Losing the Plot

26 Feb

Yesterday morning I read a piece on Buffalo Rising that was written by a young mother who had recently moved to Buffalo from Los Angeles (or Chicago) with her husband, and they have two adorable kids. Alas, I wasn’t very pleased with the article, but left it alone to think about it. I didn’t want to jump all over it.

I think I’ve gelled the issue into this – what does “connecting with the city” have to do with riding out the recession? I suppose she explains it with the bit about Richard Florida calling suburban sprawl the “downfall of the smaller American cities”. OK, let’s take that as given. Buffalo, however has been in a downfall since what, the 60s? Its downfall, incidentally, has more to do with “Charlotte” than “Amherst”. To blame it on sprawl is to miss the bigger picture altogether. Through annexation or metropolitan government, it wouldn’t even be an issue. We have New York law to thank for that.

Think of ways to link your kids to the city. There are soccer clubs, art lessons, music, all available in the city, and for a heck of a lot cheaper than other areas. Wouldn’t it be nice for your kids to meet other kids from different backgrounds, who go to different schools and have different perspectives?

How is it different for my kids to hang out with upper middle class kids from the city as opposed to upper middle class kids from Clarence? Why is it implied that kids in my area don’t come from “different backgrounds” or have “different perspectives”? The sentiment is fine, but it has nothing to do with the recession and seems like yet another city person tsk-tsking at us suburban folk for being Stepford families. If only we’d expand our horizons! Well, maybe the city kids could expand their horizons and attend music classes at the facility on Transit where we go.

I mean, the rest of the piece is a set of ideas for upper middle class people in Buffalo to spend their money locally or in the city rather than elsewhere. The bit about becoming more politically engaged and involved is good, and true. But we need to stop kidding ourselves that privileged wealthy folk in Buffalo are significantly different in any meaningful way than privileged wealthy folk in Orchard Park, Clarence, or Amherst.

If you want to “connect” with people not like you, doing something for the community or for the less fortunate is going to be more valuable than deciding where to spend your money.

To come back to a theme I haven’t written about in a long time, all of WNY is in this boat together, and what raises up one area will raise up the others. If the city’s doing well, the suburbs will too, and vice-versa. The notion that the suburbs will somehow be abandoned tomorrow in order to fuel a righteous return to the city is as likely as Tony Masiello bringing peace to Gaza.

The gloom and doom we hear about all the time is very real and more fundamental and serious than whether your favorite restaurant closes, your kid plays soccer in the city, or the grocery store is hiking prices – I’ll note that Wegmans, one of the best reasons to live in WNY, has recently lowered prices on loads of stuff.

It’s great that people move to Buffalo from bigger cities and realize that you don’t need to be in a world-class city to enjoy a world-class quality of life here, provided you’re well educated and can find a job, or have the resources or connections to make one for yourself.

It’s not about, “hey how can we spend money in the city”. It’s about “hey how can we make this area better for everyone”. How can we attract businesses and the people who come with them?

I guess I thought the piece was somewhat superficial, although well-intentioned.

(Photo courtesy Jade19721 @ Flickr)

28 Responses to “Losing the Plot”

  1. Ward February 26, 2009 at 7:17 am #

    The undercurrent here is that somehow the decline of the city is the fault of the middle class for leaving the city because it was in decline. That somehow the suburbanite must be made to pay, or to change artificially her shopping, dining, residential or social preferences–in order to bring the city back to glory.

    There is of course no blame to be shouldered by city residents for electing, re-electing, and tolerating the habits of their representatives in government (mayor, council, school board) for forty years.

    People who moved from Buffalo to Orchard Park did so because they preferred Orchard Park to what Buffalo had become. Logically, the only solution to that “problem” is not to change the suburb, or somehow to “link your kids to the city”, but to change the city. That begins in City Hall.

  2. hank February 26, 2009 at 8:48 am #

    Alan, I’d like to have you expound a bit further on why Charlotte is to blame for Buffalo’s decline.

    I didn’t help cut the groove in the interstates from Buffalo to Buffalo South. I met a guy in school at Camp Lejuene in 1977 and we were both sent to New London, CT where we shared a house there for 3 years with some other sailors. He happened to be from a 4th ring suburb of Charlotte. I visited him there after he got out of the military in January, and it was 55 degrees in the afternoon. And jobs were going begging for people to fill them.

