Tag Archives: tribes

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.

Lumping and Labeling

19 Aug

If you don’t mind, I’d like to step back for a second and talk about this conversation that we’re having.

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When I was considering moving back to Buffalo almost four years ago, it was articles like this in The Economist that sold me. The faceless British wisdom talked up a new Bio-Med Corridor, a progressive new Governor, and Big Plans for the city – like a casino, Canalside and an ethanol plant. Things look pretty good from the outside looking in.

Along this week comes a similar article, from Treehugger.com, stating that if the world wants to get off of oil, they should move to Buffalo. Maybe not the worldwide audience of the The Economist, but the same basic idea: an outsider, who doesn’t know the culture of Buffalo, looks at a set of objective facts – water, rail, built environment – and concludes that Buffalo is in a good position. It is a perfectly reasonable conclusion. It is also, however, as we all know, wrong.

Which leads me back to the nature of the conversation that we’re having. Look at the last several weeks worth of columns on this site, since it was announced Bass Pro was not coming, on the topics of Canalside, the shootings at CityGrill, and the Islamic cultural center in southern Manhattan (doesn’t quite trip off the tongue like Ground Zero Mosque, does it – will Libs ever learn to frame?).

Very little time was spent on the merits of any policy or idea. Most of the time was spent on, what I like to call, Lumping and Labeling. City vs Suburbs. Obstructionists vs Developers. Liberals vs Communists. It goes something like this: “You want Bass Pro? Well, you’re white, male, and live in the suburbs! You would want a redneck fishing bait shack! You also love Sarah Palin and hate poor people and the city. Sarah Palin sucks. So does Newt Gingrich. You’re an idiot.”

Think I am blowing it out of proportion? In the last two weeks alone several commenters have asked Alan if he has gone insane, had a nervous breakdown, or was simply Barry Goldwater. Chris Smith has been accused of being a right wing shill for the corporate establishment. I have fared better, as a simple racist and bigot. That’s okay, as an admitted conservative, I am a lost cause from the start.

Just as the highest and best use of the Internet is often porn, the highest and best use of this online community seems to be yelling, name calling, and screaming that other’s opinions don’t matter because you are _______________ (white, black, male (never female) , suburban, city-dweller, rich, poor, etc). If you are from any suburb, you live in Spaulding Lake. If you live in the city, you are an elitist hypocrite from the Village (pick one).

I hesitate to ever think the online conversation here mirrors the real world, where people speak to each other face to face, but in this case, I think its not too far off. I hear worse from folks on the radio, and in polite conversation when a member of the “other” group is not present. Because what I am talking about is not trolling. I am proud that we have a minimum of trolling on WNYMedia. There are a number of reasons for this: Chris and Marc patrol for the worst, the author’s vigorously defend their own work, and other commenters self-police through mockery.  So we do not have the ignorant racism of Buffalo News commenters nor the molotov cocktail throws of BRO. No, what we have is informed prejudice.

I am enough of a sociologist to know the value of breakdown people into groups for study or description. I am fond of accusing “Liberals” of certain actions. But to me, that Liberal is no specific person: it is a consolidated and distilled combination of the message from various media outlets and personalities. A mishmash of HuffPo and Daily Kos and Rachel Maddow and Nancy Pelosi. That is very different than throwing your rhetorical opponent, a single individual person, into an opposing group, bludgeoning them with stereotypes and prejudices, and forcing them to defend the worst (and unrelated) positions of any member of that group. Hamas wants the mosque! Al Qaeda doesn’t want it! Worse, so does Sarah Palin! Refudiate!

Chris and I struggled for a name of this phenomenon. I called it Lazy Categorization. Lump me in with a group you already don’t like, and then you don’t have to listen to what I say. You can yell at me about Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin, all of which I ignore (but Liberals seems to listen to continuously). Yelling about Rush is easy. It substitutes for talking about the topic.

Chris calls it Ideological Xenophobia (not to steal his thunder from a future post, I hope). That’s pretty good. It captures another aspect of this phenomenon: the fear of ideas outside of your comfort zone, and complete invalidation of the ideas of any particular “other.” I’ll hand it to you, it is easier to argue when your opponent is wrong before he even opens his mouth because he is a white, male, suburban capitalist. Touche’.

