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Donn Esmonde Should Just STFU about Teachers

10 Oct

As a general reminder, please reacquaint yourself with the notion that Donn Esmonde – the News columnist who won’t leave – is an unethical, morally repugnant, tea partying  ass.

It was just last year that Esmonde (whose wife is a Buffalo Public School teacher, and who has actively shilled for his charter-school running business partner) regaled WNY with tales of greedy teachers gorging at the public trough. (I love how his business partner’s daughter wrote a glowing paean to Esmonde in Buffalo Rising in 2008). 

Now, we’re supposed to believe that teachers are good? That they can be people’s “favorite“? That they are not only professionals and educators, but also reliable, trusted adults to whom kids can turn for aid and comfort? Was Joe Finucane one of those greedy suburban teachers? I mean, he made $90,000 at Williamsville North

Donn Esmonde owes too many apologies to count at this point, but one thing is for sure: while his tea party friends continue their privatization and dismantling of Buffalo’s school district, with no one asking, “cui bono?”, Esmonde should probably just stop writing about educators. He is unworthy of them. 

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New Suburbanism

9 Jun

The Congress for New Urbanism came to a city to talk about how great cities are. It went out to some of the suburbs that are on the urbanist-approved list, and apparently engaged in some interesting discussion about how prosperous people like their development and planning. 

We’re talking, of course, about a Buffalo that is overwhelmingly poor; joblessness and underemployment are wildly popular careers. But we’re meant to believe that “bad development” and “parking lots” are the real socioeconomic plague in western New York

Celebration, FL

This is a city where the weekly Monday columnist writes about the city’s “strategy” for dealing with scores of vacant lots – not surface parking mind you, but straight-up grassland. The East Side of Buffalo was liveable and walkable. It was compact and diverse. If it’s what everyone wants, why did everyone leave? 

It wasn’t just racism, you know? It was the postwar American dream – to abandon noisy, crowded cities, slums, and tenements to chase the American dream. To have a little patch of land and a house and a quieter existence. To this day, some people like living in a suburban environment for a variety of reasons. To each his own. 

I agree that New Urbanism can do a lot to improve the ways suburbs develop, grow, and change. I would love for every town to resemble Celebration, FL, the Disney-developed New Urbanist model. It has sidewalks, mixed use communities, a distinct downtown, it’s bike-and-pedestrian friendly, the garages are in the back and not fronting the street. Houses are closer together. It’s very nice. It would be great to have a development like that locally. 

Buffalo, though. This is a city where the Monday paper reveals how the at-war school board is so feckless and incompetent that 1,000 families have no idea where their kids are going to school next semester. That doesn’t matter to the childless, though. 

Through Colin Dabkowski, we learn some more about the CNU

But something [CNU speaker Jeff] Speck said toward the end of his presentation gave me serious doubts about the movement’s claims to inclusivity and its interest in improving life for all urban residents. Speck espouses a theory of urban development he calls “urban triage,” a term that means infrastructure investment should go largely to a city’s densest and most-prosperous neighborhoods at the expense of outlying areas.

In explaining that philosophy, Speck said cities need to “concentrate perfection” in certain neighborhoods, distribute money in a way that favors those neighborhoods and focus primarily on downtowns in an effort to increase the health and wealth of citizens.

“Most mayors, city managers and municipal planners feel a responsibility to their entire city,” Speck wrote in his book “Walkable City,” a follow-up to “Suburban Nation,” the so-called “Bible of New Urbanism” that he co-authored with Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek. “As a result, they tend to sprinkle the walkability fairy dust indiscriminately. They are also optimists – they wouldn’t be in government otherwise – so they want to believe that they can someday attain a city that is universally excellent. This is lovely, but it is counterproductive.”

Interesting concept. As someone on my Facebook page pointed out, the point of triage is to identify and treat the people who need it the most, not to follow the path of least (and wealthiest) resistance. 

As a movement, New Urbanism seems primarily concerned with making prosperous neighborhoods more prosperous and then hoping against hope that the benefits of that prosperity magically extend into sections of town untouched by their charming design sensibility. Hence “urban triage,” a term that connotes a lack of concern for the human occupants of those neighborhoods deemed unworthy of infrastructure investments.

On a recent bicycle tour through the East Side led by activist and East Side resident David Torke and local planner and New Urbanist Chris Hawley, it’s obvious that this neighborhood needs infrastructure development and that local activists and urbanists recognize this need. To suggest that we need to choose between developing our downtown and improving the lives of residents in blighted neighborhoods, as New Urbanists’ “urban triage” philosophy would suggest, is beyond irresponsible.

You need to read the whole thing, right down to the time that another speaker – Andres Duany – casually threw around “retarded” to describe things he doesn’t like. 

Celebration, FL

The underlying ideas of New Urbanism are great – who doesn’t like pretty New Urbanist places like Seaside or Celebration? Who doesn’t like East Aurora or Hamburg’s new downtown? Who doesn’t like pretty things over ugly things? Right? Who doesn’t want to eliminate ugly surface lots and replace them with some nice infill development, right? 

But consider this: 

 She later (Tweet since deleted) argued that many people she knows who live in the suburbs are depressed as a result of being “bored shitless”. Of course, depression is an illness – a treatable disease. It’s due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, which explains why it can be treated with medicine. To suggest that depression is triggered by some sort of mystical bored shitlessness is ignorant and helps to perpetuate the myth of depression as mental weakness rather than disease. 

And that’s a lot of what I find from Buffalo’s urbanists – new and old. They don’t like the suburbs (or the people who live there), so they denigrate them and the people in them. At some point yay cities becomes boo suburbs. I don’t quite understand why that is, but whatever makes you feel better about your choice, right? 

You don’t like the suburbs? Bully for you. I do. Bully for me. But I don’t have to justify my choice by denigrating yours.

Welcome To Buffalo, You Philistines

19 Mar
WINTER

By Patrick Blake via the AV Photo Daily Flickr Group

I literally cringed while I read this. Not figuratively – but “for real”. 

