How one architect used the principles of hip-hop to uncover buried histories of Syracuse’s 15th Ward

Beneath the steel underbelly of the I-81 overpass in Syracuse, there’s only asphalt and weeds where a neighborhood once hummed with life.

Where Upstate University Hospital overlooks the highway is where little Marie Kearse’s parents’ home was, with red shingles and painted green. Where Madison Street cuts through the middle of the hospital’s campus, young Marion Ervin used to sit through his neighbor’s junkyard for books. And another kid, Richard “Rich” Breland, used to wander East Adams Street to East Taylor Street and beyond with his Brownie camera, snapping photos of life in the 15th Ward.

The neighborhood was razed in the ’50s and ’60s to make way for I-81, and many of the 15th Ward residents moved into housing units built next to the overpass. Today, Syracuse is moving ahead with plans to lower the highway and replace the current public housing with new, mixed-income buildings.

The historical parallel wasn’t lost on Sekou Cooke, an architect and former assistant professor at the Syracuse University School of Architecture. Much of his work combines history with new architectural design, so he decided to turn his eye to Syracuse.

Cooke designed a conceptual blueprint for new mixed-income housing and named it “15-81,” a reference to the Ward 15 and I-81. The project was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and is now on display in the Everson Museum of Art through Aug. 21. It includes 2-dimensional renderings of buildings, a model, a Syracuse stoop and historical artifacts.

Cooke’s 3-dimensional model of one of the buildings in his blueprint probably doesn’t look much like anything in “Blueprint 15,” the city’s unreleased actual plans, said the architect.

A wooden model included in architect Sekou Cooke’s exhibit “We Outchea: Hip-Hop Fabrications and Public Space” at the Everson Museum of Art. Jules Struck

His blond wood model sits on a white pedestal in the Everson, which itself sits on the 15th Ward land, and was built around the same overpass went up. The model is a typical five-story building, more or less a tall cube. But there’s a big chunk carved out of the lower floors, in the shape of a house. Up close, it’s a balconied courtyard covered by a vaulted overhang.

For his design, Cooke loosely layered the original 15th Ward building plans beneath the plans of what’s there now, like Pioneer Homes and McKinney Manor, all beneath a mock-up of a typical mixed-income housing plan.

“There’s really multiple layers,” said Cooke. “It’s really excavating as much of that history as possible and intersecting it all.”

What’s left are covered courtyards in the mold of gabled roofs, verandas that reference the covered porches where people used to cool off in the evenings and cobblestones that mimic the footprints of former homes.

This technique is called “hip-hop architecture,” and it’s a specialty of Cooke’s. In the same way that hip-hop musicians have sampled and layered other musicians’ songs into their own, Cooke is layering and sampling the buildings of the past into new designs.

“I wrote a whole book about it so I wouldn’t have to describe it so much,” he said, speaking over Zoom from his bright studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. His book, “Hip-Hop Architecture,” was published in 2021.

“I guess the short, Reader’s Digest version of it is that it’s hip-hop culture in built form,” he said. The idea was first formed by artist Nathan Williams, who wrote about it in 1993 in his thesis at Cornell University. Cooke was in the year below him.

The point of his 15th Ward plans is to avoid “just a new clear-cutting of a site … as if nothing was ever there before,” said Cooke.

And actually, said Marie Kearse, who lived in the 15th Ward with her family until she was 22, “everything was right there.”

Kearse lived in a green, two-story house at Renwick Place until the city seized it by eminent domain. Her grandfather planted vegetables in the backyard in the summer. Her parents would watch her play in the middle of the street with her friends after dinner.

There were barber shops, corner stores, restaurants, multiple groceries, a boy’s and girl’s club, butcheries, bakeries, bars, churches, parks and Dunbar Center, a community center now in the heart of Southside.

15th Ward Hayden Grocery

George Hayden outside of Hayden Grocery Store on McBride Street. Photo courtesy of Everson Museum of Art

“They tried to say that it was run down, but there were a lot of nice homes there,” said Kearse, who now lives in Boston.

Some parts of the 15th Ward were run down, said Carolyn Jackson, another former resident, who now lives in Nob Hill. But most got by comfortably enough in the uncommonly close-knit community, which was majority Black people and people of color who had been redlined into the neighborhood.

“There were poor people,” said Jackson. “And there were some pretty rich black people living in 15th Ward, let me tell you.”

Jackson used to walk to Central High School in the mornings with all her friends, and after school would meet them at the Dunbar Center, the community center that now sits in the heart of Southside. Sometimes they’d go for sodas at the local drug stores.

“People lived. They had good lives, good relationships. And I’m glad it was a part of my history,” she said.

Construction of the I-81 overpass coincided with Syracuse’s 1957 Near East Side Urban Renewal Project, which targeted 101 acres of the city, primarily in the 15th Ward. Between 1,300 and 2,300 families were displaced.

I-81 construction 1966

Construction of the I-81 overpass in 1966. Photo courtesy of the Everson Museum of Art.

“When (I-81) came through, it just destroyed our community,” said Jackson.

“You know, I missed it.”

Everson staff filled in some of Cooke’s exhibit with historical photographs of the 15th Ward residents and old newspaper clippings. A lot of those records came from the Onondaga Historical Association and from a mysterious box of newspaper clippings about I-81 and urban renewal projects that were found and purchased by a museum staff member at an estate sale a few years ago.

The museum is also putting out a call for the 15th Ward residents’ stories and photographs to put faces and names to a neighborhood that was bulldozed decades ago.

“It’s all about understanding what came before where we are now or what we’re doing now,” said Assistant Curator Steffi Chappell.

“I hope that this can just help people … know that whatever happens (with I-81), it’s going to throw a lot of lives into turmoil.”

15th Ward

Ladies stand near a car in 15th Ward. Photo provided by Everson Museum of Art.

Marion Ervin used to live on Madison Street. His family was one of the first to jump on purchasing a home outside of the 15th Ward when urban renewal came through. Ervin still owns that house.

His first home was the second floor apartment of a two-story next to a junkyard in the 15th Ward. Ervin used to practice speaking Russian with the owner of the junkyard, who would let Ervin pick through the books that came into the yard.

It wasn’t perfect, said Ervin. His parents moved to a duplex home with a yard in front and out back in 1962, and it felt like a step up, he said.

But life in the 15th Ward was good. His friends were always close, and sometimes they stayed out late.

“Be out at midnight, you could do anything you wanted,” he said.

“It was fun.”

Know someone who has a story to share about life in the 15th Ward? Contact Jules Struck anytime at [email protected] or on Instagram at julestruck.journo.