On Curses and Mind-Sets

12 Jul

It was Dan Shaughnessy, a sports columnist for the Boston Globe, who in 1990 popularized the “Curse of the Bambino” – that the sale of Babe Ruth from Boston to New York was responsible for the Red Sox’ failure to win a World Series – a curse broken in 2004.

In yesterday’s Buffalo News, Denise Jewell Gee suggests that Buffalo has its own curse – she calls it the “Curse of the Grand Announcement”.  It’s a story we’re all familiar with in this town – big announcement, lots of politicians, promises of big things beginning imminently, a lurch into the present. Peace Bridge, Bass Pro, Metro Rail, Bashar Issa, etc.

She’s right, of course.  We often make big announcements before all our ducks are lined up in the correct row, and invariably something goes wrong. Or the right people with the right connections complain effectively enough. Or the money dries up. Or the byzantine environmental regulations are invoked through litigation. Or we give up and crowdsource.

It’s a familiar refrain, but Gee concludes her piece thusly:

The reality is, each of these disappointments has been of our own making. We’ve chased after retail outlets not worth chasing. We’ve fallen for so-called developers whose talk was cheap. We’ve dilly-dallied on decisions until time or money ran out.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ve learned a thing or two from all these letdowns.

We’ve come to recognize that organic progress is far better than big dreams bound to go bust. We’ve learned to celebrate all we have, rather than all that’s planned. We’ve seen that a grand announcement is not nearly as important as a grand opening.

In Boston, 86 years of believing the Red Sox were cursed evaporated with a 2004 World Series win. But that hex mentality never marred the city’s image. Officials even managed to complete a Christian Menn cable bridge along with one of the largest public infrastructure projects in history—despite mismanagement and serious delays in the “big dig” highway project.

In Buffalo, it’s never been a curse. It’s a mind-set. And we’re finally breaking free.

We are? How so? I see no evidence of us breaking free from any mind-set.  If anything, the freshness of the news that there will be no new Peace Bridge is a palpable indication of the strength of that “don’t” mind-set.  The ECHDC is holding what they’re literally calling “crowdsourcing” workshops with respect to the proposed at-grade crossing from the inner to outer harbor. What is going to happen on the Aud and Donovan blocks is still unsettled. The Statler went from Issa to dead to possible floor-by-floor rehabilitation.  The Lafayette Hotel is due a renovation. Maybe. AM&A remains empty. We’re great at dreaming up stuff, bad at implementing it.

So, no. I don’t see any indication that we’re breaking free of any mind-set. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

Which brings me to another point.

Critical thinking and analysis has a place in the local blogosphere and Twitterverse, but when it happens, its practitioners are commonly derided as negative haters. The Bashar Issa fiasco is a perfect example. He came to town with nice clothes, smooth talk, daddy’s money, a lot of debt, no real accomplishments, and said stuff people wanted to hear. New tower! New Statler! Parking under Niagara Square! It turned out he was an Iraqi-Mancunian version of the “monorail” guy from the Simpsons.

Yet we were skeptical and critical, while others were pushing and publishing his BS completely uncritically. It came, therefore, as no surprise that he was sound and fury, signifying nothing. It came as no surprise that he’s now a bankrupt charged with gross negligence and manslaughter.

There’s a lot of snake-oil being sold in town, and there’s too many people around who are desperate for happy things and good news that the claims and promises aren’t vetted, much less criticized.  I see no indication that this is changing. It’s not a question of being “pro” or “con”, by the way. When a certain population in town is against Bass Pro or massive improvements to Route 5 on the Outer Harbor, they are cheered as visionaries, even when they’re quite obviously lying or making stuff up. When a crowdsourcing advocate for “placemaking” comes to town, our public benefit corporation for building out the waterfront is manipulated into taking him seriously and paying him six figures for a Powerpoint made up of fantasies and Google Image Searches. Yet when a different population expresses an opinion about regional development (or lack thereof), they are derided by the first group as haters, suburban malcontents, and ignoramuses.

No, the mind-set isn’t changing. If anything, it’s getting worse.

18 Responses to “On Curses and Mind-Sets”

  1. Jesse July 12, 2011 at 7:42 am #

    Maybe breaking free takes 20 years?  You guys, BRO and the like didn’t seem to exist 10 years ago at all.  Maybe that’s all it is – a recognition that there are people trying to make it better now, and having at least some sort of success.

    What the hell’s the solution then?  Change the laws to prevent some of the pathetic lawsuits?

    • Alan Bedenko July 12, 2011 at 7:50 am #

      Maybe. But she doesn’t really pull the trigger on explaining her conclusion.

  2. Tark July 12, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    If you change your point of reference, could the Adirondack chairs represent progress?

    I did a report on the Crossroads Arena (now HSBC) in middle school. It’s taken 20 years for there to be any “there” there on non-game days. But this summer represents a couple years worth of accumulating infrastructure that maybe starts to feel like a district. If you’ve never been to Boston or Baltimore (or just choose not to compare), do you see the relocated Thursday at the Sq, the boats, the chairs, the shack, the paths, and start to think Buffalo’s starting to get it? That Buffalo finally got out of its own way and made something new and better?

    There’s food trucks, Larkin district, a legit conference coming from outside the state…could it all mean progress? Are we slowly waking the old lady for the 21st century?

  3. JSmith July 12, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    The thing is, most of these “broken promises” never made any sense. There’s no demonstrated need for a new bridge (signature or otherwise). Bashar Issa’s skyscraper plans never had any grounding in the reality of the Buffalo commercial market, nor did he have the experience or capital necessary to accomplish it. Bass Pro (and the wider “Canal Side” waterfront mall) never made any economic sense, even with the massive subsidies the ECHDC was eager to throw them.

    I don’t think Buffalo is against change so much as we collectively are gullible dupes who want to believe in “progress” that simply makes no logical sense. Then we get disappointed when the realities of the world enforce themselves on us.

  4. Greg July 12, 2011 at 9:00 am #

    Agree — her conclusion was crap, and unsubstantiated.

    Anyone else hate the words “blogosphere” and “Twitterverse”?

  5. Brian Castner July 12, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    The reaction to my article on BRO surprised me, and I think is related to this. How about for a basic timeline of the general attitude in Buffalo: 1) decades of losses in jobs, population and Superbowls, 2) a rebirth of New Buffalo with both politically and development hope, 3) general disappointment that the mayor turned into a caretaker and the big projects didn’t happen, 4) a readjustment of expectations and general disgust with snake oil salesmen and naysayers both. The average Buffalonian, I think now, may be just as sick of hearing about the wonders of Canalside as they are hearing about people complain about Canalside. They’d rather just sit in a chair and enjoy the water. Its less interesting for us to write about, but I can’t blame anyone for feeling so.

    Oh, and to take it back to Gee – her analogy is all wrong, because Boston “broke itself” out of the mindset by achieving the big success. They got 4 silver bullets in a row. We haven’t, but I think the nugget of truth she has right is that people WANT the mindset to change, and perhaps are willing to make it so despite our lack of major development #win.

    • Alan Bedenko July 12, 2011 at 9:42 am #

      Back when this blogging thing was new to me, I used to compare how Boston in the 1970s and early half of the 80s was not significantly different from Buffalo today (or in 2001). Both somewhat insular, provincial, heavy inferiority complex, gritty, relying on former glory rather than looking to the future, parochial, untrusting of outsiders, reliant on old solutions to novel problems, etc.

      But as I lived in Boston from 1986 – 1990 and again from 1994 – 2001, I saw it become transformed into a powerhouse not of industry, but of thought and technology. Of course, Boston has some advantages we don’t have, such as world-renowned Ivy League schools, a setting on the ocean, major air and seaports, a city that saw enough people return to it that gentrification became, simultaneously, a positive and negative thing, depending on your POV.

      Buffalo doesn’t have Harvard or MIT or BU or BC. But we do have UB and a gaggle of smaller colleges. We have a foundation upon which to build a future based on knowledge rather than brawn, and we’re making babysteps in that direction. The problem is that we lack vision and money. We don’t have a Tip O’Neill or a Teddy Kennedy floating billions for big projects. We don’t have a city government that’s progressive, visionary, and corrupt enough to come up with grand ideas and push them through with threats or deals.

      The Dukakis economic miracle sort of shit the bed in the early 90s, but Bill Weld was enough of a pragmatic reformer that he turned Taxachusetts into a place that has fairer taxation of people and businesses than New York. Hopefully, some transformation of the state by Governor Cuomo, and the election of some more active leadership locally might help us stop treading water and start swimming again.

  6. Starbuck July 12, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Bashar Issa’s skyscraper plans never had any grounding in the reality of the Buffalo commercial market, nor did he have the experience or capital necessary to accomplish it.

    @JSmith  FWIW, those who pointed out exactly those two points at the time on the more cheerful web site were absolutely derided by regulars over there as negative haters.  Pundit’s point is right about that.  
    If local cheerists want to reduce their collective gullibility as you call it, they might try more critical thinking. 
    Speaking of gullible:http://www.buffalonews.com/city/article484558.ece

    The class released a 150-page plan based on its research that could help revitalize the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor and turn it into a long-envisioned tourist destination.

    The document, “A Vision for the Michigan Street Heritage Corridor,” will be used by a consultant to devise a master plan for the historic area bounded by Clinton Street, Broadway and Michigan and Jefferson avenues. 
    The area is viewed by many as a potential tourism magnet because of its three cornerstones: the Colored Musicians Club, Michigan Street Baptist Church and the Nash House Museum, near the spot where Frances Nash planted her Victory Garden.

    That neighborhood might be due for improvements and I don’t blame the students for doing a class assignment.  But there goes the Buffalo News uncritically hyping the chances of those three buildings becoming a “tourist destination” and “tourism magnet” – in the same week Gee wrote about finally breaking free of mind sets like that.  Would I be a negative hater to ask just how much tourist-attracting history is at those buildings, no matter how many master plans are done and consultants are hired?

  7. Kevin Hayes July 12, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    @Starbuck: Not a negative hater, but perhaps poorly informed about this topic. I don’t see “uncritical hyping” by the News, I see drab reporting of unexceptional facts – many people see a potential in that area. Maybe it’s not “big enough” for you? The history of African Americans in Buffalo is of great interest to many people, not all of them African Americans. Some of them are tourists. My questions would be “How big does something need to be to call it a magnet?” and “Can something start small and grow?”

    Are you expecting thousands? Millions? Right now, I know hundreds of people are seeking out personal knowledge of the history of that area, and more people up at the Underground Railroad interpretive center the state parks set up near the Whirlpool Bridge in Niagara Falls. Seems like a good start to me. Kevin Cottrell of Motherland Connextions has a thriving business leading tours centered around underground railroad history and I saw him lead a tour at the Michigan Street Baptist Church a few weeks ago.

    Hundreds of people is better than what we’d have (nothing) if all those “old buildings” were torn down, which I believe was a distinct possibility a few years back.

  8. jhorn July 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    starbuck- weren’t you derided as akin to a negative hater when you mentioned the 70% of wnyer’s against bass pro? wasn’t that on THIS (less-cheerful) blog? i guess one person’s negative hater is another person’s freedom fighter…..

  9. lulu July 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    The City of Buffalo – not corrupt enough? Really?

  10. Eisenbart July 12, 2011 at 10:50 pm #

    The people calling the shots, specifically politicians, call forth great projects to “fix” Buffalo and all its problems so it can turn that blasted corner everyone is always talking about. Project is announced and us feeble minded plebs cheer and hoot.

    After digging into the details this projects hits a brick wall because it’s not funded, makes no sense, is not needed, makes no financial sense. The people who are trying their hardest to push it through because they know it sucks clash with the people that think that if it does happen Buffalo will be swallowed by a giant earthquake and will slide into Lake Erie.

    At this point the the vultures start to circle and the lawsuits start to fly. This works because again… not funded, makes no sense, is not needed, makes no financial sense etc. Us feeble minded plebs boo and hiss and scream “typical Buffalo, this is why I’m moving!!” Rinse repeat for 40 to 50 years.

    The point of her article is that people realize that big projects are a waste of time. And that focusing on what we have to work with makes more sense. It makes sense because all that shit was built before the government got involved and started rolling out the next big project. That things done organically, read small scale, is probably better.

    Instead of a giant Issa tower in downtown how about we fill in the hundreds of vacant lots along Niagara St and strengthen the surrounding neighborhoods to support it? Instead of shiny bridges, that oh we didn’t really need after all, and a plaza that rivals the land mass of Buff State can be managed with some thought and negotiating with those most untrustworthy Canadians.

