counted just 148,620 people in the City, but those people formed 59,336 households. Even though 28% fewer people lived in Syracuse in 2020 than in 1940, that smaller population filled more homes.
And second, changes in household size create new needs for different kinds of housing. In 1940 there were 4,526 one-person households in Syracuse—they accounted for 8% of all households in the City. In 2020, there were 21,913 one-person households in Syracuse, and they accounted for 39% of all households.
But Syracuse’s housing stock has not kept up with the huge increase in 1-person households. Just 13,158 occupied units are either 1-bedroom or studio apartments. That means plenty of 1-person households are living in homes with more than one bedroom. Some of them may need the extra space, but many probably do not, so they are overpaying and competing for space with larger households.
That’s why so much new construction includes lots of 1-bedroom apartments—Syracuse needs more of that kind of housing because of huge demographic shifts that have occurred since most of our existing housing was built. Matching Syracuse’s housing stock to its present-day population is going to require a lot more new construction.
Syracuse needs new housing. We need it to make more room for people in the places they want to live, we need it to replace the housing that’s been allowed to fall into disrepair, and we need it to meet the new needs of new generations.
The Near Eastside needs more small streets. A fine-grained street grid with many small streets and many small blocks yields many different benefits to a neighborhood. The Near Eastside used to have one of the most finely grained grids in Syracuse, but urban renewal removed many streets and consolidated many blocks, and the result is bad for the neighborhood. When NYSDOT builds the community grid, and as City Hall extends NYSDOT’s work through the rest of the City’s center, they should focus on restoring the neighborhood’s traditional street grid to make a better neighborhood.
Small streets are good for all kinds of reasons. For one, they can increase the number of people who can live in a neighborhood. To see how, look at the block bounded by Washington, Water, McBride, and Almond Streets. That block has enough room to fit about 80 new rowhomes, but it only has enough street frontage to fit about 40 rowhomes. Reopening the little street that used to cut through that block—Orange Alley, just 20′ wide—would almost double the amount of usable street frontage and allow the block to hold twice as many people.
Small blocks also improve mobility. When a neighborhood has many small streets, people have lots of different options for getting between any two points. All of those options allow people to disperse through the neighborhood, and that discourages traffic from all bunching up on one congested street. Car drivers coming from DeWitt can keep to high-capacity streets like Genesee while people on foot and on bike can follow safer, slower parallel streets like Water or Jefferson to reach the same destination.
Small streets are also good for small businesses. Jane Jacobs showed how a street network with many streets and small blocks creates allows more retail businesses to succeed with foot traffic. The Near Eastside used to have some of the smallest blocks in Syracuse, and the neighborhood also supported a high density of small-scale retail.
On the whole, Syracuse has a good street grid that brings these benefits to most of the City’s neighborhoods, but urban renewal degraded the street grid on the Near Eastside. City Hall and NYSDOT removed miles of local streets and consolidated dozens of blocks. Now in that neighborhood, the scrambled street grid limits housing options, harms small businesses, and makes it harder to get around.
The Community Grid is about more than just removing the viaduct, it also has to be about restoring the City’s traditional street grid destroyed by urban renewal to secure all of its many benefits for the neighborhood.
But—as of the 2021 DEIS—NYSDOT plans to do almost none of that on the Near Eastside. NYSDOT only intends to restore two of the many streets that urban renewal removed—Pearl and Irving—and those would function less like local streets than as extensions of new highway off-ramps.
City Hall and NYSDOT should do more to restore the neighborhood’s traditional street grid. Along Almond Street, NYSDOT should install pedestrian crossings at Madison and Monroe Streets in order to connect already existing streets that have been broken by the highway. City Hall should reopen through streets removed by urban renewal, like Washington and Cedar, in order to give people more options for travelling through the neighborhood. And City Hall should establish new small streets just a single block long, like Orange Alley, in order to create more room for people to live in the neighborhood.
