By Henry Louis Taylor, Jr.
Excerpted from Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology, available now from Belt Publishing.
In black neighborhoods scattered across Buffalo’s East Side, residents must be wondering what all this Buffalo Happy Talk is about. Buffalo is not a happy city for most of them. It never has been. When black folks look around Buffalo, they see the city being recreated for whites: college-educated millennials, the creative classes, refined, middle-aged urbanites, and retired suburbanites.
As a black historian and urban planner, looking through a glass darkly, I can see Buffalo rising. Yet, I can’t help but wonder, for whom the city ascends? If you visit Buffalo’s so-called hot spots, Harbor Center, the waterfront, Allentown, the Elmwood Strip, Chippewa Street, and the Theatre District, you will see mostly hipster, latte-drinking whites. When you visit those neighborhoods where housing prices are rising and where swank rental apartments are found, you will find the same, hipster, latte-drinking whites living there. Even in upscale apartments, like the Bethune and Elk Terminal lofts, which are located in the black community, you will find latte drinkers.
Yeah. I hear the rhetoric. The new buzzwords are equity, inclusiveness, and diversity. For example, the Greater Buffalo’s regional plan, “One Region Forward,” says “Woven throughout the planning framework are two critical issues that define where we’ve been and where we want to go — our relationship to our fresh water resources and our desire to grow our economy in a way that is more equitable [emphasis added] and locally rooted.”
Yet, I am troubled.
I can’t stop thinking about that old African proverb, “What a person does speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what they say.”
I believe that Black Buffalo will be marginalized in the rising city, just as it was in the shrinking city and in the prosperous industrial city.I believe that Black Buffalo will be marginalized in the rising city, just as it was in the shrinking city and in the prosperous industrial city. The plight of Black Buffalo has never been important to Buffalo’s leaders. At every stage in the city’s history, black neighborhood development has been an afterthought in city building. Buffalo and its Erie County suburbs were never meant to nurture and provide a healthy place for blacks or Latinos to live.
In the 1930s, when Buffalo leaders imagined a new metropolis—a combined city and suburbs—it was designed as a place for white, higher-paid workers and the professional classes. The most desirable housing and neighborhoods in the city and suburbs were reserved for them. These places enabled whites to obtain the highest paying jobs, the most desirable recreational areas, and the best education, health care, and police services. In their fancy, segregated neighborhoods, whites lived longer, healthier, and happier lives than their black, Latino, and immigrant cohorts. My friend Carl Nightingale, the University at Buffalo historian, says this segregated world was the consequence of political action, not economic realities or simple racial hatred.
Don’t get caught up in this race hatred thing.
This was mostly about white privilege; it was about whites using the neighborhood edge to get the economic and higher standard of living edge. This was about whites being given an advantage over blacks, which was rooted in the economic organization of the city. Whites did not get this socioeconomic edge by accident or simple merit. They had help. City leaders consciously and deliberately designed an urban metropolis anchored by mass homeownership, race-based suburbanization, and neighborhoods stratified by housing cost and type. Whites were empowered to use guaranteed Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans to purchase homes in the suburbs or along the city’s leafy West Side parkways and avenues.
Blacks, meanwhile, rented in the grimy East Side. To keep them there, Buffalo’s leaders used urban planning, zoning laws, building codes, subdivision regulations, and eminent domain. They forced blacks to live in houses situated in the shadows of factories, railroads, and commercial establishments. These were the worst places to live in Buffalo and Erie County. The racist FHA gave money to whites, but denied blacks access to home-buying dollars. And when blacks did manage to get mortgages, the location of their neighborhoods caused housing values to fall rather than to rise. For them, homeownership produced debt, not wealth. African Americans were stuck in place.
Whites and blacks experienced the metropolitan city differently.
As thousands of black newcomers poured into Buffalo City, the urban bulldozer roared through their neighborhoods, destroying homes, playgrounds, churches, shops, stores, and fraternal organizations in its wake.The 1950s and 1960s were the most dynamic period in metro Buffalo’s history. Whites and blacks experienced it differently. Thousands of whites moved to the suburbs, where they found the American Dream. Blacks, on the other hand, found the American Nightmare. As thousands of black newcomers poured into Buffalo City, the urban bulldozer roared through their neighborhoods, destroying homes, playgrounds, churches, shops, stores, and fraternal organizations in its wake.
Black neighborhoods were collateral damage in the remaking of Buffalo and Erie County. Remaking the city and suburbs meant that black neighborhoods had to be knocked down to make way for downtown expansion, institutional development, interstate highway connectors, and wider roads. These “unbuilding” activities merged with plant closings and outmigration to hit the East Side with sledgehammer force. This urban disfiguring process left the East Side with miles of vacant lots and empty structures; it’s a physical setting, so scarred and foreboding that Robert M. Silverman, University at Buffalo urban planner, called it Zombieland. Today, the most distressed and 24 blighted properties in Erie County are found in this part of Buffalo.
