Syracuse Residents React to I-81 Project As NY Budget Gets $800M For ‘Community Grid’ A Key Green Light For Syracuse's Community Grid

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) – The most prominent road in Syracuse has hit its dead end.

After years of assessment, the replacement for the I-81 viaduct –– the North to South throughway which carries Central New York commuters and divides city-dwellers from the East and West –– has been given one of the final green lights.

New York’s $212 billion budget for next year will include $800 million for Syracuse to rebuild its aging stretch of the interstate, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. This initial injection of state funds will help launch the first phase of the I-81 rebuild.

While more complete plans are due out this summer, it looks all but certain that the “community grid” – the proposed network of expanded city streets and a business loop – will replace the current overpass.

In his clearest signal of what residents can expect, Mayor Ben Walsh said in an interview with ABC 9 that the grid is a reality that people have to accept.

“It’s critically important that, right now, those that haven’t been willing to accept that the community grid is going to happen need to come to that conclusion,” Walsh said. He added “the sooner they do, the sooner that I and other representatives can work with them to address any outstanding concerns.”

For some of the residents living nearest the viaduct, the prospect of this long-anticipated construction brings a host of emotions. They are the people whose ears throb to the unending beat of traffic, whose lungs fill with plumes of road dust, who hope this project brings more hope than profound disruption to their lives.

“Many of the residents obviously don’t want to move under no circumstances, right, who wants any disruption in their life, and then there are others who relish the opportunity for a fresh start,” William Simmons, the director of the city’s housing authority, said.

The viaducts shadow casts beyond what just physically covers the housing authority on Burt Street. Simmons said many of his residents remember just how little input they had when the roadway was first built.

“It was a very, very sudden kind of decision. Many people felt like they didn’t have any input and they just came in and the houses were marked up to be demolished and those residents had to relocate,” Simmons said.

Fast forward 50 years and Simmons said some of the same residents are “looking to really see what’s going to happen and if whether or not their voices are going to be heard this time.”

Angel Gonzalez’s voice was not around then, but his experience with how I-81 separated his own community can bridge any generational divide.

“For a lot of people, no matter how long they’ve been here, they’ll see that on the overlying layer, it hasn’t really changed. A lot of the same issues my parents dealt with when they were my age I still deal with today,” Gonzalez said.

The lines Gonzalez straddles are not just generational. As a Syracuse University student on the East side and a resident of the West side, he lives a disconnect most people just drive by.

“The communities themselves have been separate for a long time, or have at least felt individualized, the construction of I-81 was done long before I was born. And that created divides not just between the city, but between the communities next to each other,” Gonzalez said.

Divides that hit close to home for Gonzalez.

“I have family members who live just down the block. But for them to say they live in a completely different community than me, even though they’re less than a five minute walk away is a pretty big difference to me,” Gonzalez said.

It’s unlikely that Gonzalez’s home will face too much direct impact from the first phase of the renovation in that it is more than a few blocks away from the viaduct. The city’s housing authority said that those living nearest to the highway would likely receive housing vouchers if they were asked to relocate.

While more specific details are due out this summer, Gonzalez hopes that the final blueprints keep the spirit of his community alive.

“No matter how much both drugs and policing and city policies have done to my community, people still get to be people. Seeing the smile on someone’s face does a lot for me, and to be in between, you know, two beautiful parks, and to be able to still walk my dog outside and to be able to appreciate the little things. I think that’s the best part of my community. Still being able to be human.”

Reported by

Ghael Fobes

is a broadcast & digital journalism junior at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He has interned for NBC News/MSNBC and WNYC's "All Things Considered." He founded and hosted The Daily Orange Podcast, which releases new episodes every Tuesday morning.

Other stories by Ghael Fobes

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