City Hall should build new housing on the Near Eastside, and a lot of that new housing should be rowhomes. Rowhomes combine the benefits of both single-family and multi-family housing and they are a perfect housing solution for the growing Near Eastside.
Over the past few years, private for-profit developers operating on the Near Eastside have been building one basic kind of housing: the midrise apartment block. These buildings can fit a lot of homes in a neighborhood, and all those people help support more local businesses and better public services.
In the past couple of years, City Hall’s Resurgent Neighborhoods Initiative has built a very different kind of housing in other City neighborhoods: single-family houses with large front, side, and backyards. These buildings give people a little bit of private outdoor space, they encourage a sense of ownership of the block, and they provide people with the opportunity to own their own home.
Rowhomes—houses on narrow lots that share sidewalls with neighboring houses—combine all these benefits. Like large apartment buildings, they can house lots of people and support vibrant growing neighborhoods. Like detached single-family homes, they provide small yards and opportunities for home ownership.
To see how rowhomes would help bring these benefits to the Near Eastside, just look at the block bounded by Water, Washington, Almond, and McBride Streets. It’s currently almost completely covered by a tangle of two elevated highways, but the I81 project will remove that interchange and transfer the land back to the community. That block could easily fit 80 rowhomes, so there would be room for 80 families to own a home on a single block of this high-opportunity neighborhood.
Of course, it’s not currently legal to build rowhomes in Syracuse. The City’s antiquated zoning code prohibits them, and ReZone would still maintain that ban by requiring what it calls “attached single-family” houses to sit on overly large lots that rob rowhomes of some of their chief benefits. Before City Hall adopts the new zoning ordinance, it should amend ReZone to allow rowhomes to be built on lots as narrow as 15’ wide and as small as 750 square feet. These standards would simply allow City Hall to build rowhomes similar to those that already exist in other Syracuse neighborhoods.
Rowhomes hit a housing sweet spot: they make room for lots of people to live in a neighborhood, and they also provide families with private yards and the opportunity to own a home. Syracuse could use more rowhomes, and City Hall should build them on the Near Eastside.
The Near Eastside needs more new housing, and it needs that new housing to be affordable for families with a range of incomes. Recent private for-profit development is providing housing for households at the top of that range, but it will take public and not-profit development to meet the needs of the rest of the community. City Hall should actively guide new housing construction in order to serve the public’s interest by making the neighborhood’s restoration equitable and sustainable.
In the private for-profit housing market, rents in new buildings are higher than those in older buildings. New buildings have to cover costs—to buy land and materials, to pay construction workers—that older buildings paid off a long time ago, and private for-profit developers cover those costs with relatively high rents. New construction on the Near Eastside is being driven almost entirely by private for-profit developers, and so it is much more expensive than older housing across the City.
In a different world where City Hall hadn’t destroyed almost all of the neighborhood’s preexisting housing, this would be less of a problem. New, private, for-profit buildings would still be expensive, but they would be surrounded by thousands of older homes whose mortgages were already paid off and whose owners could compete for tenants by lowering rents. In such a neighborhood, the construction of new housing—with newer appliances, better HVAC, and more amenities—could even help to reduce rents in older buildings by luring the richest tenants away.
But we don’t live in that world—City Hall did destroy almost all preexisting housing between Montgomery and Beech Streets—so there aren’t many cheap homes just east of Downtown, and no amount of private, for-profit, new construction will change that in your lifetime or mine. This is a problem City Hall will have to fix by directing the construction of not-for-profit housing on behalf of the public.
When the public builds housing, it doesn’t need to cover upfront costs solely with income from rents and sales. Instead, it can draw on the municipal budget to meet those costs with the understanding that—once you account for the full range of public benefits that flow from restoring a neighborhood in the City’s center—the public will come out better in the end. Those benefits include increased sales taxes from new businesses, increased property taxes in surrounding neighborhoods, savings on social and emergency services, savings on asphalt maintenance, better outcomes for SCSD students, expanded transportation options, and—most importantly—more people who need homes in Syracuse will have them.
