Route to Recovery

A trip through the epicenters of the recession

Honolulu-to-Buffalo Move Could Be a One-Way Trip

Dec 9, 2009 19:50 UTC

Following our Route to Recovery special report, we asked contributors from Associated Content to tell us their stories about the recession.

By M.L. Sykes.

I moved from Honolulu to Buffalo in the middle of this economic freeze to be closer to my aging parents on the East Coast. It was supposed to be a temporary breather, a departure from academia. But if jobs in higher education don’t recover soon, the recession will keep me here.

I spent 19 years in Honolulu, 11 of them at Hawaii Pacific University when I left in May. The driving forces for my departure were limited senior-level employment opportunities and the long distance to my parents. But these issues were endemic to Hawaii not the economy.

So, after 20-plus years of university work, I took a break before finding a new job. Why not travel, write and relax?

To stretch my savings for six-plus months without income, I needed a home base that was inexpensive but close to potential jobs and my parents. The sub-prime mortgage mess cost my friend his home in Florida, so he moved to his south Buffalo rental property. It’s a two-story, 1904 beauty in desperate need of maintenance. He needed rental income from a roommate, and I needed a place to live, so I now occupy the furnished downstairs unit and help with the renovations.

Buffalo, like its Rust Belt brethren, seemed to have been in recession for a long time. But over the last few years, the economy appears to have improved. Based on my observations and neighbors’ anecdotal reports, we’re seeing local revitalization and improvements in the downtown and waterfront areas after years of decay.

Our blue-collar neighborhood is perking up, too. A few years ago, you could buy a south Buffalo fixer-upper, circa 1900, for $20,000. Today, the same homes sell for $40,000. This year we’ve seen new cars, furniture, kitchens and roofs. I’ve even noticed folks with a few non-recession items: a new canoe, a bigger boat, an electric guitar. Neighbors still have their jobs. Folks I’ve talked to don’t seem worried about having cash for Christmas. Frugality and financial modesty help here. My friend and neighbors live a simpler life than I lived in Honolulu. So, that’s what I do now. Eating out, movie-going and indulgent buying don’t cut it here.

But I still need a job. It’s tough because the recession hit higher education hard. Most universities have responded with hiring freezes, layoffs and other reductions. I’ve applied to community colleges in Denver, New Jersey and just recently a college in Vermont. I never heard back from Denver and New Jersey decided not to interview me. Vermont has acknowledged my application, but I haven’t heard anything.

I never questioned getting another university position, but each passing month increases doubt. The scary part is no health insurance. I can afford a doctor visit and a prescription, but the prospect of a major medical incident is terrifying. COBRA coverage would have cost more than $600 a month, an astronomical sum with no income.

So what’s next? I’ll continue to look for academic positions; more should be available in summer. For now, the Barnes & Noble at the mall is hiring, probably for minimum wage. Maybe I should apply. They do offer health insurance.

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Buffalo groups seek ways to help local businesses

Nov 24, 2009 18:59 UTC

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BUFFALO, New Yorks – Looking at the fancy metal bench outside of Ward Pinkel’s store, you might think the city has spent money to make Elmwood Avenue, a street lined with stores near downtown Buffalo, a nicer place to be.

“The city didn’t pay for any of that,” Ward said, while behind him one of his young staff rearranged dummies in the window of his fashion store, Urban Threads. “We did. We also paid for the lights on the trees and put them up ourselves,”

“If we waited for the city to do anything, I’d be up to here in leaves right,” he added, holding his arms out in front of him above his waist.

“Ward is really committed to keeping this place clean,” said Justin Azzarella, executive director of the Elmwood Village Association, which represents businesses and residents in the Elmwood district of the city. “He picks up trash from his home all the way to the store.”

(As an aside, Buffalo is full of model buffalos, which the city’s residents have adopted as their mascot. Ironically, the city is not named after this animal and there have never been any buffalo here. An urban myth has it that French explorers described the Niagara River here as a “beau fleuve” or beautiful river, which was then corrupted into Buffalo in English.)

The association has around 200 members and works to promote the interests of local business owners and residents alike. Many of the stores along here are in old homes and there is a real Main Street feel to the place. Almost all of them are locally owned and not part of chains.

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Azzarella said that after 10 years of hard work, the district just had zoning laws passed by the city that prevent architecturally unappealing suburban style stores with large parking lots and help preserve the area’s appeal with its wide sidewalks to stroll down and go shopping.

Azzarella said that he is often asked why the street doesn’t have major chains like clothing retailer Gap.

“The problem with stores like that is that they are everywhere and if we had them here we’d look like anywhere else,” he said. “Plus the big chains are cutting back in this economy.”

“Our business owners are hurting, but no one has closed or cut back yet because this is their livelihood and their passion,” Azzarella added. “So I’m not sure that we really need them here.”

He said that by cooperating and not relying on the limited resources of Buffalo city hall, the district has managed to thrive.

“We’re all in this together,” he said.

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Amy Kedron is also working to promote local businesses. She is the co-founder and director of Buffalo First, which sells books of coupons for local businesses.

Kedron is a former academic and has spent a lot of time thinking about what she does. A chart in her latest coupon book – she has the proofs with her when we meet – shows how for every $100 spent at a non locally-owned business, $57 leaves the community, whereas that figure is only $32 if you spend it at a locally-owned business.

“In a way I feel sorry for CEOs of big corporations,” she said. “They are legally obliged to maximize shareholder value and cannot do a lot for communities like this because they would be breaking the law.”

“We have forgotten in this country that there is so much more to capitalism than just the exchange of goods and services,” Kedron added. “It’s about community and local businesses are the best at building communities because their owners are in it to make a living, not a killing.”

COMMENT

“Make living, not a killing.” Nicely put!

Water-focused group tries to steer government money to clean up Buffalo

Nov 24, 2009 18:47 UTC

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BUFFALO, New York – When the state of New York and this post-industrial city don’t have the resources to seek government funding for water preservation projects, Julie Barrett O’Neill’s staff step in.

“There is a lack of capacity at the state and city level,” said the executive director of nonprofit group Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, which works to promote, preserve and protect the environments of the Buffalo and Niagara rivers. “There’s not a lot of infrastructure so we have to step in.”

“We have wound up taking a much bigger role in tackling Buffalo’s water issues than you might expect,” she added on a windswept tour of a section of the Niagara River where fishermen come to catch fish, many of them to feed their families.

Canada is just across the river, with homes right down to the river bank. This section of the swift-flowing river – 12 miles an hour, 200,000 cubic feet per second – was part of the Underground Railroad, an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by black slaves in the 19th century to escape to Canada.

So far the 20 or so staff at Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper have brought up to $12 million in funding to Buffalo, with another $50 million to come over the next two years.

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The group is now looking at ways to access some of the $475 million set aside by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama as part of the Great Lakes Initiative, aimed at restoring the Great Lakes. Together the Great Lakes contain 22 percent of the world’s fresh water.

“There is a growing recognition at the federal level of the importance of the Great Lakes as a water reserve,” Barrett O’Neill said. “Taking care of that resource will be cheaper in the long run than some of the alternatives, such as desalination.”

She says that the group has its work cut out for it, as Buffalo’s industrial past has left a legacy of environmental destruction.

Barrett O’Neill says that toxic sediment dating back to the city’s manufacturing heyday has built up on the bed of the Niagara River and needs to be cleaned up.

She also took us to have a look at an old, flat industrial area along the banks of the Scajaquada Creek, which has been polluted by polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs — man-made organic chemicals which were banned in 1979. Barrett O’Neill says the group hopes to use this industrial wasteland to store rainwater and prevent it flowing into the city’s sewer system.

“A city like this is like a Victorian house, there are a lot of old issues that need to be dealt with,” she said. “We can’t prevent a lot of the pollution, but we can find ways to limit the damage.”

Photos by Brian Snyder

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Urban farm teaches kids how to run a business

Nov 23, 2009 16:12 UTC

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BUFFALO, New York – A tropical fish farm was not quite what we expected when we arranged to meet some of the people running the Massachusetts Avenue Project, an urban farming group in this rusty Rust Belt city.

