"Syracuse is one, division lines are done!"—Official Proclamation, October 23, 1924
The recent passing of former Mayor William Walsh once again brings up a defining issue of post-WWII Syracuse: urban renewal. While the history of that time period will forever be subject to interpretation (and now even more so, as many of the figures responsible for the decisions made during these years are no longer with us), one truth is certain: Syracuse has been a city divided since Walsh's time as mayor.
Of course, Syracuse had also been a divided city under Mayor Henninger: the elevated railroad (later I-690) had been bisecting the city during his leadership, as well as the Mead, Corcoran, Kennedy and Marvin administrations. Mayors Baldwin, Leavenworth, Hovey et al. also governed a split community, with the Erie Canal separating north and south at the heart of the city. Since its founding to present, Syracuse has been a "city united" only under two mayors, over almost ninety years ago. And much like the roaring twenties themselves, the celebration would be over by decade's end.
Official application will be filed with the State Department of Public Works at once by George E. Scherrer, commissioner of public works, for the abandonment of the Erie Canal through this city.
One of the first things Commissioner Scherrer will endeavor to accomplish will be the establishment of an automobile parking station in the bed of the abandoned canal through a section of the heart of the city. (Syracuse Herald, January 16, 1922)
|from Syracuse Herald, April 16, 1923|
The Erie Canal between Salina and Clinton streets appears to be a favorite gathering place for scum and refuse. The wind sweeps papers, boxes, pieces of wood and other rubbish into this cove and leaves it there. The wind tends to clear the main channel of the canal of such rubbish, but does not affect such secluded places.
Weeds from the bottom of the canal have grown to the surface and add to the general unsightly collection. They gather the other refuse and aid in giving the canal the general appearance of a dumping place. Tuesday morning there was such a heap of rubbish just east of the Salina Street bridge that the railing was crowded with spectators.
The refuse remains—a menace to public health. (Syracuse Herald, July 13, 1921)
The canal also acted as a physical and psychological barrier to downtown shoppers. Dispelling the notion that streetcar era pedestrians were more inclined to walk a few blocks than today's drivers, merchants located in the 100 and 200 blocks of North Salina Street had to create a marketing campaign to lure potential customers from South Salina Street to their stores on the other side of the canal bridge:
"Shop on the North Side."
This will be the slogan of a campaign to be started immediately by the North Side merchants who have a definite project in mind to make the North Side as much of a business district as that south of the Erie Canal.
The North Salina Street businesses made what might have been the first specific appeal to suburban shoppers to come downtown:
Particular efforts will be made to attract buyers from the rural districts north of the city and adjacent suburban villages. Special inducements will be made to shoppers from Liverpool, Baldwinsville, Cicero, North Syracuse, Kirkville and other nearby places not to cross the canal on their shopping trips in Syracuse. (Syracuse Herald, July 28, 1921)
Though the villages of Salina and Syracuse had merged in 1848 to form the City of Syracuse, the canal remained a dividing line between north and south. Therefore, when the first handful of dirt was thrown into the abandoned Erie Canal on June 23, 1923, residents came together to witness "a day that will have a place among the important dates in the community's history":
A few pounds of earth, shoveled into the historical canal basin at Clinton Square by Dr. Frederick W. Betts, representing the South Side, and John Gang, representing the North Side, served to mark the high spot in the crowded afternoon's program. It symbolized, as Mayor John H. Walrath pointed out, "the erasure of a line that has divided the community and hindered its progress almost from the beginning."
"This," he said, "is an historic moment. The city has at last secured the possession of the old Erie Canal which has split the city in two so harmfully.
"We are today erasing a dividing line, imaginary as though it may be, which has impeded and obstructed the growth and cooperation of the community for many, many years. Today, on our municipal holiday, we hold it fitting to call upon a representative of the South Side and of the North Side to begin the work of blotting out this line.
"They are beginning an improvement which I promise you will progress as rapidly as is humanly possible." (Syracuse Herald, June 24, 1923)
|Syracuse Herald, October 28, 1924|
As the filling of the canal neared completion, the 100-200 block North Salina Street Merchants once again banded together in an advertising campaign:
The Wonderful Club is organized. It is composed of merchants and others doing business in the 100 and 200 blocks of North Salina Street and its tributaries.
The idea originated when a group of these merchants met the other day for luncheon. Nicholas M. Peters was elected chairman, George T. Schieder, vice-chairman, Wesley Markson, secretary, and W.W. Plumb, treasurer. (Syracuse Herald, October 24, 1924)
|Syracuse Herald, May 11, 1924|
WHEREAS, To show their appreciation for the filling of the canal, the removal of the historic Salina Street bridge over the canal, the installation of the new street lighting system, and particularly the passing of the old line of demarcation between the North and South Sides of our city, merchants of North Salina Street plan a notable observance of the week of October 27 to November 1; and
WHEREAS, They have adopted as their slogan, "Salina Street is now complete" and "Syracuse is One, Division Lines are Done"—two rallying cries of undoubted appeal in view of the realization of the dreams of years; and
WHEREAS, they seek by elaborate decorations, receptions in their stores and a commemoratory parade on Tuesday evening, Oct. 28, to make the celebration all it should be—a demonstration that the city is in fact "One and Division Lines are Done"; and
WHEREAS, The event is one of even more than city-wide importance in which the co-operating business men, with a fine civic pride, want the entire community to participate; therefore,
I, John Walrath, as Mayor of Syracuse, officially proclaim the week of Oct. 27 to Nov. 1 as "All-Syracuse-for-One-Syracuse Week," and urge all our people to join fully and enthusiastically in the demonstration to mark this epoch in our city's progress. (Syracuse Herald, October 26, 1924)
|Syracuse Herald, October 28, 1924|
It's gone forever.
