The Arena of Risk and Responsibility

2 Aug

I vowed that my last column would be just that on the subject of Bass Pro. And so it will be. This column is not about Bass Pro. It’s about the generalized misunderstanding of the difference between Doing and Talking.

WNYMedia has been flush with Bass Pro coverage, because it’s the biggest story in Buffalo, we write about development and FAIL, and it is an interesting intersection of politics, public money, infighting, activists, and taking off the nose to spite the face.

Alan expressed relief and looked forward to the opening of Super Vidlers, Chris cynically looked in his crystal ball, Mark discussed what the next step was, and Colin asked what the fuss was all about, wondering if we lost our minds since we weren’t celebrating.

I had the audacity to sympathize with the Writer and not the Critic.

The image of Levy and Quinn as brave fighters for the public good besieged by cowardly sniping is just too much.  These guys aren’t the modern day Spartacus — they had all the advantages in the world, while their critics were the real underdogs.  I also don’t understand how Levy and Quinn were “in the arena” but their opponents weren’t.  Both sides were fighting in the same arena — that of public opinion — and this time David defeated Goliath.

What does it say of our local Buffalo attitudes, that Colin fairly represents here, that he assumes I was speaking of the Arena of Public Opinion? Nothing could be more wrong. I was speaking of the Arena of Actions and Deeds, of building buildings, fighting wars, making peace, and starting businesses. The Arena of risks and responsibilities, of creation and establishment. The Arena of Public Opinion can kill such projects, can bring the battler low, but it creates nothing tangible itself. It is the sideshow, a killer, not the creator.

Jordan Levy and Larry Quinn, among others, have the responsibility to create Canalside. They write the script, draw the drawings, recruit the businesses, hire the contractors, and build the buildings. They are not self appointed; they are part of a public benefit corporation, created by law, and appointed by politicians duly elected by the citizens of this state and city. They are accountable to those politicians, and to the citizens, to create Canalside. It is ultimately their responsibility to battle in the arena to build something, or fail in the attempt. If they fail, they are fired by the politicians, or the citizens elect new political representatives who will replace them. Canalside is their responsibility, and they are ultimately accountable.

Contrast this with the critics, snipers, professional obstructionists, lawsuit artists, lobbyists and naysayers. Construction of Canalside is not their responsibility. Their opposition to Canalside is a choice, a fight of convenience – when the focus shifts to the Jersey Stables, or the Seneca Casino in Buffalo, or the Peace Bridge, they will move on also. They bear no responsibility to propose themselves, only to critique what the Writer has written. If Canalside succeeds or fails, they are fundamentally unaffected. They are self-appointed by their internal constituencies and funders, and unaccountable to the greater public.

There are exceptions that prove this rule of course. Every fair housing group that does not just lobby and cajole but buys homes themselves, fixes them, and sells them (PUSH being the best example, although there are others) battles in the Arena of Risk and Responsibility. Mark Goldman, party to the lawsuit that helped sink Bass Pro, was a pioneer on Chippewa in the Calumet Arts Cafe and bore the weight of the risk and responsibility. His opposition makes him hypocritical, cold-hearted, and hard-eyed, but I still respect his battle (and look forward to his new project in Black Rock). But groups such as this are the minority, and overwhelmed by their counterparts.

Let’s return to Colin:

I do know quite a bit about the folks behind the push for a CBA.  The Canal Side Alliance — the temporary coalition formed to work on the issue — comprised several dozen organizations.  The lead negotiators on the CBA would have been the Urban League, PUSH — maybe you’ve heard of them?  the best thing to happen to Buffalo in the last decade? — and the Coalition for Economic Justice.  CEJ was the group most responsible for the CBA fight, and their dues-paying membership includes dozens of churches and religious bodies, dozens of unions, dozens of community groups, and hundreds of unaffiliated individuals.

In short, the folks who opposed the giveaways to Bass Pro aren’t “self-appointed” busybodies.  They represent real constituencies — the church around the corner, the autoworker next door, the block club a few streets over.  Who the fuck are Jordan Levy and Larry Quinn?  What constituency do they serve?

I think I already answered the last question – every member of the voting public. The star-crossing of Buffalo, that we can’t get out of own way, is rooted in this fundamental dismissal of the Doer, and celebration of the Critic. The Blue Collar Culture of this town has many tremendous benefits (the general friendliness and helpfulness of the average citizen face-to-face being the best), but this critical attitude is some of the worst. Bass Pro and the ECHDC vs. CEJ became framed as a fight of Management versus Labor, the Rich versus the Poor, Goliath versus David. The unions have shown in the last 30 years around the country that they feel no responsibility for the strength of the company (or worse, the State) they work for, just the strength of the union they are members of. With no accountability to the ultimate completion (much less success) of a project, rejection is mistaken for comaraderie and defense of the collective. In this case, a concrete pit of FAIL is better than a store they would not shop at that would receive too much public money and pay minimum wage to its workers.

