Paul Nojaim calls himself a grocer, but he has become the de facto historian and, with one deft turn of a phrase, the poet laureate of the Near West Side. So when the state Department of Transportation (DOT) came to Fowler High School last Thursday, Oct. 31, to talk about the future of Interstate 81, they were greeted by a delegation of West Siders determined to talk about the status of West Street–the winding arterial that Nojaim has christened “eight lanes of fury.”
His off-the-cuff description of the road that passes by the Nojaim family business rings true for anyone who has ever struggled to cross West Street on foot, on bicycle, or–even tougher–with a wheelchair or a baby stroller. In warm weather, it’s a race against the tide of traffic. On slippery days, it’s frightening for even the toughest among us, and the frail or those who can’t see or hear too well take their lives into their hands.
If you looked at the pictures the West Side neighbors brought to the DOT meeting, you might think that those frightened faces of people chasing across the road were East Germans fleeing across the Berlin Wall. It is that intense.
The configuration of West Street is also one of the reasons that so few people venture from downtown or Armory Square to check what’s happening on the Near West Side. Last week, the community and neighbors celebrated the grand opening of WCNY’s studios at West and Fayette streets. The big white building is located just past the refurbished railroad bridges painted with the short verse “Fall Leaves, Winter Longs.” It’s just past where most people turn left after exiting I-690 to get to Armory Square. Around a blind bend just a few hundred yards from the jewel of the Near West Side Initiative, neighborhood people struggle to cross a street that is wider than many segments of the New York State Thruway.
West Street is nearly two miles from I-81, but the street and the neighborhood have been dramatically impacted by the highway. Nojaim and company reminded the DOT that it wasn’t just the 15th Ward that was taken apart when I-81 was built. The Near West Side was cut up, and most of its businesses relocated when West Street was seized by the state and widened in the 1960s. At that time, transportation planners considered extending the West Street arterial, as they called it, and connecting it to I-81 on the South Side.
The plan was to provide easy access to the city from the western towns and suburbs. That never happened, but the widened roadway killed off what had been the neighborhood’s business district and stranded residents of some of the most valuable properties.
Today, the stretch of the Near West Side between West Street and Onondaga Creek sits like a lonely island cut off from downtown, Armory Square and the rest of the Near West Side neighborhood. What should be the road that welcomes is instead a barrier that divides.
Nojaim and his neighbors made their plea to the transportation planners. They don’t want to wait until the I-81 decision is made, much less implemented. They want a street scaled back to four lanes, with crosswalks and well-timed lights that will make for safe passage. They don’t want to be part of any detours associated with the years-long construction phase of the new I-81.
Susan Hamilton has lived on Holland Street just a few blocks from West Street for more than a dozen years. She spoke up at the meeting and asked the state to take one simple step: Give West Street back to the city. The state holds onto it, she says, for only one reason: It wants to control the traffic related to I-81. Hamilton and others argue that if the city once again owns the road, it becomes a street again, not a highway. Local people would know better what to do with a street that’s out of control already.
They think that letting locals decide what to do is the first step to calming those eight lanes of fury.