The title of the piece itself is cringeworthy in its clumsiness – “Welcome to Buffalo, folks, you’re in for a nice surprise”. People will be swarming into town to watch the basketball.  Many of them have never been here. Certainly some are thinking, “Buffalo? Really?” For those reasons, I wouldn’t at all blame the local convention & visitors’ bureau from retaining the services of an ad agency to develop a slick handout to direct NCAA spectators to places and things to do whilst not watching the basketball. 

But the Buffalo News’ most insufferable nominal columnist, Donn Esmonde, couldn’t resist getting into the act. Knowing Buffalo, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if they took today’s column and reprinted it in the “welcome to Buffalo NCAA people” brochure. Esmonde can’t help himself – he is a scold even when trying to put a welcoming face on an embarrassing downtown.  And it reads like a 7th grader’s book report. 

Congratulations, NCAA visitors. You have drawn the long straw, hit the proverbial jackpot. An extended weekend in Buffalo may not seem like an ideal destination. Yet what awaits you is not just a basketball-filled 72 hours, but a journey of discovery.

Welcome to Buffalo, the best-kept civic secret in America. By the time you leave Sunday, you will have been enlightened, transformed, rebirthed and metamorphosed. OK, maybe we can’t promise a complete epiphany. But we can guarantee you a good time – and I suspect your perception of our city will change for the better.

The set-up here is interesting because it jokingly oversells what these visitors are going to experience, which is somewhat limited in scope.  They’re not coming to Buffalo to come to Buffalo, they’re coming here for the basketball, to eat food, drink beverages, and to sleep.  Everything else – wings, Falls, transformation, enlightenment, rebirth, metamorphosis – is secondary. Maybe tertiary. 

They don’t call it the City of Good Neighbors for nothing. Here is the happy convergence of quality of life, culture and history, wrapped around a smaller-city, Midwestern-style bonhomie. You will have no problem soliciting dinner suggestions from locals or driving directions – which may include a simple “follow me.”

Yet the games will be played at the First Niagara Center in the cold. The radius of walkable destinations between games is limited, and it’s more likely that people will end up at the Buffalo Creek Casino than diving in head-first into our “bonhomie”. 

Hope springs eternal for the heads of cultural institutions, but few hoops fans will spend their spare time perusing Picassos at our art museum, checking out our Olmsted-designed parks system or marveling at our collection of Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces. So we will stick to visitor basics: Food, drink, what makes Buffalo special and What to Do on Game-Free Friday.

That’s actually pretty self-aware. Esmonde is right – they’re not here for parks (the temperature will be quite cold this weekend) or architecture. They’re here for the basketball.  

Esmonde goes on to discuss the Buffalo wing and our very late last call, pointing out Chippewa Street as our binge-drinking strip of note.  He also gives an approving nod towards the dram shops on Allen. Then…

Buffalo is no Styrofoam Sun Belt burg, and downtown drips with character – much of it visible from the Metro Rail cars ferrying fans to the arena. The reddish-orange, terra cotta 1896 Guaranty Building was one of America’s first skyscrapers. The invention of structural steel made possible Louis Sullivan’s masterwork and enabled the vertical growth of cities.

The yellowish dome of the M&T Bank building is actual 23.75-carat gold leaf. The last roof regilding cost a half-million dollars, so don’t try this at home.

Up the block from Lafayette Square, the art deco City Hall poses a broad-shouldered, “bring it on” challenge to whatever (yes, we get a little snow) blows in from Lake Erie.

Hey, visitor from the Sun Belt – please allow our glib, local asshole of a part-time columnist to denigrate where you live! Ha ha! Welcome to Buffalo, folks from New Orleans, Orlando, Miami, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, and other “Styrofoam Sun Belt burgs”! On the one hand, it shows me that Esmonde is a horrible traveler, if he goes anywhere at all other than his suburban sprawl home in Florida. Each and every one of the aforementioned cities in the “Sun Belt” are drenched with culture. It might be different from that we have in Buffalo or the Northeast, but it’s worth finding and is no less fascinating than some dreary history lesson about scooping grain or working in a steel mill. It takes interest and effort. 

How deranged do you have to be to puff your city by denigrating someone else’s? 

History doubles-down barely a court-length from the First Niagara Center doors. The pedestrian bridge at Buffalo River’s edge – near the World War II destroyer USS The Sullivans – spans the Erie Canal’s western terminus, where DeWitt Clinton in 1826 opened the waterway that transformed America.

The hulking grain elevator across the river is a remnant of the Great Lakes trade that built Delaware Avenue’s “millionaires’ row” of mansions. Hang a right when leaving the arena to find handful of bars and restaurants, tucked into canal-era buildings in the revived Cobblestone District. And yes, visiting Milwaukee fans, we haven’t – unlike you – taken down our elevated, waterfront-stifling Skyway (yet).

Again. Visitors don’t give a shit about the Skyway. They don’t care why it’s there, why it’s not taken down, or anything of the sort. The Skyway is certainly an eyesore, but it and the elevated 190 – on or under which visitors will have to tread to get to the First Niagara Center –  isn’t the sine qua non of Buffalo’s downtown decline. If you’re writing this for visitors, keep our civic debates out of it. No one cares. “Where” Magazine in your hotel room isn’t replete with civic debates about elevated highways, but food, drink, shopping, and attractions. 

There is natural wonder, as well. The partly frozen splendor of Niagara Falls is just a 25-minute drive up Interstate 190. But you can’t get to the glitzier Canadian side unless you packed a passport.

The days of getting waved on by customs officials after flashing a driver’s license are long gone.

Once an insider’s town of nook-and-cranny bars and neighborhood restaurants, Buffalo now offers more obvious charms. The reclaimed 1904 Hotel @ The Lafayette – with in-house bars and restaurants – is the jewel of a host of downtown building resurrections.

Funny thing that – we’re endlessly impressed with ourselves for taking an old flophouse and turning it into something urbane white people would want to visit. An old building with bars and restaurants? Why they even have that in “Styrofoam Sun Belt” cities!