  11. Betty Jean Grant July 12, 2011 at 10:50 pm #

    As regards the Michigan Street Baptist Church, the Colored musican Club and the Nash House; these three entities have the potential to bring in millions of people to this area, especially African Americans- if enough money and time are invested in these projects. The Colored Musician Club is where Fatty Arbuckle ( I think that was his name) or the guy who wrote ‘Over the Rainbow’ used to jam session with the colored musicians of Buffalo during the early 1920’s before he moved to New York. Mary B. Talbert work Anti lynching activist, Mary B. Talbert worked with Dr. Jesse Nash and other in planning the Niagara Movement ( the organizing name of the NAACP) in Niagara Falls, Canada. I will give you just one guess as to why they could not hold in in Buffalo or Niagara Falls, New York. The Michigan Street Church is still in service and one can go to the church for service and then later visit an actual hiding place that was used by escaped slaves as they awaited transportation to Canada and to freedom. Do any of you know that, on any given day, bus loads of tourists from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and all points southern, pull up to Broderick Park and disband people who wanted to walk where their ancestor walked before taking that short ferry or boat ride to the Canadian shore? The buses come and most of Buffalo do not know they are or were here. Buffalo could be in the Top Ten, nationally, for designated places for millions of African Americans to visit. And with the Harriet Tubman home in Auburn, New York and Harriet’s known visit to Lewiston, Niagara Falls and surely Buffalo, we are sitting on a ‘gold mine’. I have said a lot and I have not even talked about Dug’s Dive and the role it played in hiding runaway slaves a couple of centuries ago and it all happened on our infamous canalside and waterfront. All we need to break the stagnant environment are businees leaders and city politicians willing to invest in the city’s future without trying to find ways to make themselves or their benefactors rich.

  12. jhorn July 13, 2011 at 2:07 am #

    betty jean- it was harold arlen but your point is well taken.

  13. Starbuck July 13, 2011 at 10:10 pm #

    @KevinHayes   You imply I’m uninformed without saying what you think I’m uninformed about. If you think I’m unaware that African American historic tourism exists – and that some sites related to it are very popular – well, that’s silly to assume.  Of course I know that.  

    What’s fair to question is how much out-of-town interest in visiting there would be for the three buildings in question here. Although I wouldn’t expect outlets such as BRO or Spree magazine to question any claims of advocates for something like this, why shouldn’t the Buffalo News as our paper of record at least ask a few questions? Is their city section supposed to be journalism or a public relations outlet?

    To answer your question to me, how big does something need to be to call it a magnet?:

    While there’s no magic number, don’t the phrases used by the reporter – “tourist destination” and (especially) “tourist magnet” – mean a big number of people when they’re used in common plain speaking?

    Now, from Ms. Grant’s comment above does provide numbers:

    As regards the Michigan Street Baptist Church, the Colored musican Club and the Nash House; these three entities have the potential to bring in millions of people to this area

    That says it all. If anybody really believes those three will bring in that many out of town visitors to Buffalo and will want public financing based on that size of prediction, shouldn’t it be questioned?

    The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site attracts well less than one million visitors per year.  It’s run by the National Parks Service.  And it’s in Atlanta, a city which itself draws over 30 million visitors per year.

    More than 700,000 annual visitors come to the MLK, Jr. National Historic Site from all parts of the world.

    MLK + National Parks Service + Atlanta … 700 thousand/year.

    Now we’re told by County Legislator Grant that the Nash House and the other two buildings will bring in millions of out of town visitors to Buffalo.  

    Are you saying this bears no similarity to previous wildly optimistic claims around here? And to even question this indicates that I’m uninformed?

  14. pjf-usrt July 14, 2011 at 7:07 am #

    No Denise, what has happened is that this region has come to the realization that we are no longer capable of doing big projects. We’ve finally come to realize that this is a region where ideas go to die thanks to the efforts of incredibly powerful small minded thinkers who want nothing to happen of substance in this town.

    Think small, think mediocre, think “keep the status quo” because it doesn’t benefit me and my little circle of friends. Go elsewhere if you wish to see great and bold things, the kind that used to occur here at a better time in this region’s history because we won’t let it happen here.

    No, we’re not breaking free of a mindset. We’ve just come to realize that things that require that kind of mind set aren’t going to be allowed to happen here anymore as long as the current power structure around these parts have a different(smaller, mediocre, backwards) mindset.


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    […] can do better, but in keeping with the theme of realistic expectations and a new mentality, let me move on to a more grounded, immediately achievable Milwaukee trend. […]

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