Crises reveal what really matters. Work that used to be forgotten is now understood to be essential. Workers who used to be taken for granted are now recognized as heroes—fighting on the frontlines against this global pandemic—the hospitals, the nursing homes, the garbage routes, the checkout counters.
Renewed appreciation for these people and the work that they do is shaking up Syracuse’s ideas about what makes the City work. When Syracuse started social distancing, a lot of people expected Centro to cut its service. After all, demand was bound to go down, and anyways, no one really rides the bus, right?
Instead, the entire community is learning just how much Syracuse needs the bus. While big cities like Chicago and Boston have seen 75% drops in transit use, Centro’s ridership has only dropped 55%. And the people who are still on the bus are the ones getting Syracuse through this crisis. As Centro spokesman Steve Koegel pointed out, the remaining bus riders are often in uniform: “A lot of people are wearing hospital garb. It’s visible those are the people using our service. They are critical-need workers.”
So while the buses remained full of heroes riding to work in the hospitals, and highway interchanges went empty, our transportation priorities shifted. The federal stimulus included $21.5 million for Centro, a necessary lifeline for a perennially underfunded service. After years of getting cut out of budget deals, left to languish with declining local, state, and federal support, this crisis shook people up and made them realize that Syracuse needs a functioning public transportation system to survive.
But the risk is that once this crisis is over, once we’ve moved from dealing with a global pandemic to managing its economic aftershock, the people in power will forget that lesson and go back to business as usual—back to neglecting the basic necessities that made it possible for the City to get through this, back to starving the bus.
We can’t let it happen. We need to come out of this smarter than when we went in, with a greater appreciation for what makes life in Syracuse livable. That means a new commitment to the services that support the people who do Syracuse’s most essential work—it means better bus service.
In 1848 the villages of Salina (the area around Washington Square) and Syracuse (the area around Clinton Square) merged to form the City of Syracuse. According to Dennis Connor’s book Crossroads in Time, local leaders also considered including the villages of Geddes and Liverpool in the new city. Geddes (the area around St Mark’s Square on West Genesee Street) eventually joined the City in 1886, but Liverpool never did. In fact, the City never annexed any land between Salina and Liverpool.
What if Liverpool had joined Salina and Syracuse to form a new City in 1848?
When Salina and Syracuse merged in 1848, there was still a lot of empty land between them. In 1830, Onondaga County moved its courthouse from Onondaga Hill to the corner of Salina and Division Streets in an attempt to stimulate development there so that the two villages would grow into each other. That didn’t happen. An 1838 map shows the courthouse sitting all alone, Salina only extending as far south as Court Street, and Syracuse only reaching as far north as Hickory Street. When that courthouse burned in 1856, its location was still so out of the way that the County built its third courthouse on Clinton Square.
Meanwhile, the land between Liverpool and Salina stayed empty. Developers built a few new blocks of housing at the intersection of Old Liverpool and Buckley Roads in the early 20th century, but a lack of fresh water and public transportation limited development there, It wasn’t until after World War II that a new municipal water source and higher rates of car ownership made Galeville’s subdivisions possible.
Let’s assume that if Liverpool had merged with Salina and Syracuse in 1848, this would have extended the new City’s boundaries to include the present Village of Liverpool and all of the land between it, Ley Creek, 7th North Street, and Onondaga Lake—Galeville, basically. As part of the new City of Syracuse, anyone living there would have had access to municipal services like fresh water in the 1860’s and fire protection in the 1870’s. They could have walked to work at the Galeville Salt Works, and streetcar service would have connected Liverpool to Syracuse before 1903.
First trolley to Liverpool, 1903
Trolley stop at Johnson Park
Trolley passes First Presbyterian
All of which is to say that if Liverpool had joined the City of Syracuse in 1848, then Galeville would have developed in the late 1800s rather than the late 1900s.
Different neighborhoods built at the same time follow a similar pattern. The Northside neighborhoods that grew up in the 1850s look like the oldest parts of the Near Westside—Scottholm looks and feels like Sedgwick and Strathmore because they were all built in the 1910s and 1920s when curving streets, big lots, single-family zoning, and eclectic architecture were in style. Galeville looks a lot like Pitcher Hill and Franklin Park because developers built all three neighborhoods at the same time.
