Category Archives: Community

The Canal in the City

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.renderingconfluence

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.


A Former Refugee Will Sit on the Common Council

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.

The Promise of a Premier High School in the Heart of Syracuse

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.

Blueprint 15 Needs More Affordable Housing

Blueprint 15 is a plan to remake the highly visible collection of public housing complexes just south of Downtown Syracuse. It’s a collaboration between Syracuse City Hall, the Syracuse Housing Authority, the Allyn Family Foundation, and Purpose Built Communities—a non-profit that has built similar projects in 21 other cities. The plan focuses on the neighborhood as a whole—it includes investments in education, businesses, integration, transportation and better housing. It’s a plan that promises to right some of the wrongs of Syracuse’s past—to fight structural racism and economic oppression. To do that equitably, though, Blueprint 15 will have to build enough housing include all of the people who live in the neighborhood now.


There are about 1000 affordable homes in Pioneer Homes, McKinney Manor, Central Village. Blueprint 15 plans to tear them all down and build between 1100 and 1400 new ‘mixed income’ homes. No one’s said exactly how much of that mix will be affordable units, but you can bet it won’t be 1000 (in Purpose Built’s other ‘mixed-income’ projects, the split is 50-50 between affordable and market-rate units), so Blueprint 15 will displace current residents.

In a front-page article on Sunday, the Post-Standard said that anybody displaced by the project would receive a Section 8 voucher. That’s hardly a fair trade. Source-of-income discrimination is rampant in Onondaga County and across the country. More perniciously, places like Skaneateles use zoning policies to exclude low-income renters. Even in places like Syracuse and Buffalo where such discrimination is illegal, it’s still common practice among the small-time landlords who control a lot of the cheaper rental housing.

Besides, if Blueprint 15 is going to make the area into such a great neighborhood anyway, why shouldn’t everyone who lives there now want to stay put?

So if Blueprint 15 is going to redevelop the neighborhood equitably, it can’t displace current residents. If it’s going to accommodate current residents, it will need to maintain the current number of affordable homes. If it’s going to increase the percentage of market-rate homes in the neighborhood without reducing the total number of affordable homes, it’s going to have to build a lot more new housing.


Some of that necessary new construction can happen on land that SHA already owns. According to SHA’s 2016 East Adams Street Neighborhood Transformation Plan, parking requirements limit the number of homes that can fit on that land. In other cities, Purpose Built uses a lot of land for off-street parking.

It makes no sense to let off-street parking limit who can find a home in a census tract where 53% of households don’t even own a car. The neighborhood is within walking distance of the Centro Hub, and Blueprint 15 specifically talks about being able to walk to work as one of the things that will make new market-rate housing attractive.

City Hall’s new draft zoning ordinance takes all that into account, and it reduces the off-street parking requirements for the neighborhood by 50%. That reduction will increase to 65% when Centro starts running its planned BRT service. City Hall and Centro need to hurry up and implement these reforms before Blueprint 15 gets stuck building parking lots where affordable housing should be.

Sidewalks that used to lead to people’s front doors at Kennedy Square. SUNY owns this land now.

Making better use of what land’s available is a start, but Blueprint 15 should go one step further by building new housing on State-owned land on the Near Eastside. SUNY owns acres of vacant land over there (a lot of it is only vacant because they tore down Kennedy Square), and once the I81 viaduct comes down, New York State will have even more empty land on its hands. That area is also within walking distance of major employers, it also has good bus service, and City Hall is also upzoning it to allow the kind of dense, mixed-use development that Blueprint 15 plans for the Southside. It’s a perfect place to build new mixed-income housing.

Expanding Blueprint 15 like this will also make the entire project less disruptive. By building new housing on vacant land first, SHA’s tenants can move into their new homes before Blueprint 15 demolishes or renovates their current homes.



Blueprint 15 is an exciting idea. It’s an opportunity to restore a neighborhood and community that have weathered decades of segregation and exploitation. To do that equitably, though, Blueprint 15 has to provide enough affordable housing to accommodate the people who live in Pioneer Homes, McKinney Manor, and Central Village now. City Hall and Centro can help Blueprint 15 make better use of the land in its project area, and New York State can increase the size of that project area by handing over the land that it’s let languish for years. That’s how Blueprint 15 will make good on its promise for the whole community.

Two Views of Syracuse’s Future

2019 will see two policy announcements that will shape Syracuse for decades to come. New York State plans to let us all know what it’ll do to replace I81’s downtown viaduct, and Syracuse City Hall plans to adopt its first new zoning ordinance since 1922. With each of these the community has the choice to make a big change or to keep things the same as they are now, and its decisions will reveal whether or not Syracuse believes in its own future.


