Just south of downtown Syracuse in upstate New York, a stretch of highway has long divided surrounding neighborhoods.
On the east side are large buildings where university students live, well-maintained green spaces, and a wall that blocks the highway from view. On the west side is a predominantly low-income and disinvested Black neighborhood where the pollution from the highway exacerbates many residents’ existing health conditions.
Joquin Paskel has lived on the west side of the Interstate 81 highway his entire life, next to a hulking, elevated section of the interstate known as the viaduct. Like many of his neighbors, he suffers from asthma; Black residents in Syracuse have higher rates of lead exposure and asthma than their white counterparts, according to a recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
To Paskel, 28, and the generations of Black Syracuse residents before him, including his parents, the viaduct has become the ultimate symbol of segregation. It “does nothing but pollute”, he said.
For years, New York state officials have known that the ageing I-81 viaduct has needed to be radically redeveloped. Most residents and public officials agree that it must be rethought for safety, economic and public health reasons. However, for a neighborhood that has long been disenfranchised, tearing down the highway also means repairing the legacy of injustice done to their community.
Across the US, community organizers have long been fighting to shine a light on the racist urban planning policy that led to highways being built through historically Black neighborhoods.
And now, thanks to a recent gesture of support from the Biden administration, organizers in Syracuse feel there is finally some acknowledgment of the harm I-81 has caused, and new momentum around the idea of tearing it down.
Whatever redevelopment plans emerge, Black Syracuse residents want a say in the process. Advocates say the Biden administration must ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself in terms of displacement and gentrification.