So we can imagine how different Galeville might look if it were built 100 or 80 or 60 years earlier. Galeville’s distance from Downtown, its topography, and the nearby railroad, canal, and salt works all make it very similar to Tipperary Hill. It’s just a guess, but if Galeville had been part of Syracuse from 1848, then people might have started moving there in the 1870s—about the time that people moved to Tipp Hill. Then, like that older city neighborhood, Galeville would be covered in taller houses on smaller lots along narrower streets with businesses, churches, and schools scattered throughout the neighborhood so that people could buy groceries, get a haircut, or go to the bar without having to catch a trolley.
Drone photo of Tipperary Hill
Whittier Ave in Tipperary Hill
Of course, if the Village of Liverpool had merged with Salina and Syracuse in 1848, it would be a different place too. The Village already had ready access to municipal services like water, schools, and fire protection in the 1800s, and it had lots of jobs in salt making, boat repair, and basket weaving—none of those factors constrained Liverpool the way they did Galeville, and the Village would probably have grown just as it actually did.
With one big difference. The postwar suburban boom hit Liverpool hard—people wanted to pass through the Village to get from their new subdivisions to Downtown, and NYSDOT responded by widening Oswego Street to more than 60 feet across. That wide road made it easy for all of northern Onondaga County to drive though Liverpool on their way to Syracuse, but it also made it unnecessarily hard for anybody to walk from one side of the Village to the other.
There are roads that wide in other County suburbs—West Genesee in Fairmount, Route 5 in Fayetteville, Erie Boulevard in Dewitt—but there are none in Syracuse. City neighborhoods didn’t want their walkable streets widened into dangerous roads, and they had collective political power to keep it from happening. If Liverpool were a city neighborhood, Oswego Street would be a reasonable size.
Trolleys on Oswego Street in Liverpool
Intersection of Old Liverpool Road, Onondaga Lake Parkway, and Oswego Street in Liverpool (the building in the center is Heid’s)
Sunlight through trees on Oswego Street in Liverpool
Picture that: Liverpool, a lakeside city neighborhood with its mix of apartments and 1-family homes, neighborhood businesses, and walkable streets. Take a bus into Downtown, and you’d pass through Galeville—a tight-knit community on a bluff overlooking Onondaga Lake Park. What if, right?
Big demographic trends are bringing equally big changes to Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse. Two weeks ago we looked at where those changes are happening. Last week we tried to figure out who is driving them. This week we’re asking why we should care.
The Old Growth
The dominant demographic trend in Onondaga County is the wave of older wealthier people migrating away from the City along major highway routes.
Over the first 16 years of the 21st century that wave crossed Rt 31 in the northern part of the County, it mounted Onondaga Hill in the South, and it passed old Camillus in the west and Manlius in the East. In all of those places, it has spurred the subdivision of thousands of acres of farmland into tract housing, filling previously rural areas with new, older, richer residents. In the existing villages where political and bureaucratic pressures prohibited developers from building much new housing, this wave made the population older and richer, but also smaller. Altogether, that outer ring of suburbs grew by 13,200 people between 2000 and 2016.
That huge growth at the leading edge of Onondaga County’s suburban development obscures the very different conditions left in its wake. The older suburbs slightly closer to the City are almost all aging faster than the rest of the County too, but they’re also losing population and getting poorer. When the main thing is to have the newest house as close to the country as possible, then every new subdivision outmodes the last one. Since the County as a whole is only growing by a very small amount, a bigger and richer population in Van Buren necessarily means a smaller and poorer population in Lakeland. That inner ring of older suburbs lost 6,555 people between 2000 and 2016.
The very bad news for the County is that, in several directions, the wave of wealthy, populous, tax-generating suburban growth is about to cross the County line. When that happens—when older richer people are more likely to commute to Syracuse from Cazenovia than from Manlius, or from Central Square instead of Cicero—the population growth, new development, and tax revenues that have made Onondaga County pleasant and prosperous will all go to other municipalities. All of a sudden it’ll be Oswego and Madison Counties enjoying those benefits while Onondaga is stuck with the costs of maintaining the infrastructure that makes them possible—a neat inversion of Onondaga County’s current relationship with the City of Syracuse.
The New Growth
The good news is that there is new growth in the City and its immediate suburbs that could save the County. That growth is driven by people who are generally younger and more likely to have children than those moving to its outskirts, and it’s driven by people who want access to the benefits that come from living in the middle of the metropolitan area rather than at its farthest edges.