A lot of land on the Near Eastside is already controlled by some public entity—be it City Hall, Syracuse City Schools, SUNY Upstate, or NYSDOT. The I81 project should include an agreement between those public entities to build new housing on that land on behalf of the public, NYSDOT should provide funding to build that new housing in the I81 budget, and that new housing should be made available at prices affordable to households making a wide range of incomes. This is the only realistic way to serve the public’s interest by restoring the Near Eastside sustainably and equitably.
Before urban renewal, tight-knit neighborhoods right next to Downtown provided housing and opportunity for tens of thousands of people. Now, most of those neighborhoods are mostly parking lots and home to very few people. In order for the Community Grid to succeed, Syracuse must restore those neighborhoods.
Urban renewal hit the 15th Ward/Near Eastside worse than any other neighborhood. That’s a product of City Hall’s racism (the 15th Ward was home to 8 of every 9 Black people living in Syracuse at midcentury), and it’s important to note that Urban Renewal wasn’t a one-time event. City Hall began mass demolition of Black families’ homes in the 1930’s, and it’s continued into the 21st century with the willful neglect and destruction of Kennedy Square.
These maps show how land uses changed just east of Downtown between 1953 and 2021. Areas shaded yellow are housing (including mixed-use buildings), red are commercial, purple are institutional (churches, schools, hospitals, etc), blue are parking and vacant land, and green are parkland.
In 1953, the vast majority of this neighborhood was covered in housing, but it was also served by many small businesses, schools, churches, and synagogues. Small streets laid out before the Civil War cut the land up into small blocks, making the neighborhood easier to get around on foot.
By 2021 the neighborhood was dominated by vacant land and parking lots. Entire blocks of housing have been demolished, and many small streets have been either eliminated (Renwick, Washington, Irving, Cedar, McBride, Jefferson, Madison) or widened (Harrison, Adams, Almond, Townsend) in order to make the area easier to drive around at the expense of people on foot.
As a result of all these changes, the population of the Near Eastside fell from 14,646 in 1950 to 5,656 in 2020—a drop of 61%. With that huge loss of people, the neighborhoods has lost most of its character as well. Few children mean there are no more schools, most houses of worship have either closed or followed their congregants to some other neighborhood, and the local businesses that sustained the neighborhood’s permanent residents have been replaced (if at all) by office buildings staffed by commuters.
This neighborhood has transformed from a place where people can make a good life into a space that serves residents of other neighborhoods who come and go in cars.
The Community Grid is Syracuse’s opportunity to unmake these mistakes. We’re removing the highway, and the new street grid can be designed in a way that supports walking, biking, and transit, small businesses, new housing, and repopulation. It’ll take more than transportation planning to right urban renewal’s wrongs, but if Syracuse pursues that goal intentionally, we can restore these neighborhoods and create good places for people to make their lives in the City.
In a recent letter to the editor, James Albanese—a member of the Columbus Monument Corporation—described Syracuse’s Columbus Monument as a ‘privately’ funded statue. Writing of the importance of the monument as a physical object located in a prime public space, Mr. Albanese says:
“being there connects us with our immigrant ancestors, who after a 15-year effort to privately fund and erect this work of art felt that they were finally being integrated into the local community as equals.” [emphasis added]
Mr. Albanese chose these words carefully to corroborate the Columbus Monument Corporation’s argument that City Hall cannot remove the statue because the monument properly belongs to the ‘people of Syracuse.’ In his telling, the monument was paid for with private money, so no public body—like City Hall—can decide to remove it.
But that’s not true. Although the original Columbus Monument Association attempted to privately fund and erect the monument in the 1920’s and 30’s, that effort came up short. In the end, the purchase, shipment, and construction of Syracuse’s Columbus Monument relied on public money supplied by the City of Syracuse, New York State, and Italy’s national government, and Benito Mussolini even had a hand in designing the monument itself.