Take I81. NYSDOT is going to demolish the downtown viaduct and uncover a lot of land in the city center, and a lot of people see the potential for something transformational to fill in that space. Here’s just one possibility, described by the Gifford Foundation:

“[The Community Grid plan is] the best opportunity for reclaiming the geography presently occupied by I-81 as a transformational neighborhood with mixed-income housing, extraordinary schools, and facilities, programs, and services that honor the rich history of the community, reflect priorities of those who live there”

That’s a vision of a better future–for a Syracuse that’s an inclusive empowering city–and that vision drives the Gifford Foundations decision to endorse NYSDOT’s plan to move the highway out of Downtown.

Contrast that with State Senator Bob Antonacci’s argument that Syracuse has nothing to gain by removing all those off and on ramps from the middle of town:

“The theory goes that tearing down I-81 through downtown Syracuse will unlock a dormant potential and uniting downtown with the University Hill neighborhood. I personally am skeptical of this. A previous attempt, the Connective Corridor, at uniting those two areas was described as having brought crime into the university and surrounding neighborhoods.”

He doesn’t think any significant positive change can come from getting the highway out of Downtown and that unless we all realize this, then “the 81 debate will end in a zero-sum game where a significant portion of the community will feel they lost.” The best result that Antonacci can imagine is to maintain the status quo.


It’s the same with the new zoning ordinance. At the beginning of the ReZone project, City Hall published the Land Use and Development Plan. That document sees Syracuse as the region’s future:

“Syracuse is uniquely positioned within the Central New York region in light of increased national and statewide focus on Smart Growth and widely renewed interest in urban living…. Many neighborhoods which currently possess high vacancy rates are poised to accept population growth, particularly among young professionals and families who desire a traditional urban environment and who may take advantage of Syracuse’s affordable historic housing stock and walkable, urban neighborhoods… over the long-term the City may market its ability to cost-effectively absorb regional population growth—based on existing infrastructure and an urban land-use pattern that lends itself to walkable neighborhoods, local commercial and business services, and efficient transit service.”

This Syracuse is a place where people want to live, a place that can welcome those people, and a place that will be better off for having done so. That vision informs the Land Use and Development Plan’s prescriptions for more housing, more housing options, better bus service, more opportunities for small businesses, and neighborhoods where people can meet all of their needs easily.

Contrast that with how Owen Kearney, a city planner, described the project to Grant Reeher on WAER:

“We’re really a city of residential neighborhoods with neighborhood business districts and Downtown. And kind of thinking of those three elements: that Downtown core, our neighborhood business districts, and essentially the neighborhoods surround them, and continuing to protect all three of them and enhance all three of them through our land-use regulations, which is what zoning are, but to allow new uses in those neighborhood business districts, at the same time protecting those residential areas”

His focus is on protection and stasis. This explains all of the changes that City Hall has made to the draft zoning ordinance since the first draft–rolling back housing opportunity, restoring old parking regulations that penalize bus-riders, keeping it difficult for new people to move into stable neighborhoods. Those changes all ‘protect’ the status quo by limiting the City’s ability to welcome new people.


Where the Gifford Foundation sees the potential for connected neighborhoods that empower their residents, Antonacci can only see traffic and crime. Where City Hall once saw the possibility of new housing mixed with new businesses so that lots of people could walk to the grocery store, the current administration can now only see problem corner stores and absentee landlords.

With I81 and with ReZone, that reflexive urge to keep things the way they are–to ‘protect’ them–comes from a fear of the future. When you can only imagine change for the worse, it makes sense to hold onto the present. In that case, Syracuse’s best hope is to slow its inevitable and irreversible decline.

The City deserves better than that. A better future is possible, Syracuse can be a better place to live, big changes can leave us better off. It’s only possible, though, if the people with the power to effect those changes can imagine that better future. Let them know. Call City Hall, call your state reps, call the Governor, and tell them that you know Syracuse can make a better future, and you want their help to make it happen.

What’s a Winning Season Require of the City?

On November 18, the Post-Standard published an opinion piece about the economic impact of NCAA football. It argued that Syracuse University’s successful season could add $91 million to the local economy, and that “SU and the region can leverage” that success “and reinvest it back into the economy and the team for years to come.”

That $91 million figure came from from National Asset Services, a real estate company. In what the Post-Standard is generously calling a “study” (read all 802 words for yourself), National Asset Services compared the effects of six college football teams on their respective hometowns. That study is bad for many reasons–it confuses some programs’ value to their universities with others’ regional economic impact, for example–but it’s worst offense is its bad data. All of the numbers that it cites came from other studies performed by the very universities in question.

