Route to Recovery

A trip through the epicenters of the recession

Grassroots groups try to change Buffalo a block at a time

November 23, 2009


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

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A sad story of a city that peaked in influence long ago and is now a shadow of its former self. Two years ago I rolled through on Amtrak journeying between New York and Toronto and saw the ex-New York Central railway station, an Art Deco masterpiece opened in 1929, standing derelict and waiting pateiently for the wreckers’ ball. A more poignant metaphor for the long-past glory and decline of Buffalo does not exist.

Posted by Gotthardbahn | Report as abusive

Buffalo is not dead yet! While the politicians may be suffering from inertia, there are many small groups of people (like those at PUSH) committed to and working hard toward Buffalo’s renaissance.

Posted by Kathy H. | Report as abusive

Hurray! The American spirit – resilience and initiative are at play here. We need to explore if this blueprint can work for Detroit and other cities whose best days are far gone in the rear view mirror. How is this being funded, how is insurance being managed, who holds the title to these homes, who will get the rent?

We need more such initiatives that rescue hope from despair. Thanks for sharing and setting a benchmark we can follow. If you know the answers to the questions above, plz. write to:


Canada should just annex Buffalo. Nobody and the US would notice and Canada would gain an awesome hockey team.

Posted by Joe Canada | Report as abusive

I have friends who live in the City and agree that the Politicians are worthless and the bankers are bloodless.
Bless the kids who are doing this work; a group of the same age started the whole resurrection in New Orleans.

Posted by A J Franks | Report as abusive

The entire NE is in decline, there is no turn-around plan. They continue to raise taxes, which drives out people that have valuable skills and can find jobs in other lower tax regions of the country, which further lowers their tax base, so they raise taxes again – a cycle with a bad end.
The entire NE is becoming a ghetto!

Posted by ed campini | Report as abusive

I grew up in Buffalo,, and that is all you ever heard were the false promises from the elected politicans. As the city population declines the taxes still go up. In winter driving down the streets were a constant nightmare. Everyone who lives in the city either works for that state, city or federal govenment.. Buffalo may be the first experiment in Socialism. After graduation from college I left the city and landed a job with a big international company in North Carolina and never been happier since leaving the old tired city of empty promises of liberal socialism.

Posted by Josh | Report as abusive

great to see someone working on these cities. they all have so much potential. Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland,etc. Would love to see them re-bound even if its just one small step at a time. doug

Posted by doug | Report as abusive

This is what happens when Democrats run a city unopposed for over 50 years. The Buffalo common council and the Buffalo mayor’s office haven’t seen a Republican in over half a century. What is the result? Union thugs run rampant, the highest taxes in America and a diaspora that sees each new generation leave Buffalo for brighter horizons elsewhere.

This article, frankly, is missing the point. The PUSH initiative is one in a litany of failures that cannot succeed in Buffalo until the idiots voting stop putting the same idiots into office. Wasted effort is all this amounts to.


Indianapolis is nowhere near as devastated as Buffalo or Detroit, but we have many similar problems, including a city/county government that still utilizes 20th century thinking to deal with 21st century issues and problems. The inner city is deeply ghettoized, run-down and plagued with the social ills common to so many American cities. Most of the people (and the good jobs) fled to the suburbs long ago. While the city continues to build sports stadiums and spend loads of public funds to attract convention business and high-end condos to the downtown area, once-thriving city neighborhoods are being neglected and stagnating.

Grassroots organizing will help but we certainly need to elect forward-thinking politicians with practical, low-cost ideas for urban revitalization. Unfortunately, so many people continue to vote against their self-interests (we can blame that ignorance and short-sightedness, in part, on the pathetic state of American public education). We need to hold our elected officials accountable for the condition of our cities and our beleaguered quality of life.

Posted by steven | Report as abusive

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