Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dying Cities: Buffalo, NY

Claire and I spent yesterday in downtown Buffalo, New York, at the Canadian consulate. It was a happy day- I finally became an official "permanent resident" of Canada. It was also fascinating to see what's happened in Buffalo; I haven't been downtown in years, and they seem to have rebuilt or renovated quite a bit of it.

In my opinion, Buffalo is one of the best cities in America for architecture. During it's heyday in the early twentieth-century, the area thrived, due to the Erie Canal and Buffalo companies, such as American Express, and Bethlehem Steel. The main industries were flour and steel, and the area was rich enough to attract some of the best architects in the country: there are five Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Buffalo, and I think they're actually building a new structure there from one of his designs. Driving around the city, you see many neighborhoods where it's possible to live in classic American homes for very little money. There is also one of the great art galleries in the country there: the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

But, driving around downtown is also eerie in the same way that Nantes was. The buildings feel entirely too massive and half-empty. They seem to have been shed by the thinning population, like the abandoned exoskeletons of departed insects. When I wandered around taking photographs in the late afternoon, I saw maybe thirty other people. At least five were drunk and two were panhandling. The local girl working in the consulate described Buffalo as a "dying city". It's even worse than that- because the population has fallen below a certain threshold, Buffalo is no longer considered a city: it's a town now.

Forbes lists Buffalo among it's "fastest dying cities" in America, and puts the population decline at 51,302 since the year 2,000. Most of the cities are in the "rust belt" and four of them are in Ohio. In the case of Buffalo, the local economy was devastated when Bethlehem Steel shut down its production in Lackawanna between 1977 and 1982. The economy has been in perpetual decline ever since.

In many ways, Buffalo resembles a hollowed-out version of our own city, Hamilton. When we walked around the local mall, looking for a washroom, about half of the stores were empty- they've tried to replace the departed businesses, but can't attract replacements. They stack empty boxes with the mall logo on them in the store fronts.There were almost as many security guards as customers there, and there's a weird security paranoia in general downtown. We were "trailed" by a security martinet who didn't like us taking pictures of each other near important buildings. Eventually, one imagines the shrinking population and post-9/11 paranoia will result in something like the buddy system in Buffalo, with one guard for each local.

The cultural issues are much the same: the drunks in public at 2 pm, people sleeping on park benches, teenage mothers, and the same casual domestic cruelty. Quote from a passing teenage mother to her six year old: "You slow down Stephanie, or I'm going to break your fucking stick legs!" As in Hamilton, you see a certain percentage of the adult population who seems totally unprepared for the demands of adulthood; actually, given the cultural similarities, I'd imagine that cultural decline is more widespread than economic decline. Many parts of Hamilton and Buffalo are very civilized, but walking around downtown Buffalo, I wondered what would happen to the more dysfunctional parts of Hamilton if our steel mills close. Where would these people go? What would happen to them? The culture in no way prepares them for such possibilities, and the economy is not improving.

There are many people who talk about revitalizing Buffalo. Certainly, the rebuilding has made much of the town gorgeous, and it's inspiring to see tree-lined, peaceful neighborhoods for blue collar black families. There have been some films shot here, such as The Savages, which we just watched, and which made Buffalo look miserable. Ani Difranco runs her record label out of Buffalo and has made a beautiful venue space out of a classic John Selkirk building. Given the cheapness of living in Buffalo, it could well become a magnet for cool young artists. On the other hand, even though people talk glowingly of bohemian urban renewal, can you really build an economy on indie rock bands and hipster websites?

Is it possible that Buffalo will finally die completely? The local government was so short on funds a few years ago that they started closing libraries and suspending the 9.1.1. service. It was something of a bluff- the state finally kicked some money to them. But I have to wonder if it wouldn't be best to start moving people closer together and closing off some of the neighborhoods. Certainly, they have already demolished a few houses to put in parks and gardens. Would it be best to run Buffalo as a large, very secure, nursing community and allow its aging community to slowly die out? Or would the psychological costs offset the economic gains?


Joe the Planner said...

Just read your post, and wanted to comment on a few things. Firstly, let me say that I'm a longtime Buffalo resident, and have been involved with the activism community here for many years. The vast majority of folks in that community are smart, pragmatic, creative, and passionate about what they do. They love this city, as do I, and for sound reasons. The project of revitalizing this grand old city is a long and difficult task, but a worthy one.

Firstly, I'm glad you appreciate the beautiful architecture and neighborhood fabric that the City of Buffalo has. It's apparent you saw some of the good stuff we have here. But your assertion that, due to population loss, Buffalo is "no longer considered a city" is simply wrong. I can't imagine where you got that information. In any case, officially, cities, towns, and villages are geographic and political entities. These designations have little to do with population, if at all. The former Town of Buffalo was legally incorporated as a city in 1832, has been designated a city to this day, and will continue to be considered a city far into the future. Even in any informal sense the city is much too populous to be considered a town.

And perhaps you spent a bit too much time downtown; the negative tone of much of the post reflects that. There are several other city neighborhoods that are quite healthy and vibrant. You touched on this slightly, but I feel this point needs elaboration.

(Continued in next comment)

Joe the Planner said...

Here's a little history to explain what I mean: Like most American cities, Buffalo's downtown has become a place where people only go to work. Relatively few people actually live there, and downtown streets are active mainly on weekdays during lunchtime and the two daily rush hours. It's essentially the urban equivalent of the suburban office park, where not much goes on outside of the activities associated with a bunch of office workers. For decades, the only practical way for most people to get downtown has been by car, so further vitality was sapped by the need to accommodate and store all of those vehicles with surface parking lots that ring downtown, thus destroying the values there.

This is obviously unfortunate, all the more so for being quite common. Buffalo was simply part of the larger pattern of bad planning and transportation decisions in the United States in the post-WWII period. This is why most U.S. cities have dead or dying downtowns. Most likely you're familiar with the term "sprawl," which refers to all of the economic, social, and environmental problems caused by all of these bad decisions.

You also state that the downfall of the city started with the closing the Bethlehem Steel's Lackawanna operations starting in the late 1970s. This is a gross oversimplification of Buffalo's history and economy. The steel plant closing was simply one symptom of many larger, older problems.

By the mid-20th century, Buffalo's economy was more than just the production of steel -- or even heavy industry alone. In fact, from appearances, it was one of the most diverse in the nation. The city was the largest inland port and second largest rail center, and a hub of trade and transshipment. Buffalo was also the largest grain milling center, second in automobile production, and the undisputed center of the U.S. aviation industry. The city was a hub of technological innovation and culture. And yes, it also happened the country's largest producer of steel.

So what caused the downfall of one of the world's great industrial and transportation centers? The causes are numerous, but here's a short summary: bad planning and transportation decisions from the local to federal levels; and the dark economic realities of de-industrialization and globalization. This combined with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 bypassing Buffalo as a port and transportation center.

It's pretty apparent that economic, trade, and transportation policy decisions during that same period helped to destroy the economies of so many American cities -- in the 'rust belt' and elsewhere.

Again, it'll be a long and difficult task, but revitalizing cities like Buffalo will be essential if we wish to revive the economy, restore the environment, and continue the project of civilization in this country.

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