NEWS

Will plans for Inner Loop heal historic wounds or continue legacy of inequality?

A half-century after it was built, Rochester is confronting the Inner Loop's destructive legacy while contemplating a second and final stage of its removal.

Brian Sharp
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Down the steep embankment they raced, riding cardboard boxes retrieved from behind a nearby furniture store — chasing the depths into which their neighborhood was falling.

The demolition and digging, clearing the way for the last section of the Inner Loop, provided endless adventure and entertainment to David Everett and his childhood friends. 

"We lost most of our neighborhood to the construction," said Everett, who was 9 years old when the Inner Loop went in. "We learned to adapt."

This was the early 1960s.

Completed in stages between 1952 and 1965, and costing $34 million to build (between $280 million to $300 million in 2021), the Inner Loop was heralded as an achievement. The arterial highway encircling a traffic-clogged business district (when including a section of Interstate 490) was a first in New York state and one of the first such roadways in the nation. 

A view of the Inner Loop where major construction will have an impact on that neighborhood.

A half-century later, the city is confronting the freeway's destructive legacy while contemplating a second and final stage of its removal.

Cities from Syracuse to Seattle, Dallas to San Francisco, Kansas City to New Orleans are tackling similar issues as they look to remove their urban highways, open acres for new development and reconnect neighborhoods.

In Rochester, the last arc of the Inner Loop to be built was the most destructive, carved out of a densely populated, predominately Black and immigrant neighborhood north of downtown. Here, as elsewhere, the urban highway sliced through areas already segregated by redlining, creating a new barrier between those communities and the economic vitality of the city in order to facilitate suburbanites' access to the same.

More than 300 structures fell, some houses literally pulled down with steel cables threaded through the windows and attached to a front loader. Hundreds of residents were forced to move.

Those who remained saw parks decimated, churches razed, blocks of businesses demolished. Entire streets were consumed.

"It was sad to see Delevan (Street) go," Everett recalls thinking as a boy, as houses on that street gave out the best Halloween candy.

Delevan Street was reduced to a frontage road. Two houses remain.

'The hole just kept getting bigger'

David Everett remembers playing with his friends in the large hole that was dug to become the Inner Loop in the early 1960s. Now he stands where his childhood house on Ontario Street once stood.  It is now a neighborhood basketball court.

Everett was relatively new to the area and has little memory of neighbors uprooted. He and his friends lived outside the Inner Loop's path. He recalls the enormity of the hole, and the dust — rising from the construction site, or from the dump trucks ferrying debris and settling on everything.

Removing the highway, filling the ditch, and building new roads along the 1.5-mile stretch between I-490 and the East Main/Union streets terminus would be a massive undertaking. The eastern two-thirds of a mile, between East Main Street and Monroe Avenue, was taken out a few years ago. That three-year construction project cost more than $22 million. 

Opinions are mixed on how — or whether — to proceed.

"Don't you think that would be a waste of money?" Everett asks about removing this final leg of the loop. "To what, to make it look like the (east) side?"

His hesitancy is shared by many, worried about traffic, about gentrification, about big apartment complexes or otherwise out-sized developments, rather than single-family homes attainable to those living in the neighborhood.

And there is uncertainty in the government's intentions — as words like "transformative" are bantered about — from a community disregarded before.

"Equity is huge on this," said Erik Frisch, special projects manager for the city. "This is not just transportation. This is not just community development. It is is focused on racial equity and healing old wounds and making sure that current residents and residents that were displaced will benefit."

Residents weighed in this summer on an initial six concepts for replacing the northern Inner Loop. Designs varied from full to partial removal of the highway and disconnecting the new roadway from 490. There are options for a continuous route with traditional intersections, or with roundabouts, or splitting off into one-way streets, following the path of the current Inner Loop, or seeking to restore the old street grid. 

This concept for the Inner Loop North project, and variations of it, were the most widely supported during public meetings held in June 2021. The city and its consultant are in the process of developing revised concepts that are expected to build off this design.

University Avenue would be reconnected. The old Franklin Square park — between Joseph and Chestnut, now partly retained as Schiller Park — could be restored and enlarged. So, too, might the old Anderson Park by World of Inquiry School No. 58.

The city and its consultant expect to go back to the public with revised designs in mid-November.

The work is part of a study begun last year, aided by a 50-member community advisory committee that draws from neighborhood and advocacy groups, employers and other stakeholders, as well as a technical advisory panel of regional and state agencies.

