Tag Archives: progress

#Buffalove: What is it Good for?

22 Aug

Image via behance.net

“Buffalove” is a portmanteau of “Buffalo” and “love”, often seen hashtagged on Twitter when someone plunks 130 other characters about some thing or event around Buffalo of which s/he approves. 

But what does it really mean? Is Buffaloving something akin to a declaration that it’s good enough? At what point do we demand more? What is the interplay between good things we like and the local leadership that is uniquely positioned to expand or enhance it? How many opportunities are we missing or losing by being satisfied, and “Buffaloving” something? 

It’s a long-running gag that we don’t really want to make Buffalo better – we like it just the way it is. “Keep Buffalo Lame” was a popular t-shirt we sold at WNYMedia back in the day. We like our weather, our 20 minute drives, our shopping is ok, certain parts of the city seem to be doing better, what’s not to Buffalove? 

Brad Riter, Chris Smith, and I discussed it at length in this Trending Buffalo podcast: 


A Long Hard Look

30 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Buffalo 2005 – 2009

4 Sep

I started blogging in late 2003, and started focusing on local issues about a year later – after John Kerry lost the presidential election. Soon after that, in early 2005, George Johnson contacted me about Buffalo Rising – it was then a print publication that was starting a blog, and they were going to cover “New Buffalo”. George even made these handy widgets that said, “New Buffalo” and were used to promote not just Buffalo Rising, but the idea that Buffalo was finally shedding its rustbelt image of failure, and that great things were coming. They were just around the corner. This time, we’re going to get it right.

Some, like Christopher Byrd, say it was stupid to think it ever existed. We at WNYMedia.net promoted the notion that there wasn’t a “new” or “old” Buffalo, but One Buffalo. I had bought in to the notion of there being a “new Buffalo” because I know first-hand how dramatically a city, a region, and a mindset can change. The city I grew up in, White Plains, was once a typical little suburban city with a bustling main street (Mamaroneck Avenue), and you had your drug stores, Woolworth’s, movie house, music store, donut shop, photography store, Macy’s, etc. Then they built the Galleria mall, and Mamaroneck Avenue started looking dingy and forgotten. But in the last decade, a massive transformation took place right downtown in the shadow of a newer, fancier mall – Mamaroneck Avenue is booming again and features names on it like “Target”, “Ritz-Carlton”, and “Trump”.

Likewise, when I first moved to Boston it was a lot like Buffalo. Clinging to past glories, still thinking it was the hub of the universe, gritty but progressive thanks to a massive yearly influx of young, energetic people with disposable incomes. Now, it’s Boston.

Buffalo? I think the idea of “New Buffalo” is dead. The time of death, in my estimation, was the moment Byron Brown was re-elected Mayor of the City of Buffalo in 2009. He’s had 5 years to do something palpable to change not just the city for the better, but also its culture of back-scratching and backbiting. But it’s only gotten worse. And if you think about it – who’s out there who could take that job and possess, much less articulate, a coherent, credible vision for Buffalo’s future? We always come back to: no plan, no vision, no goals, no aspiration. Just make sure Goin’ South and Grassroots get their promised jobs, and STFU.

New Buffalo existed, after all, in the aspirations and hopes of people who love this area and want to see it grow. People who are here not because they have to be, but by deliberate, conscious choice. People who know it’s good elsewhere, and want to make it good here, too.

My goodness, January 2005 was filled with hope. And that’s just one example. Half a decade later, and Tom Suozzi is no longer going to be in elected office, much less Fixing Albany or its 3 men in a room. The Brennan Center’s simple recommendations for legislative and rules reform haven’t been completely implemented, and Albany pols don’t seem energized to make those changes. Revitalize Buffalo? Gone. WNY Coalition for Progress? Gone. Kevin Gaughan’s push for regional, metropolitan government? Gone in exchange for downsizing town boards and consolidating towns & villages.

We cheer small successes and are mentally and emotionally numb or immune to our disappointments. But as far as movements of the young and plugged-in, the big trend seems to be to get together and pow-wow about social media. You know who’s not using social media? The Erie County Legislature, the administration running the City of Buffalo, the Mayor of the City of Buffalo, the Buffalo Common Council, your town/village/city government, and most likely your representative in the State Senate/Assembly/town or city council. And if they were using social media, chances are they’d use it for one-way announcements rather than conversations about WNY and its government.

The red/green budget crisis seemed like a cathartic moment when we would finally get our political, economic, and social act together to jettison the past and work towards the future. Didn’t happen. The same fights get fought by the same people. Some who seemed as if they could be positive actors for change turned into raving, indecent lunatics. Others gave up.

New Buffalo as a concept may be dead, but plenty of people and organizations are taking little steps towards making a better WNY and a better life for them and others. Buffalo isn’t just a place, it’s something of a state of mind.

Buffalo needs goals, a plan to reach them, and leadership to steer us through the plan. When those three things converge, then we’ll have a truly New Buffalo.

Pulling in the same direction: “Progress” in New Buffalo

4 Sep

The varying moods induced by the slate of Buffalo news this summer– Canalside setbacks, potential flight of HSBC bank, and the death of UB 2020 to mention only a few – have highlighted the various goals of tribal Buffalo in 2010. That the same bit of news could cause both despair and victory cheers in such numbers and to such depth shows a distressing fracture. Not everyone will agree all the time, on everything, nor should they. But it wasn’t that long ago that the community was pulling on the same rope in the same direction far more often. Note the recent obituary on the death of the idea of New Buffalo – many can not agree that the patient is even dead, much less what the idea meant when it was alive.

What is the definition of “progress” in this town? I thought I used to know. I moved back in 2007, unknowingly at the height of “New Buffalo” and accidently in the middle of Old Home Week (nee Buffalo Homecoming, nee Citybration). I didn’t know “New Buffalo” was the name of the feeling, but I did know the hope and optimism. It was one factor that got me to move a family here.

Courtesy Treasure Frey at stuartbrown.com

Now, not so much. Instead of a generally agreed upon view of progress, or at least the idea that the city could walk and chew gum at the same time, allowing us to pursue multiple threads simultaneously, it seems we’ve become divided into a number of camps.

– The Old Building Camp (Tielman, Esmonde, BRO) says that keys to Buffalo progress are rotting away in front of us as we speak. Fix up the nice old architecturally significant buildings we have, and other cities wish we had, and we’re on the road. This view is well summarized by David Steel, one of WNYMedia’s frequent commenters, who identified a list of projects in Alan Bedenko’s article as reasons for optimism. Out of his 35 projects, 25 were rehabs or additions to older buildings.

My issue with this approach is that it pays more attention to the building than its contents. The building is just the container: its the tenants, and the jobs/wealth/impact they generate, that will cause progress in Buffalo. It is telling that the developers of Buffalo (Termini, Brown, Montante, Savarino, Paladino) trip off the tongue faster than the business leaders (Rich, Jacobs, Wilmers is Chairman at M&T (who is the CEO?), I had to look up how to spell First Niagara’s Koelmel).

– The New Building Camp, smaller in size but no less vocal, says that old building conversions are nice, but they are a natural part of city development, and are not a big deal. That we praise them so loud and so long is sad, small, and kinda pathetic. What we should be looking for is New Buildings that indicate a willingness to take risk, require fewer government subsidies, have a potential return of real money, and show a increased demand for CBD space. When Carl Paladino finally builds 50 Court Street, says lefty (another regular commenter), come talk to me.

But to me both the Old Building Camp and New Building Camp have a similar problem: if one focuses on the contents of the package, and not the package itself, it is a less-than-rosy regional picture. The Larkin Building filled with Kaleida, First Niagara, law firms, and others from the local area. The Larkin is a win if you consider moving a corporate HQ from Pendleton to Buffalo a win, and success is measured based upon traffic across the city/suburb line. Even if you are city focused, Avant grabbed a law firm from a Buffalo historic building, construction of UB’s medical campus downtown just moves programs from University Heights, and the future high profile moves of Phillips Little and HSBC to Canalside (allegedly) just move workers several city blocks. Some projects are considered successes before they even have tenants: the only occupier of the new rehab at the Genesee Gateway is the State Dept’s new Passport office, a development coup of a couple dozen low paying government jobs, and the rest of the building is not yet spoken for. The Hautman-Woodard Institute and NY Center of Excellence for Bioinformatics are beautiful and terrifyingly empty, a shade of their possible capacity.

It is the same or worse for housing. A City of Buffalo Common Council member confessed to me in confidence that he is not a fan, generally, of large housing rehabs, such and Frizlen’s and Termini’s warehouse and school conversions. Why? Because 15 new housing units in a neighborhood means 15 abandoned houses nearby. No one is moving from Atlanta, or Syracuse, or even Cheektowaga for most of these units. They are moving from a house a couple blocks away.

New buildings, old buildings. I care what’s inside.