From the middle of Downtown to just inside the wake of the Old Growth wave, much of the County is growing, and it’s getting younger. This central area includes early post-war suburbs like Mattydale and Nedrow, pre-war suburbs like Eastwood and Salt Springs, 19th century neighborhoods like Westcott and the Northside, a large part of Dewitt right on the City line, and new development at the very center of the City Downtown and in Franklin Square.
In order for that to happen, more of the middle of the County needs to start growing. That should happen in those City neighborhoods that are still losing population overall, but gaining younger residents and becoming more likely to include households with children. This greening City lost 5,875 people between 2000 and 2016, but it is poised for future growth if it just gets the necessary support. That means addressing the acute pressures on family life—things like lead paint, schools, jobs, and safety—that are currently keeping potential residents from moving in or pushing existing residents to try and move out.
At the same time, Syracuse needs to take a hard look at the City neighborhoods that are shrinking, aging, and losing children despite all of their natural advantages—the neighborhoods that are trending in the same direction as the shrinking suburbs. The South Avenue corridor is one. There, decades of racism and disinvestment have taken their toll and need to be rectified.
Winkworth, Meadowbrook, and Eastwood south of James are all also shrinking and aging. Those neighborhoods—ones that appear to be some of the ‘best’ in the City, but are trending in the same direction as the ‘worst’—share too much in common with suburban villages like Baldwinsville where bans on new construction crowd out potential new residents. All need zoning reform to allow for smaller lots and more apartments in order to make enough room for the people who want to move to those neighborhoods.
Altogether, these nine census tracts lost 4,474 people between 2000 and 2016.
So why do we care?
Onondaga County is a demographic time bomb. The County has always relied on suburban growth driven by older richer residents moving into new housing built on farmland at the edge of the metropolitan area, but that wave of prosperity will soon cross the line into Oswego and Madison Counties, leaving Onondaga County behind. If current trends hold, then at that point Onondaga’s suburbs will be smaller, older, and poorer, and unable to afford basic maintenance on their most basic infrastructure.
To thrive after that shift, the City and County have to encourage the new growth that’s already happening at their center now. That’s going to require a new way of thinking about the metropolitan area’s future. Young people are moving to its middle for entirely different reasons than old people are moving to its edges. Syracuse can’t succeed by trying to imitate the suburbs that it sometimes envies. Winkworth, Meadowbrook, and Eastwood south of James are all evidence of that.
Instead, Syracuse and Onondaga County need to focus on the natural advantages that are already drawing people to the center of the metropolitan area. Lots of housing, a variety of housing, short trips to work that people can make by bus, bike, foot, or car, neighborhoods where things like groceries, libraries, doctors, and schools are easily accessible. These are what differentiate Syracuse and its central suburbs from so much of the rest of the County, and they are the future of the entire community.
From 2000 to 2016, the different neighborhoods, villages, and towns that make up the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County saw huge swings in population while the County and City as a whole held steady. Those neighborhood fluctuations reveal big demographic trends that point to a very different future for the City and County.
Last week we looked at where those changes are happening. This week we’ll try and figure out who is driving them.
To do that, we’ll compare population change to two other major demographic trends—change in median age and change in median income. We’ll examine these three trends in individual census tracts as deviations from Onondaga County’s overall trend. In tract 3, for instance, median income rose by $20,208 between 2000 and 2016, but what really matters is that median income rose by $5,338 more than median income in the County as a whole.
We’ll also confine our focus to census tracts where more than 3 people live on every 2 acres of land. As we saw last week, the effects of population change are concentrated in the more densely populated areas at the center of the County, but small changes can appear exaggerated in the large, outlying, sparsely populated towns at the County’s edge. It’s the same with changes to median age and income, and it’s easier to discern these trends by focusing on their effects in the City and its more established suburbs.
In Onondaga County, the median resident was about 2.5 years older in 2016 than the median resident in 2000. The outer suburbs drove that trend, aging significantly between 2000 and 2016 (orange). Meanwhile, most of the City and inner suburbs actually got younger (purple) over that same time. The notable exceptions were Meadowbrook, the South and West sides, and tracts like 16 and 61.01 that contain large senior living facilities.
The median household in Onondaga County made about $15,000 more in 2016 than it did in 2000. In general, the neighborhoods that aged also got richer (green), and the neighborhoods that got younger also got poorer (red). That trend was reversed in some City neighborhoods like Downtown, Franklin Square, Strathmore, and Sedgwick, which got both younger and richer. On the other side, inner suburbs like Geddes and the southern part of Clay were both older and poorer in 2016 than they were in 2000.