Chippewa Street’s emergence a generation ago gave Buffalo a go-to bar/restaurant district. The Avant is an upscale hotel with high-end condos. Yet downtown remains a work in progress. Cranes hover over the embryonic HarborCenter hotel/restaurant/ice rink complex outside the First Niagara Center doors – the brainstorm of Sabres owner Terry Pegula. Behind a nearby construction fence, workers are replicating the old canal path that will mark an entertainment district.

They don’t fucking care. You already mentioned Chippewa Street as our local binge-drinking vomitorium, and the Avant is special for us, but not for visitors. To someone from out of town, the Avant is no more or less worthy of mention than the Hampton Inn at Chippewa and Allen. The HarborCenter isn’t yet open and will confuse the hell out of people relying on Google Maps to help navigate the area around the arena. 

More hotels are in the making. Swing by the next time the tournament swings through, to see the finished product.

Until then, enjoy the wonder that we think is Buffalo. Despite what you might have thought, you drew the long straw.

The only line missing is, “I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it”. 

Buffalo stands on its own merits (and demerits). Allen Street is great. Chippewa might be great for some. But if we could stop insulting other places to make ourselves feel better about Buffalo, that would be great. 

As an aside, I read every one of Esmonde’s columns. That’s usually about 2 per week. I don’t think I’ve written a commentary about any of them since September when I exposed his undisclosed chumminess with a quoted source and his sprawl-tastic Florida home. I certainly could have – he’s insufferable 99% of the time – but didn’t. I wasn’t going to write about this, either, until I got to the “Sun Belt” line. Who in their right mind insults the supposed, perceived, subjective inauthenticity of other cities? For what purpose? For a smug sense of self-satisfaction – parroting the “for real” and “sense of place” bullshit marketing buzzwords that we actually use now in real life to market this city to prospective visitors? 

Buffalo as a place to visit stands and falls on its own merits and demerits. If you want people to visit and to like it, don’t be a prat about it – just get to what’s to like.  

We were once stranded in Dallas because while en route from California to Boston, our destination was hit with a 30″ snowstorm. We ended up stuck for 3 or 4 days and we were lucky enough to have the scratch to afford a rental car and a hotel room. So, we explored Dallas. This was 1996, so there were no smartphones and we didn’t have any sort of internet access. We got ideas for things to see from memory (Book Depository, Southfork) or from brochures we found in the hotel (Fort Worth Stockyards, museums in the city), and just from exploring with no set destination in mind. Had I read something in a Dallas paper denigrating Boston, I’d have been pissed off and thought, “what a bitter, inhospitable place”. 

So, I don’t have a problem with Esmonde or anyone else writing a column welcoming basketball fans from around the world. But to criticize an entire swath of the US as inauthentic in order to sell your city as “real” is outrageous and insulting. My animus for Esmonde is well-known and well-documented, but I honestly don’t wake up twice a week rubbing my hands together like a Hanna-Barbera villain in anticipation of how I can bitchslap him in a blog post. 

Our downtown is an embarrassment, but small pockets here and there are getting better. But a visitor doesn’t give a shit about how, say, the Lafayette came about or how it’s not as bad as it was. They just want to know where it is that’s fun, cool, or interesting to go. Does the Lafayette have a nice restaurant? Swell! How do I get there? Do I walk? Is there parking? Do I take a cab? Do I take the trolley? Where does that trolley go, incidentally? Is there a goddamn bus map I can have? Are you running a shuttle bus to get me from the arena to a destination, and then back again in time to catch my next game? If not, is that bus with that car salesman on the side of it in any way reliable? How often do they come? When is the next one coming? In my cookie-cutter Sun Belt city, the bus stops are sheltered and there’s a sign that tells you in real time when the next one will stop here. 

The last thing they’re thinking about is Louis Sullivan, a replica “canal terminus” to nowhere, (in mid-30s weather and rain), and whether Buffalo is “authentic” or not.

Donny, Can You Hear Me?

27 Sep

Shrill, too.

Because you want to hear me explain this in a more direct and profane way, here is the audio version of “Donn Esmonde is an Ass”, recorded over lunchtime Thursday with Trending Buffalo’s Brad Riter

http://www.trendingbuffalo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/TB09-26-13bedenko.mp3

Esmonde’s Exceptional Ethics

19 Sep

Let’s get something clear, here. Donn Esmonde is a hypocrite. He is a semi-retired former-and-current City/Region columnist for the Buffalo News. Donn Esmonde thinks your kid deserves a quality education, including (but not limited to) charter schools; however, that right to a quality education miraculously ceases to exist, in his mind, at precisely the borders of the city of Buffalo. To Donn Esmonde, there is no greater sin in the world than the sin of “choosing to live outside Buffalo city limits.” The evidence for this was most starkly measured when he devoted two or three columns specifically to convince Clarence taxpayers to do genuine harm to the quality of that town’s school district. He succeeded in this mission. 

Make no mistake – the “Donn Esmonde is an ass” series stems directly from that, and if I wasn’t writing for Artvoice it would be named something profoundly more profane. Esmonde went on and on about the evil, greedy teacher’s union while failing to disclose that his wife belongs to one. He went on and on about how unconscionable it is for union workers to enjoy good wages and benefits, given that he and his wife have enjoyed union benefits for most – if not all – of their work-lives. He went on and on about these things without disclosing his own conflicts and biases. 

I don’t write about stuff in which I have a personal financial interest without disclosing it. 

Part of Esmonde’s shtick has been to promote the advent and growth of charter schools within city limits. In some instances, charters help kids in underperforming traditional schools to get a good education. In some instances, charters help the wealthy and well-connected families living within the city to provide their kids with a suburban school experience without packing up boxes and renting a U-Haul. In some instances, charters simply fail

Whatever. You do what’s right for your kids and their education if you care enough and have the means to do it. There’s no second chances, and you don’t have the luxury of waiting around for stuff to get better. You move to where schools are good, you apply for a charter school, you get your kids to take entrance exams for schools that need it, you go parochial or private, or you just stay put and try hard to make sure that your kid’s education – and every kid’s education – is as good as it can possibly be.  These are not just personal choices, but societal ones – as a general rule, we want well-educated kids because the alternative is horrible. For everyone. 

I don’t begrudge any parent’s choice regarding what he thinks is best for his kid. So, what does undisclosed bias have to do with anything? 

In 2000, Esmonde wrote a column about the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s effort to help charter schools in Buffalo start up.  

The Tapestry Charter School was one of Buffalo’s three finalists, but didn’t make last month’s final cut. Tapestry’s Steven Polowitz said their grass-roots effort could have used a Partnership loan fund.

“I can’t say for sure it would have made the difference (in getting a charter),” said Polowitz. “But it would have eliminated a significant question.”

In 2007, he wrote a column blasting a tax incentive given to big-money waterfront condo owners

“This is not a marginal neighborhood where you’re trying to induce people to buy [with tax breaks],” said community development attorney Steven Polowitz. “How do you reconcile giving away the store for high-end condos in a coveted area?”

In 2011, Esmonde again pimped the charters as a way to bypass failing Buffalo schools. 

“Charters are the only option that lets you make the fundamental structural changes that give these schools the best chance for success,” Steven Polowitz said.

Polowitz is a longtime charter advocate who 10 years ago co-founded the successful Tapestry charter. He is now with Chameleon Community Schools Project, a nonprofit that develops charter schools. Polowitz laid out a charter turnaround plan for James Williams just before he left as superintendent. Interim successor Amber Dixon said she is open to the charter option. I think she — and the School Board — ought to be.

These seven schools need more than cosmetic surgery. That translates into — among other things — a longer school day; smaller class sizes; an expanded school year; more classroom aides; social workers and counselors on staff; and keeping the building open for everything from after-school tutoring to child care. It will not happen in a district where contract rules stifle options and slow-track change. It only comes with restriction-lite charters.

“You can interchange parts,” Polowitz said, “but if the fundamental structure remains, it won’t make much difference.”

In fairness to Buffalo teachers, counteracting the baggage of broken homes and battered neighborhoods these kids carry into the classroom is a near-impossible job. Schools, to some degree, don’t “fail”; they simply get overstuffed with desperately needy kids. Which is why it makes sense for hurting schools to be taken over by the academic version of a SWAT team: flexible, fast on its feet and able to use every educational weapon, from alternative curriculums to business partnerships.

If schools are reinvented as charters, kids stay in the same building. Teachers either move to another school or reapply for their jobs, likely with similar pay and benefits — but without seniority and job protection. Granted, charters are only as good as the people running them. But if you need change — and these seven schools are at cliff’s edge — charters are the Extreme Makeover.

In 2012, Esmonde effectively dedicated an entire column to Steven Polowitz hagiography

“We are concerned about education in the city,” said Steve Polowitz, “and have been for years.”

Polowitz is part of the pack of reformers who are trying – against all odds – to transform two of Buffalo’s 28 failing schools into public charter schools. The folks behind the nonprofit push are taking fire from a Board of Ed that has yet to grasp the enormity of its failing-schools crisis. On the other parapet is a teachers union determined to protect its ever-shrinking turf.

If every verbal blow the reformers have taken were a punch, Polowitz would be a walking bruise.

He is 61, a rail-thin attorney with silvery hair and impeccable school-reform credentials. Eleven years ago, he and four others founded Tapestry Charter School. It is arguably the most successful charter in Buffalo. The public charter school, which since expanded through high school, last year got 1,200 applications for 200 spots.

Here’s a dissenting voice

After all Polowitz and Co. are all ready running Tapestry Charter School, you know the one with the fewest students receiving reduced price lunches of any school in the city limits, the school whose students must have private transportation, wink nudge, and we know who that’s going to keep out of the lottery don’t we ? Essentially this guy and his crew are running a private school full of middle to upper middle class kids with the ever present charter spectre of “counseling out” a.k.a. “expelling” any kid who shows a learning, emotional or behavioral issue. If you can shoot fish in a barrel your aim doesn’t have to be all that good.

Who is Steven Polowitz? Damned if I know, except from these Esmonde columns, a guy who helped start Tapestry Charter School, and someone who is a “community development attorney.” Just, y’know, random school advocate guy. 

Random guy? 

Donn Esmonde and Steven Polowitz (and their wives) are co-owners of a property in Spring Hill, Florida, just north of Tampa. 

While Esmonde touts his city-resident cred, he co-owns a very suburban, very sprawltastic single-family home in a subdivision outside of Tampa, Florida. It’s unit 12 in that particular subdivision, and has a market value of around $86,000, but possibly as low as $75,000 – it’s okay, though – the mortgage is for $66,000. With an area of just over 2,000 square feet, the house was placemade in 2004 and began to matter for Esmonde and Polowitz in 2010.  The annual property taxes are a low $1,400, and the home has 3 bedrooms. Here it is: 

Could use some better landscaping. Maybe some flowers or something. 

Sadly, the previous owners bought the place for $210,000 – Esmonde and Polowitz got it for a steal, and the prior owner took a hit of $130,000 at the time – in fact, Deutsche Bank moved to foreclose on the property in 2009.  The previous owners were a husband and wife from Buffalo who owned a paving company here, and their 2005 mortgage was for $168,000 – twice what the property is now worth. 

I don’t care about Donn Esmonde’s sprawly vacation home, or that his kids went to an exam school (away from the riff-raff), or that he is a massive hypocrite who harbors a geographical animus towards children. But one would suppose that, if I was to write a glowing blog post about someone with whom I co-owned a vacation home, I’d let you guys know about it one way or another.

Donn Esmonde hates the suburbs, except when he lives in them.  

Shorter Esmonde

19 Aug

Part of the running “Donn Esmonde is an Ass” series, “shorter” takes a typical 500-word Esmonde column and reduces it to a couple of sentences. I try to preserve the general tone and theme of the original column while boiling it down to its essential point. Think of it as a public service: I read it so you don’t have to. 

Friday

Regarding the awful, horrible, soul-sucking pits of racism we call “suburbs”, at least one has thankfully come around to my way of thinking and decided to make their streets less treacherous. 

Sunday

If I were Bernie Tolbert’s campaign manager, he’d be losing in a different way. His refusal to read my mind and follow my phantom campaign strategy means he is “woefully unprepared” – not to be mayor, but to run for mayor.1

1As an aside, I will note that I receive all of Tolbert’s campaign releases and his problem isn’t not issuing press releases or holding news conferences quickly enough after news comes out – his problem is the town’s reductive media either ignoring him completely or preempting the mayoral race for Extra and Jeopardy. If Esmonde thinks that something’s wrong with the mayoral race, a lot of the blame sits firmly with the way it’s being covered. 

Meanwhile, Tolbert is the first mayoral candidate to secure statements – on tape – from two police officers (who are anonymized to prevent retaliation) who explain how the Brown Administration plays games with crime statistics in Buffalo. It’s shocking. 

Donn Esmonde Is An Ass: Culverts and Charters

11 Aug

Another week, another opportunity for the Buffalo News’ most retired columnist to bring up regionalism and hatred of suburbs. 

Friday

HAHAHAHAHA Donn Esmonde is a card. He wants you to think he’s got a sense of humor via Friday’s column about a bridge in Lancaster that needs fixing, yet no one wants to fix. 

Love me, it cries. Do not forsake me. Do not leave me to fend for myself against rain, sleet, snow and ice.

Help me to help myself. Patch my wounds. Fill my holes.

If concrete and asphalt could talk, these are the pleas this crossing would utter.

It is the cry of an orphan. It needs care, commitment, concern. Yet no one will claim it.

Why, it’s downright Shakespearean, isn’t it? To top it off, he morphs an intergovernmental dispute about whether it’s a bridge or a culvert into a tome on regionalism and abolishing village government. Great. Issue nostalgia

Many of the suburban villages we have – e.g., Williamsville, East Aurora, pay a surtax for the privilege. Recent efforts to abolish the villages and wrap them into the adjacent towns failed; people voted to maintain what they like and know, and to pay more tax. I don’t care – good for them. 

If there was no village government in Lancaster, the town would simply take care of the Erie Street span. One less orphan, one less absurdity.

Point : repetitive argument : restated point. The bridge or culvert or whatever the hell it is will eventually be fixed. Also, if you have two putative parents fighting over whose responsibility the bridge is, it’s not an orphan. So, dumb metaphor, too.  

Sunday

Oh, God, not the schools again. Esmonde returns to whitesplain to everyone why the schools in Buffalo are failing. As best I can manage, here are the points he makes: 

1. State Education Commissioner John King was speaking directly to Donn Esmonde when he “lashed out” last week in a “conference call with the Buffalo News editorial board” when someone (Donn) pointed to socioeconomic factors to “excuse” Buffalo’s failing schools. (Let’s remind ourselves for a moment that the very best high school in the entire region – public or private – is a Buffalo public school). 

2. Esmonde spends a paragraph fending off strawmen, insisting that Buffalo teachers are good – just as good as those in the suburbs! 

3. Donn then attacks state testing, which is “one size fits all” and unfairly judges inner-city districts. We also spend a little time hearing about how bad the teachers’ union (of which Esmonde’s wife is a member & he fails – again – to disclose, although he does bother to mention that she is a “nonclassroom” Buffalo teacher) is, and how it’s perfectly reasonable to require professional teachers with masters degrees to also play janitor and clean up after their kids have breakfast in the classroom, rather than a cafeteria. Maybe if his wife was in a classroom and being asked to clean up breakfast, he’d have a different opinion of the policy. 

4. Charter schools are great, because they enable kids without special needs who come from parents who care to escape the kids from homes where parents don’t care, and to get a better education – i.e., Donn thinks charter schools are great because they help to provide certain kids a suburban school experience in a non-suburban environment. As much as Donn hates the suburbs, it’s clear that he loves everything about them, except location.  

5. Some parents just don’t care. 

I have heard countless stories – and seen a few myself – of houses where kids are barely spoken to, much less read to. Where there is not a book to be seen, including a coloring book. Where a blaring TV doubles as a baby sitter. Where kids grow up without leaving the neighborhood, much less going on a vacation. What ought to be seen as a national crisis is instead shrugged off as a fact of life.

But ignoring reality does not make it go away.

“Failing” urban schools, to my mind, are largely a symptom of a society that essentially warehouses its poor and broken families in inner cities. The concentration of poverty and problems only intensifies the dysfunction.

Here’s the thing about the “warehousing” argument. Our society doesn’t warehouse anyone anywhere. What our society does is provide some people with a choice, and others with none. To use the term “warehousing” is, first and foremost, offensive beyond measure – people warehouse goods, and to say society “warehouses” people is to reduce those people to little more than chattel.

I don’t think that’s a reasonable or fair thing to do – to literally dehumanize an entire population to assuage one’s conscience. It’s completely backwards. Someone genuinely concerned about the socioeconomic plight of people in the inner city would likely choose a different terminology to describe the fact that most of our poorest and least privileged fellow citizens are caught in a spiral of poverty, family crisis, crime, and economic despair. They’re not chattel – they’re people in desperate need of help. Calling them things isn’t helping them. 

And who better knows the plight of the inner city than a white baby boomer surrounded by people just like him. As much resentment as Esmonde has for suburbanites, he is guilty of everything he hates about them – choosing to live in and around people with a similar way of life. 

“Warehousing” implies that someone has made a conscious decision or grand plan to place people in the inner city. It’s not that – it’s that other people exercised a choice to leave that location. The great challenge is to help lift up the people left behind, not to reduce them to things. 

6. Here’s more misguided suburbophobia: 

The roadblocks of home and car ownership, along with high rents and little lower-income housing, have for decades barred poor people – many of them minorities – from upscale suburbs and their schools, which predictably are not on any “failing” list. It is not mainly a matter of “better” superintendents, principals and teachers. It is because those schools are filled with the offspring of higher-income, college-educated parents. It’s a built-for-test-success clientele. If you are blind to that reality, whether your name is John King or John Doe, I think you are missing the larger picture.

Reformers from regionalism guru David Rusk to economic-integration advocate Richard Kahlenberg say the only way the school dynamic changes is by lightening urban America’s load of poor people. That happens either by busing kids to economically balanced schools, or by building more mixed-income housing in the ’burbs. I don’t see either happening here anytime soon. The walls already are up, and they’re high.

Just because the barriers are invisible does not mean they do not exist. Those “walls” explain a lot, for those who can get their minds off of test scores.

Right. This is why Esmonde went out of his way to advocate for disinvestment in Clarence schools. So deep and burning is his hatred and resentment, he wants to systematically make the suburbs less desirable by doing harm to the people who live there.  And their kids. But the people “warehoused” in the inner city – he cares about them, despite the fact that the per-pupil rate of spending in those poorer districts is almost double that of Clarence. 

Successful people with good educations place a high value on education and work hard to make sure their kids get a good one, too. Let’s assume (a complete fallacy, but whatever) that every family in WNY started out in Buffalo. Some choose to keep their kids in the regular public schools. Some want their kids to go to a charter, or maybe a parochial or private school. Some decide to move to a particular neighborhood to get a shot at a particular school. How the hell is that different from moving to Amherst?

And Esmonde capitulates on the never-uttered notion that many inner-city poor people want their kids to do better and have things that they themselves could never have. He rejects by omission any notion of social mobility – the American dream itself. You want to talk about prejudice and racism, which is the oft-silent undercurrent of Esmonde’s suburbophobia? How about the fact that you “warehouse” yourself with other white professionals in a particular part of the city, and reject even the notion that your poorer counterparts could want better? Notice he’s talking about the test scores Albany wants, and throws up his hands and complains about the poor that we “warehouse”. He never suggests that any affected families want better, or are doing what they can with nothing. And what of the teachers? Seems as if Esmonde takes a very complicated equation, dumbs it down, and denigrates teachers and poor families as hopelessly stuck. 

His answer is to invoke David Rusk (again) and that the government impose a Stalinist master plan with quotas and governmental orders as to who can live where. Bus inner-city kids to the suburbs, because every kid will excel with a 2 hour daily commute, right? And force those mean suburbanites to relocate to the inner city (of course, white people who “warehouse” themselves within walking distance of the Bidwell Farmer’s Market or Spot Coffee would be exempt). 

Donn Esmonde is such a disingenuous, hypocritical Ass.™ 

Donn Esmonde Makes Kevin Gaughan, Poor People Unlikeable,

29 Jul

Friday

Because Donn Esmonde is such an ass, everything is somehow magically about him. Everything. Including the Erie County Democratic Committee’s decision to ask regionalism and downsizing advocate Kevin Gaughan to run on for County Comptroller on the Democratic line. The ECDC has finally come around to Donn’s way of thinking, so smell the told-ya-so snark waft through the air. Esmonde’s egotistical descent into self-parody is hilarious.

Me, me, me. Me. I did this. I am the seer – you are the unwashed mouth-breathers. That’s Esmonde’s political thought about Gaughan, in a nutshell.

Don’t hurt your back patting it so damned hard, Donn.

Pigs have sprouted wings, lost souls have donned parkas in Hades, and lambs have lain down with lions.

The day many thought would never happen has come: Kevin Gaughan – eternal maverick, inveterate outsider and longtime critic of the political establishment – was endorsed last week as a candidate for Erie County comptroller by the Democratic Party.

To steal a line from sportscaster Al Michaels: Do you believe in miracles?

I am not sure if local Democrats finally came to their senses or if Gaughan – whom I have known for a quarter-century – has lost his. I suspect it is the former.

The fact of the matter is that Gaughan hasn’t been taken seriously before because he hasn’t performed all that well in any campaign in which he’s been involved. Part of it has to do with the fact that he is professorial in his demeanor – something we just don’t get in politicians around here. Part of it has to do with the fact that the size and political activity of his base of support is small – he eschews the quid-pro-quo with political clubs, which, on the one hand, help with petitions, canvassing, and calls; and, on the other hand, provide a well of ready and willing patronage hires. That’s not a criticism of Gaughan, whom I respect, but a reality. He’s a thinker, a philosopher, a tinkerer, but he’s just not your typical politician. This is a blessing and a curse.

The tone of the article is so unbelievably condescending – as if all the rest of you backwards-ass cretins have finally seen the light that Esmonde has been shining for nigh these many years.

Granted, he replaces the party’s original choice, who withdrew for health reasons. Even so, I think this day has been too long in coming. Gaughan’s government-reform efforts in the last two decades even prompted futile endorsement offers from rival Republicans. Only now have fellow Democrats opened their arms.

Credit County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner, who took over last year at age 34, for bringing Gaughan, 59, in from the cold to run against Republican incumbent Stefan Mychajliw.

“From Day One, I said I wanted to make the party more progressive,” Zellner told me. “Some, in years past, maybe would have shut Kevin out. I think this shows that the thinking of the party is changing.”

Given our grandstanding comptroller, who has absolutely zero financial background and has worn out his shoes running to the nearest microphone to declare today’s reasonable sounding of alarms, it is imperative that the Democrats put up a challenger who has some bona fide experience in trying to find ways to dramatically improve the efficiency of government in both macro (regionalism) and micro (board downsizing) ways. Frankly, putting up Mychajliw’s red coat against Gaughan’s decade and a half of efficiency activism is brilliant, and Gaughan has done all of that for very little reward. Also, Donn Esmonde had absolutely nothing to do with any of it.

The reed-thin, Harvard-educated attorney and civic activist has for years carried the smaller-government flag. He has done more, in my view, to help the community than most elected officials. Instead of seizing the voter appeal of a no-strings reformer, the party – under the likes of Len Lenihan and Steve Pigeon – for years slammed the door.

The rejection said more about the party’s march-in-place myopia than it did about Gaughan. Although, in fairness, he did little to endear himself – thrice taking on party favorites in primaries and generally avoiding party functions and parades he wasn’t leading. His style attracts some people, repels others. With a patrician air that seems at odds with a common-man philosophy, Gaughan often sounds like he is reading from a civics textbook.

Gaughan has rankled the unions, which make up much of the Democrats’ base. Gaughan has upset many protectors of the inefficient, wasteful status quo. He wants to kill the job in a place where job number one is to not kill the job. Esmonde’s condescending “f you” to past party bosses completely ignores the reasons why Gaughan has been a tough sell in Democratic circles. To ignore that is to ignore facts.

Like him or not, there is no arguing with success. His 1997 Chautauqua Regionalism Conference helped to turn “sprawl” and “consolidation” into household words. His subsequent public “Conversations” hammered politicians for a lack of post-Chautauqua reforms. His downsizing crusade led to the shrinking of seven town and village boards and the County Legislature – angering numerous politicians for threatening their power bases.

Eight downsized boards are palpable achievements. The introduction of two words into the WNY vernacular, and that’s over the course of 16 years. The only phrases missing from this Esmonde lesson are, “lighter, quicker, cheaper” and “placemaking”.

His stabs at elective office were a different story. Gaughan’s failed efforts underline how tough it is for an “outsider” of modest means – despite name recognition and a core following – to take on an endorsed candidate with a legion of party workers, money and institutional backing. He lost Democratic primaries for Congress, mayor and the Assembly.

Gaughan seemed resigned, after getting pounded in the Assembly race last year, to a future of practicing law and digging into academia. But a recent courtesy call to Zellner led, to his surprise, to an endorsement offer.

After decades of separation, the historically fractured Democratic Party has discovered its foremost progressive. Check the thermostat in Hades.

I’m not sure whether Gaughan is progressive or conservative. Isn’t “less government” typically seen as a conservative thing? Perhaps that explains why his is a hard sell in true-blue New York and union-friendly WNY. And what do Gaughan’s “modest means” have to do with anything? If anything, it points to a dramatic need for a fundraising blitz, and that’s something you recruit people to do – people who are good at it.

But Esmonde misses a key point that Gaughan will be asked about – one that has nothing to do with the fact that Gaughan was once sued for a debt owed to the Buffalo Hyatt – for someone who is so opposed to the political class, why is he so eager to join them? Congress, Mayor, State Senate, Erie County Clerk – Gaughan went for all of them in just the last 23 years. That drubbing he took when he primaried a perfectly reasonable progressive Democrat for the Assembly Sean Ryan? Ryan is also an attorney and has made his bones working his way up the party ranks, doing the grunt work and getting the eventual party nod. He is uniquely close to the unions in town and there’s simply no way you can, as a Democrat, outflank Ryan on either end of the political spectrum.

So this isn’t about people finally seeing the Esmonde light about Gaughan – this is about Gaughan finding a race where Democrats are left with no other choice.

Sunday

Also, there was a Sunday column where he was able to tsk-tsk the fact that the city of Buffalo has a lot of bad students populating its schools, and that a kid’s educational output is largely predetermined by his socioeconomic reality and the educational output of the parents. If a parent dropped out of school pregnant and with failing grades in 9th grade, chances are pretty good that the child’s experience will be similar. Rather than addressing the complete breakdown of society that accompanies that sort of spiraling descent into intergenerational poverty and despair,

Esmonde figures we should just bus inner city kids to the boondocks and vice-versa. Because nothing helps education more than an hour-and-a-half bus ride, twice a day, right? This “solution” also gets to avoid one of the most troubling components of this reality – that some people just place no value on education whatsoever. How do you convince someone with that mindset to change anything? Isn’t this the same Esmonde who blamed these negligent parents for chronic student absences? Does he think shipping such a student to Sardinia is going to magically reduce truancy?

Esmonde’s concern-trolling of the extremely complicated and difficult issue of school reform is counterproductive. His tired, prejudicial pablum (underscored by him quoting racist anonymous emails as indicators of widespread suburban opinion), is only made worse by his constant advocating for de-funding suburban schools, incessant charter-fellating, and hypocritical good-enough-for-me-but-not-for-thee union scapegoating. There are probably ways we can help break the pattern of poverty and devalued education in America’s inner cities, but Esmonde looks at putting band-aids on the symptoms, and completely ignores the underlying disease.

Maybe education is devalued because Buffalo was always a manufacturing town. Maybe the loss of manufacturing over the last 40 years has completely devastated families without the means to leave and go where the jobs are. Maybe decades’ worth of demolishing the very socioeconomic foundation of entire communities have led to despair and poverty and despair. Maybe these are the issues we should focus on if we want to lift people up and not lose yet another generation of people who really just need a job and some hope for social mobility.

Donn Esmonde Looks at things Backwards

21 Jul

Donn Esmonde is an Ass” is the name of the series, and he seldom, if ever disappoints. In Friday’s column, he devoted about 550 words to talking about how lame Byron Brown is and how Bernie Tolbert sure is swell for trying.

Bernie Tolbert doesn’t need or want my sympathy. But I can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Taking on Byron Brown is like trying to grab a puff of smoke or lasso a shadow. Nothing sticks to the Teflon Mayor.

On Brown’s two-term watch, Buffalo lost another 20,000 people. Schools went deeper into the dumpster, while he watched the charter school revolution from the sidelines. His anti-poverty “plan” for America’s third-poorest city was a lame, idea-absent rehash. Buffalo is basically a ward of the state, which covers a third of its budget and the bulk of its school costs.

The “charter school revolution” is city people suburbanizing city schools. Pull kids and money out of the traditional public schools, so your kids can have a Williamsville experience without moving to Williamsville. Esmonde has an especial hard-on for suburban schools, and has spent three or four columns advocating for the decimation of what had until recently been one of the best districts in the region. Esmonde’s concern-trolling about schools is utter nonsense, given his complete transformation into a tea party Sith lord.

Brown backed a proposed Bass Pro store that would have smothered the downtown waterfront, and a Seneca casino that experts say does us more harm than good. But mostly, he is mum – even on obvious causes such as expanding ECC’s downtown campus. Nearly two-thirds of respondents rated him no better than average in a Buffalo News leadership survey. He is vision-lite, cliche-heavy and largely uninspiring.

You would think that the man would be fighting for his political life. Instead, the mayor is livin’ easy.

2/3 of respondents in a poll rated Brown as “average”. The Siena Poll that the Buffalo News and Channel 2 commissioned, the cross-tabs for which have never been released.

Polls show him far ahead of Tolbert, who is barely known and fights a 6-to-1 dollar disadvantage. The Democratic primary in September decides the race, as city Republicans are an endangered species. My wish to see a progressive, idea-driven mayor in this lifetime may never be granted (in lieu of that, I’d settle for a Super Bowl). Pollster Steven Greenberg can’t explain Brown’s cushy lead, given abysmal marks on schools and job creation.

Esmonde uses the word “progressive”. It is to laugh. But while city Republicans may be an “endangered species”, you’d think that the underdog candidate, Sergio Rodriguez, might merit a mention. I mean, the guy has ideas, he’s saying a lot of what Esmonde is saying in this piece, and he has a name!

Which brings us to Brown’s political genius – he has mastered the art of low expectations. By keeping his head in the foxhole, by not championing big ideas and sweeping reforms, he has conditioned people not to expect much. So he can take credit for anything good that happens – even when, like the waterfront or downtown revival, it doesn’t have much to do with him – while avoiding blame for problems. It helps that Brown was preceded by three-term Mayor Tony Masiello, who, if possible, set an even lower bar.

At least Jimmy Griffin had an executive temperament, along with a temper.

A bolder, tougher, more visionary mayor would lobby for a regional planning board, to slow sprawl and funnel new business into the city. He would protect one of the city’s few resources – its stock of great old buildings – by data-basing historic properties and hammering negligent owners. He would push for mixed-income housing in the suburbs, to lighten the city’s heavy poverty load. He would embrace the choice of charter schools, while demanding accountability from traditional ones. And on and on.

How exactly does the mayor of the City of Buffalo “push for mixed-income housing in the suburbs”? Does he ask nicely, or is there some interjurisdictional power he has that I’m not aware of?

But Esmonde is partially right – to have Byron Brown record ads touting Geico, which is hiring way the fuck up in North Amherst somewhere, is an obscenity of the highest order. The city of Buffalo is precisely the place that Geico should have located its sprawling call center, but instead it went to North Bumfuck because it got a swell deal from whatever IDAs had handouts at the ready. It is the people who live in the city of Buffalo who are in desperate need of $30,000 entry-level white-collar cubicle jobs like the ones at Geico, because the manufacturing jobs are gone and working at McDonalds frankly sucks.

Byron Brown and Warren Buffett and the Buffalo News all think locating Geico up near Quebec was a swell idea.

A decent wage, a decent job, and some semblance of an opportunity are the very foundation on which you build a better future for young, underserved and underprivileged city residents. Not your “stock of great old buildings”.

Esmonde and his preservation-first cohorts have it backwards. Fixing up great old buildings doesn’t turn around the local economy, but turning around the local economy will help spur more fixing up of great old buildings. The focus on Buffalo’s hardware is well-managed by exquisitely touchy people who think that attracting “cultural tourists” to see the Darwin Martin house and other buildings is the antidote to a half-century of decline. Our town is replete with ultra-wealthy foundations sporting the names of the founders of businesses that long ago abandoned Buffalo, all of which seem to think that their deep pockets provide an avenue for them to tell everyone how they’re doing it wrong. Meanwhile, the best thing anything with the name “Oshei” in it could do is open a Goddamn windshield wiper factory in Buffalo.

Regular people will rehab your pretty old buildings when it makes economic sense to do so. People will do it when you don’t have to retain a preservation activist to help navigate your way to tax credits, and around demonstrations and litigation. People will preserve our “great old buildings” when they have money to do it. And how do you create wealth in a shit economy? You make sure you have a decent educational system, and that there are available jobs to help lift a generation out of poverty and into the economic mainstream.

Instead, we applaud the fact that Geico brings thousands of jobs to the sticks – just a few bus transfers and a commute that would make Long Islanders cringe! It’s appalling. It’s sickening. It’s a disgrace.

His city is on life support, yet Brown shows little passion and champions few causes. What, me worry?

Granted, the mayor has strengths. He is likable, projects concern and looks good – all political pluses. The streets get plowed, and the garbage is picked up. And his timing is good. He is in office while the waterfront is shaping up and downtown is repopulating. Albany and Washington dollars, not city money, stoke the waterfront, and downtown revival is traceable mainly to market forces and momentum. Still, the rising tide lifts his boat. As numerous insiders have told me, Brown stays out of the way and shows up for the ribbon-cuttings.

Brown stays out of the way? The stories of institutional, tolerated bribery and corruption within City Hall are legion.

In Buffalo, the city of low expectations, it goes a long way. A lot further, I think, than it should.

An irony here is that Esmonde does so much to keep those expectations low and stupid.

Shorter Esmonde

10 Jul

I join in the local media outrage over animal cruelty that, while horrible, doesn’t come close to the cruelty that man does to fellow man on a seemingly daily basis throughout WNY.

While animal cruelty gets loads of column space and talk-radio time, human-on-human violence generally registers a shrug and a segue into which teenager the local sports franchise is going to shower with millions of dollars for throwing a ball or smacking a disc with a stick.

Last year, 50 people were homicide victis in Buffalo. Hoskins was convicted of 52 counts of animal cruelty. Those animals lived. 

 

Like Esmonde’s other love, preservation (and, now, tea party politics), the local fascination with animal cruelty cases is built upon a mountain of white privilege. Esmonde is its weakest cheerleader – a pathetic, aging parrot of lazy WBEN topics. 

That’s today’s edition of Donn Esmonde is an Ass™.