Walking in from a torrential rain into a greenhouse on a city street, we found ourselves in a warm enclosure full of running water and a tank full of fish in the floor. Jesse Meeder, who runs the fish farm, told us how it works.

A heated water tank sunk into the floor contains hundreds of tilapia – a tropical fish that needs warm water to survive. Water containing fish waste is pumped up to a large wooden case above, where watercress and spinach is growing. The fish waste fertilizes the soil before it passes back to the fish tank below.

Meeder told us that once the fish reach between a pound and a pound and a half in weight – this takes about nine months – they are then sold to local restaurants. The fish farm sells about 2,000 to 3,000 fish a year. It is the main revenue source for MAP, a nonprofit set up to educate local schoolchildren about farming and running a business.

The organization hires about 50 schoolchildren a year to work through the summer months, and keeps the top performers on for the winter months when there is less work, growing vegetables in outdoor plots where abandoned homes once stood, or tending to the fish farm. Altogether, the farm covers about half an acre.

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“It is important to pay them, as it teaches them responsibility and about earning a wage,” said MAP executive director Diane Picard.

As well as farming, the schoolchildren have developed and marketed their own products that the farm sells to local retailers. So far the children have come up with a chilli sauce, a salsa and are working on a salad dressing.

“They learn how to write a marketing plan, how to write a business plan and how to come up with a strategy,” said Erin Sharkey. “These are important skills that they can apply out in the real world.”

Picard said that the project’s success is clearly demonstrated by what the children go on to do after working for MAP.

“One hundred percent of the high school seniors who have worked here have gone onto college,” she said. “In almost every case they were the first in their family to go beyond high school.”

The farm is located in the West Side of Buffalo, where around 47 percent of children graduate from high school.

Photos by Brian Snyder

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Picard said that the farm hopes to expand its fish farm business as it is also reliant on government funding and private donations to keep going.

“We can probably only ever be 50 percent self-reliant,” she said. “But the organizations that sponsor us are clearly aware of the major benefits that this brings to children in this area.”

COMMENT

Are you kidding? Buffalo is widely reported as having the third highest poverty rate of any American city, right behind Detroit! Nightly local TV news show how deep the city’s social problems are as reflected in violent crime, unemployment and drug abuse. Buffalo’s in big trouble. A place where young people wanting a career move away from, not move to.

An international cycling tour of the city I took in August gave me a first hand take on just how appalling this city’s problems really are! The abandoned industrial “brown lands”, rusting vacated factories, a manufacturing base in long decline and delipidated housing that I saw didn’t begin with this recession, but do reflect wide spread economic distress and poverty. The current downturn of course has made these problems even worse.

Any “beautiful vibrant neigborhood” in Buffalo is an oddity, not the rule. Once described as the “Queen City” of the Great Lakes I did see evidence of “old money” in a few upper middle class neighborhoods. But the city’s overwhelmingly obvious plight needs all the attention it can get.

Denial of Buffalo’s decay and precarious economic position isn’t moving forward!

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Local Americorps volunteers roll up sleeves to fix home town

Nov 23, 2009 16:04 UTC

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BUFFALO, New York – Mike McGreevy, Brandon Barry and Edwin Andino alone made our grueling marathon around America worthwhile.

We met these three young Americorps workers at an abandoned and dilapidated home they are renovating for PUSH Buffalo, a nonprofit grassroots community organization working to rebuild the West Side of Buffalo. Eventually this home will be used as affordable housing.

For all three men, this is something they are doing to make this blighted post-industrial city a better place to live.

“I got tired of hearing my parents’ generation complain about how bad things are here but not doing anything about it,” said Barry, 25. “So I decided that to make a difference I had to do something about it myself.”

Americorps is a domestic version of the Peace Corps, where workers are paid below poverty level wages to do community service work like this.

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“This pays enough for food, but not really enough for a place to live,” McGreevy, 30, said. “But we’re not doing this for the money. This is our city and we want to make it better, house by house.”

Barry and McGreevy are both covered from head to food in grey dust from the house that they are renovating and are evidently tired from their labor. But they radiate a deep sense of satisfaction and purpose. They are truly content and it shows on their faces as they watch the young team members they supervise hauling bucket loads of debris from the house.