    I don’t live in Charlotte, and if the choice was living in the Charlotte city limits or move back to Buffalo with no job prospects, I’d be on my way back home within the week.

    Who’s fault is it that there are construction cranes hanging everywhere creating new buildings in Charlotte, and none in Buffalo?

    Why does Charlotte have no school buildings older than 1971, and many in Buffalo are over 80 years old and still being used?

    Why does Mecklenburg County spend 1800.00 less per school student than Buffalo does yet their graduation rate is 17% higher? (2005 figures)

    Why does my 2000 s “Stick Built” split level home on one acre of land appraised at 124K just this month cost me only

  3. hank February 26, 2009 at 8:51 am #

    Sorry hit the wrong key—
    My house was appraised this month at 124 K and costs me less than 850.00/yr in taxes, where my friends 2000 sq ft house on Crystal lane in West Seneca on 1/4 acre cost him over 5000.00 in taxes?

    Why have Buffalonians and WNY’ers flocked to SW North Carolina? Nobody wants to live 600 odd miles from friends and family…

    JOBS may have a lot to do with it. The way I see it, you can have a few union jobs, or lots of non-union jobs. WNY has few jobs, Charlotte has many.

    If you can enlighten further, please do so.

  4. mike February 26, 2009 at 9:14 am #

    I alway’s thought we were behind the times, but they stopped building split-levels here in the 1970’s. But i agree about how the interstates ripped into the fabic of cities, but we are not alone with that issue. eg boston’s big dig was trying to correct past mistakes, see how that ended up.

  5. Colin February 26, 2009 at 9:48 am #

    I wrote a much longer post that got lost somehow . . . it was a true masterpiece. But the gist of it was that we’re not actually all in this together, unfortunately. Important parts of our lives are organized according to what side of an arbitrary line we live. People of means who choose to live on the Buffalo side aren’t just like their counterparts on the other side — their choice helps support the city. And it seems hard to argue that if the suburbs do well, the city does well in the face of the last few decades of history.

  6. Chris Smith February 26, 2009 at 10:10 am #

    What I took away from the BR article was that a couple of rich whiteys moved to Buffalo from LA and they have been completely unaffected by the recession. They are also compelled to tell us how happy they are and how our priorities should be more in line with theirs if we want to arrive at a similar level of happiness. I, for one, will be taking her advice to heart as to how to ward off those recession blues!

  7. Prodigal-Son February 26, 2009 at 10:22 am #

    Colin – if the only level of development and progress you are looking at involves competition for WNY resources, then you are right. But if WNY wants to live in a global world (which we do, whether we’d like to or not), then the suburbs and the city either rise or fall together. When Geico comes to town, but chooses Amherst over Buffalo, you could view that as a loss for Buffalo. But if we stopped the infighting between localities, we could attract more of those influxes of capital and development, and the whole region would win. Sometimes a business moves from Buffalo to NT. Sometimes a company moves from Cheektowaga to Buffalo. That’s inconsequential. I’m down in TN right now – the state just passed $300M in bonds (NY isn’t the only state with giveaways) to attract 5000 jobs for a new VW and Holland plant. If we get our act together, as a state and region, we compete too, and then its national and international $$$, jobs, and the population to fill them, comes with.

    WNY gets stuck because we are all knawing off the same bone. We need new bones. And the us vs them of suburbs vs urbs just perpetuates it.

  8. Colin February 26, 2009 at 10:54 am #

    PS —

    To be clear, that’s not the only level of development I’m after. And I’m absolutely in favor of ending that infighting. But it doesn’t end by saying “I’m ok, you’re ok.” It ends by getting rid of the silly borderlines that organize our political and economic lives, or at least lessening their impact. Failing that, even if we were to get “new bones” as you say, we’d still be stuck with a similar set of problems — inequality, segregation, duplicated services, etc. — just in a wealthier environment. A better class of problem, but still a problem.

  9. Anthony February 26, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    In my opinion suburban sprawl is the greatest cancer facing our city, region and country.

