15th Ward Stood Tall, Fell

September 21, 2003

By Maureen Sieh, Staff writer

Forty years ago this month, then-Syracuse Mayor William F. Walsh began razing a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the city's East Side to pave the way for a museum, a new police headquarters, a state hospital, a middle-income housing complex and an elevated interstate highway.

Walsh was among many of the nation's mayors in the 1960s who took advantage of the federal "urban renewal" program, which supported the development of public urban centers over affordable housing.

But that vision displaced nearly 1,300 residents of the old 15th Ward, once a hub of Syracuse's African-American community. Many of the city's blacks relocated to the South and Southwest sides, and others to the East Side. That, in turn, helped spark white flight to the suburbs. The exodus of longtime residents to the suburbs depleted the city's tax base and created neighborhoods with abandoned and dilapidated buildings.

Forty years later, Walsh's son, Rep. James Walsh, R-Onondaga, is trying to rebuild city neighborhoods destroyed by urban renewal.

The younger Walsh, who chairs the House subcommittee on housing, secured $35.5 million for the Syracuse Neighborhood Initiative, a public/private effort he created in 1999 to rehabilitate blighted buildings, demolish some of the city's 1,000 vacant structures, build homes and improve parks, street curbs and other amenities.

Despite their different approaches to urban development, the father and son said they share a common vision: They want to improve the city.

The older Walsh saw urban renewal as a chance to improve blighted areas and rejuvenate downtown so people could walk to work.

"We tore down a row of houses in the old 15th Ward and put up the Everson Museum," said Walsh, 91. "I think the change was worthwhile. If you want to build up downtown, you've got to provide something down there. If you want to build up the neighborhood, you have to have jobs so people can move into the neighborhood. You build your economy, and people will come."

Today, the old 15th Ward is also home to Interstate 81, Upstate Medical University, Hutchings Psychiatric Center, Presidential Plaza, Townsend Towers and the Public Safety Building. The parking lots on Harrison and Townsend streets used to be mom-and-pop stores, beauty salons, barbershops and nightspots.

The younger Walsh said the old 15th Ward looks nicer today, but he acknowledges it came at the cost of breaking up the neighborhood.

"People were poor, but there were good families," said Jim Walsh. "They had a community and that was destroyed. You pushed people out of their neighborhood and put them in strange neighborhoods, and it affected those neighborhoods, too."

Walsh said his and his father's approaches to urban development are reflections of their respective times. The younger Walsh is big on homeownership and building neighborhoods. City residents have a say in how the federal money is spent, he said.

During the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal became the "buzzword" as the nation scrambled to create modern cities, the younger Walsh said. Urban planners were not concerned about preserving history and building neighborhoods.

"Anything that was shiny and new was good, and anything that was old and antiquated was bad," the younger Walsh said. "There were different set of values. We lost a lot of beautiful architecture and some graceful old neighborhoods."

Remembering the 15th Emmanuel Breland, the first African American to receive an athletic scholarship to Syracuse University, reminisces about growing up in the 400 block of Adams Street, and later near the corner of Harrison and Almond streets. Urban renewal destroyed a close-knit community where parents disciplined each other's children, he said.

When he was growing up, Breland spent most of his time at the Dunbar Center, formerly at 950 S. Townsend St. He credits a mentor at the center with encouraging him to use his athletic skills to pursue a college education.

He retired from the Syracuse school district in 1991, after serving 34 years as a teacher, coach and administrator. He said he succeeded in college because an entire community kept an eye on him.

"The community spread, so you don't have the kind of relationships with kids that we used to have," said Breland, 69. "Today, there's no community parenting. There's so much violence, you don't know who to trust. You don't get that neighborly response to difficult things that come about."

Breland said the city could have removed the blight and kept the neighborhood intact. He likes Jim Walsh's approach.

"They've built some nice homes," he said of the Syracuse Neighborhood Initiative.

Vito Sciscioli, who worked for the Urban Renewal Agency in the 1970s, said the younger Walsh has more flexibility with federal money than his father did. The urban renewal program was the "federal cookie cutter" designed to work across the country regardless of the community's needs, Sciscioli said.

"Even if they felt they were destroying the community, this program would not have taken that into consideration," said Sciscioli, who retired last year after 32 years in city government. "Citizen participation was not the model of the federal government, and that's what the elder Walsh had to work with. Jim has a different kettle of fish. It's a housing-driven program, trying to mitigate the damages of suburban sprawl."

After the neighborhood was destroyed, the city began applying for federal grants to rehabilitate homes on the South Side and in other residential neighborhoods, but the Vietnam War stalled that effort, said Fred Murphy, executive director of the Syracuse Housing Authority.

"We didn't have a good understanding of the consequences of this mass scale of moving people around," said Murphy, who worked for the Urban Renewal Agency from 1965 to 1970. "We were beginning the fight for attracting people to retail and fighting suburban malls. Why else would people come to cities if we didn't have shiny and glitzy buildings for people to work?" Not without a fight Residents of the 15th Ward fought to keep their neighborhood. Hundreds picketed City Hall and tried to block wrecking crews as homes and businesses were being demolished in September 1963. Some chained themselves to construction chains. One person scaled a dilapidated building and waited for police to escort him down. In a span of one week, 77 people were arrested for crossing the police line.

The protests were organized by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, which held freedom rides and rallies nationwide to protest urban renewal and racial discrimination.

Protesters picketed the home of Eugene Williams, who was then supervisor of the 15th Ward and one of the few African Americans in the Republican Party.

Williams, who grew up on Madison Street, said he supported urban renewal because he believed it would develop the neighborhood. He liked the fact that children could walk to the old Washington Irving School (now the school district offices).

Williams said he believes he lost his seat in 1964 partly because of his support of urban renewal. He was defeated by the Rev. Emery Proctor, the late former pastor of People's AME Zion Church.

"They painted a pretty picture of how good it would be, but it was a bad deal because it separated the neighborhood," said Williams, 77, who lives on Hazelwood Avenue. "We had a strong base of African Americans in that neighborhood. The kids were dispersed, and the idea of walking to school was wiped out. Everything just went down just like somebody threw a bomb."

Seeking new homes Breland, Williams and others said urban renewal gave some blacks a chance to buy their own homes, but they had to fight to move into some neighborhoods. Real estate agents steered blacks to the South Side, and whites refused to sell and rent to blacks.

Marshall Nelson investigated hundreds of housing discrimination complaints when he worked for the state Human Rights Commission in the 1960s. When blacks responded to "apartments for rent" newspaper ads, landlords told them the apartment was no longer available, said Nelson, who grew up at McBride and Adams streets.

There was a lot of resistance to blacks moving to Eastwood and the East Genesee Street area, he said. White children taunted Nelson's children with racial slurs when the family moved to Genesee Park Drive in the 1960s.

When the family expressed interest in a house on Harrington Road in 1972, the owner told them that the neighbors had a pact not to sell to blacks. The owner had taken a down payment from another buyer but opted to sell to the Nelsons. The Nelsons lived on Harrington Road for 10 years before moving to DeWitt.

Nelson said blacks moving to white neighborhoods and the hiring of blacks at Niagara Mohawk and other companies forced whites to confront their own racist attitudes.

"When the dialogue started happening in schools, neighborhoods and on the jobs, it created an awareness that things weren't quite good," said Nelson, 67. "The African-American community started to say we're going to stand up and fight this thing, and there were a lot of whites who did not agree with (discrimination), and they put themselves on the line."

2003 The Post-Standard.