Presentation explores how redlining, I-81 led to housing segregation in Syracuse

Richard Perrins | Asst. News Editor

Syracuse community members, including Urban Jobs Task Force President Deka Dancil and City Scripts research assistant Maggie Sardino, spoke at the event.

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An audience of around 20 people gathered at Syracuse’s Community Folk Art Center to listen to a presentation about the history of the city’s housing issues.

The presentation, titled “Historical Conventions: How We Got Where We Are,” explored how people living in Syracuse’s 15th Ward have been impacted by issues like redlining — withholding loans and other services to residents depending on where they live — and the construction of the Interstate 81 viaduct. 

Deka Dancil is the president of the Urban Jobs Task Force and a bias response and education manager at Syracuse University. She described the 15th Ward — which today has been replaced by areas like the city’s medical district — as a thriving, diverse neighborhood historically.

Maggie Sardino is a research assistant at City Scripts public forum who majors in writing and rhetoric as well as citizenship and civic engagement at SU. She said that Pioneer Homes, a public housing project dedicated in the 15th Ward area in 1940, were a component of the segregation the city would experience over the next decades.


Over 480 families were displaced by the construction, about a third of which were Black in a city where only about 2% of the population was Black.

“What city officials decided to do was take a racially integrated portion of Syracuse and convert it into a public housing project that was intentionally segregated,” Sardino said.

Dana Olesch, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of anthropology at SU, said that the coverage and increased attention that the area received throughout the 20th century was overwhelmingly negative and misleading. Olsech said that coverage of the residents of the ward made it seem as if they were the problem, which then created a negative outside view of the ward.

“(The 15th Ward was) not just presented as dangerous, but it’s also presented as spreading a contagion that is infecting the rest of the city,” Olesch said.


Dancil said that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration set the “train” of redlining in motion by encouraging home ownership, which inadvertently resulted in segregation. Banks were encouraged to use a residential security map system to evaluate areas for loans or development, she said, but Black people predominantly lived in red, or fourth-grade, areas.

“White people were able to run up the financial score while others were literally held down,” Dancil said. 

Dancil said that the Housing Act of 1954 brought with it a process of urban renewal, where land that was previously occupied by the homes and communities of Black 15th Ward residents was sold to private developers, she said.

The developers then built commercial space and residences for the middle and upper-middle classes, she said, while Black residents were forced into other areas of the city.

The construction of I-81 created more segregation when it was expedited by the Federal Highway Act of 1956, Dancil said, and construction only happened in yellow or red neighborhoods.

“We needed infrastructure,” Dancil said, “But we didn’t need it at the expense of Black and brown people everywhere.”

She ended the discussion by saying that the issues with housing that have historical roots in Syracuse are still happening in the modern day. Projects like Blueprint 15, a nonprofit that calls for an infusion of infrastructure into the city center and around the viaduct, is reminiscent of redlining and urban renewal, she said. 

For Dancil, there are two possible outcomes.

“We are at an intersection where we decide if this will keep causing harm, or to go the other way, and repair this past harm,” she said.

The presenters will hold another discussion on Nov. 18.

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