Alana Semuels, a writer for The Atlantic magazine, went to Syracuse, N.Y., to study the reason for the city’s rising poverty rate, and discovered that one of the major contributors was the interstate built through the middle of downtown.  

Now, Syracuse is debating tearing down an elevated stretch of Interstate 81 and replacing it with a boulevard. The City Council and the New York Highway Commissioner support the idea.


Syracuse, like Little Rock, built Interstate 81 with new dollars from the 1956 Federal Highway Act. It chose to raze a black ward to make way for the elevated interstate. Semuels writes in her Atlantic article “How to Decimate a City” that city fathers thought the ward “expendable.” But the razed neighborhood created economic and cultural instability and the interstate made it easy for people to move to the suburbs. Syracuse continues to suffer from the ill effects of splitting a downtown with a highway.

Here, the construction of Interstate 30 also created blight by obliterating parts of Hanger Hill and letting the neighborhoods east of I-30 die on the vine, sliced away from the heart of downtown. But Little Rock has had people of vision who have worked hard to turn around our moribund Main Street, both north and south of that second blow to Little Rock’s core, Interstate 630. New life has returned east of I-30, first with the construction of the Clinton Library and Heifer International and more lately with the opening of Lost Forty Brewing, the announcement of a mixed-use development at Sixth and Shall streets and efforts by eSTEM charter schools to open a K-8 school east of I-30 by the 2017-18 school year.


Boulevard? The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department says no, we need a bigger interstate. Let’s be like Syracuse — in 1956.

More on the jump.


From Semuel’s article:

 A strong highway network, city leaders argued, would make Syracuse one of the largest cities in the country because people would be able to easily commute to downtown from outlying areas. In 1956 the state approved a $500 million bond for a project that would raze the 15th Ward and erect an elevated freeway that bisected downtown. That this construction would destroy a close-knit black community, with a freeway running through the heart of town, essentially separating Syracuse in two, did not seem of much concern to local leaders. They wanted state and federal funding, and were willing to follow whatever plans were proposed to get it. …

Today, I-81 runs north to south through the city; its most prominent part is a 1.4 mile section of elevated highway that separates Syracuse University from downtown and the city’s high-poverty South Side. Underneath the elevated highway, the streets are dark and clogged with cars trying to get on the road, and next to it are some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.  …

Black residents moved to the South Side when the 15th Ward was demolished, which in turn motivated white residents to move to the suburbs. It was easier for them to do so because of the new highway, I-81, which provided a quick route from the center city to outlying areas. …

What Syracuse needs, more than anything else, is a way to knit back together a region torn asunder by the construction of an urban highway and the outmigration that followed. That means more affordable housing in the suburbs, more access to transportation to outlying areas, and better jobs and housing in the urban core.

The Clinton School of Public Service is bringing Semuels to Little Rock. She’ll give her talk,”How to Decimate a City,” at 6 p.m. March 16 in Sturgis Hall. Reserve a seat by emailing or by calling 683-5239.