A Long Hard Look

30 Mar

The sobering census figures for the Buffalo Metro region and all of Upstate New York should give us all pause, and induce a significant amount of self reflection. Judging by the disappointing comments from our local elected leaders, and pablum vignette coverage from the Buffalo News, none of this is yet occurring.

First, the local facts. Despite my sincere and secret hopes to the contrary, the City of Buffalo’s losses have not stopped, and hardly seem to have slowed, losing approximately 31,000 people (11% of the population), 27,000 of which were white. Erie County also lost 31,000 people, and gains in population in Clarence and Grand Island were offset by losses in Cheektowaga and Tonawanda. While it may be tempting to say that Erie County’s loss could be explained by the loss in Buffalo, there is no way yet to accurately generalize about the migration trends and determine how fair of a statement that is. Niagara Falls lost a similar percentage (10%) of population, and overall, the entire metro area lost 35,000 people.

Second, the under-reported facts for the rest of Upstate. While the cities of Rochester and Syracuse lost population, their metro areas grew. Overall Rochester inched up, offsetting city losses, and some of its counties were near the top for the state for growth. Metro Syracuse grew by 1.4% overall, and the city itself shrank by far less than expected. Albany grew by 4%, or nearly 100,000 people.  Utica, Schenectady, and Troy all grew as well. Even Binghamton held its own.

My inescapable conclusion from these data, the new reality that I see us faced with, is that metro Buffalo is no longer part of a broad upstate trend. The chains binding Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany are breaking, if not already shed. We can no longer blame our population depression on the state – its unbearable high taxes, bad business environment, and policies unfriendly to all but New York City. The other areas of upstate have found a way to overcome those challenges and grow. We have not. There are no more scapegoats – we have no one to blame for our losses but ourselves. We are now uniquely bad in New York.

Albany has made a convenient foil to pass our problems off on. Byron Brown and Chris Collins mouthed the same tired excuses when the census numbers were announced. But Rochester, Syracuse and Albany face the same hurdles, and they have turned the corner while we dither and fight the long defeat.

I will start the self-reflection, if our public figures so far refuse to. I see two main truths we must first confront before we can move on to solve this problem. First, at the most basic level, people find our oldest urban environments less and less pleasing to live in. They vote with their feet, despite pleas about the benefits of city and/or Buffalo living. For this point, I see little distinction between Buffalo and Lackawanna, Cheektowaga or Tonawanda – the line on the map matters politically, but less so when it comes to the age and desirability of the housing stock or population migration. Those that wish to leave and can clearly are. Less people are moving in. Fewer and fewer people find our city (not New York, not upstate, but our city) a satisfactory place to live. Why?

The second truth is that the valiant efforts of Buffalo’s boosters and promoters have been superficially successful but fundamentally in vain. What do I mean by this? Buffalo has succeeded in reinventing its image as an architectural destination. You can’t go a week without reading about Buffalo’s magnificent masterpieces in national media. Likewise, community organizers are succeeding in rebuilding rotting homes, bringing hope to downtrodden neighborhoods and converting lands to urban farming. Developers are bringing loft apartment living to downtown, UB and Kaleida are building a mecca health and research campus doing national work, non-profits have reinvested in and revitalized our historic park system, festival organizers are making national tourism events out of gardening and chicken wings, and entire neighborhoods (such as the Hydraulics) are being reborn from the ashes. All of these hard working, principled, well-intentioned organizers and leaders have successfully completed their projects. They have changed the “spirit” of Buffalo. And yet. And yet the combination of all these efforts is not enough to convince more people to live here. At the most fundamental level, we still fade away. Why?

I say we must address these two questions – the dichotomy of the undesirability of the urban space and the success of individual revitalization projects and programs – to finally move our community towards growth. “Why is growth even required”, you ask? “I love Buffalo just the way it is.” As I have argued before, the Buffalo you love will not be present much longer without growth. Growth means we stop all gnawing off the same bone. Growth means one more dollar for the Albright Knox doesn’t have to mean one less dollar for Shakespeare in the Park. Growth means a job for me without taking one away from you. Growth increases the size of the pie so the Broadway Market, our numerous historic churches and inner-city neighborhood development aren’t all hanging on by the flimsiest of threads. Growth encourages investment. Growth enables healthy risk. Growth lets us all exhale.

We aren’t yet close to Growth. But Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany already are. Why?

