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Racism by Design: The Building of Interstate 81

ACLU MAGAZINE, Jay A. Fernandez , September 7, 2023 

The I-81 project, completed in 1968—and Syracuse remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, with the highest concentration of poverty among communities of color, and the highest rates of lead poisoning in children. This was by design.

David Rufus was just a toddler when the bulldozers rolled into the streets of his Syracuse, New York, neighborhood in 1960. As part of the country’s interstate highways surge, city officials wanted to extend I-81 with an elevated viaduct that would cut right through the 15th Ward, where nearly 90 percent of Syracuse’s Black population lived. Protesting locals were ignored, and the razing of homes, churches, and businesses resulted in the displacement of more than 1,300 families, including Rufus’s. Over the next 50 years, the 15th Ward community suffered in every way possible—jobs, housing, schools, and public health plunged while crime, pollution, and poverty spiked.

“I’ve lived in this community all my 64 years,” says Rufus, who’s lost several family members to respiratory illness. “I’ve seen the move from a very vibrant and interactive community of people of color to a community that has been shunned and overlooked and broken down.” The I-81 project was completed in 1968—and Syracuse remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, with the highest concentration of poverty among communities of color and one of the highest rates of lead poisoning in children. The viaduct still physically separates the poorest and wealthiest communities, and the city’s Black population has been harmed for generations.

This was by design.

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