"This is not just something that we are doing, that we are going to leave the community behind," Frisch said.

Remembering what was

In this 1935 HOLC map, green shaded areas are "best" and blue are "still desirable." Red is deemend "hazardous," which the federal agency stated at the time were "characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or an infiltration of it." Mortgage lenders were advised to be conservative in granting loans or refuse loans altogether.

Being left behind is how the neighborhood got to this place.

In the 1930s and '40s, and continuing into the 1960s, the federal Home Owners' Loan Corp. assessed the "mortgage security" of every neighborhood in the United States and assigned a grade that was used in color-coded maps.

Neighborhoods receiving the lowest grade of "D" were deemed hazardous and colored red. That limited people's ability to buy, sell or improve a house and build wealth, concentrating poverty in already segregated inner-ring neighborhoods that saw continued disinvestment.

Among the city's "redlined" areas was what was then a predominately Italian neighborhood north of downtown between North Clinton and Webster avenues. 

"Advancing age is steadily forcing this area further downward and will continue to do so, although it is not to be classed as distinctly 'hazardous,'" reads the security report dated Nov. 1, 1939 — describing the mostly single-family rental houses as "of a rather unattractive vintage." Of the 270 federal home loans issued there, 59% were in default.

"Appeal is entirely to the laboring classes who cannot afford better," the report concludes.

Fast-forward 20 years, to when Tony Apollonio and his family moved in.

His father, a tailor, had arrived in Rochester from Italy in 1954, working first for Bond Clothing then Hickey-Freeman and eventually opening his own shop near North Street and Central Avenue. Apollonio, then 7, followed with his mother and four brothers a year later. Two sisters were born in Rochester.

Tony Apollonio grew up and still lives in the neighborhood north of the Inner Loop.

The neighborhood was noticeably changing, Apollonio recalled. First- and second-generation Italian families that had lived there for decades were moving out to the suburbs. Newly arrived Black and Puerto Rican families were replacing them.

Census records show that in the tract through which the freeway was dug, stretching from North Street toward East Main Street, the population was just more than 2,700 in 1940 and 1950, then it dropped to 1,800 in 1960 as Inner Loop construction neared, and to 1,200 in 1970, once the freeway was complete. 

"Businesses moved out, and people were displaced — I call it misplaced," said Luticha Doucette, a member of the community advisory panel's racial equity subcommittee. 

Documenting what happened to families "taken out of the neighborhood" has proven difficult, she said.

Luticha Doucette is a member of the Inner Loop North community advisory panel's racial equity subcommittee and owner of Catalyst Consulting Associates.

Apollonio is still here, renting the first floor of a house with his brother. He sees the disruption this freeway has caused, and its usefulness. He sees the potential for what today is under-utilized land, but also the impact outside interests could have on his neighborhood.

Today, 55% of residents in the neighborhood around Scio Street live below the poverty line, with a median household income of $15,250.

The neighborhood, which is almost 90% people of color, falters on most every metric of health and well being. Housing remains predominantly rental, pockmarked by more than 150 vacant lots.

"You are really just killing the neighborhood in a way that they have never recovered from," said Doucette, who lives south of the Inner Loop near the Liberty Pole.

On the drawing board

Brennon Thompson is a member of the Inner Loop North community advisory panel's racial equity subcommittee, and urban planner and community engagement and fair housing manager with the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors.

In going back and remaking the roadway, if that is the decision, the approach must be "reparative," said fellow subcommittee member Brennon Thompson, describing the Inner Loop North as "a reparations-based project."

"We have tried as a subcommittee to be very intentional ... (and get that) in the documents from the outset so it carries through — and can be an accountability measure," said Thompson, a urban planner and community engagement and fair housing manager with the greater Rochester Association of Realtors.

But that is a work in progress.

Initially, what planners discussed and shared with the subcommittee focused on those entering or working in the city, said subcommittee member Iman Abid-Thompson: "There was no data initially of those living (in the neighborhoods), no racial demographics. ... If that is an afterthought, there is really no consideration of the impact.

"That is what was so concerning," continued Abid-Thompson, who works as regional director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New York.

Still, what reparations might look like is unclear.

Is it a community land trust to ensure long-term housing affordability? Or is it a marked-down sale of freed-up property to residents? Is it in the naming or renaming of streets and parks?

Iman Abid-Thompson is a member of the Inner Loop North commuity advisory panel's racial equity subcommittee and regional director for the  ACLU of New York.