24 Responses to “A Long Hard Look”

  1. Derek J. Punaro March 30, 2011 at 9:19 am #

    I think the big problem is a complete lack of direction or coordination from elected officials. We know there is an overstock of housing that isn’t salvageable, yet there is no coordinated plan to demolish or discontinue using certain areas. Nobody wants to make the tough decision to start a landbanking policy and say, “We’re closing off these areas of the city, demoing all the houses, and planting grass, not to be used again until we see actual population growth.” You have lots of organizations and agencies that can step in and do some of the actual work, but there needs to be some top-level coordination and red tape cutting to make it all happen.

  2. Ethan March 30, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    We can have this dialog next time we go for a hike, play a game of Carcassonne, or have a beer… I’m done with comment threads.  I’ve said it before and been sucked back in, but hey: you gotta get back on the horse.

  3. JSmith March 30, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    “We’re closing off these areas of the city, demoing all the houses, and planting grass, not to be used again until we see actual population growth.”

    Derek, that sounds great. I vote we start with Wheatfield, Lancaster, and Clarence. Until outward sprawl is curbed, landbanking won’t make a significant difference. It makes no sense to have a ring of “urban farms” or forest within the city limits, followed by miles of sprawl.

  4. C. Byrd March 30, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

    Nice piece Brian and the type of though provoking conversation we should have about the future of the B-lo.

  5. Starbuck March 30, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    We aren’t yet close to Growth. But Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany already are. Why?

    I don’t know, but perhaps the long term economies in other parts of Upstate – even Rochester – have differed enough from Rust Belt metros that at this point they aren’t following the same population loss pattern. 

    Of the 51 metro areas over 1 million population, only five had negative growth from 2000-2010.  Toss out New Orleans as a special case, and the other four are all in the Rust Belt.  Maybe Detroit’s situation is also unusual to some degree, being home to the Big 3.  

    That leaves metro Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland with remarkably similar losses in percent – 3.0, 3.1, and 3.3 – respectively.  I wonder even if those three had somehow had the best possible sets of local politicians over the past 20 years, would those declines have been much less?

    Bottom 10 large metros for growth, 2000-2010:
    42 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 3.7%43 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 3.7%44 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA  3.1%45 Rochester, NY 1.6%46 Providence-New Bedford-Fall River, RI-MA 1.1%47 Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY -3.0%48 Pittsburgh, PA  -3.1%49 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH  -3.3%50 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI  -3.5%51 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA  -11.3%

  6. Starbuck March 30, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    That list again, hopefully with linefeeds. 

    42 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 3.7%

    43 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 3.7%

    44 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA  3.1%

    45 Rochester, NY 1.6%

    46 Providence-New Bedford-Fall River, RI-MA 1.1%

    47 Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY -3.0%

    48 Pittsburgh, PA -3.1%

    49 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH -3.3%

    50 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI -3.5%

    51 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA  -11.3%

  7. lefty March 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm #


    Your mindset is one of the biggest reasons why the COB is the COB.  You want to close off areas that people actually want to live in…to somehow try and force them to live in areas they do not.  In what universe does that actually make sense?

    Frankly, pointing the finger of blame towards the burbs is lazy and one of the biggest reasons why the COB is in such trouble.  There is a difference between an urban lifestyle and a suburban lifestyle.  You can not force a family to raise their kids in the city if they do not want to.  No matter how much bitching you (collective city advocates) do.

    If you look at what the Elmwood Village has done, you will find the roadmap for success in the city.  The fact that this ‘plan’ has not been reused over and over again is a pity.

    Off the top of my head you have the Hertel Ave in North Buffalo and Seneca St in South Buffalo that are prime areas for reuses.  Both neighborhoods are home to a solid, but shrinking, community.  Both neighborhoods are home to a commercial corridor that with the right actions taken could see a similar result to the Elmwood Village.  Yet the COB ignores these areas and continues to focus on trying to revive the East Side.

    Why?  Because the East Side is home to political powers that benefit from redevelopment efforts…even though those efforts will never produce a return.  And this is before you even look at Downtown Buffalo, which has been neglected.

    What I find most amusing is the fact that city residents like to complain about the misuse of land in constructing suburban style homes in the suburbs…but have nothing to say when the COB overspends money on trying to build suburban style homes in the city.  see.  Suckmore Village.

    Providing affordable housing is a must.  Nobody can deny that.  However, affordable housing should also be as affordable to build (read taxypayers) as it is to buy (read homeowners)….
    There are countless examples of the city trying to build housing that does not should not go in a city.