It’s no secret why universities would lie about the economic benefit that they bring to their cities. It gets gullible newspaper columnists to write stuff like this:

“Other college towns have embraced the seven-game home season, with both the universities and host communities investing millions for the purpose of a bigger return. A return to its winning ways for the SU program, if it can be sustained, may be providing us the same opportunity.”

As if it’s an opportunity for a City staring down bankruptcy to pour money into a tax-exempt university’s athletic facilities. Syracuse had that opportunity four years ago, turned it down, and now the team’s winning anyway.

Bad evidence doesn’t really matter, though, when your mind’s already made up. A lot of people take it as an article of faith that Syracuse University is the City’s best opportunity to turn itself around. When you believe that, there’s no reason to question big numbers like $91 million in regional economic benefits–they’re just obviously true.

But it’s narrow-minded to think that Syracuse–9th poorest city in the nation–would be better off if the local college football team could just win a few more games–to understand the City as an accessory to the University, as a place that’s worthwhile on the 7 days a year when SU football plays a home game.

There’s more to Syracuse than that. The City’s biggest challenges, strengths, and opportunities have nothing to do with Syracuse University’s football team. There’s lead paint in the City’s houses, the I81 viaduct is about to come down, the public schools are in the middle of a transformation. What does SU football’s record mean for any of that?

It’s exciting that SU football is finally winning again, and it probably does fill a few hotel rooms and sell a few more beers. But that’s no reason for the community to invest “millions for the purpose of a bigger return.” Syracuse has better uses for its money and bigger claims on its attention. Enjoy the success, but keep the focus on what’s really important.

Pushing Parolees out of Public Housing

After a twelve year old boy was shot and killed on the Northside, Mayor Ben Walsh and Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that state troopers would start patrolling Syracuse’s streets alongside city police officers. That surge in law enforcement is supposed to make the City safer, but it’s going to restrict people’s access to housing, perpetuating the long-term problems that cause this violence in the first place.

The state troopers are going to focus their attention on parolees living in Syracuse:

“As part of the Syracuse crackdown, the state Department of Correction and Community supervision will monitor parolees in Syracuse for recent gang involvement, restrict the access of parolees to high-crime areas, and conduct unannounced home visits and curfew checks.”

The idea is that repeat offenders are to blame for all this violence, and if you keep those people away from each other, then there will be less crime.

Those restrictions on parolees work against the State’s other efforts to reduce crime in the City. In 2017, New York State picked Syracuse to pilot a program placing parolees in public housing. Access to housing reduces recidivism and makes communities safer, so it was a good idea for the Syracuse Housing Authority to open its doors to the formerly incarcerated.

But in Syracuse, a lot of public housing is in neighborhoods that could be described as “high-crime areas”


If the State is going keep parolees out of “high-crime areas,” then it’s also going to have to keep those same people out of public housing, eliminating its own reentry program.

Syracuse is too violent. That’s an obvious problem, and it’s tempting to think that there’s an equally obvious solution. The Mayor and the Governor have given into that temptation, sending in troops to stop the violence by force. But cities are more complicated than that. By restricting the freedom of people who have served time, the Mayor and the Governor are torpedoing another government program that could have made Syracuse safer in the long term.

Policing Won’t Eliminate Poverty

Five young people have been killed violently in Syracuse this year. After the most recent killing on October 11, the community and its leaders are calling for action to stop the violence and to address its root causes. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo responded to that call by sending State Troopers to patrol “high-crime areas” in the City, as if heavy policing is some kind of new solution to a “recent” problem.

The long term plan for dealing with violence and poverty in Syracuse has, for decades, been segregation and incarceration enacted through the exercise of police force in certain neighborhoods and on certain kinds of people. It’s led to miscarried justice, like when a man trying to make a new life was sent to jail after speaking out about the difficulty of reentry. It’s enabled major private employers to deny jobs to qualified applicants. It’s how Syracuse, the 9th poorest city in the nation, managed to pen all of its poorest people in a few select neighborhoods. Sending more police into these neighborhoods will just extend the status quo.

What’s changed now is that the neighborhoods that we were comfortable to write off are bursting at the seams. In 2000, there were 12 census tracts in Syracuse where at least 40% of people were poor. Fifteen years later, 30 census tracts were “high-poverty.”


It’s no coincidence that the community’s call to action came after James Springer III was murdered on the Northside–a neighborhood that has only become “high-poverty” in the last several years.