Who is Driving Population Change?
Compare change in median age to change in median income and population change, and each census tract falls into one of 8 different categories:
Growing, Younger, Richer:
Well-off young people are moving into city-center neighborhoods like Franklin Square and Downtown, or they’re moving into the near-in suburbs in Dewitt. Interestingly, the decision to pick the City or the County doesn’t seem to depend on whether or not these people have children—the percentage of households with children increased roughly equally in both areas between 2000 and 2016.
Growing, Younger, Poorer:
Households in all of these neighborhoods are getting bigger, but for different reasons. In the suburbs and on the Northside, bigger, poorer, younger households correlate with increases in the number of children in a household. On the Northside specifically, immigrants are driving this change—the percentage of immigrants living in census tracts 4, 6, 14, and 15 rose by more than 10 points between 2000 and 2016.
In the other City tracts—in the area around Teall Ave south of James, the foot of Tipp Hill and in Westcott—bigger households correlate with decreasing rates of children, suggesting that young people are moving in together to save on expenses.
Growing, Older, Richer:
These outer areas—not one census tract in the City displays all three of these trends—are quickly transitioning from rural to suburban development. They are places with lots of new housing that have attracted older people with above average incomes.
Growing, Older, Poorer:
In the City, these are tracts with big senior housing complexes.
The suburban tracts are less straightforward. Tract 135 in Salina has added almost 700 households between 2000 and 2016, and the proportion of households with children held steady over that time, but the neighborhood still aged by almost 6.5 years. In 2016 the median resident was 48.4—10 years older than the media resident of the County.
Shrinking, Younger, Richer:
In the City, these are neighborhoods like Sedgwick, Strathmore, Tipp Hill, and the University Area where older residents have moved away and been replaced by new young families. Despite the new well-off residents—or maybe because of them—these neighborhoods are still shrinking because those new families are smaller than the households they replaced. That’s even true in several tracts where families were more likely to have children in 2016 than in 2000.
In the County, these are some of the very oldest post-war suburbs like Bayberry and Westvale. The households moving into these neighborhoods are younger, richer, and smaller, but they’re also less likely to have children. If these couples start having kids and raising families, then these neighborhoods might start growing in the near future.
Shrinking, Younger, Poorer:
This trends typify a huge swath of the City, stretching from the Eastside to the Southside in a continuous arc. This is the blackest part of the City (and County), and it has suffered decades of targeted racist disinvestment and oppression.
Something similar is happening in suburban spots like Mattydale and the G streets in Clay.
Shrinking, Older, Richer:
In City neighborhoods like Meadowbrook and Winkworth, and in suburban villages like Baldwinsville, Liverpool, and Manlius, an aging population, declining number of children, high housing costs, and restrictions on new construction have combined to bring the population down, while the residents that remain are increasingly richer and older than the rest of the County.
Shrinking, Older, Poorer:
These trends typify another huge swatch of the City, stretching from Solvay through the Westside down along the South Ave Corridor. This part of the City, too, has suffered from decades of disinvestment and neglect, particularly around Onondaga Creek where the frequent flooding and federal policies have contributed to housing instability.
This pattern repeats in the suburbs in parts of Camillus, Clay, and Dewitt, but primarily along the 690 corridor from the City line all the way to Baldwinsville through Lakeland, Seneca Knolls, and Village Green.
Put all of that together and you get a pretty good picture of who is driving population change in Onondaga County. This map shows the area’s population radiating from the City along six major highways: Interstates 81 and 690, and Routes 5, 11, 57, and 92. The metro area is growing in a classic donut pattern, with the most intense population increases occurring in the outer suburbs and the city center. Older people are driving that growth at the outer ring, while younger families are driving it in the inner core. Wealth is also either moving out to the County’s edge or concentrating in a few spots at its center. Many areas in the middle are getting smaller, and most all are getting poorer.
Next week, we’ll suss out why all of this matters for the City and the County’s future.
After decades of massive gains and losses, the populations of both the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County have held steady in the 21st century. But that broad stability masks huge changes in the neighborhoods, villages, and towns that make up the City and County. Look at them more closely, and those neighborhood fluctuations reveal demographic trends that complicate our understanding of the present and point towards a very different future.
