Despite the “Road Closed” barriers blocking cars and trucks, Elizabeth Feliciano trudged the other morning on foot across the McBride Viaduct, late for school. Arching over a gritty scrap-metal yard and railway line, the graffiti-scrawled 1,170-foot-long bridge links two of this city’s poorest neighborhoods.
When the viaduct opened in the late 1930s, the city was growing. The bridge, renovated in the 1970s, was an emblem of local pride and progress. It funneled traffic through what were at the time thriving neighborhoods.
Then the factories started disappearing. The viaduct’s largely German, Polish and Irish district became home to increasing numbers of blacks, Latinos and refugees from Africa and the Middle East, whose arrivals have slowed the city’s population decline.
On one level, the story of the bridge is a microcosm of America’s crumbling infrastructure. Questions about where to spend the city’s limited resources touch on familiar themes about the failures of urban renewal and today’s widening income gap.
At the same time, the debate over the fate of a decaying relic of midcentury industrial architecture has focused a particular spotlight on Erie’s legacy of disenfranchisement and its troubled race relations.
The legacy lives on: Erie was recently ranked the worst city in the country for African-Americans. Using national census data, the news organization 24/7 Wall Street found that 47 percent of the city’s black population lives at or below the national poverty line, twice the rate for African-Americans nationally and more than four times the rate for whites in Erie.
After the ranking was published in November, The Erie Times-News took issue with some of the survey’s numbers, but not the gist. Median income for black residents in the city languishes at around half that of white residents; the unemployment rate is more than triple the national average.
And City Hall is perceived by many black residents as an enclave of white privilege.
“This city spends a huge amount to pay for police to incarcerate people from our community,” said Cee Williams, a former Erie County poet laureate. There are only eight minority police officers of the 173 officers employed by the city.
“How about spending some of that money on fixing the bridge,” Mr. Williams said, suggesting that such an approach “might help change the lives of kids who end up costing the public a fortune in prison.”
The bridge, a picturesque ruin riddled with potholes, is today a victim of this region’s harsh weather and an unspoken City Hall policy of demolition by neglect. Lately, students from Gannon University, on the other side of Erie, have adopted it as a hangout and cause — a miniature untapped version of New York’s repurposed rail tracks known as the High Line. Local teenagers use it as a de facto elevated park, for lack of green space.
More than a few, like Ms. Feliciano, walk or bike across it because, as she said, “it’s still the safest, shortest route” over the tracks. It is better, they contend, than the pedestrian path, with its dangerous street crossing, along a busy expressway that the city built a block away.
One city block may not seem far. But to those who have to walk it, it can seem like another unfair burden that some in the community have been forced to bear. Unlike the expressway, the viaduct “goes where we want to go,” Ms. Feliciano said.
Landscape architects have a poetic term for this. They call it a desire line.
Still, Erie officials are poised to tear the bridge down, insisting the cost of its repair and maintenance is simply prohibitive. They say only a clique of preservationists really cares about saving the viaduct, noting that residents from the neighborhood rarely showed up at public meetings over the years to support it.
“The reason black people weren’t showing up at public meetings to talk about the viaduct is that they have lost hope,” said Shantel Hilliard, longtime executive director of the Booker T. Washington Center. “Why bother when things here never change?”
Also called the East Avenue Bridge, the viaduct opened in 1938. A Catholic pastor in the neighborhood, Msgr. Lawrence McBride of St. Ann’s Church, campaigned for the bridge after a child was killed trying to cross the tracks.
For decades, the span fed thousands of pedestrians, cars and trucks onto East Avenue, the area’s main street. But it was shut to traffic almost eight years ago, after officials had poured some $180 million into the expressway over the tracks, called the Bayfront Connector, which was completed in 2005. The Bayfront Connector was, in essence, an old-fashioned traffic engineer’s vision of urban renewal, with all the predictable results.
The expressway sped suburbanites in their cars in and out of Erie. But it cleaved a struggling inner-city district, cutting off homes from schools, devastating East Avenue businesses, turning neighborhood streets into dead ends and deflating already-low housing values, while encouraging crime on some of those dead-end streets.
The city’s new mayor, Joe Schember, had barely moved into City Hall in January before announcing his determination to tear the old bridge down “as quickly as possible.”
Mr. Schember, a Democrat, acknowledged the expressway’s ill consequences, and even brought up that damning report about Erie and its black population.
But after consulting some of the same city and state engineers who devised the connector, he concluded that the McBride bridge was no longer safe or needed, and that it might cost some $6 million to fix, more than he believes this straitened city can afford.
Preservationists angrily reject the mayor’s figures, conjecturing a far lower cost to keep the bridge open just for pedestrians and bikes. They point to a new $5 increase in vehicle registration fees that promises Erie an additional $1.4 million a year for infrastructure improvements, a fund that could help pay to fix the bridge.
“We have serious problems on the east side,” Mr. Schember said. “If the city is going to put money to work there, there are much more worthwhile things to spend it on than the viaduct.”
He has yet to spell those things out. In place of the viaduct, the city has been contemplating larger parking lots.
For East Side residents — many of whom cannot afford cars and who often take their lives into their hands dashing on foot across the multilane expressway, scrambling over its concrete Jersey barriers to get home or to the neighborhood Walmart — the viaduct remains not just a way to get where they are going. It is a measure of where the city is headed.
“Doesn’t equity mean that if you subtract something, you need to add something in return?” said the Rev. Anthony Harris, who oversees the largely black congregation at Shiloh Baptist Church, near the viaduct.
Mayor Schember has lately promised new, safer pedestrian crossings along the connector and improvements to the expressway’s pedestrian path over the tracks. With funds having already been allocated for the viaduct’s demolition, he said, acting expeditiously on the low bid by an out-of-town firm called Swank may throw off “additional resources” for “beautifying that area, for which we will seek resident input,” he said.
The mayor has in the meantime endorsed Erie Refocused, a comprehensive plan he inherited from the previous administration that was never carried out. Among other things, it calls for improved community engagement, public spaces and streets geared more toward pedestrians and bikes.
These are precisely the arguments for fixing the viaduct, preservationists say.
Their opponents include R. Jason Wieczorek, an architect in the Erie office of Bostwick Design Partnership. His grandfather was a second-generation Polish-American who settled on the east side and worked for General Electric, where Mr. Wieczorek’s father also worked, before the company drastically downsized.
Mr. Wieczorek has two young children, lives on the West Side, and endorses the idea of investing in downtown and along the waterfront, to attract more businesses and tourists, not in what he called “failing neighborhoods” on the east side.
“I cannot find the type of housing, with neighbors I would want to live with, on the east side,” Mr. Wieczorek added. “We need to prepare people to move out of those neighborhoods.”
He recalled Richard Florida, the urbanist who years ago theorized about city cores radiating prosperity by cultivating a “creative class.” When asked about Erie, Mr. Florida said that his thinking “has evolved” in light of increasing urban inequity.
“The creative class can’t mean only recruiting artists and people who work for tech companies,” he said. “It has to include cultivating talent from within — immigrants, refugees, African-American communities.”
At a raucous City Council meeting in February, advocates for the bridge loudly pleaded with the mayor while he stuck to his prepared remarks about tearing it down.
“We have students who walk miles every day, through the snow because they don’t own cars,” said Gary Horton, who directs the Erie chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. and the E.F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center on the city’s East Side, where new immigrants learn English. “The viaduct doesn’t seem important to people in City Hall. But for people looking to get ahead, it is not a side issue.
“It’s about hope.”