The Blocks Between

The Blocks Between

How decades of city planning divided Syracuse by race and class and robbed many of its citizens of opportunities to escape poverty.


he neighborhood where a child grows up in Syracuse determines that child’s likelihood of achieving the American dream.

Researchers say the city is so segregated by class that the area children are raised in can predict a host of future outcomes, from whether they will go to college or to prison, to whether they’ll rise into the middle class or get trapped in poverty.

These geographic boundaries that so strongly influence the future of a child born in Syracuse are also highly racialized. The sections of the city with the least amount of economic opportunity are also the ones with the largest Black populations. But, researchers say, geography plays a crucial role, so much so that the location in which a child is raised is more predictive of their future than race, the income of their parents, or any other single factor.

“Opportunity can vary greatly based on the street you live on,” said Tyler Jacobson, a predoctoral fellow at Opportunity Insights, the Harvard University team that has harvested years of IRS and census data to track social mobility.

Local and national studies completed in the past five years point to exclusionary zoning practices adopted by city and town governments as the main culprit for this divide. A lack of mixed-income neighborhoods — where single family, multi-family, and apartment complexes sit side-by-side — creates a housing system that segregates people by class in Syracuse and other post-industrial cities.

The effect of this segregation is perhaps clearest when looking at two neighborhoods, each three census tracts in size, that are separated by Syracuse University and Oakwood Cemetery. These neighborhoods, only half a mile apart, illustrate how years of exclusionary zoning, concentrated poverty, and systemic racism make the American dream unattainable for many city residents.

In 2015, adults who grew up in low-income households in the three census tracts that lie west of SU had a median income half that of adults who grew up in low-income houses in the three census tracts east of SU, according to Opportunity Insights data. The same disparity is true for incarceration. The incarceration rate for adults who grew up in low-income houses is quadruple for those who grew up west of the university compared to those who grew up east of the university.

The nearly 3,000 children included in the data were born between 1978 and 1983 and into households with annual incomes of less than $27,000 when adjusted for inflation.

The vastly different opportunities available to children born into these neighborhoods have led researchers and policy experts to a stark conclusion: social mobility in Syracuse depends largely on where one grew up, even when comparing households with the same income.

The adults who grew up in the census tract west of campus, which covers part of Syracuse’s South Side neighborhood, went on to earn a median income of $17,000. The adults who grew up in the census tract east of campus, which encompasses part of the East Side, went on to earn a median income of $37,000.

The low-opportunity zone west of campus has a population that is 78% Black, while only 9% of residents in the high-opportunity zone to the East are Black, 2019 census data shows.

Syracuse’s Place Pattern

Ocesa Keaton, former executive director of Greater Syracuse HOPE, an anti-poverty initiative in the area, points to these numbers when concluding that race is a driving factor in the creation of opportunity in these neighborhoods.

“It’s not so much an inequality based on where you live, but an inequality based on racial lines and gender lines,” Keaton said.

Charles Pierce-El raised six children during the 1970s and ’80s on Elk Avenue on the South Side. He remembers giving his future wife a dozen roses on the floor of the Chrysler plant where they both worked. They married in 1968 and had their first daughter the next year.

“The jobs were plentiful, because we were an industrialization nation,” said Pierce-El, who grew up in a family of 12 in Syracuse’s 15th Ward, which was largely destroyed to make way for Interstate 81 in the 1960s.

But by the time his children grew up, Pierce-El said, the opportunities had dried up. Chrysler, Carrier, General Motors, and General Electric took jobs elsewhere or automated them throughout the second half of the 20th century.

“When the jobs left, people were left,” Pierce-El said. “There was no substitute for them.”

That decline in access to opportunity was felt particularly hard in Pierce-El’s neighborhood. The employment rate among adults who grew up in low-income homes in Pierce-El’s area is 12% less than the employment rate of people who grew up across the highway, according to the Opportunity Insights data.

Such a gap in access to opportunity in Syracuse results in a stark racialized income gap. Onondaga County has the seventh-largest income gap between white and Black residents in the nation when examining older industrial communities, according to the Brookings Institution. White people in the county made 92% more than Black people in 2016, Brookings found.