A similar discussion is happening in Syracuse, as planning moves forward to remove an elevated 1.5-mile stretch of Interstate 81 that cuts through a predominately Black neighborhood on the city's south side. President Joe Biden has noted Syracuse when pledging billions to "redress historic inequities."

Construction in Syracuse could begin as soon as next year. In Rochester, construction remains some time off, and the discussion — one that was not part of the planning for the eastern Inner Loop fill project — remains in its infancy.

In the very least, equity is ensuring that whatever is done doesn't further disrupt the neighborhood or create new problems, officials said. 

'I'm still here'

Bertha Jones says she would rather the city leave the remainder of the Inner Loop intact and that she finds in convenient to travel across the city.

Listen to Bertha Jones, who has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years, and it's clear: "What they're doing is crazy."

"Somebody wants to make some money. It's not that we don't need the Inner Loop. ... But come hell or high water, they're going to close it. They've already made up their mind."

Jones worries about the traffic. But also, "What a mess that's going to be. You'll never get things cleaned up. It's going to take them 10 years to do it."

Traffic patterns, and how best to reduce congestion in and around downtown, was put forward as the driving force in the state's original mapping of the Inner Loop route.

Controversy back then was focused on removal of historic and stately properties in the Corn Hill area, or what is today the I-490 bridge over the Genesee River hemming in a planned government building district, and the east and west connections to the New York state Thruway.

Less attention seemingly was paid to the people forced out.

People like Mrs. George R. Woods, who lived in an upstairs apartment at 72 Joslyn St. off Scio Street when the demolition started there in 1962.

This plat map from 1918 shows the street grid as it was before the Inner Loop. The area between Lyndhurst and Delevan was removed to make way for the highway.

She had persisted, long after the tenants were told to go, after the utilities were shut off and the bulldozers were at the door. Children had broken nearly every window of the otherwise abandoned building, throwing rocks. Scavengers had stripped it of its plumbing and other wares, the Democrat and Chronicle reported at the time.

The only one that still came around was the mailman, to whom she penned a note, left tacked on her door.

It read: "Don't believe I've moved away. I'm still here. Mrs. Woods."

David Gantt's legacy

Several houses and rental properties went on the market this summer on Lyndhurst Street at prices well above assessed value. All sold quickly.

Joslyn Street used to be between Delevan and Lyndhurst streets.

The latter is today a narrow, tree-lined road where two-story houses on narrow lots hug the sidewalks on either side. That is, until abruptly giving way on one side to a rusted chain-link fence holding back the overgrowth of the Inner Loop's embankment.

The late Assemblyman David Gantt lived on Lyndhurst for the better part of 50 years.

In addition to his own house, Gantt owned at least five other properties, all assessed, like the rest of the neighborhood, around $60,000 or less.

All sold quickly this summer for asking prices ranging from $96,000 to $150,000.

"This neighborhood is almost ... an anomaly," said Darlene Masucci, the Realtor representing Gantt's estate. "It's like David Gantt's legacy. He built the street up."

On the south side of the Inner Loop, just a few blocks walk, is Grove Place, which touts itself as the oldest continually occupied downtown neighborhood. Most of the properties here had long been converted to boarding houses when the highway came through. Vacancy was a problem, but demolition was met with restoration in the late 1960s, driven by a newly formed neighborhood association.

Home values today are three and four times those of the neighborhood to the north.

One of the newest residents is Sen. Jeremy Cooney, D-Rochester, and his wife, who closed on a $650,000 townhouse in September.

Whatever happens to the Inner Loop is most going to affect these residents, living on either side. That has led to the formation of Hinge Neighbors, a group focused on elevating those voices and ensuring they have a seat at the table.

Because this conversation is about the past but also the present and the future.

"It was a great community," said school board member Cynthia Elliott, who grew up on Scio and at the Lewis Street Center, and was friends with Board of Elections Commissioner Jackie Ortiz's father.

Ortiz also grew up in the neighborhood, and lived for a period in the longtime family home on Ontario Street after first being elected at-large to City Council. 

"We are emotional about it," Elliott said of those with connections to the area. "My concern is for the people who are still in the community — that they are not lost."

By the numbers

Traffic counts along the northern stretch vary from 10,000 vehicles a day by East Main Street to just more than 40,000 vehicles a day nearest Interstate/490. The Inner Loop East, by comparison, saw between 7,000 and 10,000 vehicles per day, officials said.

Contact reporter Brian Sharp at bdsharp@gannett.com or at 585-258-2275. Follow him on Twitter @sharproc. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers.