America’s Best Designed City

2 Oct

This is a very nice video, beautifully shot and edited. While I have some issues with its content, I’m wondering who, exactly, is its intended audience? It reinforces for people the notion that you’re not a moron for wanting to live here which is, in and of itself, valuable, but at the end it implores an unidentified person to come and “see it emerging”, and to “feed our enthusiasm and give us courage” and that you can come and “get involved very quickly” and that it’s open to “new ideas”. I beg to differ on that latter point. 

Billed as a movie about the “best designed city” in America, it’s sponsored by a lot of organizations that employ/ed the people being interviewed, and goes off on a few tangents about how we made mistakes with respect to the Kensington, the Scajaquada, the 190, and the Skyway. 

What is the intended audience here? Visitors? People looking to move here? City residents as a love letter to themselves? I don’t get it. Yes, downtown has some gorgeous buildings – separated by massive surface parking lots and no reasonable parking plan, despite a city planner being featured in the video talking about “streetcars” and removing the 190. Yes, Elmwood is nice and walkable. Yes, Larkin is a very nice development that is removed enough from the downtown core that it has a London cab to shuttle workers to where other things are. Yes, Buffalo has made a lot of progress on certain things in the last decade or so, but the majority of residents and neighborhoods live in abject poverty, fear, and dependent jobless hopelessness. Downtown, Elmwood, and its immediate surroundings are touted prominently, but the majority of the city and her residents are not mentioned, except to blame boarded-up east side houses on the Kensington Expressway. 

Buffalo is still a poor field-office city. It’s still a city that is dependent on the charity of foundations set up by the ultra-wealthy families of long-gone industries that used to employ people. Buffalo is still a place that needs a Trico factory more than it needs an Oshei Foundation to tell it what to do. 

Anyway, John Paget is a very talented filmmaker and he made a very nice video. I think it could have used a writer, though. 

27 Responses to “America’s Best Designed City”

  1. Colin October 2, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    Every city in the world has it’s problems…if this video does nothing else than contribute in a small way to changing outsiders perspective of Buffalo, then it is a success. When you see a video or a movie about how great New York is they generally don’t spend time in the South Bronx either.

    • Alan Bedenko October 2, 2013 at 11:37 am #

      By the same token, New York doesn’t need to remind itself that it’s great. Look at how lowly Boston markets itself as a place with something for everyone to do.

      • Colin October 2, 2013 at 11:59 am #

        Doesn’t that video just back up what I said though? It shows still photos of the nice parts of Boston, and uses stock photos of young people on computers to show “education” and “creative environments” without mentioning South Boston.

      • Alan Bedenko October 2, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

        A compendium of things to do in Boston, regardless of your interests, and nobody whines about how Storrow Drive separates the city from its river.

      • Colin October 2, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

        I guess I don’t get what you’re trying to say then…What would you have liked to see in this kind of video? Buffalo Rising mentioned it was prepared as promotional video for a convention in Buffalo next summer. If that’s the intended audience, I assume many people are coming from out of town, do we want to present Buffalo as a lifeless ghetto?

        In my view, this video laid out the elegant design Buffalo had/has, acknowledged the mistakes made over the years, and presented an optimistic outlook with regards to ongoing change in the city. As if to say, we aren’t defined by industry that has left or mistakes we made in the last half century.

      • Matty Dubs October 2, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

        NYC video doesn’t mention the disgusting traffic or the fact that NJ commuters are jammed through two tunnels and one bridge, the two tunnels into densely packed, already traffic-ridden neighborhoods. It doesn’t mention fact that Yankee Stadium is more than 20 minutes on train from anywhere you want to be that isn’t the Bronx Zoo. Or that the Wonder Wheel is, legit, a 45 minute subway ride from Manhattan and is just south of some severe projects or that Coney Island is and has been kind of a terrible mess. That the beach is routinely filled with crackheads and those with severe mental disabilities. Or that Washington Square Park, just across the street from NYU, is the place European tourists know to go get the craziest drugs imaginable (though the guy hocking smack outside of MSG is also clutch).

        Living here in NYC … these things aren’t bad… they’re just what we get in a City this big and diverse. But if a tourist knew what kind of neighborhood exists 5 blocks away from Yankee Stadium or Coney Island… man.

      • Colin October 2, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

        My points exactly. I went to school at Fordham which is right next to the Bronx Zoo, and I now live in Manhattan. There’s plenty of negative things about this city, which you really only know if you live here (and those are the negative things I’ve wtinessed, to say nothing of the millions living here in poverty of which I have no experience). Yet talk to anybody outside of this city and everyone has this amazing mental picture of it. That’s because for years New York has been marketing only the glitzy skyscrapers and glamorous lifestyle 2% of the people living here experience.

      • Alan Bedenko October 2, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

        The point is that the people in the video are all exceedingly well-connected and in many cases wealthy. How many more videos does the CVB feel are necessary to attract architecture peepers and urban planning geeks? We get it, that’s who they’re aiming for, but Buffalo MUST be able to market itself as more than architecture, parks, and a street grid.

        This is the distillation of “Stuff White People Like” – a view of Buffalo that pays attention to the most infinitesimal part of what people living here give a shit about.

        Used to be, Buffalo touted the friendliness of its people – the “City of Good Neighbors”. Now, all it touts is the buildings. And street grid. STREET GRID FOR FUCKS’ SAKE.

        Meanwhile, few downtown buildings have a building next door to them because surface parking.

        The point of bringing up problems – I understand that a CVB video isn’t going to say, “come visit Buffalo for the crushing poverty”. But without knowing that the video is being released within the context of a planning symposium, you get the sense that boarded-up buildings and ugly east side neighborhoods (only visible from the 33, in the video) are the result of the Kensington rolling through. This is utter bullshit – the Kensington didn’t make the factories leave, the Scajaquada didn’t pack people’s moving vans for them, and the Skyway never contributed to the Buffalo diaspora. To cheapen these massive systemic problems by blaming it on Robert Moses and his copycats is so lazy and counterproductive. What stopped the film from just saying, and these highways kinda suck, and leave it at that? Why ascribe Buffalo’s 50-year decline on them?

        The video should have been clear about its purpose, it should have kept the facile socioeconomic opinions to itself, and it should have just welcomed CNU attendees to Buffalo, a nice place with beautiful buildings, nice parks, some nice neighborhoods (Hertel, Grant were noticeably absent), and that was once a city important and prosperous enough to attract world-renowned planners and architects.

        That’s all without even wading into some of the just dumbshit that’s said, (e.g., only Eastern city where you see the sun set over the water; first of all, no – even the accompanying image showed it setting over Ontario; second of all, you’d have to be there in the winter to see that; and third of all, Provincetown and St. Petersburg are examples of Eastern cities where you can see this rare phenomenon).

      • Matty Dubs October 2, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

        Solid explanation, Alan. Truly. I’ll admit that I needed it a little clearer than you initially wrote, perhaps due to a desire for brevity, which I can certainly appreciate.

        I do think that the socioeconomic impact of shitty urban planning is fair game for comment, particularly if you’re trying to explain to a bunch of people interested in urban planning that they might see some pretty outrageous decisions on display. You’re right that the video could have been more up front about it’s purpose, but then again the youtube page and bestdesignedcity dot com make it clear that it’s about urban planning and the other factors at play in Buffalo’s socioeconomic issues aren’t necessarily linked as clearly to poor city design. Sure, it glosses over those other issues, but it also points out a glaring defect in Buffalo’s current design, and a defect that is pretty universally recognized as such (as opposed to other explanations for why portions of Buffalo have it rough).

        And I know it’s “stuff white people like,” which is code for rich white people, and code for rich white people that don’t have/want to worry about the shit wrong with the city. Yet, having this kind of stuff is a draw. Having that kind of stuff is why NYC is booming, why Boston gets tourists despite being small and having a terrible subway system, and why Buffalo has any chance of attracting the kind of money that has fled the city in the past 50-100 years.

      • Alan Bedenko October 2, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

        I’m old enough to remember when NYC was an absolute shithole, and I was living in Boston as its renaissance happened.

        Buffalo is way small potatoes compared to these two places – indeed, it has no business being compared to NYC in any way. Pittsburgh, Cleveland maybe, but not New York. Boston is a reasonable comparison because the cities are somewhat similar – the difference is that Boston was poised to take advantage of the knowledge-based economy in a way that Buffalo is only now catching up to.

        I’m not shitting on Buffalo, mind you – I love Buffalo and I’m not from here originally – I’m here purely by choice, and w/could leave in a heartbeat if I hated it. Instead, I’m shitting on this endless parade of “for real” and “sense of place” garbage that is a certain subset of the population patting itself on the back for incremental, mostly superficial improvements that are way too few and far between.

        I suppose we can fix the city one Lafayette at a time, but what Bernice Radle (who is in the video) is doing is more important – buying and rehabbing properties in borderline neighborhoods.

        In the end, all of these assholes are going to re-elect Mayor Brown to spend his 3rd 4-year term as caretaker Mayor of a city in need of much, more more vision and less political acrimony and toxicity. Hell, one of the people in the video is a big donor and another is an employee.

        Frankly, the way to bring about all the super changes Chris Hawley mentions in the video? Education, jobs, opportunity, capital, microloans, community policing & safety, bureaucratic professionalism, accountability, mentoring, etc. Work those things out, and then the 33, Skyway, and other superficial “problems” will also work themselves out.

      • Dan_Blather October 3, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

        > I’m shitting on this endless parade of “for real”

        You forgot “genuine” and “authentic”. Remember, Buffalo is the most realest and authenticest city ever.

      • Alan Bedenko October 2, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

        Colin, where in the video or in its companion website is the Congress for New Urbanism mentioned, even in passing?

      • Colin October 3, 2013 at 10:44 am #

        I just caught it in the write up on Buffalo Rising:

        Doesn’t look like its anywhere on the companion website after taking a quick glance. I have a better idea what point your trying to make reading one of your comments further down, and I fully agree with you that this video isn’t enough on its own by highlighting things that only people interested in urban planning would care about (or rich white people, as you noted).

        I guess I came into this under the assumption that it was within the context of an urbanism convention, so it made a lot more sense – but you’re right, they should make that more clear. I still like the video for the purpose its meant to serve…

      • Matty Dubs October 2, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

        To be fair, Bostonians want Storrow closed in the summer, and vague plans are in works to cover it for park space (like plans in Buffalo), and it didn’t gut a neighborhood.

      • Alan Bedenko October 2, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

        But the Mass Pike did, and while parts are covered, people don’t whinge about the horrible planning and whatnot.

      • Colin October 2, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

        Here’s an NYC tourism video:

        They show the Bronx and Brooklyn – the inside of Yankee Stadium and the Wonder Wheel. And they turn everything into a cartoon, because if they showed what the Bronx and Brooklyn really looked like in many neighborhoods, it would make the city look bad.

      • George Costanza October 2, 2013 at 10:51 pm #

        But, New York isn’t great if you’re not rich. spending 2/3 of your income to live in a studio apartment so that you can eat white rice in the dark isn’t great. The fact is that Elmwood Village is a great neighborhood with beautiful homes, wide variety of locally owned shops, restaurants, and businesses, safety, proximity to downtown, and a walkable outlay with quiet residential streets that are very close to Elmwood Avenue.
        Yes, there are other neighborhoods that are as nice or even nicer than Elmwood. But, they do not have Elmwood Village’s affordability. Trying renting an apartment for $500 in cities like NY, Boston, San Francisco. You can’t, not even in the worst sections of those cities. Buffalo has some very nice neighborhoods that are very affordable to people earning a relatively low income. Not many cities have that. Of course, some people don’t view that as a positive (they think that high rents and housing prices are a way to keep out various “undesirables”) but I disagree.
        Also, Allentown has a genuine bohemian feel that really can’t be replicated in high cost of living cities.

  2. disqus_Jfb45fSM14 October 2, 2013 at 11:31 am #

    Yes. I Agree. Thank you for speaking out. I had to search through many naively enthusiastic responses to the video in order to find this, a post that puts into words the discomfort I felt while watching the video.

  3. Ismaeal Naji October 2, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    come on Alan it’s not THAT bad, El Paso is MUCH worse!

  4. Ismaeal Naji October 2, 2013 at 11:41 am #

    The Skyway is the only legit gripe that they have in terms of infrastructure placement

    • George Costanza October 2, 2013 at 11:08 pm #

      Am I the only one who loves the Skyway? I think the view is breathtaking.

      • Ismaeal Naji October 3, 2013 at 9:49 am #

        I understand the placement of the 90 running along the river going north to Grand Island, but the purpose for that Skyway now is obsolete, it needs repairs, and you can’t use it when the weather gets bad, also there is wasted potential for that portion of land that isn’t being used

  5. Ethan Cox October 2, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    10:54-10:56… best part.

  6. Dan_Blather October 3, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    I wonder if they consulted any real planners about the claim that Buffalo is “America’s best designed city”. There’s many aspects of Buffalo’s built environment that are considered the antithesis of both classical and contemporary best planning principles. Among them are:

    * Extremely long blocks, up to a half mile in some cases. (660 feet is considered ideal.)
    * Undergrounding most of the city’s streams and creeks.
    * Railroads mincing the city’s street grid into much smaller and more separated parts than almost any other city in the country. The “Chinese Wall” effect from railroads criss-crossing and looping around the city far exceeds the damage caused by the Kensington Expressway.
    * Thanks to the railroads and a lack of zoning before 1920, heavy industry became more widely distributed throughout Buffalo, compared to peer cities.

    * Devoting almost all of the city’s waterfront — Lake Erie, the Niagara River, and most of the Buffalo River — to heavy industry.
    * Despite the Olmsted system, Buffalo has far less land devoted to parks than peer cities. Distribution of non-Olmsted parks is erratic, and siting and design poor.
    * A street grid that offered many radial and north-south connections, but relatively few unbroken east-west connections.
    * Very few alleys, resulting in a streetscape that, even in residential areas, is interrupted by driveways every 30 to 40 feet. The lack of rear access to many lots also rendered much of the city’s housing functionally obsolete when cars became prevalent; there was no place to add off-street parking or a garage when houses are just five or 10 feet apart, like much of the East Side.
    * The lack of a citywide masonry building code, resulting in a housing stock dominated by frame telescopers, semi-bungalows, and two-flats. Frame houses were more susceptible to fire (anyone remember Eyewitness News in the 1980s?) and insensitive alterations than those constructed of brick.

  7. Dan October 4, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    Periods and commas go inside quotations….

    • Dan_Blather October 4, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

      And my preference for logical style quotations means what?

      • Dan October 4, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

        That’s actually really interesting. Although contrary to the Slate author’s assertion, I suspect that the overwhelming majority of times I see American prose with periods and commas outside quotations it’s because of error, not some contentious objection to the laws of grammar and style.

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