Through the end of the year, let’s take that closer look in order to get a clearer picture of where we are and where we’re going.
Where is population rising, and where is it falling?
About 10,000 more people lived in Onondaga County in 2016 than did in 2000. This map shows which parts of the County gained people (in blue) and which parts lost them (in red) over that time.
Lysander, Clay, and Cicero on the County’s northern edge all gained a lot of people. So did parts of the more central towns of Camillus, Onondaga, Dewitt, and Pompey. These are all places where new suburbs meet the countryside.
Older suburban communities in Salina, Geddes, and the southern parts of Clay and Cicero, on the other hand, lost population. The county’s villages are also losing people—even those like Baldwinsville that are surrounded by new booming suburban development.
The City’s success stories—Downtown, Franklin Square, and Westcott—all gained a few people since 2000. So did outer streetcar suburbs like Eastwood, the far Northside, Salt Springs, and Nedrow. The real boom, though, was on the Northside around Butternut and Lodi where thousands of new people now live in one of the County’s oldest neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, people moved away from the South and West sides—particularly around Gifford Street and the flood-prone areas near Onondaga Creek. Population also fell on the parts of the Northside, Near Eastside, and University Hill where major institutions like St Joseph’s, SHA, and SU demolished housing. The City’s richest neighborhoods—Strathmore, Bradford Hills, Meadowbrook, and Sedgwick—all also lost people since 2000.
Some trends are even more pronounced when you compare an area’s population gains or losses to its starting population. This map, which shows population change as a percentage of the population of each census tract in 2000, highlights the suburban boom along the County’s northern border. For example, tract 113—the part of the Town of Clay north of Rt 31—gained 680 people between 2000 and 2016. That was the 17th largest increase of any census tract over that time, but because so few people lived in that part of the County in 2000, 680 new people represented a 27% increase in tract 113’s population—the 10th largest percentage jump for any tract.
Something similar happened in Franklin Square and the Inner Harbor where a seemingly modest 270 person increase in population—only the 34th largest jump—meant that census tract 1 grew by 67%—the 2nd largest percentage increase in the entire County.
However, both of these maps obscure the intensity of these changes in population because neither accounts for the amount of space in which they occur. The populations of both Fabius and Hawley-Green rose by just over 300 people (or about 16%) between 2000 and 2016, but in Fabius those 314 new people could spread out over an area more than 250 times as large as Hawley-Green. The new people in Hawley-Green made a more concentrated impact than did those in Fabius.
This map of the change in population density in each census tract shows that the changes in population have been much more acute in City neighborhoods than in the rest of the County. Parts of the Northside have gained more than 10 people per acre, while in almost all of the outer suburbs—even places like tract 113 where population soared—any gains were spread out over such a large area that population increased by less than 1/20th of a person per acre.
Change in population, 2000-2016
% change in population, 2000-2016
Change in population density, 2000-2016
The total number of people living in both Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse has remained stable since 2000. But over that same period of time the populations of individual neighborhoods, villages, and towns have been anything but stable. Broadly speaking, outer suburbs are growing while inner suburbs are shrinking. In Syracuse, Downtown and the Northside are growing, while the South and West sides are shrinking. Some areas where very few people lived in 2000—places like Franklin Square and the northern part of the Town of Clay—have seen huge increases in population. At the same time, the only places where changes in total population have resulted in significant changes in population density have been in City neighborhoods.
Next week, we’ll unpack these numbers to try and figure out who is driving these changes to the City and County’s populations.
Tired of taking on Syracuse’s seemingly intractable problems, a lot of people in positions of power throw their hands up and say ‘let’s just start over.’ Segregation, poverty, and exclusion are all so systemic in so much of the City, and depopulation and deindustrialization have combined to leave so much cheap empty land, that it seems easier to just build new neighborhoods than to try and make life better in the ones where people already live. But those very conditions mean that building a ‘new neighborhood’ entails a lot of those same systemic problems in ways that are rarely confronted.
Take the Inner Harbor. The plans call for all different kinds of housing within walking distance of businesses and institutions where people can work, run their errands, and socialize.
But it’s hard to build that from scratch. The whole idea relies on there being lots of different things to do and lots of different places to live, so it won’t work until it’s mostly finished. All of the buildings will be new, so their owners will have to charge high rents to cover the initial construction costs. There aren’t so many people and businesses moving into Syracuse, so there’s not a whole lot of demand for all of those new expensive apartments and storefronts. The result is a place with a few buildings designed to be totally self-sufficient and separated by surface parking lots. An exclusive place where only few can afford to live, and no one can make a full life.