This moment is an opportunity and a reason for hope. The people who know have long tried to convince the wider community that poverty in one neighborhood is a problem for all neighborhoods. Their words used to fall on deaf ears, but as their predictions come true, powerful people like Mayor Ben Walsh are adopting their language:

“just because you don’t live in the neighborhood where there is chaos, that doesn’t mean that you don’t own it, and that I don’t own it, and that the entire region doesn’t own it”

If anything good can come of this year’s violence, it will be that people recognize our common cause in making all of Syracuse a better place to live.

The governor has promised to speak with “community leaders, clergy and law enforcement” about making a “longterm plan to reduce violence” in the City. Those conversations have to result in a plan that radically changes the way the police and the courts operate here, prioritizing rehabilitation and community stability over punishment and control.

But that can only happen with the common understanding that zealous policing is the source of so many problems in Syracuse’s neighborhoods. The reflexive expansion of police activity in response to the spread of those problems reveals that no such common understanding exists. Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

Variety Makes the City

On October 13, the Post-Standard published a list of the cities, towns, villages, hamlets, and census designated places with the highest median monthly rent in each of Upstate’s fifty-three counties. Westvale was tops in Onondaga. The median rent there is $1,025 a month. That’s a lot higher than the $737 a month that the median renter pays in Syracuse.

But it’s a funny idea to try and compare Westvale to Syracuse like this. All of Westvale’s 89 apartments are about the same size, they’re about the same age, they’re in a single neighborhood. Its cheapest apartments aren’t much cheaper than it’s most expensive apartments because all of its apartments are about the same.

Syracuse’s 33,926 apartments offer a lot more variety. Take the Near Westside. It’s a mix of houses built in the 1800’s, public housing from the 1950s, and some new ‘green’ houses built in the last couple of years. The median rent in that neighborhood is $473. In the oldest part of Eastwood, the houses are closer together and closer to the street, and the median rent is $709. Downtown, where a lot of the housing is brand new luxury apartments in old office buildings, the median rent is $1,010. Up in Skytop, the median Syracuse University student pays $1,366 a month to live in a dorm. Just reporting the median rent for the whole City covers up all that variety.

When someone is choosing where to live in Syracuse, they’ve got a lot of options. They can live in brand new apartments on the City’s outskirts, they can live in a renovated factory in a former industrial area, they can live in a skyscraper downtown, they can live in an old house in an inner neighborhood. All of those places offer different things to different people–whether it’s the neighborhood, the commute, the apartment itself, or the rent–so many different kinds of people can find a place to make a life in the City.

That variety makes Syracuse unique in Onondaga County. It means that there’s more opportunity in the City, and it keeps Syracuse resilient while its homogenous suburbs–like Westvale–are vulnerable to changes in the economy and in people’s tastes. You can’t reduce all that to a single number.

Isolated and Systematic Cruelty

On September 30, Shakeen Robbins, an employee at the Dunkin Donuts on N Salina Street, poured cold water on Jeremy Dufresne, a homeless man who was in the donut shop to charge his phone. A video of that cruel act got international attention, the Post-Standard published a new story about it every day for seven days in a row, a GoFundMe page raised over $20,000 for Dufresne, and Syracuse Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens, Common Council President Helen Hudson, and Police Chief Frank Fowler have all gotten in touch with the company that operates that particular Dunkin Donuts to talk about how to treat poor people better.

Poor people deal with isolated acts of cruelty everyday. Those acts are pointless and dehumanizing, and they’re all worth our attention. When that video went viral, all kinds of people saw the cruelty of dumping water on another human being just because that person couldn’t do anything about it, and they recognized that cruelty for what it was. Now, hopefully, people like Jeremy Dufresne won’t have to put up with so much casual abuse every single day.

But poor people also face cruelty that isn’t so isolated. They face cruelty that’s part of a coordinated effort to push them out of sight, to pretend that ‘progress’ isn’t leaving anybody behind, to pretend that people who are doing well have no responsibility to the people who aren’t. That kind of systematic cruelty is worth just as much attention and it deserves just as much condemnation as the kinds of isolated acts that Jeremy Dufresne has brought to top of mind.

Ryan McMahon’s plan to incarcerate poor people is an act of systematic cruelty. It tries to use the power of the state to exclude poor people from public space because their presence might be “perceived as threatening.” It targets poor people specifically for being poor and specifically when they make their poverty known. It’s an abuse of power, a failure of government, and a cruel act.

So let’s pay attention as the new County Executive tries to turn his plan into a law. Let’s pay attention to whether Mayor Ben Walsh stands up for Syracuse–the 9th poorest city in the nation–or whether he chooses to go along with the County’s plan to hide its poverty behind bars. Let’s pay attention when SPD arrests any person in the service of that plan, and let’s condemn every single act that fails to respect people’s basic human dignity.