    Alan you really miss the point on thinking Charlotte is a bigger problem than Amherst. I’ll be the first to say that the tax burden NYS puts on its citizens is almost worthy of a rebellion, however we don’t help ourselves.

    The reckless, unnecessary and unwarranted growth of the WNY suburbs did more to damage Buffalo than anything else. All the tax dollars that have been wasted to build schools, sewers and roads to closet racists (its called white flight for a reason) in Amherst, Clarence and Orchard Park dwarfs the state’s tax burden. Don’t tell me about how the school’s are better out there. I’m a product of city schools and feel like I’ve done pretty damn well for myself.

  10. Prodigal-Son February 26, 2009 at 12:13 pm #

    I also wrote a long response, that got lost, and it was at least as good of a masterpiece as Colin’s.

    Colin – for once, you and I are in perfect agreement.

    I am a big supporter of Cuomo’s call to break down barriers to consolidation. Merging IDA’s so they don’t compete help. School districts and villages/towns combine. Eventually, voters get to decide to merge inner ring suburbs with the city, and then we’re really starting to move ahead.

    But to get to that point, the first step is to cool the temperature on the suburb vs urb retoric, brought about by stories a la BRO.

    And for the record, I’d love to have a segregation/inequality discussion in a wealthier environment, wouldn’t you?

    Anthony – you are, and I don’t use this word lightly, a Communist. Go live on a closed Commune, cede your personal freedom, and get told what to do for the good of all. It worked well in Russia and Israel. For me, I’m going to keep my freedom to do what I want, and thus live where I want, and so should everyone else. Freedom of choice unlocks personal creativity that, in the end, is better for all. That includes the choice to live in Orchard Park.

  11. Anthony February 26, 2009 at 2:23 pm #

    I am hardly a communist. I merely stated the fact that this unwarranted sprawl has been the single largest contributing reason for WNY’s decline. We have increased our land use while losing population. We have increased spending on roads, schools, police, fire and utility lines without increasing those who pay into the system.

    Believe me, I’m all for new development; but instead of the development going to OP or Clarence tear down a few blocks of the East Side.

  12. Ben McD February 26, 2009 at 3:04 pm #

    The problems with the city are the city’s alone. Suburban sprawl didn’t kill the city, mismanagement did. Annexing the suburbs doesn’t solve anything and would just speed up the decline of the area.

    The city lost population because it decided that, at it’s height, there was too much wealth to be ignored. Being one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, the citizens of Buffalo decided that using the government to seize that wealth and give it to favored groups and institutions was desirable. They also decided to use the government to protect favored professions and jobs through intrusive regulations, permits, requirements, etc. What they ended up with was an extremely oppressive and corrupt government. Those who were the main targets of this oppression fled the city. Some went to the suburbs, because WNY was their home, while others fled the state.

    Now, instead of ending the oppression that drives people from the city, people want to once again use the power of the government to conquer the suburbs and subjugate the people who once fled. Annexing the suburbs has nothing to do with fairness or justice. It has everything to do with confiscating wealth to fund the inefficient and corrupt practices of city residents.

  13. Ward February 26, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    Right on target, Ben.

    To your list you can add Judge John Curtin’s takeover of the Buffalo Schools for several decades, and imposition of forced busing, all in the noble cause of desegregation. A large number of middle-class families (i.e., folks who would otherwise be paying property taxes to the City) voted with their feet in lieu of being permitted to vote against Judge Curtin. Their departure did not do the city any good. The result was not the integration of Buffalo schools, but rather the current 60%+ minority enrollment.

  14. Colin February 26, 2009 at 7:22 pm #

    “The problems with the city are the city’s alone. ”

    Yes, the city exists in a magical bubble where it is immune to everything that’s happening at the global, national, state and regional levels. The abandonment of the city has nothing to do with larger policies that are both racist and environmentally disastrous. It’s actually the story of people fleeing the oppression of big bad city hall.

