Even young children know that traffic lights have red, yellow, and green going from top to bottom. However, did you know that there is an upside-down traffic light in Syracuse that was created to appease a very specific cultural quirk?
The world’s only upside-down traffic light is located in the Tippery Hill neighborhood of Syracuse, New York. As you might be able to guess from the name, Tipperary Hill was a very heavily Irish neighborhood located on a hill to the west of the downtown core.
Even today, driving down the main streets, you’re still as likely to see an Irish flag as you are to see an American one, and many Irish businesses can be found throughout this area as well, even if the neighborhood is not as heavily Irish as it once was. (Don’t miss the beautiful St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church nearby which is a testament to the other main immigrant nationality in the area.)
The story of Syracuse’s upside-down traffic light traces its root back to the early 20th century and to anti-British sentiment amongst the Irish immigrants in the neighborhood.
The first traffic light at the intersection of Tompkins Street and Milton Avenue, one of the major intersections in the neighborhood was installed in the 1920s during the heyday of its Irish culture.
Some of the sons and grandsons of the Irish immigrants in the neighborhood couldn’t stand seeing the “British” red over the “Irish” green. Because of this, they broke the lights on the traffic signal with rocks that they dubbed “Irish confetti”. This is said to have continued happening over and over again as the city tried in vain to keep the stoplight in working order.
Finally, the city agreed to hang the light upside down, putting the green above the red. While the state attempted to keep this from happening, they eventually relented and, since 1928, the traffic light at Tompkins Street and Milton Avenue has been the only known green-above-red traffic light in the world.
The light is located in the heart of this still heavily Irish neighborhood, and nearby businesses include an Irish dance school and several Irish pubs. Painted in the middle of the intersection below the light is a faint green shamrock.
On one corner of the intersection, you’ll find the Tipperary Hill Heritage Memorial. This memorial honors the Irish immigrants that lived in the neighborhood and, in the eyes of the community, stood up to the city and the state for their Irish pride.
The focal point of the Tipperary Hill Heritage Memorial is a life-size statue of an immigrant Irish family. They are depicted looking towards the red-over-green stoplight with the father pointing towards the light in pride.
In the back pocket of the young boy, note the slingshot, which is an homage to the teenagers whose nationalistic vandalism created this interesting oddity that can still be seen today.
Flanking the statue, there are three flag poles that feature the flags of Ireland, the United States, and Ukraine, a nod to the neighborhood’s large Ukrainian population in the 21st century.
Ultimately, the upside-down traffic light in Syracuse is far from the city’s top attraction. However, it’s an interesting and fun oddity to see, especially if you know the story of how it became the only green-above-red traffic light in the United States.
The upside-down traffic light is located near 432 Tompkins Street in Syracuse, New York. Street parking can be found throughout the area.