The author of the Brookings study, Alan Berube, writes that the industrial success of northeastern cities like Syracuse relied on Black people, but when the jobs left, Black people were systematically denied the access to jobs and housing that were afforded to white people.

Davia Moss, a nurse at Upstate Medical Hospital, grew up on Standish Drive on the East Side of the city. She remembers her neighborhood, Bradford Hills, being filled with mostly white middle-class families. The one Black family on her block was the exception, she said.

Growing up throughout the 1990s, she considered her neighborhood the nice area of the city, but there was no sign of excess wealth.

She walked to each school she went to, H.W. Smith Elementary, Levy Middle School, and Nottingham High School. She remembers thinking the other high schools in the city — Fowler, Corcoran, and Henninger — were scary places.

One time, she went to Corcoran High School for an all-county band event.

“I was shocked to see it wasn’t that scary,” Moss said.

After high school, Moss went to SU for pre-med on a scholarship. She later worked on an ambulance as she studied her way through nursing school. Her job as an emergency medical technician transformed her view of the city she has always called home.

“Before I worked in EMS, there were areas of the city I barely knew existed,” Moss said. “Even now I talk to people and they say, ‘We don’t drive down that street. That’s a terrible street.’”

Moss now lives just one street away from where she grew up, but she and her husband are in the process of moving to the suburb of Manlius.

That move from urban to suburban was the story of Taylor Arras’ third-grade year. She spent the first 10 years of her life on Westmoreland Avenue on the East Side of the city before being moved just a half-mile to the suburb of Dewitt in 1996.

Divided by the Hill

The neighborhoods to the east of the university are the wealthiest in Syracuse while those down the hill to the west are the poorest.

Dewitt is an even higher opportunity zone compared to Syracuse’s East Side. Low-income children who grew up in the section of Dewitt that Arras moved to went on to make a median income of $38,000.

A study done by Opportunity Insights suggests that children who move into higher opportunity zones during childhood tend to benefit from that move down the line.

The existence of these high- and low-opportunity zones is connected to concentrated poverty, said Paul Jargowsky, the director of the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University. Jargowsky has researched the geographic aspect of poverty for decades. A 2015 study he wrote found that out of the top 100 metropolitan areas, Syracuse has the highest poverty concentration among Black and Latinx residents.

People in poverty who grow up in high poverty zones, where 40% of the population is impoverished, tend to struggle climbing the social ladder more than others, Jargowsky said. Concentrated poverty can result in under performing schools, degrading infrastructure, and a lack of social capital. The process is cyclical, entrapping entire areas in generational poverty.

“This is no secret,” Jargowksy said. “You can go back to the 1970s and look at studies that say this.”

The census tracts that had the least access opportunity in the Harvard study also have the highest concentration of poverty today.

In Pierce-El’s neighborhood, 45% of families were under the poverty line in 2019. Just across the city, where Arras and Moss grew up, less than 5% of people were impoverished that same year.

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Jargowsky said the creation of high poverty zones is an intentional choice by communities, a clear result of exclusionary zoning. The neighborhoods where Moss and Arras grew up, for example, are zoned for single family houses, effectively excluding anyone who cannot afford an entire house. The South Side neighborhood is zoned for single and two family houses, giving plenty of options for renters and low-income housing.

A 2020 study from Central New York Fair Housing found the isolation of housing in the center of the city restricts housing choices for low income families, concentrating poverty in a few neighborhoods. Their recommendation was to disperse affordable housing more evenly across the county by requiring all developments to include reduced rate units and updating zoning requirements to include mixed family homes in areas where single family homes are currently zoned.

Pierce-El’s six children have grown up and some have moved to other parts of the county. He has stayed put on Elk Avenue for 40 years, where he remains a leader of the fight against the forces that disenfranchise entire areas of the city.

“Me and my wife both worked at Chrysler,” he said. “We could have chosen to live anywhere, but we chose to stay in the city.”

He has no plans to go anywhere.