A City Faces Its 'Berlin Wall': An Interstate Highway Interstate 81 has helped to make Syracuse, N.Y., a "20-minute city," where you can drive anywhere you need to quickly and easily. But the highway has also physically divided neighborhoods, separating the haves from the have-nots. Now, like other cities around the country with urban highways, Syracuse officials are rethinking whether aging interstates are worth preserving.
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A City Faces Its 'Berlin Wall': An Interstate Highway

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A City Faces Its 'Berlin Wall': An Interstate Highway

A City Faces Its 'Berlin Wall': An Interstate Highway

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour with the latest story in the NPR Cities Project.

One thing we're exploring is the conflicted 21st-century relationship between many cities and cars. Today's exhibit: the call to tear down aging urban highways. We're joined now by Zack Seward of upstate New York's public radio reporting project the Innovation Trail. Hi, Zack.


SIEGEL: And you're in Syracuse where Interstate 81 runs right through the heart of the city. Tell us what you're looking at.

SEWARD: That's right I'm standing right next to this elevated section of highway. It's a 1.4-mile-long road known locally as the viaduct. And like a lot of highways built in the middle of the last century, it's kind of bumping up against the end of its lifespan. It's crumbling in parts. There's crews working on it now. Officials say it's safe, but the region is really starting to think about what comes next. You know, over the last two decades, a handful of cities around the country have removed their urban highways, with San Francisco and Milwaukee kind of being the poster children of that movement. And as transportation infrastructure ages, there's probably a place near you that's dealing with a lot of these same issues.

SIEGEL: So how does the city decide what does come next for I-81, and what are the arguments for either keeping it or getting rid of it?

SEWARD: Well, it's very early in the process here in Syracuse, that's for sure. Officials are seeking public input, but ultimately, it's a state project. And to boil the arguments down both for and against keeping this highway, you know, on one hand, it takes cars from one side of the city to the other, you know, very quickly, but it takes them right past housetops and treetops. And on the other hand, the structure that's carrying these cars is a barrier, a physical barrier that opponents say is an economic barrier, as well as a racial barrier.

You know, either way, there's no question that I-81 has shaped this community. So to better understand that I went just a few steps away from where I'm standing now to the Pioneer Homes, a low-rise public housing project. That's where I met Hazel Miller. She moved here 40 years ago, when homes were still being ripped down to make room for the highway.


SEWARD: Ms. Miller?

HAZEL MILLER: Yes. Come in.

SEWARD: Thank you very much.

MILLER: Right there was another unit just like this...

SEWARD: You can kind of...

MILLER: ...they're going to tear down.

SEWARD: You can kind of see the foundation.


SEWARD: Well, that one was, like, right...

MILLER: Right underneath.

SEWARD: Miller lives maybe 100 hundred feet from I-81. The highway was built right through the middle of one of the state's first public housing projects, gutting this predominantly African-American neighborhood. As long as Miller has been here, the highway has driven away commerce.

MILLER: Never was nothing. We don't even have a grocery store close, you know? We don't have nothing like that no more.

VAN ROBINSON: All right. Now, this is a city map right here.

SEWARD: Syracuse Common Council President Van Robinson unfolds a map at city hall. You can see I-81 from his office.

ROBINSON: It's not a question of if it should be torn down. The question is when will it be torn down.

SEWARD: Robinson says replacing the viaduct with a street-level boulevard would breathe life into the city's withered urban core. The founder of the local chapter of the NAACP has wanted to remove I-81 since he first arrived in Syracuse decades ago. Robinson has long seen the viaduct as a barrier that separates the haves from the have-nots.

ROBINSON: It was a city divided. In fact, I immediately, at that time, that was years ago, called it the Berlin Wall.

SEWARD: On one side of that wall is prosperous University Hill, home to the institutions that drive the Syracuse economy. On the other side is poverty and neglect. A few years back, some streets within the Pioneer Homes were gated off in response to a rash of drive-by shootings. Robinson says tearing down I-81 is a relatively simple step that could help turn the neighborhood around.

ROBINSON: It's not as if it's 100 miles of, you know, roadbed we have to put down. It's 1.4 miles.

EMANUEL CARTER: And let's see we can walk out along the end of the dorms there, and I think we can see 84.

SEWARD: We're walking to an overlook on University Hill with a clear view of the highway below. I'm with Emanuel Carter, a professor at the state university's College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

CARTER: It's really easy now to look at mistakes that were made 40 years ago and call them mistakes.

SEWARD: A few years ago, Carter teamed up with a local citizens' league on a study called Rethinking I-81. The main finding was that removing the I-81 viaduct would spur significant development.

CARTER: We're in full-blown sprawl mode right now, and one of the ways we can kind of refocus on the core would be to have 81 cease to be an impediment.


SEWARD: I'm here now under the northern end of the I-81 viaduct in downtown Syracuse. As you can hear, it's noisy. It's kind of dark, and it's pretty much at the end of its shelf life.

BILL EGLOFF: You can see the patches that we've made.

SEWARD: Bill Egloff is with the New York State Department of Transportation. He's in charge of keeping the highway standing. And though he admits that something needs to be done, Egloff says tearing down I-81 is no simple fix.

EGLOFF: If the remaining traffic had to negotiate the city streets as they are right now, that would be a problem.

SEWARD: Planning officials call Syracuse a 20-minute city. You can drive anywhere you need to quickly and easily. The state DOT is in the early stages of a planning process they're calling the I-81 Challenge. Planners recently gauged public opinion on three basic options: keep the viaduct and update it to current standards, tear it down and build a sunken roadway or tear it down and build a boulevard. Egloff says none of the options will be cheap.

EGLOFF: Five years ago, we had our structures engineer give us a rough estimate of the whole deck replacement, and that was in the neighborhood of $350 million.

SEWARD: Wow. For 1.4 miles?

EGLOFF: Yeah. So it was then that we decided a project that expensive we really need to sit back and think about it.

SEWARD: Planning officials say that $350 million is now closer to a half a billion. Traditionally, nearly all of that price tag is picked up by the federal government. It's a big investment with a big impact on the future of the city.

DON MITCHELL: It's a huge psychological as well as physical barrier.

SEWARD: Don Mitchell is a professor of geography at Syracuse University. From his office on University Hill, Mitchell is concerned that removing I-81 could unleash a flood of gentrification. Still, he says he's generally supportive of tearing down one of the city's most uninviting assets.

MITCHELL: Especially in the wintertime when all that kind of brine off the road is dripping off of it, it's cold and windy and miserable. It just feels really, really big. It feels bigger than it is.


MILLER: It's a beautiful scenery, you know?

SEWARD: Back at Hazel Miller's house next to the highway, the traffic keeps flowing by. For her part, she'd rather keep the viaduct as is. She's not confident that what might come next will be any better.

MILLER: And I don't know how wide that boulevard is going to be, but I know it wouldn't be as many tractor-trailer trucks and stuff like that going over.

SEWARD: I just heard one right now when you said that.


MILLER: Oh, you hear a lot of them, but you know.

SEWARD: A plan of action for this stretch of I-81 won't be in place until 2017. And as in other cities, the elevated highway will continue to cast its long shadow. On Almond Street by the 1-81 viaduct, I'm Zack Seward for the NPR Cities Project.

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