    For all of the wasted money spent on giving the poor a slice of suburban life, the COB could have developed a series of HIGH QUALITY mid rise developments near the urban core.

    Doing this would have provided better access to service providers and public services, due to density and access to public transportation.  We hear people complaining they do not have access to medical services on the East Side…so why do you keep on trying to place people on the East Side?  It just does not make sense.

    Additional to this, the COB would have benefited by creating an urban core of residents that would lead to businesses…which pay taxes.  Oh..and you reduce the spending of taxes by lowering the need to service areas of the city which have density levels similar to the sticks.

    But hey…why clean up your own house when you can blame whitey and his desire to raise a family in Clarence.  

  8. Dan Magnuszewski March 30, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    The issue here is that too many people are looking for jobs instead of creating new ones. The entrepreneurial spirit has cooled over the past 60 years. Fix that, and maybe not quantity, but definitely the quality of people (and wealth) will come back or stay in the area.

    Buffalo has about 2.5 times more people than somewhere like Boulder, CO. Does that mean Buffalo is “doing better” than Boulder? No. Let’s not focus too much on the hard population numbers.

  9. Mark March 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Jsmith, I don’t see why you say that. Why is land banking in Buffalo made pointless by the fact that people live in the outer suburbs? Forest and urban farms sound pretty good to me, actually. There are steps Buffalo can take that don’t require people in the suburbs to do anything. If you’re going to wait for everyone to move out of Clarence before you seriously address Buffalo’s problems, you will be waiting a really long time.

  10. JSmith March 30, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    Mark, are we eventually going to make Cheektowaga and Tonawanda into farmland, too, while we build new towns to replace them over in Lancaster and Wheatfield? Does that really make any economic or environmental sense?

    Obviously, Buffalo needs to do what it can to address its problems regardless of whether the rest of WNY is helping out or not. But if we’re going to have a moratorium on new development, why should it be just in Buffalo rather than on currently undeveloped land?

    Landbanking might help the city save a few bucks on infrastructure maintenance and other services (if you can somehow overcome the political and logistic hurdles involved in condemning an entire neighborhood and relocating the hold-outs). But it won’t do anything to stem population loss either within the city or in the whole metro area. What we really need to do is figure out how to attract more immigrants (in the general sense). How do we make Buffalo a more attractive place to move to?

  11. Mark March 30, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    Well, fewer abandoned houses and vacant lots full of trash and weeds would probably increase the attractiveness of the city. I think you are connecting two things that it’s not useful to connect. Should the towns build houses and office buildings on every inch of undeveloped land? No, they should not, for a variety of reasons. But that doesn’t really have anything to do with whether Buffalo should reduce its housing stock. I am not a fan of sprawl either, but if people want to move to Clarence, and they can’t get the houses they want to live in, most of them are not going to just turn around and move to an empty house in Buffalo. They are going to move to Eden. Or Pittsford.

  12. Marti March 30, 2011 at 6:11 pm #

    Thoughtful piece, Brian. But there may be a fundamental flaw here. Do you know of any way to drill down into the Census figures? It would be very interesting to compare the first five years of the decade the figures encompass with those of the last five years. Think of all the things that have changed in the past five years…The nation (and world) has plunged into a deep recession stemming in part from the sub-prime mortgage scandal and banking collapse. Although other relevant changes have occurred since 2005, this alone has changed the playing field here. For example, Buffalo ended up with a robust RE market compared to many of the places Buffalonians have been fleeing to. Think Florida, where many have lost the entire value of their investment — and their home — to foreclosure. Buffalo is looking very good to some of these now disillusioned folks who are trickling back home. Fortunately, the Buffalo job market has been reported to be stronger than those in many of those same locales. I have met half a dozen returnees over the past few months.

    I am not claiming that the retention-attraction problem has been solved — it hasn’t even yet been adequately addressed! But I do wonder if the problem is as severe as portrayed if looked at over the past 10 years versus the past five years. A corner of sorts may have been turned, but these figures would not reveal this. Indeed, they could exacerbate the problem by causing additional despair, discouraging those who may have discovered Buffalo’s low cost of living and high quality of life and been considering our community as a good place to move to. The Fed Reserve study showed that we are not losing pop at an undue rate, but rather failing to attract additional individuals.

