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The Atlantic has a good piece about the decades-long decline of Syracuse, NY, – my home town – a small rust-belt city that shares, in outline, the history of many Northeast and Midwest cities. Robust growth from mid-late 19th to mid-late 20th centuries, founded on manufacturing and transportation, was followed by slow but continual economic decline as manufacturing businesses left or closed, and social dis-integration as many white, affluent families moved to suburbs. Syracuse University and a large health-care complex are the remaining symbols and a major engine of the still-troubled economy today. Gentrification has renewed just a couple of in-city neighborhoods, but many more are continuing to decline.

Interstate 81 was built through the city from north to south, 50 years ago, and its elevated stretch through downtown is near the end of its life. The city and state are deciding now whether to rebuild it, or alternatively NOT rebuild it, redevelop that area and allow the Interstate route to follow an existing suburban bypass (I-481, analogous to I-405).

The story is a good read, though the headline is needlessly crude: construction of the Interstate through the city made things worse, but that’s far from the whole story of the past 50 years. The article is much more nuanced and informative.

9 Replies to “Did I-81 Eat My Hometown?”

  1. There’s a larger issue here too. American cities were built for the needs of industries. Boeing didn’t build that way because it’s so large-scale, but most industries settled on the edge of the old downtown and the workers lived around the factories. Then the cities grew around them, resulting in the factories being part of the inner city rather than on the edge. Then the industries declined due to technological advances and overseas competition. But the cities and the US as a whole had no industrial plan to transform the declining land into contemporary industries as it happened; they just pulled out their hair and left the land to rot. They also muttered that it’s not government’s job to get involved in business decisions, although that was more later in the 80s. Seattle’s situation is not typical, because our industrial land is still productive, and rezoning it would force viable industries out of the city. But in other cities the industries really died and left ghost neighborhoods. After a couple decades of hair-pulling and the growth of new urbanism, the cities finally got around to transforming industrial areas into mixed-use areas. Which is good for the contemporary needs of residents and retail. But it doesn’t help contemporary industries or potential industries, who have decamped to the car-dependent suburbs and don’t look back.

    1. “Boeing didn’t build that way because it’s so large-scale,”

      Actually, it did partly. Boeing started at the Duwamish plant, which was perhaps the closest to downtown that wasn’t occupied by existing industries. It is south of the airport, when the airport could have been further south. But was that just Boeing’s choice? Did it design the airport and plant as once parcel and just decided to put the airport north? Or was it “King County Airport” then and the county wanted it there?

  2. The Rust Belt has an additional problem in that during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s most of its industry moved to China or elsewhere in the Far East, while “new industries” developed in California rather than the Rust Belt, and the low-wage bottomfeeder industries moved to the Southeast. So it’s not so much that the industries are in the suburbs — they just aren’t in Syracuse at all. To the extent that there is industry in the Rust Belt, it’s right where it always was, pretty much; for a new industrial operation, the cheapest and best land is right where the old industries were. But there was so much more industry before.

    I-81 really did do bad things to Syracuse, though I-690 is arguably just as bad (it replaced the passenger rail line), and the intersection between the two is the worst scar on the urban fabric.

    1. Agree re: I-690. (Are you a CNY native?)

      Right now STB (and Seattle politics in general) is about how to handle growth. Syracuse and many other cities have the opposite problem – how to shrink. The county exec’s statement that sewer lines won’t be be built out any more is a crude but probably good step. Still, the concentration of poverty and unemployment (not just among hispanics and blacks) is famously a positive-feedback system, and much of the U.S. faces extremely difficult problems, including widening inequality and political polarization, as a result of the history that Syracuse is a poster child for.

      I grumble bloody murder when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, wants to protect coal mining just as much as Mitch McConnell. But even leaving aside the inevitable compromises that come from wanting to be re-elected, maybe he looks at the problems of places like Syracuse in his own state, and has a hard time going along with anything that might make it worse.

      1. I’m guessing you know that Ithaca has a very high Gini index (as do Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, New Rochelle, and of course NYC – all substantially higher than Seattle). High inequality upstate likely has to do with education and other professions still doing reasonably well while manufacturing and agriculture have withered. It’s an easy (and common, starting with Thomas Frank) argument that the frustration and despair of those declining communities have fed (right-wing!) populism and resentment of a visible, relatively prosperous professional class that tends to be moderate to progressive. Any comments?

      2. *sigh* it’s actually more complicated than it appears.

        The biggest source of the high Gini index is, of course, the tax system, which has a tendency to soak the poor, and is hostile to small business. Here in NY, there is extremely heavy reliance on local sales tax and property tax — they fund *Medicaid* at the county level, which means that the sickest counties get the highest taxes — and the state income tax isn’t very progressive either.

        The high property taxes create a serious disincentive to start small businesses here, because property taxes are a fixed cost that you pay whether or not you are profitable. (Income taxes, you only pay if you make money, so they don’t affect the decision to start businesses.)

        You have many of the same structural tax problems in Washington State and it’s going to bite you in the ass eventually. But it hasn’t yet, for the second reason…

        The second problem is common to the Rust Belt: when an area is in decline, the middle class has the ability to leave and follow the jobs elsewhere, and they *do*. The poor often do not have the ability to do this, so they’re stuck. The wealthy have the ability to *stay* if they want to (they don’t need jobs!), or to swoop in like lords and buy cheap property. (Cornell University frequently headhunts professors from big cities; they can sell a small apartment in NY or San Francisco and use the money to buy a mansion out here, and they do so.) This leaves you with a high Gini index.

        In this case, Seattle is benefiting from growing. You have middle class people moving in. You won’t see the “hidden” inequality which your tax system is generating until you stop growing.

        I will say that we actually have a really successful agriculture industry here in the Finger Lakes. We can’t compete with Iowa on price for bulk commodities, but as a result we’ve generated lots and lots of specialized boutique agriculture for which our farmers can charge higher prices. Nobody’s getting rich, but a lot of people are breaking even.

        Manufacturing really is dead here, and it seems to mostly have gone to China.

        Also, upstate lost its transportation advantages when the railroads declined; the Great Lakes route is the best for water transport Midwest-Europe, and the NY Central route is still the best rail route Midwest-East, but the Thruway isn’t a particularly good road route compared to the alternatives.

        Interesting additional note on economic geography: The Southern Tier has been in decline since the Erie Canal opened. It existed largely due to Susquehanna River traffic. It’s kind of amazing that any of the cities there (such as Binghamton) still exist.

      3. Also, I’ll note that the farmers in the Finger Lakes tend to be relatively progressive when it comes to actual issues or local polices. Even the right-wing Christian fundamentalist farmers who vote Republican at the national level tend to support what I think of as progressive policies locally. And the cities, even the small ones like Auburn, vote Democratic consistently.

        I honestly think the tendency to vote Republican in rural NY is largely due to lack of information. The voters don’t necessary hear about how deranged their local Republican representative is — but Randy Kuhl, who threatened his wife with two shotguns in an incident reported in all the newspapers and on radio, did get voted out of office. Republican voting correlates extremely well with lack of high-speed internet access. Some of the tendency to vote Republican is also anti-Native-American racism, unfortunately, but that’s another matter…

    2. I really appreciate your thoughtful reply, and your apparent admiration for many of the folks who have stayed. Best wishes.

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