Urban highways: tearing down the legacy of Robert Moses

My apartment in New York overlooks the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and at our place in New Haven, the traffic on I-91 is a constant murmur. Over time, you stop noticing the noise, and I try not to contemplate the car exhaust residue I�m inhaling, But with the trip upstate last weekend, I was really looking forward to sleeping without the rumble of the highway, and so I intentionally booked a hotel in the downtown area, picturing I�d fall asleep to the gentle sounds of a small downtown.
Little did I realize that I-81 cuts directly through downtown Syracuse, and our hotel, most likely constructed on a sweetheart land deal after the area was cleared for the highway, was located immediately beside it.
Photo: I-81 cutting through downtown Syracuse.
When I got back, I started Googling and discovered that the elevated portion I-81 that runs through Syracuse is structurally deteriorating and that the NYDOT and Syracuse Metropolitan Transit Council have determined that it must soon be replaced or torn down. This part of the highway was built in 1957, destroying what was once an African American community.
The Onondaga Citizen�s League is pushing for I-81 to be torn down and replaced by a boulevard, which would reconnect the decaying downtown to University Hill, where the regions two largest employers - SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University - are located.
Interstate 81 in Syracuse is number six on the Congress of New Urbanism�s top ten list of national prospects for highway teardowns. Number four on the "Freeways without Futures" list was the Route 34 connector in New Haven, another stretch of impractical engineering that formed part of our route to Syracuse.

In the late 1950s, the Oak Street neighborhood in New Haven, once again a historically African American community, was razed, clearing the ground for what was intended to be a freeway providing access from northwest Connecticut to New Haven. The Route 34 connector was never completed, and now community members are working with New Haven�s mayor to remove what remains of this 'freeway to nowhere� and recreate the street grid in the area that was demolished.
Photo: The east-west path cleared for the Route 34 connector.
There is a growing movement to combat the legacy of Robert Moses and replace elevated urban highways with boulevards. In 1973, the teardown of the elevated West Side Highway in New York was the first major reclamation. Since then, Portland, San Francisco and Milwaukee have successfully reclaimed waterfront areas by replacing highways with on-street boulevards. In my home state of Washington, plans to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel were approved by the state legislature on April 22. Instead of wantonly rebuilding existing urban freeways, let's hope that other states take advantage of the funding and momentum from the federal stimulus plan to rethink whether these relics of an earlier era actually deserve to be brought into the future in their current incarnations.

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