  13. Brian Castner March 30, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    @ Marti – legitimate question, and the “last few years” trend is one that I was hoping was going to show its face. Unfortunately, I think the evidence that people are moving back is anecdotal, but that’s it. There is no way to drill down into the numbers, and peer directly into 2005 vs 2010. But you can look at the overall trend: http://www.buffalonews.com/incoming/article375893.ece/BINARY/0325city.pdf

    That chart shows a steady decline from 1960, and even a tiny leveling in 2000 and then a slight acceleration in 2010. There are thus two explanations – that the decline has been steady for the last 10 years (like the previous 40), or that the population suddenly dipped from 2000 to 2005, and then rebounded and grew the last 5 years to get back to the average loss. I find that explanation difficult. Which is why I ask the question: if we’re successfully implementing all these redevelopment programs and Buffalo-boosting programs, how come they aren’t attracting population back in statistically significant numbers?

  14. lefty March 30, 2011 at 8:58 pm #


    To try and answer your question, I think the challenge is not necessarily what Buffalo is doing but rather what Buffalo is doing compared to other places.  It’s a race and while Buffalo has picked up the pace, the other cities and regions are not standing still.

    While Buffalo has awesome architecture…its not like other places have nothing.  While Buffalo has found some great success with the Medical Campus, its not like other places do not have a similar project, with similar or greater success. For every triumph that people in the region like to hang their hat on, there is an equal or greater triumph in every other city.

    WNYmedia has some great voices like yourself, BP, Smith and Kulyk..who have lived in other areas of visited other areas so much they have a perspective that most simply do not. It’s very rare for someone to leave the region and come back.  Even rarer is when that person says..hey its not like that in other places and the ‘born and raised’ listen.

    Its almost like some people in Buffalo know this fact but will not admit it…at least directly. Take the comments about the burbs.  The solution is not to pick up the pace for Buffalo but rather to slow down the pace for Clarence.  

    If you have 5 minutes, there is a great article that was published in Sports Illustrated in 1969..right at the start of the decline.  It’s scary to read as so many things are the same..in a bad way.


  15. Eisenbart March 30, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

    Could it be because they have healthier economies than we do? I thought Rochester has already passed Buffalo for the second largest economy in the state. While Albany plays its fair share the governments in and around Buffalo probably drive away more business than that of Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany. But I have a sneaky conspiracy theory suspicion that Albany was padded with state funds so there would be no way it could fail.

    I still believe that having a good job that pays well is the biggest driver of population growth and retention. While Buffalo boosting groups and their projects play their part I would imagine for most people those things are further down the rungs on what people are looking for… stable well paying jobs, affordable housing, good schools, safety, so on so on.

  16. Brian Castner March 30, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    @ lefty – you get to a point that has been percolating in my head a bit. More on that in my political article next week. I read the SI article a year or two ago for the first time. Terribly depressing how little changes.

  17. Pauldub March 30, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

    If they ever get the waterfront going, it would be great, We have galleries, festivals, incredible architecture. All things to bring in visitors. But are they an incentive to move into the city? Not in my opinion. I remember when I volunteered with Old Home Week/Buffalo Homecoming. The only thing geared to people actually moving here was the real estate tours. With the exception of one year, the emphasis was on condos, lofts. All great for empty nesters, young couples, retirees with a pretty decent amount of disposable income. In my opinion you need families to build population. Were there any family oriented activities during Buffalo Homecoming? Things for kids to do? Not that I recall. Is there a viable school system in Buffalo? Not by outward appearances and test scores. You need adults with kids in tow. People lured to the city with pretty shiny things will not form an attachment and will leave as soon as things are not pretty and will move on to the next shiny city.

  18. JSmith March 30, 2011 at 11:20 pm #

    Lefty, if Buffalo was growing in population, I wouldn’t care much what happens in Clarence or Lancaster. But if our metro population is stagnant or shrinking, and people start talking about moratoriums on developments, I don’t understand why that discussion should just focus on the city and not the region as a whole.

    I actually agree with you that what Buffalo (and the greater metro region) needs most of all is to find a way to make itself better and more attractive to newcomers, as opposed to the city and towns competing amongst each other for the same pool of residents. But until the population starts increasing again, I believe that things like landbanking are at best band-aids on top of bleeding wounds that don’t do anything to fix the underlying problem. Demolishing Broadway-Fillmore and turning it into an urban forest is akin to throwing out the burning furniture in your house without doing anything to put out the actual fire.

  19. lefty March 31, 2011 at 1:08 am #


    The reason is, by and large, there is nothing wrong with places like Amherst or Clarence. They are strong in spite of being located next to Buffalo..not because of it.  When you have something good, you do not stop it, especially when so many other things are going to shit. If development were blocked in placed like Lancaster or Clarence, people would not move into the city…they would move out of the county or region entirely.