In the end, though, it is also simple Tribalism. Buffalo’s tribalism is far from unique. But it seems to have especially more power here than other places in the country I have lived or worked (which is now most of it). That’s because Buffalo lacks the two major economic engines present in so many vibrant regions: money and anonymity. We focus a lot on the obvious lack of money, but the “smallness” of Buffalo (City of Good Neighbors, and all that) is often seen as a strength. I am beginning to disagree. No metro area of 1.2 million should be this small. There should be more players, on every field – business, politics, activists, non-profits. I should not be able to recognize the same faces at every table. In other cities, projects get done because no one knows each other, or whom to stop. Not everyone has a personal history of strife, slights, politics, and hurt feelings with everyone else, all gnawing off the same bone and fighting for scraps. 

So back to the outsiders flocking to Buffalo because of the oil bust. What will they find? How will they be welcomed? Which tribe are they let in? The biggest tribe of all in Buffalo is the Born and Raised and Never Left Tribe. The newly arrived often don’t know there is a such a tribe until they wonder why they can’t get a job or a place at the table. Buffalonians are open-hearted, friendly, and welcoming, as long as you are only looking for a glass of lemonade or help shoveling out your driveway. More on that in future columns.

The Dictatorship of A Community

16 Aug

In the past week, several writers at WNYMedia have taken positions which seem to have left our liberal, progressive and activist readership a little confused.  Granted, it does seem incongruous for a bunch of guys who are generally opposed to the status quo and the political power structure in WNY to come out in favor of a massive development (Canalside) planned by those very people.  I think that the initial message is getting lost in typical rhetoric and Internet unpleasantness and we absolutely bear some responsibility for that.  In an effort to clarify my position, let me be brief;  I’m in favor of progress, but I’m opposed to the dictatorship of a community.

What does that mean?

I’m opposed to groups who claim to represent “the” community.  What they actually represent is “a” community, a group of like-minded associates who share an ideology.  In other words, a tribe.

I don’t want speak for the others, but my position on Canalside and the ensuing manifestos from Mark Goldman/WNYMedia is nuanced and maybe the readers have forgotten that I generally favor most of the development projects which are opposed by the progressive community.  I’ve been supportive of the long forgotten Elmwood Hotel at Elmwood and Forest, the idea of a casino in Buffalo, the outer harbor renovations, the Peace Bridge project, Canalside, Bass Pro, expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and dozens of others.  The city would look like a much different place if all of those projects were on their way to completion.

I oscillate between hopefulness and despair and I don’t think that makes me any different than 99% of Western New Yorkers, I just have a blog that grabs a few thousand readers each day on which to share my thoughts.  I’m hopeful when projects are announced, but I know that ideas and plans in this region must endure a Bataan Death March style process if they are to become reality.  So, I am necessarily cynical when I see a fancy new rendering for a development or business.  I know any idea will have to withstand the microscopic criticism of thousands, the planning board, the political process, the talk shows, the blogs, the demagoguery of activists and usually face some sort of legal challenge if it is to become anything more than a dream.

A basic place to begin the discussion is to ask whether or not we feel this is a sensible or reasonable way to run a city.

Do you really feel this makes sense?  Is this process a result of generational failure and lack of progress?  Our obsession with who wins and who loses and who benefits from projects often gets in the way of anything happening at all.  I think some level of public involvement in development decisions is healthy, but when does involvement cross into ideological obstructionism which prevents any semblance of progress?

Thousands of words and tens of thousands of man-hours have been spent contemplating what should happen on our inner harbor.  We even have Buffalo Expats trying to crowdsource ideas for waterfront development…because we definitely need more ideas that come without capital or a group who would implement a crowdsourced plan.

Isn’t that our problem, in a nutshell?  Lots of people with egos, lots of people with their ideologies and -isms trying to have their ideas heard when none of them have the capital or resources to get in the game.  Most of these people mean well, but in a local economy which lacks widespread wealth generation, we have a lot of underemployed smart people using their ideas and positions as capital.  It creates a battlefield of ideas, with everyone screaming from the rooftops that their idea is the one we should adopt.  It’s a cacophony of nonsense and it’s tough to make sense of the future when all we do is argue about the present based on what happened in the past.

So, what’s next?