– Frustration with the previous two camps yields the Coalition of Enough Already, which does not want just anything built, but does want SOMETHING to happen. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to satisfy all. It shouldn’t do more harm than good. But simply building a Peace Bridge, or Canalside, or a Casino, or anything larger than $30 million, would show a change in attitude and general competence of leaders of all types: political, business, government.

– Moving on from the Construction is Progress camps, our own Chris Smith is vocal advocate for the Good Government Camp, which says what we really need are less corrupt politicians, policy leaders, new ideas, good schools, and a regional plan that leverages our assets. Good government hears the news that the new data center Yahoo built in chilly Lockport uses less energy for cooling, from 54% of all energy used by the datacenter to 1% (!), and makes a plan to capitalize on it. I am sympathetic to the idea, and to the broken hearts of so many that thought Mayor Brown, and a new wave of average citizens getting involved, would make this actually possible. I am now more cynical about this possibility than any of the others.

– The Grass Roots Camp says all your fancy buildings, and money, and politics is crap, and always will be, and while you cry over spilt milk on Canalside or some budget hearing, real people are making a difference every day. Poster children include PUSH, Urban Roots, the Wilson Street Farm, Buffalo ReUse, MAP, taco trucks, Sweetness_7 Cafe, carriage rides in Delaware Park, and yoga down at Canalside.

I have been accused of being dismissive of such things, and perhaps I am. I think all are wonderful projects in their own right. I just don’t confuse any with progress in Buffalo. That so many people do is sad, and says how far Buffalo has fallen, but speaks nothing ill of any of the projects themselves. But I feel jobs and growth will allow Buffalo to progress far more, not just in economic areas, but to fight poverty and improve our general quality of life.

– Let me add in one more camp, not yet represented. It’s the camp I am in. How will we know when Buffalo is “progressing?” Growth. I am waiting for the census data to show Buffalo, or WNY, or even some demographic segment of any decent size, is larger now than it was in the past. Even if that growth is year over year, much less over the decade. Buffalo is getting smaller, greyer, poorer, and suffers a lack of Brain Gain of national proportions. Growth creates markets for buildings new and old. Growth brings new people with new ideas that can flush out some of the old guard politicians and interest groups. Growth can justify new bridges, new casinos, new shopping areas, and new housing downtown. Growth changes the brand. Growth gives me a job without taking one from you. Growth gives out two foundation grants instead of one. Growth can cause its own problems, but for a region already as spread out and empty as ours, many of those problems simply don’t exist.

But why do we need the camps at all? Should not a healthy city be able to restore old buildings, build new ones, make better schools, and attract new businesses simultaneously? In fact, is it not those attributes that define a healthy city. Perhaps that is the objective proof we need that Buffalo is not healthy, even if it was momentarily in the recent past.

In Buffalo, we all chew off the same bone. It’s a zero sum game. Money for Larkin means less money for something else. The Wendt Foundation said yes to the Genesee Gateway project, and thus no to something else. Which is why more and more people are becoming members of a second camp, in addition their first identified above: the Nihilists. Saying yes to PUSH means saying no to Canalside. Saying yes to downtown means saying no to the Seneca Casino. Saying yes to the new Courthouse means saying no to the Statler. Saying yes to subsidized housing means saying no to UB. Saying yes to old buildings means saying no to the Peace Bridge.

It is not new for government, business and non-profits to have to make choices with limited resources. It is new for one group to fight another’s project with as much energy as they pursue their own.

All is Quiet on New Year’s Day

1 Jan

This has been a bizarre whirlwind of a week, replete with fixing cars, fixing eyes, fixing sinks, fixing faucets, having way too much champagne, watching the kids play and grow, watching movies with my wife, having quiet nights interrupted by panicked 2 year-olds at 3 in the morning, making and re-making travel plans, mocking things left and right, trying something at Starbucks called “gingersnap latte” which – seriously – just sucks, hitting the sales, playing Wii, and wondering where the time flew.

I don’t really do New Year resolutions because of the hype. At best, I try to be choosy about the hype I bother with. But generally, when something gets too much hype, I refuse to have anything to do with it. (Tangential example – the movie “Marley and Me” is being hyped left and right. Because of this, I refuse not only to see it in the theater, but never to see it on DVD or on broadcast or cable TV. Ever. I couldn’t care less how good it is.)

We have a couple more days off, and we’ll enjoy them restfully before everything jolts back to normal on Monday. One mission I have is to get a wicked good eggs benedict between now and Sunday.