The truly impressive thing about these two men is that Barry was an office worker and McGreevy was a salesman before they joined Americorps, both successful and well paid.

“This is what matters,” McGreevy said simply.

Edwin Andino is no less impressive. This 17 year old just left high school and said that doing this for his community matters more than finding a well-paid job.

“If I wanted to make a lot of money, I could be out on the street selling drugs,” he said, wiping the dust from his face. “But there’s more to life than money.”

Photos by Brian Snyder

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Grassroots groups try to change Buffalo a block at a time

Nov 23, 2009 15:59 UTC

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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.

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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.

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Photos by Brian Snyder

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COMMENT

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.

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Bringing green to urban Buffalo

Nov 23, 2009 15:53 UTC

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BUFFALO, New York – Before Urban Roots was founded, the only way for locals on the West Side of Buffalo to get plants and garden supplies was to leave the city.

“We wanted to find a way to help our community get the garden supplies they want,” said Patti Jablonski-Dopkin, general manager of the garden center. “So a group of us got together and decided that we needed to work together and open our own garden center.”

To raise money, the founders asked local residents to pay in $100 each in return for membership in the center, which comes with discounts. Some 115 locals chipped in $100 each in start-up capital, the collective garden center was born,

The center has been profitable almost since the moment it opened in January 2007 and now has 562 paid members. It is the first such center in the country.

Jablonski-Dopkin said the center’s presence is important to an area of Buffalo that has struggled with abandoned homes and a lack of stores.

“For many people around here this is more than just a store,” Jablonski-Dopkin said on a tour of the garden outside. “This is part of the community and it makes people feel good to know that we are here.”

The center has just finished expanding its premises and is now planning on creating a green roof, made of plants on the roof that absorb rainwater, provide insulation and create a habitat for wildlife.

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Photos by Brian Snyder

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“Tour de Depression” of Buffalo’s slow-moving Katrina

Nov 23, 2009 15:07 UTC

BUFFALO, New York – Pulling up in front of a derelict home in the Broadway-Fillmore district of this post-industrial Rust Belt city, Anthony Armstrong points out what he describes as “Katrinaesque” yellow and red markings spray painted on the front wall.

“A yellow square means that the house is vacant, as if that isn’t obvious from the condition it’s in,” said Armstrong, a program officer at the Local Initiatives Support Coalition, where he provides technical assistance, planning and support to local community development corporations. “A yellow cross in the square means ‘do not enter.’”

“The red markings mean that the property has been designated for demolition,” he added.

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Other red markings denote specific structural problems. A “C” on a building, for instance, indicates that the chimney is unsound. Visually, the markings recall the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 where homes were marked by authorities to show where the bodies of people killed when the city flooded were discovered.

Armstrong gave us his “Tour de Depression” of this area to show us the problems this city faces and what local community groups are doing to stop the blight from spreading to other areas.

Buffalo has lost 300,000 residents — more than half of its population — since 1950. There are between 14,000 to 25,000 vacant homes in the former industrial powerhouse.

Neighborhoods like this have been devastated. On one block alone we count seven homes that are slated to be torn down. There are many empty lots where homes once stood. The homes that are still occupied are in varying stages of decay and a school nearby by the corner of Clark Street and Kent Street – referred to as Superman Corner – has closed down.

Armstrong said that perhaps 20 percent of the homes that once made up this district are now occupied.

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A telling statistic from the U.S. Census Bureau is the number of “other vacancies” which have essentially have been abandoned for long time. Buffalo’s 12.3 percent ranks fourth nationwide behind Flint and Detroit in Michigan, plus St Louis. New Orleans was in sixth place with 11.5 percent.

“For a long time I resisted comparisons of what we see to what happened to New Orleans because of the enormity of the tragedy there,” Armstrong said. “But the parallels are unavoidable.”

“It’s just that this happened over 30 years here instead of three days<” he added. “This is our very own slow moving Katrina.”

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Photos by Brian Snyder

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COMMENT

Some may view this as a byproduct of there being little or no oppurtunity in Buffalo, while others view it as the best time to capitalize on an oppurtunity to buy property at a deep discount. Buy it for one and sell it for two.

Posted by R. Gill | Report as abusive
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