The gash that severed the heart of Syracuse for 100 years is healed.
Even the bandage has been removed.
North and south are one.
Tonight, Syracuse merchants, north and south of what was once the Erie Canal join in celebrating the unification of a city divided psychologically by a ditch that brought prosperity, then natural barriers.
Nobody regrets the digging of the canal. Everybody rejoices at its passing. (Nicholas M. Peters, Syracuse Herald, October 28, 1924)
|Syracuse Herald, October 28, 1924|
Yet even while the city celebrated the canal being "gone forever," community members knew the unification between north and south could be short-lived, as discussions were already underway about building an elevated railroad through the city:
CONSIDER THIS, SYRACUSANS
Today, for the second time, THE HERALD expresses its satisfaction over the disappearance of the ancient canal boundary between the North and South Sides of Syracuse, which will be signalized by a big celebration and parade tonight.
In the course of our article on the subject in Saturday's issue we said:
Reflection on the situation which has been brought about by this improvement will bring a better realization of the present benefit and an estimate of that which accrues through ensuing years. With what might be termed a physical barrier eliminated there will come a rapid knitting together of what were essentially parts of the municipality. The process of unification, political, social and commercial, will be advanced naturally as the people of the city gradually adopt the new thought of unity.
We repeat these earnest words for the purpose of pointing a moral.
It seems incredible, but it is nevertheless a fact, that while our people are preparing for a carnival of jubilation over the reunion of North and South Syracuse, through the refilling of the canal and the removal of its bridges, certain citizens, led by the Grade Crossing Commission and the local attorney of the New York Central Railroad, are planning for another dividing city barrier far more formidable and forbidding than the old waterway.
Then we should have not only a North Syracuse and a South Syracuse, but also an East Syracuse and a West Syracuse, separated, one from the other, by a monstrous railroad barrier which would outlive the youngest of our inhabitants.
And this is the third decade of the Twentieth Century!
Just imagine what the people of other sane cities will think of Syracuse when they realize that we are actually debating the question of substituting a monumental and permanent nuisance and encumbrance for a lesser one from which we have now been happily delivered.
The public of our threatened city is informed that the matter will actually be submitted to the Syracuse Common Council at an early day. That it can ever go through is unbelievable, unless a majority of the Aldermen have gone daft. Heaven help the officials of our municipality who have anything to do with the appalling proposal! (Syracuse Herald editorial, October 28, 1924)
The Wonderful Club saw that their mission was not over:
The Wonderful Club is now a permanent organization. Hereafter it is to be considered whenever anything comes up that affects the interests of the merchants and businessmen in the district immediately north of where the Salina Street bridge formerly spanned the old canal.
The club objects to the elevation of railroad tracks through the heart of Syracuse. Its members voted at the organization meeting in Turn Hall last night that elevation of the tracks would be worse than the bridge that is now gone forever.
Nothing is to be retained that will indicate the existence of a "North Side" or a "South Side," if the Wonderful Club can prevent it. (Syracuse Herald, November 11, 1924)
|Syracuse Herald, November 11, 1924|
"I feel and I think a vast majority of the people feel with me, that the construction of an elevated route through the heart of Syracuse would be a calamity—a calamity that would only be fully understood in the years to come." —Mayor Harry H. Farmer, Syracuse Herald, December 7, 1920
In discussions about the current I-81 controversy, the focus is often on post-WWII Syracuse development: the flight to the suburbs, urban renewal projects such as Upstate Medical and Presidential Plaza, the destruction of the 15th Ward. While these events provide relevant background for I-81 specifically, perhaps the more significant history to discuss in regards to an elevated highway is this: a divided city landscape has been an issue in Syracuse for 163 years. Elevated structures have been part of the conversation for nearly a century. The debate should be as much a part of Syracuse's collective psyche as snow. Yet what has slipped our memory are the leaders who were among the first to speak of these dividing barriers as not only the political matter of the day, but as a defining issue of Syracuse's future. Perhaps this is because these early 20th-century mayors passed away just as the city began to confront the post-war planning issues that led in part to the construction of the elevated I-81. Upon his death in 1957, Mayor Farmer's obituary barely made mention of his time as mayor, focusing instead on his military service and post-mayor career as Syracuse's first Traffic Court judge. But his words about elevated structures could not have been more prescient, as evidenced by a headline just a few inches below his death notice:
|Post-Standard, May 2, 1957|
|Syracuse Herald-American, August 17, 1975|
When it comes to historical dividing lines, we seem to think of downtown Syracuse as either the fabled glory days of yesteryear or the more recent decades characterized by misguided attempts to recapture that former magic. But we rarely revisit this unique period in Syracuse history: a time when downtown Syracuse was most unified, and yet most divided about its future. The lessons they offer are probably among the most relevant in Syracuse's history, as the city center stood at a crossroads while the (streetcar) suburbs expanded rapidly (with their promises to be located "away from confusion, noise and congestion of the city"), and a decision about an elevated structure that both sides knew would alter the landscape and the city's entire future.