The problems started with the Depression when the dollar’s value fell relative to the Italian lira. Despite raising an impressive sum to hire Italian sculptor Renzo Baldi, the worsening exchange rate meant the Columbus Monument Corporation didn’t have enough money to actually ship the monument from Italy to Syracuse.
Once the pieces of the monument were all actually in Syracuse, a private firm—the Mondo Construction Company—was supposed to put them together. However, City Hall took over the job of actually erecting the monument in 1934 in order to “help defray expenses.”
Syracuse’s Columbus monument was not a purely private venture. Local, state, and national governments helped design, fund, and construct the monument, it sits in a public right of way, and it was ritually presented to the City of Syracuse at its dedication in 1934. The public put the monument up, and the public has every right to decide to take it down.
There are monuments in Syracuse City Parks that commemorate an act of genocide carried out by the United States Government against the Onondaga Nation in April of 1779. These monuments memorialize the Van Schaick Expedition—a part of the infamous Sullivan-Clinton campaign—which passed from Fort Stanwix, through the present-day City of Syracuse, on its way to destroy Onondaga settlements to the south. Colonial soldiers killed or captured Onondaga men, women, and children and destroyed their crops and homes.
The Van Schaick Expedition was despicable, it does not deserve our veneration, and City Hall should remove these monuments from its parks.
The Sullivan-Clinton campaign was a series of military expeditions in which professional soldiers from the Continental Army destroyed Haudenosaunee settlements across the state. In George Washington’s words, the purpose of the campaign was to “chastise and intimidate” the Haudenosaunee. In the words of another officer involved with the campaign, the purpose was “to extirpate those hell hounds from off the face of the earth.” Because of its scorched-earth tactics designed to eliminate entire communities, experts consider the Sullivan-Clinton campaign an act of genocide.
Colonel Goose Van Schaick led the campaign’s raid against the Onondaga. Here is a first person account of that raid, written by Lieutenant E. Beatty of the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment and quoted from Onondaga’s Centennial by Dwight H. Bruce:
“21st, this morning set of about Day Break, on the same line of march and west about 6 Miles when we halted, Capt. Graham with his Compy. Was sent forward as an advance party, then proceeded on to the Onandaga lake, about 8 Miles in length and 4 in Breadth, waded an arm of it, about 4 foot deep, and 200 yards wide, and came to Onandaga creek, small but deep, had to cross it on a log.
Capt. Graham’s Co., Just as he had crossed the creek, caught an Indian who was shooting Pidgeons, and made him prisoner. And we got some Information from him, then proceeded on till we come within about one Mile of the Town, when we Rec’d. word from Capt. Graham that he had caught on Squaw and killed one, and he taken two or three children and one White man, and one or two made their escape and alarmed the town.
The Col. Immediately sent me forward to order him on as quick as possible, and make as many prisoners as he could, and he would support him with the main body. I overtook him at the first town, and delivered my orders, and he Immediately pushed on about two miles to the Next town, where he made a small halt and took a great many prisoners, soon after Major Cochran with Capt. Gray’s Compy. came up and ordered me to stay with the prisoners and their two Compys. to push on to the next town, about one mile forward, which they did, and made more prisoners and killed some, particularly a Negro who was their Dr. they then plundered the middle town where I was.