How much simpler, then, to focus on the places where people already live, to ask what people need to make life in those places better, and to make those things happen. That’s what’s going on on the Northside, where a range of non-profits, religious institutions, and commercial developers are building on the variety and strength that already exists in the neighborhood with new housing, adult education, and small business support. The same approach would put more a greater variety of housing types in Westcott, bring fresh groceries to the Southside, and renovate Blodgett on the Near Westside—all things that would cost so much less and do so much more than any ‘new neighborhood’ ever could.
Ask some people, and they’ll tell you that the best thing about Syracuse is that it’s a ‘20-Minute City.’ They mean that you can get between any two points in Onondaga County—from Fayetteville to Fairmount, from Liverpool to Lafayette—in 20 minutes or less. This was part of Syracuse’s pitch to get Amazon’s HQ2, it’s part of how the City’s suburbs keep making ‘Best Places to Live’ lists, it’s a big part of the debatearound the Downtown I81 viaduct.
Because it’s quick and easy to get to anywhere from anywhere, the 20-Minute City provides people with opportunity. No matter where you work, you can choose to live in any neighborhood. No matter where your live, you can attend any church, your kids can go to any school that will take them, you can visit any attraction. In the 20-Minute City, distance can’t constrain people making those kinds of decisions.
But—and this rarely ever gets acknowledged—all of that is only true if you own a car. Syracuse has been sprawling out for decades, and now everything is so spread out that a lot of people travel twenty or thirty miles just to run their daily errands. No one could reasonably walk or bike those distances, and buses don’t even run to much of the County. In the 20-minute City, opportunity requires a car.
And that means that the 20-minute City doesn’t offer equal access to opportunity. Kids don’t own cars, and as a result are totally dependent on their parents for rides to school, practice, friends’ houses. Plenty of adults don’t own cars either—they don’t have a license, they don’t want the expense, they can’t drive. There are thousands of people in Syracuse in the same situation for all kinds of different reasons, and none of them are free to fully participate in the 20-minute City.
For years, local government has responded to this problem in two different ways. The first—and most direct—response has been to get those people into cars. Onondaga County’s Rides-to-Work program subsidized cab fare for people commuting to work, and its Wheels-for-Work program actually bought cars for people who couldn’t bus, bike, or walk to work in the 20-Minute City. The same idea motivated the County’s support for Providence Services, it inspired a pilot program to subsidize Lyft rides for certain commuters, and it lurks behind the Post-Standard’s position that app-taxis should replace Centro.
All of these ideas have had some success—some people did get to own a car, some people do ride to work with Providence Services, and some people do use Uber to get around town—but none of them has ever been able to provide everybody with the car-dependent-opportunity that the 20-minute City promises. Onondaga County cancelled it’s direct car-subsidy programs because of cost, Providence Services gives rides to 45 people, and Uber is simply too expensive for the poorest people to use everyday (even with billions of dollars of private subsidy from venture capitalists).
The second and more widespread response has been to shoehorn pedestrians, bikes, and buses into spaces designed exclusively for cars. That’s how you get a new crosswalk at the intersection of 57 and John Glenn, bike lanes on the shoulders of the Onondaga Lake Parkway, and buses that loop through the parking lots of strip malls in the suburbs.
None of the new pedestrian or bike infrastructure is any good. That John Glenn crosswalk doesn’t connect to a sidewalk on one side, and bikers on the Parkway have no real protection from speeding cars.
More to the point, that infrastructure does nothing to change the land-use patterns that make life so difficult for people who get around without a car. In the 20-Minute City, homes, schools, churches, and workplaces in a community can all be miles away from each other—separated by distances that no person could cover on a bike, much less on foot, even with the very best bike lane or sidewalk.
It’s not any better for buses. Centro’s system map makes it seem like just about the whole County is accessible by bus, but just try to actually get to Jordan, or Central Square, or Lafayette. Those places only see a couple of buses a day, so it’s not actually practical to reach them except at a few very specific times. That constraint means that people often can’t actually get to work from those places, and so they don’t really have the opportunity to live in those places.
At the same time, the very fact that Centro is running buses all the way out to those little villages means that there are fewer buses running on the lines where people could actually use them. Even Centro’s best bus lines stop running for about an hour during the middle of the day. The vast majority see that kind of service gap all the time. Centro’s existing insufficient budget just can’t buy enough vehicles and pay enough operators to run buses all over the County and to provide quality service in the neighborhoods where lots of people really do ride the bus. People rely on this barely passable service, and starving it of resources robs them of opportunity.
The 20-minute City fails to actually provide the opportunity that it promises. Opportunity, but only if you own a car. Anybody who can’t or won’t accept that ridiculous condition is stuck in a city that ignores their needs, that treats them like a problem to be fixed, that asks why they can’t just get with the program and start driving around like everybody else.
Syracuse needs a better idea of what opportunity should look like and what that means for the 20-minute city. Instead of a place that can get a car anywhere in the county in 20 minutes or less, Syracuse needs to be a place where everybody is within 20 minutes of all their daily needs, no matter how they choose to travel.
This new orientation emphasizes location, distance, and variety where the current 20-minute city ignores all of that in favor of parking lots and wide roads. It’s the difference between a neighborhood like Eastwood where people can walk to the drug store, post-office, and library, bike to the grocery store and school, and catch a bus to work, and a neighborhood like Radisson where all of those same things are perfectly accessible, but only after a 5, 10, or 20 minute drive.
If Syracuse is really going to be a City where everybody has equal opportunity, then it needs more neighborhoods like Eastwood and fewer like Radisson. More neighborhoods where businesses mix with homes, more neighborhoods where small lots and apartment buildings make it so lots of people can live within walking distance of those businesses and the bus stop, more neighborhoods where lots of buses actually serve that bus stop all day, and more neighborhoods where it’s safe, convenient, and pleasant to walk or bike around at all.
None of this should be controversial. It’s what so many people want for their neighborhoods already. We just have to actually make it happen. That means zoning reform, road redesign, and better bus service in those neighborhoods where the new 20-minute City is possible. It also means that when Syracuse builds new neighborhoods—like it’s trying to do at the Inner Harbor, under the viaduct, and at Pioneer Homes—those places need to be places of opportunity for all people from the very beginning.
The promise of the old 20-minute City dominates a lot of people’s hopes for Syracuse. It’s a place where people enjoy boundless opportunity, boundless choice—where no one decision about where to live or where to work or where to shop has any effect on any other decision because all things and all places are equally accessible from anywhere. But that version of the 20-minute City is, at its root, exclusionary. It only works for people who have achieved or accepted car-dependency, and so it only works for some of the people who actually live in Syracuse. The new 20-minute City modifies that promise and makes it equally accessible to all people—no matter where you are and no matter how you get around, you will have the opportunity to make a full life in Syracuse.
The Erie Canal is maybe the most important thing that ever happened to Syracuse, but there’s hardly any trace of it left in the City. That’s bad—it makes it harder for people to tell their City’s story, and that makes it harder for them to place themselves within that story. Anything that restores the canal’s place in people’s lived experience of the City also strengthens the community by making that shared story more accessible.
Where the canal has been obliterated, symbols can refer to its place in the City. Brickwork on J Ryan’s patio shows where canal boats used to wait to enter the weighlock across the street, the Arterie project painted part of Erie Boulevard blue to mimic water, and Erie Boulevard’s name itself refers to the canal that used to run in its place. The best of these symbols is the fountain in Clinton Square—look at it from certain angles, and it actually looks like the canal still runs through Downtown.
But there are also places where parts of the canal still exist, and we don’t need symbols to mediate our experience of it. Just outside the City in Camillus and Dewitt, the canal itself still runs through public parks. In Syracuse itself, the old weighlock building is now the Erie Canal Museum, and City Hall recently carefully restored the aqueduct that used to carry the canal over Onondaga Creek.
Right now, Syracuse has an opportunity to do more of all of this. NYSDOT’s DEIS includes a plan for a ‘Canal District’ around the intersection of Oswego and Erie Boulevards. That plan is not very ambitious At the same time, the Reimagine the Canal’s taskforce is working to make the canal more culturally relevant to Upstate communities. Syracuse can harness that energy to do something big to restore the Erie Canal’s place in the heart of Downtown.
That could take a lot of different forms, but here’s one suggestion. Close Erie Boulevard from Clinton Square to Oswego Boulevard—those blocks are basically a parking lot anyway. Excavate the original canal walls—the Clinton Square fountain revealed a small section of the wall, but without context it’s turned into a trash pit. Fill that entire two-block section with water, extending to the wide area where the Erie Canal intersected with the Oswego.
This would essentially extend the idea of the Clinton Square fountain over three full blocks, creating an artificial body of water that’s more recognizable as a canal because of its length. It’s an idea that works in Buffalo, where Canalside recreates a portion of the piers and slips that made that city into an artificial archipelago.
Syracuse doesn’t make sense without the canal. By obliterating it so totally, we have scrambled our relationship with the past and thus with each other, unable to answer the community’s existential question ‘why are we all here?”
An enormous part of the answer to that question is ‘the canal.’ Restoring it, bringing it to the surface, making it a familiar part of people’s daily lived experience in the City is a good thing.
Chol Majok’s victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary marked both the beginning of a new era and the continuation of a long tradition in Syracuse’s politics.
This City has welcomed more than 10,000 refugees and immigrants in the past two decades. They’ve come to Syracuse from places like Somalia, Burma, and Bhutan. Majok himself is from Sudan, and he will be the first member of this most recent wave of immigration to hold elected office in the City.
That’s a good thing. Immigrants are making Syracuse a better place, and they deserve better representation in City Hall. More will follow Majok’s path, making local government more reflective of the people it serves, bringing new perspectives to the table, and letting the members of Syracuse’s newest communities know that they have just as much of a right to this City as anybody else.
But Syracuse’s history of welcoming the stranger goes back more than just two decades. Over the past two centuries, people have migrated to Syracuse from Germany, Ireland, Italy, the American South, and so many other places in search of a better life. Members of all of those communities have eventually gone on to hold elected office at City Hall, and that has always been a good thing for the City.
Chol Majok came to this City in 2001 as a refugee. He has been able to build a life here, to raise a family, and to contribute to the community. Now he’s going to sit on the Common Council and help guide the City to a better future. Syracuse has always thrived when it has embraced new people.
When in 2017 the Consensus Commission recommended that the City of Syracuse merge with Onondaga County, no one took the idea very seriously because no one could agree on what to do about the schools. Coordinated snow plowing, consolidated procurement, a single water board? Fine. That all was easy, any hint that city and suburban kids might go to school together was dead on arrival. They tried to fudge it by implying that some future commission could look into reforming Onondaga County’s balkanized education system, but Consensus’ comments on consolidating government debt told City residents all they needed to know:
“FIRST, the City’s pre-existing debt and long-term liabilities (e.g. post employment benefits) should remain the City’s responsibility. It should not become the burden of the County or any other municipality in our community. New York State law provides clear precedent on this issue. In the case of a consolidation or dissolution, “debt districts” are typically used to pay any pre-existing debt until it is fully retired. In this way, even though two entities may combine functions and governance, separate tax rates can be established to segregate pre-existing debt.
“SECOND, under state law the Syracuse City School District is a “dependent” district of the City of Syracuse. This means that, unlike non-dependent districts, SCSD does not have the power to levy its own taxes. Nor can it issue debt on its own. Rather, it relies on the City to levy property taxes and do capital borrowing on its behalf… In the event the County and City combine, a legal accommodation would be required to ensure both a) the SCSD’s local property tax revenue / debt access remains and b) that property tax burden remains only in the former City (i.e. it does not extend to the rest of the County).”
This extraordinary passage calls the Syracuse City School District a “burden” that needs be “segregated” from the rest of the County as a “debt-district.” The County didn’t want to touch the City’s schools with a ten-foot pole.
So it was an incredible thing this week when the Onondaga County Legislature voted to request permission to issue debt in order to fund the creation of a County-wide STEAM high school at the corner of Warren and Adams Streets in Downtown Syracuse. It was incredible that this group—one dominated by the same suburban interests that absolutely refused to accept SCSD debt in the 2016 Consensus report—would borrow money to build a school where kids from the Northside would sit next to kids from North Syracuse.
This STEAM school is an opportunity to do something new in Syracuse. It’s an opportunity to provide city kids with the high-quality education that they deserve, and it’s also an opportunity to heal some of the wounds that prevent the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County from reaching their full potential. If this really does become a premier high school, if families from all across the County see their children’s best hope for a bright future in the heart of Syracuse, if that hope overpowers the fear and resentment and prejudice that divide the entire community now, then this community has a brighter future ahead of it.