I will predict generally that 2009 will bring Buffalo and WNY more of the same. We will continue to be nostalgic for the good old days – whether they be the 1950s, 1970s, or 1890s – and we will ever forget to discuss and act on ideas that would bring about a better future for this region. We will continue to bitch & moan about the symptoms of a shrinking, economically weak region and forget completely to address the underlying disease.

Oh, yeah. Happy New Year!

(Photo credit: BlogTO)

Money Savings

13 Jun

I know we don’t have car-sharing programs like ZipCar in Buffalo, but thought that this story out of Philadelphia was rather innovative and forward-thinking:

The city of Philadelphia has found a new way to cut expenses by eliminating vehicles from its city fleet. However, many city employees still need to get around sometimes. They’ve decided adopt the car-sharing model and they put out a request for bids. It’s been announced that ZipCar has been awarded a new contract to provide car-sharing services for municipal employees. Philadelphia has already eliminated 330 vehicles from its fleet over the last 4 years and this new deal will expand on that. The ZipCar contract starts on July 1 for a year and may be extended for another three years. ZipCar is offering hybrid vehicles in Philadelphia from $6/hour.

Like the article suggests, car-sharing services enables carless city dwellers to become members of the service and reserve cars for occasional use (grocery store, IKEA runs, etc.). They pay per hour and gas, insurance, and dedicated parking are all included (quite handy in cities where off-street parking costs as much as a private school education and on-street parking is scarce). 150 free kilometers is included for each rental, plus an additional $0.25/km over that.

For a municipality, it beats operating and insuring its own fleet.

Over the course of the contract, city employees will have access to Zipcar’s diverse fleet selection, including hybrids, standard sedans, and small SUVs, ensuring access to the most appropriate car for their task. Recent studies by Zipcar indicate that each Zipcar takes 15 vehicles off the road and Zipcar members report that they drive an average of 4,000 miles per year less than when they owned a car. Members also report saving an average of $435 per month compared to the average cost of owning and operating a vehicle in an urban setting.

(Photo from Flickr Member M.V. Jantzen)

Blame the Common Tern

25 Apr

The scapegoat. Read about the history of that term here.

Now that the federal government is using the common tern and its food as scapegoats for the changing of the Peace Bridge design, I nominate the common tern to become the scapegoat for everything that fails Buffalo. For instance,

The common tern is raising tolls today.

Assemblyman Mike Cole slept on a common tern’s floor after getting drunk at an Albany party.

The common tern is responsible for the billboard-y thing at Canal Side.

The common tern is holding up the Bass Pro deal.

The common tern is hoarding rice, causing warehouse clubs to limit sales.

The MBBA is run by a common tern.

People move to the suburbs because of all the common terns in the city.

Tom Bauerle had Doug Hagmann on today, and Hagmann said the common tern presents a clear and present terrorist threat to ‘murka.

The common tern suggested red budget-green budget to Joel Giambra.

We can’t build the boulevard alternative/Southtowns Connector due to the common tern.

See how easy this is?

Helping Shrinking Cities through Immigration

11 Dec

I had an unexpected link to my site from the “Burgh Diaspora” today. The post is entitled “Rust Belt 2.0”, and seeks to set up a meeting / collaboration between bloggers in various rust belt cities. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Erie, and Youngstown bloggers have expressed an interest.

The premise is simple:

Create more H-1B visa immigration into the Rust Belt region:

This might be a good time to propose to Congress/Administration the creation of “High Skill Immigration Zones” in parts of the country that are struggling to making the transition to a knowledge-based economy (e.g., Rust Belt Cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, etc.), and which are progressively depopulating and destabilizing.

Attracting educated immigrants to shrinking cities in the rust belt in order to help the transition from a post-industrial stasis to a knowledge-based economy. It’s intriguing. Sure, it’s hard to attract, say, a young college graduate to come to or stay in Buffalo when the pickings in places like Phoenix or Atlanta are more plentiful and appealing. But what about the eager immigrant for whom Buffalo conjures up no negative connotations whatsoever? Consider:

The United States is undergoing a profound economic restructuring, due to pressures of globalization and the rising knowledge economy. America’s Great Lakes region, once the core of the nation’s industrial production and wealth creation, is losing ground rapidly. At this critical moment, federal investment in U.S. competitiveness lacks a regional focus. Federal policy fails to recognize that national growth is driven by integrated regional economies with the strong underlying assets necessary for talent creation and innovation.

What do you think? Good idea? Pipe dream? Is this the kind of thing that could help Buffalo grow its economy and population in spite of Albany politics? I’m somewhat intrigued and prepared to learn more.