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Part 7 of 10: The Parkway Changes

The transformation of the Parkway from early twentieth centrury scenic boulevard to crosstown expressway.

The Sherman statue after the parkland around it was narrowed to create turning lanes in the 1970s.

The Parkway was designed by Olmsted as a scenic boulevard at a time when traffic moved more slowly and there were far fewer cars. In 1909, when the first part of the Parkway opened, there were 500,000 automobiles in the entire US, but by 1970 there were 200 million.  Speed and every conceivable accommodation to the automobile were considered vital in the 1960s and beyond; the scenic, if not entirely obsolete, was considered secondary.

In 1971-72, the State proposed "improvements" for the Parkway under a Federal program known as TOPICS ("Traffic Operations Program to Increase Capacity and Safety"), which generated a good deal of local controversy.  "The Parkway is one of the last remaining streets in Utica that retains the charm and beauty of the past," Charles Brady told the Utica Observer Dispatch, summing up the concerns of many. The need for speed "through this scenic area," Brady continued, "is extremely questionable."  In finally conceding to the State's plan, Mayor Mike Caruso apologetically asserted that "the aesthetic qualities of the Memorial Parkway, the beauty of that stretch of land, will not be marred in any way," and he promised that it wouldn't become a "drag strip" or a byway for heavy trucks.

Originally, the Parkway, from Genesee Street eastward to Clementian Street, had two lanes, one going east and the other going west, as did Pleasant Street; Parkway East (which begins at Clementian) also consisted mostly of four lanes alternating between east and west.  For decades, people had the choice, regardless of whether they were going east or west, of driving on either what was popularly called "the upper Parkway" (from which one could view the valley) or the "lower Parkway" (half of which was actually Pleasant Street) for another sort of experience.  However, after TOPICS, both lanes on Pleasant Street were designated for westbound traffic, and both Parkway lanes, from Genesee Street, were designated as eastbound; on Parkway East, the two southern lanes likewise became eastbound, and the two northern ones became westbound.  These traffic flow changes were fully implemented in July 1973, when one-way signs were unveiled on the Parkway and Pleasant Street.

Although it continued to retain much of its original beauty, the Parkway lost at least some of its original charm, as it was transformed into something more like a crosstown expressway than an early twentieth century scenic boulevard.   Turning lanes were cut into the parklike medians on both the Parkway and Burrstone Road (which was once considered part of the Parkway), necessitating the removal of many beloved trees.  For similar reasons, 15-20 feet of tree-covered land was cut from the south side of the block-long median between Clementian and Mohawk streets on which the Columbus statue stands; this also necessitated the removal of many beautiful mature trees, much to the consternation of people in the neighborhood.  The tree-covered parklike "island" on which the James Schoolcraft Sherman statue stands on Genesee Street was also narrowed, as was the right-of-way in front of some homes.   The DOT tried to expiate for this damage by planting 360 trees on the Parkway in 1974.

More recently, the New York State Power Authority clear cut old-growth trees on a widely-beloved stretch of the Parkway, near the Zoo entrance, to create a four-story retaining wall upon which it has built an education center.  This decision has been controversial among many Uticans who, as in the 1970s, wanted the Parkway to retain as much of its beauty and historic character as possible.  Although everything changes, and the parks were changed intentionally before, Uticans need to decide whether this is the sort of change they want to see in the future.