Grassroots groups try to change Buffalo a block at a time
BUFFALO, New York – Eric Walker and the people he works with aren’t waiting for the leadership of this blighted city to deal with its many problems.
“People waited for a long time for the city to fix things and it didn’t happen,” Walker, co-founder of PUSH Buffalo, a nonprofit grassroots community organization working to rebuild the West Side of Buffalo. “But we’re not waiting. We’re trying to fix this ourselves, one block at a time.”
PUSH has a number of different projects aimed at trying to regenerate this area, where abandoned homes have acted as a drag on the district for years. The projects include renovating abandoned homes and renting them out at affordable rates, and turning empty lots into gardens. The West Side is a far cry from the city’s Broadway-Fillmore district which is down to about 20 percent of its former size.
There are still some stores and many of the homes are still occupied. Grassroots groups here are working to slow the decay and hold this community together.
Buffalo is less than half the size it was in 1950, a post-industrial city in America’s Rust Belt that reached its heyday in the early 20th century but has never really been the same since. The city has bled people for decades as its young left in search of jobs elsewhere. Gorgeous architecture reflects that former glory, including mansions that would be worth many millions in more prosperous cities.
Organizers here say the city authorities have remained fixated on returning Buffalo to its former size and stature rather than accepting it is now a smaller city and moving forward as such. Members of these grassroots groups say that after decades of big plans that have come to naught – casinos, hotels and the like – the city shows little sign of changing.
“The city is always looking for the next big thing, the silver bullet that’s going to turn things around,” said Justin Azzarella, executive director of the Elmwood Village Association, which represents businesses and residents in the Elmwood district of the city. “That isn’t going to happen.”
“For our part, we have had to accept that the city has limited resources and that we have to work together to change things ourselves,” he added.
Ultimately, however, groups on the ground say they can only do so much and that the city badly needs an economic strategy that will bring employment opportunities here.
“In the end, the only real solution for Buffalo is jobs,” Walker said.
We were promised an interview with the mayor that never materialized, so we were unable to get a picture of the city’s strategy from city hall. So rather than focus on what is or isn’t being done by Buffalo’s authorities, we’ll focus in the next few blogs on what grassroots organizations and people on the ground are doing instead.
Photos by Brian Snyder