‘Reliving history’: Residents fear I-81 project could displace communities

Elizabeth Billman | Senior Staff Photographer

Rather than being abruptly displaced like when the viaduct was initially constructed, residents living by I-81 would be progressively pushed out.

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As a child, Deanna Holland’s mother lived where the parking lot for Upstate University Hospital now sits. Her home was destroyed to make room for Interstate 81. 

Like 1,300 other Syracuse residents, she was forced to leave her home so the state could construct the highway, which splits through Syracuse’s Southside neighborhood. 

Now, nearly 55 years later, the state plans to remove and replace the deteriorating section of the raised highway. Holland, who lives less than a quarter of a mile from I-81, fears her community could face the same fate as her mother. 

“We’re reliving history at this point,” she said.


The New York State Department of Transportation and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council began the official process of deciding what to do with the section of highway, referred to as the I-81 viaduct, in 2011.

In 2019, NYSDOT announced that it would favor a plan to remove the viaduct and replace it with a “community grid” of surface level streets in the area. Although the state is still waiting on an environmental review of the project, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that the state plans to break ground on the project in 2022. 

When the viaduct is removed, it will leave behind 18 acres of developable land, eight of which lie adjacent to the current viaduct. 

Activists and residents who live near the viaduct said they support its removal, but many fear that redevelopment could lead to gentrification and displacement, especially if large institutions — such as Syracuse University, which sits just feet away from the viaduct and the surrounding community — obtain a portion of the available land.

“They’re really concerned that the land will be taken from them in much of the same way that it was taken before,” said Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, the assistant director of the Education Policy Center at the central New York chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s not something that they conjured up in their imagination. This has happened in the past.” 

At least 40% of residents living in the majority of neighborhoods surrounding the I-81 corridor live below the poverty line, and at least 50% of the population is people of color, according to data from the CNY Fair Housing report

When the viaduct was initially constructed, families like Holland’s faced racist housing policies that left them to move to the shadow of the highway, where many still remain today. 

“It’s a true injustice what’s been done to our community,” Holland said. “We learned to survive in this community, and now it’s going to be taken away again, so now we gotta regroup and figure it out all over again. It’s like we’re going back to the back of the line again.” 

But this time, displacement will be a “slow leak,” Owens-Chaplin said. Rather than the fast-paced removal of families that allowed for the initial construction of I-81, development now threatens to slowly push residents out. 

“On the surface, it may sound good — the real estate value triples, the city gets more tax dollars to provide services to people,” Owens-Chaplin said. “However, when you have prime real estate, property taxes go up for those folks who have been living in those houses for 20 to 30 years, and if they’re on a limited income or a fixed income, they can’t afford a tax increase on their property.”

The available land is currently state-owned and will eventually be transferred to the city, Owens-Chaplin said. But it will be up to community partners to ensure that the project won’t harm the surrounding area.

Latoya Allen, the common councilor for Syracuse’s 4th district — which includes the I-81 corridor — said many residents are concerned that SU will obtain the land and develop student housing, parking lots or other buildings that won’t benefit residents in the area.

“We understand that Syracuse University is for higher education, but also they should be able to be a community partner,” Allen said. “And not just a community partner just to put your logo on the flyer, but be a true community partner — build a community center, build something where people from the community and the students can interact with each other.”

SU isn’t aware of any plans to develop on the land by the viaduct but would assume the state will work closely with the city and Onondaga County when these conservations begin, said Sarah Scalese, senior associate vice president for university communications, in a statement to The Daily Orange.

But many residents still fear that the university could have a negative impact on their communities, especially given the footprint SU already leaves on lower income areas in the city, Allen said.

More coverage on the I-81 community grid project:

Some residents have also expressed concerns about the environmental impacts of SU’s Steam Station, which is located on the corner of McBride and Taylor streets in the middle of the neighborhood bordering I-81, Owens-Chaplin said. 

The plant, which provides energy for SU and nearby institutions, has contributed to air pollution in the area and significantly depressed land value in the surrounding neighborhood, according to an NYCLU report about the I-81 project. 

SU offers a full four-year scholarship to residents in the neighborhood near the highway. But Owens-Chaplin said this is not enough. 

“If we’re looking at contributing negatively to the quality of life of an entire community, offering a scholarship to a limited amount of students just isn’t adequate,” Owens-Chaplin said. “This is just another reminder of how this community is often treated in society as a whole.” 

And the steam plant isn’t the only environmental issue residents in the area have faced. 

Black residents in the area have significantly higher rates of lead exposure from lead-based fuel in vehicles on the highway, lead paint and dust from the viaduct itself and lead-based paint in aging homes, according to the NYCLU’s report.

Air and noise pollution from the highway have for years affected residents’ quality of life, leading to increased rates of asthma and respiratory illness in the area. According to a 2017 report from the New York State Department of Health, the rate of emergency department visits for asthma per 10,000 population was 105.6 in the city of Syracuse compared to 100.8 across the state. 


Adlonia Judy Evans, a resident who lives near the viaduct, said she had never experienced respiratory issues until she moved to the area about 12 years ago. Now that she has asthma, she worries about pollution that could come from the viaduct’s removal.

“These are people. They have lives. They have loved ones. They have dreams,” Evans said. “They are there and something really needs to be taken into consideration for the people that are there before that project is started.”

When the viaduct was initially constructed, the community lost nearly 101 acres of land, said David Rufus, who is the community organizer for the I-81 project with the NYCLU. He said that the city should, in some capacity, return the land to the people who are living in the area. 

The NYCLU has proposed that the city place the eight acres of land that are directly below I-81 in a land trust so residents in the area can decide what happens to it, Owens-Chaplin said. 

“There’s enough already of people discussing what the community wants,” Owens-Chaplin said. “Give this property and give this land to the community. Put it in a land trust for their benefit and let them decide what they want to do with that.”

Institutions such as SU still have the opportunity to play a positive role in deciding what happens to the land, Owens-Chaplin said. 

If we’re looking at contributing negatively to the quality of life of an entire community, offering a scholarship to a limited amount of students just isn’t adequate
Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, the assistant director of the Education Policy Center at the central New York chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union

Allen suggested SU help build an affordable grocery store in the area that both students and residents can afford. The university could also create programs and offer resources to help residents in the area rebuild their community, Rufus and Owens-Chaplin said. 

“You have a school with unlimited resources,” Owens-Chaplin said. “Provide training, provide mentorship, provide entrepreneurship opportunities, provide your staff, provide architecture students, provide urban planners to come into this community and help.”

Most of all, residents are hoping for more humanity. Bernard Cannon, who has lived about a quarter of a mile from I-81 for the past 30 years, believes the viaduct should be removed but only if it is done in a way that gives everyone a chance to be healthy and safe. 

“There’s human beings that live at the bottom of the Hill,” Cannon said. “When you step on the top of the Hill and look down, it’s not a bunch of animals that live down there. It’s people that care.”

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