Capt. Bleekers Compy. had come up by this time, and left the main body at their first town; we then collected all our prisoners, plundered this town and set fire to it, then marched of to the main body, which lay at the first town; we stayed there about 8 hours and killed some five horses and a Number of Hogs, & plundered their houses, and set fire to them, and Marched of about 4 o’clock, in the same line of march as we came, only the front changed. and a Compy. to guard the prisrs. Who was to march between they two colums;
marched on about 2 Miles from the town down the Onand’ga creek, when about 20 Indians who Lay concealed on the opposite side of the Creek fird upon us, but the Rifle Men soon Dispersed them, killing one of them, we then marched on and crossed the Onandaga Creek in two places, for fear the enemy should attack us, but we met with no interruption, crossed the arm of the lake, and encamped by the side of the lake about 8 Miles from the town. We killed about 15, took 34 Prisoners, Burned about 30 or 40 houses, took 2 stand of Coulors, and we had not one man killed or wounded—”
This account of events comes from one of the perpetrators of genocide. Other accounts contain more graphic details of the soldiers’ violence. By the 1800’s, white settlers in Syracuse telling the story of the raid would specify that the soldiers killed “large numbers” of Onondagas in the creek as they tried to swim to safety, and that the soldiers “hung and quartered” the Black man they found living with the Onondaga. According to the Peace Council, Onondaga oral histories tell that the soldiers also raped Onondaga women.
Clark’s Onondaga reports when the white settlers came to this part of the County for the first time in 1789, they took over the remnants of an “extensive Indian orchard” that was still abandoned 10 years after Van Schaick had burned part of it. The settlers learned this history from the Onondaga still living in the area who provided them with shelter when they first arrived.
New York State erected Syracuse’s first monument to the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign in 1929. That was the 150th anniversary of the campaign, and identical monuments were placed across the state. The monument depicts the Campaign’s multiple expeditions on a map of New York State. The Van Schaick Expedition is clearly marked and is shown passing through present-day Syracuse to “Onondaga Castle.”
This monument sits on a large privately owned piece of land on Valley Drive across from Onondaga Valley Cemetery.
When New York State built its monument, people in Syracuse understood that this was not an event worth commemorating. There had been some preparations for a celebration of the “Raid” on Sunday April 21, 1929, but the Syracuse Herald reported “lack of interest and delay in attempting to bring about the celebration are given as reasons for its postponement.” The Herald also noted that:
“The celebration has never been encouraged by the Onondaga Historical Association. Officers of that organization contend that the attack on the Onondagans was unjust. The Indians who are now part of the Onondaga community have had traditions handed down to them telling of the barbarity of the American troops. Officers of the historical association urge that there is nothing to celebrate and that the anniversary might better be forgotten.”
Unfortunately, the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution did not take this advice, and the very next year they erected two monuments to Van Schaick’s raid on City-owned parkland. One is on West Colvin Street between Onondaga Creek Parkway and Hunt Avenue. It reads:
Col. Van Schaick crossed Onondaga Creek here on way to Indian villages to the south, April 21, 1779
The metal plaque has recently been replaced, so someone (likely unaware of the history) is actually maintaining this monument to genocide.
The second monument is nearby in Onondaga Park along the east side of Onondaga Avenue across from the City’s greenhouses. The plaque on this monument used to read:
Site of Indian Attack on Col. Van Schaick’s Expedition against the Onondagas April 21, 1779
Thankfully, someone stole the plaque many years ago. All that’s left now is a bare stone.
These two monuments tell an incredibly misleading story. The one on Colvin makes no mention at all of Van Schaick’s violent purpose, and the one that used to be on Onondaga makes it seem as if the ‘expedition’ only fought back after they were initially attacked. So in addition to being a grave insult to the Onondaga Nation, these monuments are also bring us out of right relation with our community’s true history.
It is inexplicable that these monuments still stand in City-owned parkland, and they should be removed. This isn’t applying modern sensibilities to past events—the Onondaga Historical Association thought this was a bad idea when the monuments were put up in 1929. It’s remained a bad idea for 92 years, and leaving them up one day longer is also a bad idea. Take these monuments down.
In the early 1800’s, there were several distinct villages within Syracuse’s present city limits. Each had its own small business district, meeting hall, and churches, and many were built around a public square or village green. As Syracuse grew to encompass these small villages, their central public spaces became less important, and while some—such as Washington Square, the old green of the Village of Salina—remained central to their neighborhoods others—like Onondaga Hollow’s village green, Geddes’ St. Mark’s Square, and Lodi’s Lock Square—faded away and are barely recognizable as public spaces anymore.
These historic public spaces still matter for two reasons. First, because many of these early villages still retain their identity as distinct city neighborhoods and the public spaces at their centers should be sources of local pride. Second, these squares are great places to foster commercial activity, build new housing, and promote transit-oriented development in Syracuse’s neighborhoods so that the conditions of Downtown’s recent successes can bring prosperity to more of the City.
The oldest part of Syracuse is deep in the Valley where Seneca Turnpike crosses Valley Drive. There, the houses of Syracuse’s first settlers sit between newer bungalows and ranches. Onondaga Hollow was settled in 1784—before Onondaga County even existed—and when Seneca Turnpike provided the best route across the state, this little village was one of the most important spots in Central New York.
But when the Erie Canal replaced the turnpikes as New York’s primary intercity highway, Syracuse replaced Onondaga Hollow as the center of Onondaga County.
Onondaga Hollow’s village green is a 51’ wide strip of land along the northern side of Seneca Turnpike between Valley Drive and Onondaga Creek. Today, it’s carved up by the driveways of all the houses that line it, but you can trace its outline by following the sidewalk’s irregular path here.
Luckily, the Parks Department still owns and maintains the land. City Hall should restore the Onondaga Hollow village green by opening a new lane along its northern edge between Valley Drive and Onondaga Creek. This would create access to the properties that border the green and eliminate the need for center turning lanes on that part of Seneca Turnpike. City Hall could then remove the driveways from the green itself and extend the green south by narrowing the road to two lanes. That would allow the Parks Department to add amenities like benches, chess tables, and flower beds, and the historic Onondaga Hollow village green would once again be a place for the community.
The Village of Geddes—built along the Erie Canal where it crossed under West Genesee Street—was another early site of salt production. This municipality encompassed much of what is now Syracuse’s Westside including Tipperary Hill and the West End.
Geddes’ ‘downtown’ was near the Canal where Bridge, Exchange, and Furnace Streets (now St. Mark’s, Williams, and Fayette Streets) intersected. There are still several canal-era buildings in this spot.
Bridge Street connected that commercial center to the Village’s public square. St. Mark’s Square was located where the Genesee Road curves to hug the base of Tipperary Hill. For most of its history there has been a school on its north side, and Porter Elementary fills that spot now.
The square itself, though, is gone. Small urban squares had fallen out of favor during the urban renewal era, and City Hall constructed a new building for Hazard Branch Library on St Mark’s Square in 1968. Bridge Street has been cut up into sections, and the little portion that ran past Geddes’ village green is now called St. Mark’s Avenue.
After decades of disuse, this little village center is getting new life. Three large canal-era buildings have recently been converted to housing, a jazz club, and a planned food co-op. At St. Mark’s Square, the pandemic pushed some of Hazard Branch’s summer programming outside to the old public space.
Hazard Branch only really fills about half of the square. The library shields the other half—between the building and the school—from traffic noise on West Genesee Street, and that could be a great spot for community events. City Hall should move those parking spaces somewhere else and turn the lot back into a public green space.
The short-lived Village of Lodi was a gamble. In the 1830’s, three men from Syracuse—Oliver Teall, Harvey Baldwin, and Aaron Burt—bet that the area around where Beech Street crosses Erie Boulevard (then the Erie Canal) would be a better place to build a city. The ground there was more elevated than swampy Syracuse, and that mattered a lot before roads were paved and when people still thought disease came from ‘miasmas.’
The speculators bought up a huge area of land—basically everything north of Genesee and south of the Canal between Beech and Almond Streets—and tried to build a city. They established a school, built a mill, and set up a small village center on Beech Street near where there were two locks on the canal. Beech Street was lined with small shops and a hotel, and the open space on the Canal’s northern bank between Beech and Pine Streets was called Lock Square.
