Tag Archives: criticism

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.

Imagineering® Buffalo’s Waterfront: Part 2

24 Nov

By now, you’ve watched this video and read what I’ve pulled out from it.

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And you’ve hopefully watched our own 3 year-old video.

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And make sure your voice is heard:

·        Wednesday, November 24, 2010, 10:00-12:00 p.m.

The sessions will be held at the offices of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, 95 Perry St., Suite 500, Buffalo, NY 14203. There is free, two-hour parking on Mississippi St. on the side of the building.

Anyone who is interested in presenting their ideas to ECHDC, but is unable to attend one of the public sessions is encouraged to contact:

Erich Weyant, Assistant Director, Communications

Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.
95 Perry St., Suite 500, Buffalo, NY  14203
716.846.8258
716.846.8262 fax
eweyant@empire.state.ny.us

Back to the post…

When Goldman complains that the Canal Side process must be democratic and inclusive, he implies that it hasn’t been up until now.  That’s quite clearly false both in fact and in perception. In fact, democratically elected leaders created the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), funded it, and empowered it to help develop Buffalo’s inner harbor area. At the time of its creation, development of the inner harbor was non-existent.  It had been several years since the “exploding rocks” debacle that Pataki and Empire State Development helped bring about, and there was neither activity there, nor funding for it.  Since then, the ECHDC has solicited and received public input several times.  A deal with the New York Power Authority funded ECHDC, and a modification of that deal funded it even more.

In Goldman’s video, the word “inclusion” gets thrown around a lot.  But in analyzing what’s going on in those videos, inclusion appears only to have so many definitions and sources.  Goldman’s process is devoid of people of color, average Joes, or  suburbanites.  Only the usual activist cliques, arts promoters, foundation heads, and other typical Elmwood, Parkside, Allentown folks were deemed worthy of input.  Starting at 1:15, Goldman discusses the rationale behind his “Inspirations and Aspirations” event, and some of the speakers are shown.  Older white males, all.

And that luncheon – what a damning self-indictment of this entire movement.  How can you whine about a lack of inclusiveness by hosting an exclusive gathering of Buffalo VIPs?  Were you or I invited to speak to that group and provide our points of view?  Has anyone “talked to” you?  The entire Goldman movement is operating under a preconceived conclusion, and the “process” is being jury rigged to reach it.

And since when does Buffalo’s west side intelligentsia need an engraved invitation from anyone to talk to someone?  Hell, when Chris Smith and I attended Monday’s ECHDC public hearing, we went in after another meeting had just broken up – a meeting that Mark Goldman attended. Artists, curators and teachers and librarians, and businesspeople should all be heard about the waterfront, if they wish to be.  So should parents and car engine manufacturers and construction laborers and plumbers and financial analysts and waiters and deli counterpeople.  No one group has any monopoly on community input – no one group gets to say it speaks on behalf of the community at large.  Only ECHDC can make that claim, since it is created by, and appointed by the people’s duly elected representatives.

We can put in all the solar powered carousels and wind powered ferris wheels and nuclear powered bumper cars we want at the waterfront, but how does that fit in with this group’s other main bugaboo – that of ensuring not faux or fake, but “authentic” history?

Ten years ago, Canal Side was made up of parking lots, the mothballed Aud, the Skyway, the Donovan Building, and more parking.  There was nothing there of an historic nature, except remains that might be excavated.  By definition, all canals are “faux” – they’re faux rivers, artificial waterways.  Even if one was to remove the Hamburg Drain, you’d still have a canal to nowhere. Since the old canal district was long ago demolished, everything that goes there will, by its very definition, be “faux”.  Let’s get over that.

The “middle harbor” where some grain elevators still supply General Mills, and others lie dormant – rusting hulks representing a massive collection of environmental hazards – I don’t understand the burning need to preserve these things.  If they are no longer used, perhaps we could tear them down.  Their presence and age alone do not justify keeping them, nor do they justify preservation by virtue of their ties to Buffalo’s history as a lake port.  Ohio Street from runs along a particularly sad stretch of properties, and some sort of artistic neighborhood, if it is to happen, should happen “organically”, and there’s nothing preventing that from happening now.  Its ongoing uselessness is underscored by its emptiness. There’s no demand for anything there, probably due to the incredible costs associated with maintaining, renovating, or demolishing what’s there now.

You can’t advocate for organic growth within the context of imposing top-down planning decisions for that area.  The hypocrisy at play here is palpable.

The foundations – Baird and Rupp being specifically cited – are shadowy, minimally transparent organizations that wield disproportionately huge, unaccountable power in this town.  No one elects them, no one hires them – they just grant money to worthy organizations or the trustees’ friends.  The foundations run the nonprofits in this town – that’s Buffalo’s version of capitalist entrepreneurs running businesses.

At Monday’s public hearing, there were several who spoke, asking the ECHDC for inclusion of their pet projects or issues, including solar-powered carousels, the elimination of parking,  a bicycle-friendly environment, and the raising of a 200 year-old schooner from the lakebed at a cost of $2 million, and installing it in a tank at the site of the Aud (the weight of which would prohibit a parking garage underneath).

All of these people and groups claim to be speaking for “the” community – but they don’t.  They speak for “a” community.  If you want “organic” growth and bottom-up planning, then you can’t come up with pie-in-the-sky impositions of your top-down vision that’s been vetted only by a small group of people who are exactly like you in almost every way.  Organic growth comes about organically – whereby the ECHDC creates an atmosphere and infrastructure that is conducive to that growth.  You cobble the streets, install utilities, zone it, create a stringent building design/architectural standard for developers to follow, solicit bids, and possibly create a sales-tax free zone, together with other available incentives and let whoever come in and build something.  If someone can pull together the money and resources to raise a ship and place it in the Aud, then he can do so.  If someone wants to lease or buy land to install a solar powered carousel, then they can do so.  If someone wants to put in a tchotchke shop, then they should be free to do so – but in the end, the state agency should be in charge of enabling growth, and entrepreneurs should be in charge of creating it.

Anything else – whether it be a Benderson shopping plaza or a minutely planned arts district – would be Buffalo’s EPCOT.

(Updated to add a few lines, clean up paragraphs, and fix some spelling)