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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Youngstown looks to future after grappling for decades with past

Nov 24, 2009 18:18 UTC


YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For this Rust Belt city, the hardest part of moving on has been coming to terms with the past.

“We have spent the past 20 to 25 years looking in the rearview mirror,” said Jay Williams, the city’s 38-year-old, independent mayor (above). “Letting go of the past has been difficult for many people because the past was so good.”

Youngstown – named for John Young, an early settler – was a boom town in the first half of the 20th century. The city’s main industry was steel manufacturing and the population grew rapidly and hit 170,000 in 1930.

But he city’s economy took a major hit in the late 1970s when the steel mills closed down. In one single day on Sept 19, 1977 – a day known to locals as “Black Monday” – when the first of its big steel mills shut down, 4,000 jobs were lost. Over a couple of years the city lost 40,000 jobs.


“When I left school there were six steel mills I could work at and five railroads,” said local state representative Robert Hagan, who spent many years as a locomotive engineer in the area. “Those opportunities are gone now.”

“I watched the fires of prosperity burn in this valley,” he added. “And then I watched those fires go out.”

Since the steel mills left, the city’s population has dwindled. As of 2008 the population was estimated at just under 73,000 people.

For years the city spent time casting around for the next big company to come and save it, hoping that it could regain its former glory.

But new leaders like Mayor Williams have decided on a new way forward, with a strategy called Plan 2010.

“We have accepted that this is a smaller city and have embraced that,” said James Cossler, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator, which has focused on bringing in business-to-business software companies and currently has 28 firms in its portfolio.

Crossley said that the incubator has already encouraged many younger former residents, who have been leaving for decades to look for work, to come home again.


The new plan also involves painful decisions for a city that has some 4,500 vacant homes and neighborhoods that have been coming apart at the seams for years. With limited resources to cover fewer residents, the city’s leadership and other have come to the conclusion that some neighborhoods simply don’t have enough people left to remain viable.

“We are aiming to focus on the neighborhoods that can be saved,” said Phil Kidd, a community organizer at the nonprofit group Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative. “But we have to accept the fact that we are going to have to wind down some neighborhoods gracefully.”

The MVOC is trying to organize residents to form into groups and drive much of the change themselves because the city cannot afford to do everything itself.

“We’re all in this together, so we’re going to have fix our problems together,” Kidd said.


Critics of the plan say the city is pinning all of its hopes on the business incubator and will therefore expose itself to the risk of being dependent on just one industry again, eventually dooming itself to a fresh “Black Monday.”

“We’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket,” Williams said. “We are trying to diversify our economy and are looking for other businesses to come here.”

As it happens, French steel company V&M Star Steel has also announced that it will invest $1 billion on expanding its operations here.

Congressman Tim Ryan, 36, said one of the benefits of having new, younger leadership is that people like him did not grow up during the heyday of the steel industry here.

“We don’t remember what Youngstown was like when the steel mills were here,” he said. “For us this is a blank canvas.”

Ryan said that with the business incubator and the steel expansion project, Youngstown could be on the front line of a U.S. economic revival.


“We could lead the recovery,” he said.

But state representative Robert Hagan is more cautious about how soon Youngstown will recover.

“The changes we’re going through are going to involve pain and shared sacrifice,” he said. “The city will be better off at the end of the process. But we’re not there yet.”

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


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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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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“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.


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.


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.”


Photos by Brian Snyder

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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.

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