It harkens to the old conundrum: when 1000 Oracle workers are laid off in Silicon Valley, they start 1000 new software companies. When 1000 auto workers are laid off in Buffalo, they collect unemployment, complain about the old company, and wait for a new one to come in and hire them. The same city that derides Silver Bullet solutions, and loves to knock them down, also consistently seeks them. We do not live in a city of Doers and Builders. The union does not build a factory and produce cars on its own. The Goliath we fight is the source of, and solution to, all our problems.

Which leads to the last point, and last irony: the fallacy of the entire David versus Goliath frame. The admirable urge to organize, and exert the power of the collective, does not create the David. It creates the Goliath.

The David versus Goliath frame depends on the “small people” being powerless, but organizing to defeat the powerful rich white men. But I would define power by success, and who is more successful in these contests? Current Buffalo history shows that the filer of the lawsuit is the Goliath, and the Doer and Builder is the David. The Peace Bridge is unbuilt, the Buffalo Seneca Casinos sits rusting, and Canalside is back to the drawing board. It seems David’s rock is remarkably accurate. In fact, in the recent history of BuffaloFAIL, I can think of only one instance where it was not a lawsuit that doomed the project: Bashar Issa’s Statler dream. Similarly, many unsued projects in Buffalo have succeeded. In the Buffalo ProjectFAIL sportsbook, safe money goes with the filer of the lawsuit, and the underdog is definitely the Doer.

17 Responses to “The Arena of Risk and Responsibility”

  1. Jesse August 2, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    Wait, the “professional obstructionists” are part of Buffalo’s Blue Collar Culture now? I could have sworn I was told they were all effete tofu-eating West Side intellectuals.

    Your Oracle quip is only that. After the tech industry tanked in 2001, there were plenty of Silicon Valley workers on the dole because they were too proud to go work at Starbucks but not in a position to start a company of their own.

    And do you really feel that the preservationist community is the one wielding real power in shaping Buffalo’s landscape over the past 50 years? If that were true, I think Buffalo would look very different. And I really don’t think the Peace Bridge expansion, the Seneca Casino, and Canal Side are on hold (not necessarily doomed) because of lawsuits, but because of outside economic conditions. Traffic is way down at the Peace Bridge, discretionary income for gambling is tight and financing for large construction is hard to come by, and big box retail is pretty much at an all-time nadir. Trust me, if there was a real need for increased capacity at the Peace Bridge, the Columbus Park neighborhood would be bulldozed overnight, probably with the residents still in their beds.

    • Brian Castner August 2, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

      Well, I eat tofu, so I doubt you heard that from me. Check Colin instead. And my quip may be short, but that does not make the nugget of truth contained therein less real. Unless you believe the culture of Silicon Valley and Buffalo are that similar?

      But to your bigger point, while the brush is necessarily broad, I do think our preservation community has a blue collar bent, both in what we wish we could save (grain elevators, warehouses, etc), and how it is approached (what I wrote above). The preservation argument for Canalside bordered on the absurd, as they literally argued we should preserve the idea of the Erie Canal, since only a concrete field actually existed, and there was next to nothing physically to preserve (a couple very nice cobble stones not withstanding). I don’t think the preservation community has weilded the power the last 50 years – with the buildings we lost, that is not reasonable. How about the last 10-15? And its not even the preservation community with the power – its the obstructionist community. A group with a variety of goals (preservation, economic justice, union jobs, bitter feelings over spilt milk, political revenge) who have one basic thing in common – they keep the Doers and Builders from Doing and Building. The Buffalo economy is always bad – I think it has far less effect on the three projects cited than you do.

  2. Gabe August 2, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    I pretty much agree with Jesse. It’s the tofu-munchers, not blue collar folk who are largely behind what you call “obstructionist.” The latter would likely have the simple “just build it!” attitude. Ya know, expediency means the construction jobs flow much faster.

    • Brian Castner August 2, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

      Colin regularly points out the unions part of the CEJ, so the evidence is partially against you. But anyway, I’m talking more about an attitude and a mindset, a malaise of the Buffalo culture, the Management vs. Labor flavor that permeates the ECHDC backlash, not the actual jobs of the obstructionists.

      • Gabe August 2, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

        I hate to break it to you but I really don’t think class antagonism is all that much the rage in WNY, much less in most parts of the USA. You are trying to frame this whole thing using a very caricature-like palette; a pulp dialectical tactic a-la commentator hacks like David Brooks.

