In April of 1958 Syracuse officials first learned that the New York State Department of Transportation planned to build an elevated interstate highway through the center of the city. Their immediate reaction was outrage.
Mayor Anthony Henninger said an elevated highway would “imprison” downtown and that elevated highways have “ruined other cities.” City engineer Potter Kelly said “Anything elevated is bad, I would oppose such plans.” Carl Maar, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said downtown growth was already restricted on the west by elevated railroad tracks; “We don’t want another Chinese wall,” he said. Common Council president Roy Simmons said “I’m definitely opposed to such a highway plan. It defaces the appearance of the city.” Simmons doubted the state could “jam an elevated highway plan down the throats of Syracusans.” The state could, and it did.
Half a century later we can see those initial warnings were prophetic. The I-81 viaduct has divided Syracuse for five decades now.
Compare the urban density of 1955, before the interstates were introduced into downtown, with the landscape of today:
I-81, the 15th Ward, and the Negro Motorist Green Book
The “Negro Motorist Green Book” was published from 1936 to 1966 by Victor Hugo Green, a New York City mailman. It provided a list of businesses in cities across the country where African-American travelers would be welcomed. At that time African Americans faced a variety of inconveniences and dangers along the road, from white-owned businesses refusing food or accommodations, to threats of physical violence and forcible expulsion from whites-only “sundown towns.”
The New York Public Library has now digitized most of the Green Book volumes and made them available online.
The chart below shows how the number of Green Book listings for Syracuse grew over the years, as Green expanded the focus of this publication from the New York City area to the entire nation. The number of listings peaked for Syracuse at 31 in 1951.
But the number of listing started to drop off after 1951, then fell off a cliff following 1955.
Why the sudden decline after 1955? In 1956 the state of New York approved a $500 million bond for a project that would raze the 15th Ward and erect I-81. By 1956 the city was beginning to acquire and demolish these safe-havens for African-American travelers. These businesses were just as important, of course, for the local African American community.
In the map below you can see the 31 locations listed in the 1951 edition of the Green Book. Notice how they cluster in an area of about seven by seven blocks, at the center of what was then the 15th Ward.
You can also see how I-81 today flows right through the community that was once centered on those locations.
If you click on the map below it will take you to an interactive version where you can see what business was at each of the locations..
It’s hard to imagine today how dense and lively those streets once were, given how barren and deadly they are today.
Below is a photo taken in front of Aunt Edith’s Luncheonette, one of the listings from the 1951 Green Book. It stood at 601 Harrison Street:
Here is that same location today: