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City Building Together / ARC 207: 2nd Year Undergraduate (1st Semester) / Fall 2020 / Syracuse Architecture

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A City is a Language. Shane Lavalette, 2019

Studio Professors: Marcos Parga and Tim Stenson (co-coordinators); Ted Brown, Sekou Cooke, Gregory Corso, Aurelie Frolet, Joseph Godlewski, Terrance Goode, Valeria Herrera, Benjamin Vanmuysen.

Understood as a theoretical framework within which we will operate throughout the semester, this year the focus of ARC 207 (Second Year Design Studio, Undergraduate, 1st Semester) revolves around the role of Architecture as a resource in addressing social injustice in all its forms in our cities.
The current global health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored what sociologists have been observing for decades regarding how networks of systems, institutions, and instruments that operate through the logics of complexity have produced a brutally “sharp growth in the number of people, enterprises, and places expelled from the core economic and social orders of our time” (Saskia Sassen, 2014).
It is time for designers to leverage that complexity and embrace Architecture as a collective form that integrates the cultural, the social, the economic and the political, bringing to the forefront, among others, the question of spatial justice and its impact in the redefinition of alternative social infrastructures.

The relevance of these two concepts, spatial (in)justice and  social infrastructure, lies in the fact that the former challenges us to evaluate how the built environment plays a role in the current configuration of disparate socio-economic realities within our cities, and the latter arises as a potential tool to stabilize and propel neighborhoods excluded from the economies of cities through the implementation of non-discriminatory socio-spatial networks.
Now the question is, what role can networked design interventions play in this crucial regenerative process of urban development?

Syracuse Southside neighborhood

According to several reports conducted by different organizations in recent years, Syracuse is the ninth most racially segregated metropolitan area in the country and home to large concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities, including foreign-born, resettled refugees in the city. This hyper-segregation is particularly evident in the enrollment patterns in Onondaga County School Districts, and mirrors differences in school quality, access to jobs and transportation, housing options and other opportunities.
In addition, Syracuse is one of the worst scoring cities in the country when looking at equality of opportunity based on race and ethnicity. Access to community assets is unevenly distributed geographically and across racial and ethnic groups. There are significant disparities in median household income and poverty levels between residents of Syracuse and residents of the surrounding towns. These same differences in relation to race and ethnicity occur within the City itself.
The city’s urban fabric displays clear demographic demarcations and acute forms of spatial injustice and racial segregation that have been forged through uneven planning and housing policies, exacerbated by the construction of the Interstate 81 viaduct more than 50 years ago.

Fig.01. The Williams brothers stand outside their grocery store in Syracuse's 15th Ward in 1920. The neighborhood was once home to many businesses owned by African Americans. Photo courtesy of Onondaga Historical Association. Fig.02. A woman walks past Schor's Market on Harrison Street in Syracuse's 15th Ward in 1965. Photo courtesy of Onondaga Historical Association. Fig.03. The I-81 viaduct under construction (1967). Photo courtesy of Onondaga Historical Association.

I-81 Viaduct

 

The history of this massive infrastructure is the story of an unsightly monument to the failures of top-down thinking. It cut through the heart of the city, erasing at that time entire neighborhoods like the 15th ward, a close-knit community of families and black-owned businesses. In 1950, it was home to nearly 90 percent of Syracuse’s black population, and a frequent stop for black travelers who needed a safe haven from “white’s only” establishments.
To city leadership, the 15th ward was seen as a failing neighborhood and its different areas were labeled “slums.” So, when Syracuse put in a bid for federal money for an interstate in 1958, despite disagreement from local elected officials, the city administration eventually agreed with Federal and State officials to run the elevated part of the highway through the center of the city. Ignoring protest from residents, district counselors and county legislatures, the entire 15th ward was razed, and with it the homes and businesses of most of Syracuse’s black community. More than 1,300 families were displaced to make way for the construction of Interstate 81, and when these uprooted residents looked for new places to live, blatant housing discrimination again limited them to specific houses and streets. Many of them ended up moving just south of the viaduct and forming a new black neighborhood, one with even fewer resources than the original.