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2004 The Beast

A Conversation About Nothing

Regionalism Talk Does Little to Expose Real Issues Behind Buffalo's Demise

By Gabe Armstrong


I took an extra large gulp of my strawberry daiquiri while sitting on the edge of a small in-ground swimming pool. All was quiet except the distant buzz of traffic on nearby Sheridan Drive.

I took in the sights of this pleasant backyard in the heart of Buffalo's suburban sprawl- East Amherst to be exact. The yard was behind a recently built house, no more than a decade old, that a friend of my girlfriend, "Erin," lives in with her family. The street out front was lined with similar versions of this mass-produced home-barely a hint of human activity was detectable, however.

When I entered, I promised myself to refrain from making wiseass remarks about how the banality of the suburbs was the downfall of this country and how unsustainable pieces of sprawl were on our landscape. I figured I would have to think about that shit enough in a few hours when I would go to the regionalism talk, aptly dubbed "A Buffalo Conversation."

It proved hard to stay off the subject of suburbia, especially with a few drinks in me and the direct sunlight starting to fry my pale skin. The conversation steered toward the topic of how Europeans are healthier than Americans and how their built environment is far more community-oriented than ours.

"I wish I could live somewhere with more of a sense of community," Erin said.

No Shit, I thought to myself. This slice of suburbia proved to be a representative sample of what is wrong with the human habitat today. Practically no stores are in walking distance from one another. Automobiles must be used for any daily activity that does not involve the home. There is very little sense of community out here. Garages are attached to houses, so denizens don't even need to walk out of their front doors to leave. These sheltered people go straight from their kitchens into their cars to be whisked to the next destination. America's obesity epidemic is largely because of this-people living in suburban areas (which is a majority of the American population today) hardly walk anywhere. This inactivity, coupled with poor eating habits, has turned a great portion of the American population into barely ambulatory blobs of jelly. Since no one bothers interacting with each other anymore, there is nowhere else to turn but electronic entertainment-TV, Internet, and video games.

About an hour later, Erin started talking about how she may become a teacher, as long as she could steer clear of city schools. I had to pipe in on this one, saying urban school districts were perhaps the most challenging place to teach. Then a commonly said phrase out in these sprawls escaped her lips.

"I'm terrified of the city," she said.

"Most of what you hear about the city is a misconception," I countered. She partially gave in, admitting her anti-urban bias was mostly in part to her parents brainwashing her from a young age. She and her family had fled their former home in a pleasant North Buffalo neighborhood more than a decade ago due to these very fears and misconceptions.

"They sort of drove this idea through my head that the city is unsafe."

"Let me guess. You are afraid all those black people are going to jump you the second you set foot in the city?" I asked.

"Yeah, I'm afraid of black people," she conceded.

*******************

It was a sweltering 96 degrees in the gymnasium. Channel 4's excessive blanket of spotlights didn't seem to help the situation.

Speaking of Channel 4, they practically ran the whole event, which was broadcasted live. They dressed this up like a forum in the style of a town hall meeting. In actuality, it was a hype-driven media circus where selected talking heads were given the floor at carefully selected times. Politicians gave predictable answers to questions that really didn't bring any new issues to the table.

In attendance were the expected cast of characters like Buffalo Mayor Tony Masiello and Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, along with a handful of County Legislators and others. Among all the suits were a few groups of citizens, although this was mostly a political event.

I began to doubt the purpose of this "conversation," aside from serving as a media spectacle. The discussion was about the same vague ideas of Regionalism and City-County mergers that had been spoken of in plenty of sound bites over the past year or two. As expected, there really was no concrete plan in place. Mayor Anthony Masiello and County Executive Joel Giambra have agreed on merging Buffalo and Erie County into a "Greater Buffalo" governmental body, to be headed by an unelected "Manager."

First of all, under New York State law, a municipal body like this is illegal. Second, the Mayor and County Executive are hardly trustworthy characters. Masiello has let this city slide into a deeper hole since he took office and has not offered any creative solutions to repairing the city. "Let's be bold and get away from nit-picking over who absorbs whom and creating a rehash of two older governments," was one of the Mayor's arguments.

Giambra cannot be trusted to even oversee fair county management practices, as evidenced by his overcharging the county taxpayers $500,000 for a slick office furniture contract awarded to one of his best patronage buddies. Why should he be trusted to handle the merging of two failing government bodies, when the smartest thing he could say about regionalism was, "I believe in Regionalism-I live in the city and send my kids to a school in the suburbs."

Does it actually work?

On the panel were a few guests from other areas. Officials from two cities that had performed mergers-Indianapolis, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky-were present. They spoke briefly on the competitive advantages of such a move, mainly the eradication of multiple layers of government operating parallel services and, most importantly, the elimination of neighboring municipalities competing against one another to lure in large employers by giving away the biggest tax breaks.

Racial tensions began to flare up when the topic of conversation moved to consolidating school districts under a city-county merger plan. It could only be so long until this came up. Masiello and Giambra had said little about this issue. However, the handful of representatives for Buffalo's black community wanted to put this discussion on the table. The mostly white panelists tried to brush it aside.

"Buffalo is 97 out of 97 in regional school districts," said an angry Arthur Eve, a former member of the state Assembly.

"Merging schools is too much to tackle," said Joan Riehm, deputy mayor of Louisville and a guest speaker at the forum.

A livid Eve tried to respond and keep the conversation going, but the Channel 4 news dweebs quickly changed the subject. Indeed, this topic is at the heart of why traditional central cities are knocking on death's door.

"Cities are on a death spiral," said Rochester Mayor William Johnson, illuminating the obvious.

At the heart of the problem are the surrounding suburbs, which function as self-contained fiefdoms and whose affluent residents are conveniently immune to the poverty and neglect that plagues the city.

How it came to be

Buffalo's suburbs were thrown up in the heat of post WWII white flight. The mostly white middle and working classes fled decaying city neighborhoods, which were being rapidly populated by blacks moving up from the South.

Thanks to a wealth of federal subsidies, brand new suburbs were paved on the fringes of old central cities like Buffalo. These new municipalities were ostensibly created to address the housing shortage in the old cities: soldiers returning from the war needed houses for their new families, after abruptly knocking up their wives (the baby boom).

The nation's grandest construction boom followed, with the erection of millions of identical cheap and ugly buildings. We entered the phase of cookie-cutter houses, strip-malls, and big box national chain stores. Virtually everything built after 1950 was done so to accommodate the automobile-every structure gets a parking lot. Buildings were separated by massive stretches of asphalt, creating a desolate environment of ugly sprawl.

Most of urbanized America is now part of this hideous landscape. Rotting Rust Belt Cities like Buffalo have certainly suffered their fair share of the effects. Most economic activity in the region is suburbanized. City residents have to trek out to the 'burbs to buy many consumer goods, like computers and electronics. Entire urban neighborhoods, once made up of small stores offering specific goods, have given way to big-box national chains, shifting commerce from pedestrian-friendly commercial vistas to auto-dependent superstructures fronted by acres of parking. In Buffalo, the few surviving commercial strips rely on bars, restaurants, and trendy boutiques to stay afloat. Local shops offering necessities like drugs, groceries and household goods are few and far between.

The abysmal land uses that make up our suburbs are only accessible for those with cars; those who can't afford them are screwed. Residents, especially those of Buffalo's run-down neighborhoods, have few accessible places to shop, with the exception of overpriced corner delis.

Throughout the arduous media circus were a few complaints from suburban town officials. Amherst Supervisor Susan Grelick whined about herself not being included in merger discussion. While this was a valid point, not once did she acknowledge that the unmanaged expansion of her sprawling town is a major reason why the city is in such a mess.

Perhaps, then, it is wrong when this is referred to as a regional problem. This is more or less a city problem.

Buffalo was a city built for 500,000 people. Slightly less than 300,000 now inhabit the city. With the same amount of roads, sewers and other infrastructure to maintain, Buffalo is stuck maintaining large amount of city land that generates not even a fraction of the tax revenue it takes to provide services like police, fire, and schools. Since most of the traditional jobs have either moved out of the region or into the suburbs, run-down inner-city neighborhoods are left to contend with staggering unemployment, crime and a dysfunctional social structure.

Despite all of this, self-centered suburban pricks like county legislator Ray Dusza had the audacity to accuse Erie County of treating his town, Cheektowaga, "like a pile of stinking mushrooms," when in fact it is the city that has been stepped on at every opportunity possible by the suburbs stealing away more businesses each year.

For the average suburbanite with 2.5 kids, it's hard to see that they have any vested interest in regional consolidation. For example if "Joe Bob" from Amherst sends his kids to stable suburban schools, works at a suburban office park, and does all his shopping at local strip malls and big-box chains, there is little reason for him to give a crap about the city, assuming his cultural interests don't extend far beyond his television set like many of his subdivision mates. Like Erin, mentioned above, he thinks of the city as some unsafe bastion of mutant minorities that will rob anyone at first contact.

Sunbelt to blame

After the PR frenzy concluded and Channel 4's cameras were turned off, there was a brief "citizen comment" session that was supposed to be a Q&A, but no one was really listening. The politicians all began to talk over people at the mic with little regard for what they may think. It was a fucking joke, and I just wanted to get out of that sauna of a gym anyways. Many of the unheard complainants were city residents, expressing frustration over the selfish interests of the suburbs overriding the desperate needs of the city.

But before I push the City-Suburb blame game any further, it must be realized that most of Buffalo's problems are indeed far out of our control. National and global policies are largely responsible for the decline of old central cities.

Beginning in the '70s, American corporate bosses began shedding many industrial and manufacturing jobs and shipping them to Mexico and overseas in the name of "growth." This country rapidly became an "information" economy, with sharp growth in the high-tech sector. However, most of this growth was in the Sunbelt and West Coast regions. Since the advent of air-conditioning, upwardly mobile Americans took a liking to nice weather year-round. So the old Frost Belt cities of the Northeast and Midwest got left in the dust since the factory jobs mostly left, and tech-oriented yuppies thought of themselves as too cool for cold weather climates. Trade "agreements" like NAFTA and GATT and other globalization trends only made it worse for the cities, while lining corporate executives' pockets to obscene levels.

Sometimes, I'm pessimistic and concede that there is no hope for a rusted-out city like Buffalo. Unless, of course, there is a severe oil crisis and gas prices spike to $20.00 per gallon or so. Then suburbanites would have nowhere to go in their auto-dependent crudscape, as a walk to the nearest grocery store would probably take an hour. Maybe then they would move back to the city, with its compact streets and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, but it would be too late. For once, the city could tell the suburbs to fuck off.

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