Can Reparations Right the Wrongs Caused by a Highway?

An elevated highway destroyed an African American community in Syracuse, New York. Is just removing it enough?

November 7, 2019, 2:00 PM PST

By Camille Fink

Syracuse Highway

George Foster / flickr

Robert Samuels reports on possible plans to bring down a section of Interstate 81, an elevated highway in Syracuse, New York. African Americans started moving to the city’s south side in the 1900s, and the area was a thriving community. However, redlining eventually led to disinvestment and blight.

In the late 1950s, large swaths of the south side were razed to clear land for construction of the interstate highway system. "Homes and wealth were lost. Ninety percent of the structures in the 15th Ward were torn down, according to documents for the county’s historic society. Between 400 and 500 businesses were gone. Around 1,200 families were displaced," writes Samuels.

In the past, discussions about reparations have not focused on the impacts of infrastructure like Interstate 81. Residents say that taking down the highway is not sufficient, and community reinvestment should also be part of undoing the damage of urban renewal and other large-scale projects. "If the reparations debate in this country continues to move beyond handing out checks, the ensuing debate over Interstate 81 presages a bevy of challenges that await," notes Samuels.

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