        We all know the real Goliath in WNY is the age-old assemblage of special interests—the city + county + town political machines, the local “business community” plutocracy, politically-connected developers, the unions, Albany clusterfuck, ect. The David is made up of all the “little people” individuals who want real change and progress untainted by the voracious demands of said interests. The problem is among both factions there is little unity. Within each group there is no greater vision, the various interests fight amongst themselves and nothing substantial ever gets done.

      • Brian Castner August 2, 2010 at 6:26 pm #

        At least you said David Brooks and not Glenn Beck. I am not starting a class war, here or anywhere. I am characterizing the tone of the rhetoric I have heard concerning the Bass Pro FAIL. Exhibit A: Donn Esmonde’s column in Sunday’s paper, deriding the power brokers of Buffalo ( Exhibit B: everything Colin has written on the subject. You include the unions in your list of Goliath’s – once again, note Colin’s inclusion of them prominently in the CEJ.

  3. STEEL August 2, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    I generally agree with you here but Buffalo is not so much different that any other city in the lawsuit obstructionist category. The big difference in Buffalo is the lack of availability of the investment money that is a powerful force to complete projects. Things get done in wealthy growing cities because money overpowers NYBY’s.

  4. Christopher Smith August 2, 2010 at 5:11 pm #

    “The unions have shown in the last 30 years around the country that they feel no responsibility for the strength of the company (or worse, the State) they work for, just the strength of the union they are members of.”

    Generally speaking, companies feel no responsibility to their employees. They extract what they can from them while providing the basic level of security and benefits to buy employee loyalty every two weeks. There are very few (mid-cap to large) companies in which the employer/employee relationship is built on anything other than an underlay of mistrust. So, the union mentality is a reaction to that sensibility, which ironically forces companies to double down.

    Just thought I’d say that…kind of tangential.

    • Gabe August 2, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

      …and therein lies the great paradox of postmodern capitalism. Private companies have two competing imperatives: to simultaneously make money and be social welfare providers. People are dependent upon the private sector providing jobs, regardless of the greater economy’s actual need for enough jobs to exist to keep everyone fed, watered, housed and clothed.

      Those two competing imperatives often contradict one another and the company in question usually (notable exception: fossilized industries like automobile manufacturing) has to favor the logical end of the teeter-totter–to shortchange its welfare-provision obligations in favor of probability, if not the plain-old need for solvency.

      The solution to this vexing contradiction should be painfully-obvious to anyone with rudimentary critical thinking faculties. I shouldn’t have to spell it out here.

      • Brian Castner August 2, 2010 at 6:39 pm #

        Communism? Identical provisions and social safety nets for each citizens provided by the government, so that each individual is free to Work on their own according to thier talents for the utopian betterment of their fellow man (and woman)? Do I get a third guess?

    • Ethan August 2, 2010 at 9:32 pm #

      “There are very few (mid-cap to large) companies in which the employer/employee relationship is built on anything other than an underlay of mistrust.”

      No doubt!  I know one…

  5. Alan Bedenko August 2, 2010 at 6:04 pm #

    I love this post, and I’m looking forward to doing a lot more over the coming months to expose, ridicule, mock, and otherwise criticize the professional obstructionists.  

    As to the point being debated about their class status, I think the Tielman/Fisher/Esmonde crew are quite clearly what passes for intelligentsia in this town.  Their worldview is bounded by Forest, Richmond, Linwood, and Allen.  They prefer the local over the national, the small over the big, the no over the yes.  Whilst purporting to act for a better, new Buffalo, their actions have the effect of, more often than not, maintaining the status quo.  

    The CEJ/PUSH/activist types are an interesting bunch.  While nominally blue collar or working-class, it is the people for whom they purport to advocate who are thus.  The people running those shows are, in my experience (and I realize that this is wholly anecdotal) men and women who grew up in decidedly upper middle class worlds, went to the best schools, and got the best educations money could buy.  There’s a paternalistic aspect to those organizations, and while I don’t mean to disparage them, the work they do, or their mission, I don’t really know whether the things for which they advocate are always in the best interests of the people they purport to represent. 

  6. Colin August 2, 2010 at 6:48 pm #

    You’ve managed to encapsulate more than 40 years of conservative thought in a single post. That’s no mean feat. Congratulations.

  7. Gabe August 2, 2010 at 7:16 pm #

    Brian, perhaps I should have defined “critical thinking” as the ability for one to project their brain outside the intellectual prison of cliches, labels and dualistic caricatures that dumb down highly-nuanced concepts. And to respond to your first question mark: No. Keep drinking.

    • Brian Castner August 2, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

      Come now. Are we allowed to have NO fun or humor on this blog?


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