  15. FoxyLady February 26, 2009 at 7:43 pm #

    Left the city because of inept politicians who don’t do their job and are self servants; police who don’t do their jobs. Neighbors from hell who helped destroy quality of life. Belonged to Planning Alliances, Block Clubs, etc., tried to turn the neighborhood around. One step forward, two back. No cooperation from City Hall. Schools closing, churches closing, businesses closing, homes boarded up.
    Lived in the city all my 50+ years and found it to be a disgusting and unsafe place to be. Next is to move out of New York State because we can’t afford to live here any longer thanks again to the self serving politicians.
    Get your heads out of your a** the city died a long time ago and the suburbs had absolutely nothing to do with it.

  16. Colin February 26, 2009 at 8:48 pm #

    So let’s get this straight:

    when the federal government enacted a set of policies that provided a big incentive for lots of folks to move out of the city, while at the same time barring lots of poorer, blacker folks from doing the same;

    and when the state government had on its books a bunch of laws that essentially encouraged people of means to segregate themselves from poorer folks;

    this had “absolutely nothing” to do with the decline of the city? How is that possible?

    I’m real sorry that you had a hard time dealing with City Hall, but that’s no reason to give up on rational thought.

  17. Eisenbart February 26, 2009 at 8:48 pm #

    “Why is it implied that kids in my area don’t come from “different backgrounds” or have “different perspectives”? ”

    North Tonawanda – 97.86% White
    City of Tonawanda – 98.08% White
    Town of tonawanda – 95.97% White
    Wheatfield – 97.44% White
    Lockport – 91.04% White
    Clarence – 98.65% White
    Williamsville – 97.29% White
    Amherst – 89.28% White
    Cheektowaga – 94.94% White
    Depew – 97.94% White
    Lackawana – 83.99% White
    Orchard Park – 97.57% White
    Hamburg – 97.93% White
    Drum roll….
    Buffalo – 54.43% White
    I don’t even need to go into the poverty level of each as I feel that would drift to far away from my point.

    I think you took the entire article way too personally. There is nothing wrong with living in the burbs or the city. You make choices where to live based on what’s best for you and your family. You live in the burbs you are giving up a few things and diversity is one of them.

    The only thing I took from the article other than being really confused on what the article was about was “hey give the city a shot every now and then if you haven’t already.”

  18. Buffalopundit February 26, 2009 at 8:52 pm #

    All white people have the same background and the same perspective?

  19. lefty February 26, 2009 at 8:53 pm #

    Sprawl from Buffalo to the burbs is not the problem. It is the effect from the cause.

    Ward said it best. “There is of course no blame to be shouldered by city residents for electing, re-electing, and tolerating the habits of their representatives in government (mayor, council, school board) for forty years.”

    People who are anti-sprawl calling it “reckless, unnecessary and unwarranted growth” are simply ignorant.

    First off, the City of Buffalo is VERY small in terms of land mass. The housing in the city is by design on small and narrow lots. Even if the city was doing well, there would have been sprawl. What added fuel to the fire is how backward the city has been run and how blind and loyal the voters have been to one party for the last 50 years.

    I think if you talk to anyone in Erie County, you would find that most would be in favor of a strong region and do not like the separation between City and Burbs. But just because they do not like it…does not mean they do not want it…today. People moved out of the city to protect their self interests. They moved to places where the union hall did not rule and where the political machine was no as corrupt.
    Sure the burbs have dirty laundry but it looks like a Tide commercial compared to the city.

    Clean up City Hall, clean up the BPS, clean up the Unions who run everything and THEN come to the table and say….lets talk.

  20. indabuff February 26, 2009 at 11:30 pm #

    Everyone should think of ways to link their kids to Sloan…if you don’t have kids, link your pets…no pets..use your imagination. Sloan is underappreciated…

    What has happened to Buffalo over the last four decades was caused by a multitude of things and mirrors many dying rust belt regions.

    The suburbs and city are what they are now…what kills me though is the region still doesn’t embrace any smart growth concepts…the push outward from the city still continues further and further…new developments continue to built all over WNY…we have the city, suburbs and exurbs all competing for an ever dwindling population base and tax base.

    BP hits the nail on the head here…

    “But we need to stop kidding ourselves that privileged wealthy folk in Buffalo are significantly different in any meaningful way than privileged wealthy folk in Orchard Park, Clarence, or Amherst.”

    As Alan points out too, we need to make the region better for everyone.

