Essay | Interstate 81 and the Inner Loop: Viaducts for environmental racism

A portion of Rochester's Inner Loop taken from a driver's view. An upcoming bridge displays two different exit signs. No cars are on the expressway, except one in front of the camera.

The construction of Rochester, New York's Inner Loop not only damaged communities, but it also decreased pedestrian biking traffic, contributing to a car-centric infrastructure. As seen in this image, traffic volumes on the Inner Loop were never particularly high, which is one of the factors that led to its removal. (Doug Kerr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Interstate 81 is mostly a route for trade in the United States. The interstate runs from Dandridge, Tennessee to just north of Watertown, New York at the Canadian border. It connects Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, to other rust-belt cities like Binghamton and Syracuse, both in New York. 

However, many drivers along this expressway aren’t aware of its dark history: Because the stretch of I-81 in Syracuse is a viaduct, or raised above ground level, its construction sliced through and greatly disrupted a historically close-knit African American community. This was Syracuse’s Southside neighborhood, also known as the 15th Ward. In the 1950s, the city saw this community as a burden. As a result, many families were displaced in order to construct I-81.

1-81, a raised highway over a basketball court and a small field.
 I-81 overlooks Wilson Park on November 13, 2022. This park, a popular basketball location, has courts, a playground, and a swimming pool. On the other side of the bridge, public housing is also extremely close to I-81. (Jenna Magioncalda)

The highway has not only divided Syracuse, but it may have also caused health problems. According to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, neighborhoods near highways have notoriously significantly higher rates of asthma than other areas. A school, a park, as well as public housing neighborhoods with run-down sidewalks border I-81, which experiences high volumes of traffic. In addition to this potential health concern, living in these areas is also uncomfortably loud. Under one bridge near Dr. King Elementary School, a volume of 85 decibels was measured using the Decibel X decibel reader app. This is as loud as an alarm clock. To hear an example of the audio quality under this bridge, give a listen:

The future of I-81

The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) has designed a plan to turn the current Syracuse corridor of I-81 into a street-level boulevard that will be funded by the state. This project is funded and led by the state government. The options were to leave the current viaduct alone, construct a new viaduct, or construct a boulevard, which is the current plan.

The current viaduct “is at the end of its useful life,” according to Joe Driscoll, the I-81 project manager for the City of Syracuse. This means that the traffic that the viaduct currently carries is at a much higher level than originally anticipated. Driscoll said that another reason for the removal of the viaduct is simply a safety issue: Some homes are as close to the highway as seven feet. The removal of the viaduct will also connect the downtown, university, and Southside neighborhoods of Syracuse.

One concern of I-81’s deconstruction is that dust will travel throughout the surrounding area as the land is dug up. But despite a potential increase in respiratory issues, the long term effects of removing the highway could include the reconnection and revitalization of the communities that were once divided by it. Driscoll described these negative effects as re-breaking a bone that did not heal properly in the first place. In other words, the effects of construction are necessary if the community that was broken is to heal.

There have been recent setbacks to I-81’s removal, such as a lawsuit by the group Renew 81 for All that claims that construction will cause traffic issues and will not cut back on vehicle emissions. This lawsuit has temporarily paused construction, which was planned to begin fall 2022. Now, the project will likely begin in spring of 2023.

The exterior of an elementary school with I-81 closeby in the background.
I-81 also overlooks Dr. King Elementary School. Time spent near an expressway increases one’s exposure to traffic-related air pollution. This exposure is associated with increased levels of asthma and other respiratory conditions. (Jenna Magioncalda)

Rochester’s Inner Loop

Less than two hours away, Rochester’s Inner Loop is often called “the noose tied around Rochester’s neck.” The Inner Loop creates a C-shaped expressway that connects to I-490, one of the main Rochester highways. Unfortunately, the construction of this route in the 1950s and 60s cut through an economically powerful Black community, the 16th Ward. As the Loop was built, families left the neighborhood, as the sense of community was lost. 

This is not an isolated or accidental incident. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 established the network of highways that is seen across the United States today. This act caused highways to be built through many thriving Black communities but was supported by President Eisenhower, who was impressed and inspired by the efficiency of Germany’s autobahn in WWII. In the end, the 1965 Act has become associated by some with an ideology of racism and persecution. Now, Rochester and Syracuse are taking steps to fix the damage done by these expressways.

Rochester completed the Inner Loop East removal project in 2017, which removed roughly one-third of the Loop and replaced it with a street-level grid. Removing the eastern part of the highway caused long-term benefits for people’s health. “By removing the highway,” said Erik Frisch, the head of the Inner Loop North project, “we immediately saw a jump in bicycle and pedestrian volumes just by virtue of breaking down that barrier.” As well as the physical benefits, an increase in biking is associated with stronger communities.

Rochester’s current Inner Loop North project will transform another third of the Loop. Like the Inner Loop East project, the North project’s goal is to revitalize the communities that the initial construction of the Loop tore apart. The key, however, is avoiding gentrification. Development should not be “at the expense of residents who are there now or were there historically” and that the “benefits accrue to them,” said Frisch. He adds that Rochester is considering a “community land trust…where the board is made up of stakeholders” to ensure that gentrification doesn’t affect the developed area.

The removals of 1-81 and the Inner Loop in Syracuse and Rochester represent a shift in American values. Although these highways have physically represented the barriers that many Black communities have faced, their removal is a major step forward. Now, it is up to other cities in the United States to consider the value of their highways.

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