Lodi never came close to overtaking Syracuse in importance. Syracuse paved its streets, drained its swamp, and absorbed Lodi in 1835. Lock Square remained a convenient trading place for a while after that, but by the early 1900’s it had lost its usefulness, and New York State built a canal maintenance facility on the spot. Today the City’s Water Department occupies the space, and almost all that’s left of this early village is Lodi Street—the road from Lock Square to the old Village of Salina.
It’s unlikely City Hall will move the Water Department anytime soon, but there is a great opportunity to leverage the new Empire State Trail and existing public space on the other side of Erie Boulevard to recall Lodi’s old Lock Square. The I81 DEIS includes plans to build bike lanes from Lodi Street to the Empire State Trail on Water Street. But Lodi and Water don’t intersect, so NYSDOT’s plans to connect those streets with bike lanes along Canal and Walnut Streets. This unfortunate route would force bike riders heading north to make a dangerous left-turn onto Lodi with terrible visibility in both directions.
Better to build a bike/pedestrian path across the narrow strip of grass between Water Street and Erie Boulevard so that people on bike and on foot can cross from Water Street to Lodi there. City Hall could help ‘enclose’ the space by allowing mixed-use development on the western portion of this median. Add a sculptural fountain east of the path to recall the masonry locks buried beneath Erie Boulevard, and this new public space would be a mirror of Lodi’s old Lock Square.
Syracuse needs more good public spaces. They’re where we meet each other, pass time among our neighbors, and participate in community life. These three village centers were good public spaces, but they are almost invisible today. With a little effort, City Hall could bring them back again and make Syracuse a better place.
Syracuse should reconnect with its waterfront. This City was built around water, and we have miles and miles of creeks, canals, and lakefront where people can get in touch with Syracuse’s maritime side.
But Syracuse should go farther and actually get people out on the water. We need more boats in this town.
Syracuse’s small waterways are perfect for kayaking. The Creekrats—a very good volunteer organization that helps clean and care for Onondaga Creek—know this, which is why they host Fun Floats where anybody can show up, borrow a kayak or canoe, and take a trip down the Creek the entire length of the City.
This is great, and we need more of it. In addition to kayaks and canoes, people should be tubing down the Creek. In addition to the Creekrats volunteer efforts, the City Parks department should be providing the public with small boats.
As Syracuse’s summers get hotter, people are going to need new ways to keep cool. Getting them floating down Onondaga Creek is a great place to start.
Car traffic to the State Fair and the Lake Amphitheater is famously terrible. That’s what happens when tens of thousands of people all try to drive to the same location. The only way to fix it is to give people more options for getting to those popular destinations.
Ferries would relieve that congestion, and they’d get people out onto Onondaga Lake. People going to concerts and the Fair could catch a ferry at the Inner Harbor, the Village of Liverpool, and Longbranch Park. They’d trade the hassle of traffic and parking for a leisurely sunset trip across the Lake.
The ice rink at Clinton Square is great because it recreates a traditional recreational use of the canal. The people who redesigned the square in 2001 had that iconic photograph in mind when they planned the public skating program. They wanted to give people “a sense of the canal.”
That’s fantastic—let’s do more.
One of the other ways that Syracuse residents used to interact with the canal was by boarding the floating attractions, museums, and shops that travelled from town to town along the canal. If we make more of NYSDOT’s planned ‘canal district’ and actually rewater the canal between Franklin and Montgomery Streets, there should absolutely be boats in that water for people to board.
The Erie Canal Museum could run a historic packet boat, restaurants could put outdoor seating on a stationary barge, local artists could set up pop up retail shops. There are plenty of attractions that would get people onto boats, and that would reconnect them with the canal.
In order to really activate Syracuse’s waterfront, we need more programming. Kayaking, tubing, ferries, floating attractions, whatever. Just provide people with ways to get out on the water, and they will do it.