  21. kevinp February 27, 2009 at 12:26 am #

    “But we need to stop kidding ourselves that privileged wealthy folk in Buffalo are significantly different in any meaningful way than privileged wealthy folk in Orchard Park, Clarence, or Amherst.”

    At the risk of sounding like a total dick, at least my “privileged wealthy” money goes to the City coffers.

    We all have our reasons for living where we choose to, but I am very proud that my money supports what I consider to be the core of the region. It doesn’t make your choice any worse, but I think I get to puff out my chest a bit more.

  22. Ben McD February 27, 2009 at 4:34 am #

    “Yes, the city exists in a magical bubble where it is immune to everything that’s happening at the global, national, state and regional levels…It’s actually the story of people fleeing the oppression of big bad city hall.”

    No. It’s one group of citizens fleeing the oppression of the others. There are external factors to be sure, but other cities have maintained their greatness in spite of them, not to mention the lesser cities that have surpassed Buffalo since then.

  23. Buffalopundit February 27, 2009 at 6:42 am #

    @KevinP – Buffalo is in Erie County. I pay Erie County taxes and a 4.75% Erie County sales tax. I’d be willing to bet that quite a bit of that goes to help the city, as do state income taxes that I pay. You pay more to the city, it’s true, but I wrote at the end of my post something about metropolitan government, which would render useless the already useless and arbitrary city boundary. So, I think you might be missing my larger point.

  24. Anthony February 27, 2009 at 10:05 am #

    A regional government that would bring all public services (police, fire, schools, sewers, parks, roads, et al.) under one umbrella, coupled with a growth boundary a la Portland- that directs development to areas already equipped with infrastructure- would go a long way in making WNY a more prosperous community.

  25. Christopher Smith February 27, 2009 at 10:56 am #

    Buffalo – 54.43% White

    The comfy climes of Elmwood Village, Parkside, Central Park and North Buffalo certainly do not reflect that level of diversity and it’s disingenuous to claim otherwise. I would argue that people in those neighborhoods are just as isolated from “diversity” as someone in Kenmore, Cheektowaga, West Seneca or Orchard Park. Take a stroll down Elmwood Avenue between Auburn and Bird and breathe in all of that teeming diversity. Wealthy white people buying shit they don’t need at overpriced shops and enjoying high end dining. Sounds a lot like Main Street in Williamsville.

    The fact that wealth and homeownership rates are heavily concentrated into very small areas of a city does not make living in those areas more “diverse”.

    Jus’ sayin’

  26. hank February 27, 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    @ Geek—-What you said.

    my comment isn’t about culture or race, as there are many black families I know that I would rather have for my next door neighbor than some white families I know.

    Both in Louisiana and in Virginia Beach I had black next-door neighbors who were the salt of the earth, and my existance in those places would have been much more difficult without their friendship and assistance. Neither culture or race ever became an issue.

    Buffalo became a city of ethnic enclaves in the late 19th and early 20th century.
    Remnants remain though the demographics have changed. The Poles had the lower East Side, and many in the Northwest corner, along with Hungarians, Croats, Serbians, Dalmatians, and Russians–their social clubs still exist there. The Irish lived in the South, the Italians had the whole west side, N.E. Buffalo was home to most of the Jewish population, and the black folks lived on the mid-east side. People then tended to group together to help hold on to their culture.

    Government decided that was a bad idea. As usual, when government got involved, everything went to shit. And that’s where the city sits today.

    BTW, Sloan IS under-rated. If you’ve never been down there, go and see for yourself.

  27. Dan February 27, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

    > But we need to stop kidding ourselves that privileged wealthy folk in Buffalo are
    > significantly different in any meaningful way than privileged wealthy folk in Orchard
    > Park, Clarence, or Amherst.

    All privileged wealthy people in Orchard Park, Clarence and Amherst are pretentious, plastic, artificial and fake. However, all privileged wealthy people in Buffalo are authentic, genuine, real and honest, just like every other aspect of every person, neighborhood, building, business, institution or object in the city limits. You should know that by now!

  28. Christopher Smith February 27, 2009 at 2:47 pm #

    Dan, after five years, I think you need new material.

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