    As for demolishing Broadway-Flimmore, at the very least they could just let it die on its own. But I still think banking the entire lot of it is the best idea. Even with the sprawling emptiness in parts of the city, Buffalo is actually one of the more densely populated cities in the US.  Compacting that even more is only going to improve things.  Police and Fire would improve with the same resources.  Public transit would improve with the same resources.  Public works, streets, parks, etc. would improve with the same resources.

    That is why you bank the East Side IMO.

  20. Gabe March 31, 2011 at 5:51 am #

    Brian, population growth is but one metric involved in assessing the health of a city. I think what’s more important is what the city does with the population it currently has. Quality over quantity. Obsessing over one statistic distracts one from the overall picture. Having said that, I can’t really say for sure if Buffalo is doing qualitatively better or worse than had been in 2000, but there are certainly some noticeable improvements in certain parts of the city.

    @ Dan, you say…”The issue here is that too many people are looking for jobs instead of creating new ones.”

    It’s kind of hard to “create jobs” if you don’t have access to capital. It’s a plain fact that there is a lack of significant capital in WNY. Jobs just don’t appear out of thin air. Industry requires a critical mass of activity to really ignite. Sure, having a few exceptional, creative people that are brilliant enough to scrape together a commercial empire out of a mere thought and some prolonged elbow grease certainly helps, but it’s the social connections and physical proximity to big money that really helps on a larger scale.

  21. thestip March 31, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    Just my two cents. I feel the problem with Buffalo is that there is no focus on delivering quality services and investing in the City’s infrastructure. There is very little comprehensive planning going on in Buffalo to drive investment and create a sense of place. Living in Rochester I am constantly amazed that virtually every street I go down has been repaved, curbs have been replaced, new sidewalks, etc. over the last decade or so. Business strips have seen infrastructure investments to create an individual sense of place for each strip. Businesses and residents have seen this investment by the City and have followed suit with their own properties. When the City comes in to redo a street, they just don’t rebuild what was there, they improve with bumpouts, crosswalks, planters, benches, etc. As for services, the streets are plowed faster than Buffalo, the sidewalks are plowed by the City after 3″ of snowfall. The City works with volunteer groups to plant City owned infrastructure, and the City maintains it regualrly. The streets are cleaned weekly, and garbage is quickly picked up leading to a very clean, very well maintained environment. If you live in the City of Rochester, you pay more taxes than a comparable homein Buffalo, but you get far more in services and infrastructure.
    In Buffalo, the Mayor makes a big deal about lowering taxes every year, that this alone will drive growth in the City. But in reality, they are not keeping up with needed infrastructure improvements. The streets are crumbling, curbs missing, sidewalks barely there. Services are a joke. Yeah, you pay the least in taxes, but what are you getting for those taxes? Where is the money going? Buffalo is not doing anything to differentiate itself not only from the suburbs that continue to grow at the expense of the City by also it’s peer cities down the Thruway. Until there is leadership running the City and the County that recognizes that they need to change the way they operate, focus on service delivery and infrastructure development in a planned approach, the region will continue to decline because it cannot compete with its most direct competition, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany.

  22. Leo Wilson March 31, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

    The nubers are telling. Unfortunately, the answers I keep hearing all seem to be of the destination variety. People will move here for jobs, while they only visit a destination.

    I don’t think it much matters (except to City Hall) if the people live in the city itself or in the burbs. What’s going on is a regional population drain, with young people moving on to greener pastures (or just having itchy feet while they’re young) and very little to attract people to move here from abroad.

    I heard something on NPR the other day that said our “brain drain” is typical of the whole country, and that the real problem is a lack of draws for people to move here.

  23. Nathan Wallace March 31, 2011 at 11:29 pm #

    Thanks for the thought provoking piece, Brian. Your observations, combined with the thoughts expressed in the comments, show the complexity of the challenges Buffalo is facing. I don’t think anyone has all the answers, but the Knight Foundation recently partnered with the Gallup Organization to conduct a study about what attaches people to a community. The results of this study can be found on their website (http://www.soulofthecommunity.org), and I have commented on the results in my blog (http://www.rebuffalo.blogspot.com).


  1. My Broken Record Continues to Skip « WNYMedia.net - April 6, 2011

    […] Blame our lack of a brain gain. Blame our greying population that has known little besides Buffalo’s regular decline. Blame our blue-collar culture that values hard work and loyalty over entrepreneurship and […]

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