The mutilation of the East Side is not benign.
It robs people of the value of their homes. An East Side homeowner said to me, “Dr. Taylor, the house next door to me is empty, with a tree growing through the roof. It is worth $16,000. My house is in good condition, and I have big investments in it; and it is only worth $18,000. I don’t get it. I’m still going to put in another $20,000 in my house, even though I know I will never recoup it. So, I am making this investment in my family and my children.” This is how housing market dynamics operate on the mutilated East Side.
Cities don’t grow like weeds.
Yesterday, Buffalo was built for white higher-paid workers, professionals, and business elites. Today, the city is being built for the white creative classes.The city’s shape and form are the result of political decisions, not the invisible hand of economic determinism. Yesterday, Buffalo was built for white higher-paid workers, professionals, and business elites. Today, the city is being built for the white creative classes, or the latte group, as I call them. This is a broad group of whites, including folks in the arts, educators, researchers, doctors, and other professionals. To make them happy, urban leaders are refashioning the city with hipster neighborhoods, recreational areas, and public spaces where the latte group can conversate, bike, jog, workout, attend outdoor concerts, and congregate in restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. The latte group bathes itself in liberalism and issues a clarion call for diversity and social justice, while simultaneously condemning the black and Latino masses to a blighted and disfigured urban dystopia.
The hardcore reality is that Buffalo’s latte city, when stripped of its fanciful colorblind mask, is nothing more than a neoliberal white city—a place where millennials and the creative class claim the most hedonic houses and neighborhoods for themselves, where they live longer, healthier, happier, and more prosperous lives than Buffalonians of color, who are forced to live in the most undesirable and unhealthiest neighborhoods in the metropolis.
Black Buffalo is invisible.
Black Buffalo is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Whites see blacks, but not really. Whites hear blacks, but not really. In preparation for a presentation at a recent forum on blight in New York State, I read numerous reports and newspaper articles on blight in metropolitan Buffalo, and the terms black and African American were rarely, if ever, mentioned. For example, even though blight concentration is synonymous with the East Side black community, Blueprint Buffalo, an action plan for reclaiming vacant land said, “At the beginning of the 21st century, Buffalo has an unprecedented opportunity to identify, assemble, and reclaim vacant parcels for start-up businesses, new families, artists, entrepreneurs, and major commercial partners to join in the region’s renaissance.” Most of that vacant land is on the East Side, but there was not a word about black neighborhood development. There was not a word about urban leaders uniting with the black masses to transform and change the East Side.
Not a single word.
In the “One Region Forward” report on housing and neighborhood strategies, the challenges facing the black community are barely discussed, except in a veiled language that suggests “…for areas where disinvestment has left few of the assets, anchors and actors that are needed to power successful neighborhood revitalization… the time for conventional neighborhood development might be decades away.” The authors never use the terms “black” or “East Side,” but any person knowledgeable of Buffalo understands their code, and knows they are talking about the East Side black community.
City leaders know about the challenges facing Black Buffalo, but they constantly feign ignorance and surprise. But they know.My point is city leaders know about the challenges facing Black Buffalo, but they constantly feign ignorance and surprise. But they know. More than two decades ago, I teamed up with a group of scholars to produce the most comprehensive study of Black Buffalo ever undertaken. This blueprint for change, written by a team of scholars from the University at Buffalo, Buffalo State College, and Fordham University, along with support from the Buffalo Urban League and the City of Buffalo Common Council, was never implemented. Later, my center conducted an investigation of the health status of Black Buffalo, funded by Kaleida Health and the Black Leadership Forum. The study was celebrated and then put on a shelf.
In 2000, I led a team that outlined a strategy for the redevelopment of the Fruit Belt community and demonstrated how tax increment financing could fund the plan. The study was funded by the City of Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning. City and medical campus leaders praised the report, ignored its findings, and then launched their own redevelopment strategy, which displaced 65 percent of the Fruit Belt’s population.
Yes, Buffalo is rising and happy talk abounds; simultaneously, thousands of blacks are being displaced from their traditional neighborhoods along Main Street. They are being pushed out of every neighborhood of opportunity in the city. But no one seems to care or notice. Black Buffalo is invisible. Black needs, hopes, and desires are systemically ignored; promises are made, but never kept.
Yeah. I know some white person in Amherst is saying, “But, Mayor Byron Brown is black. I don’t get it.”
Let’s be clear. Black faces in high places don’t mean a thing if they have the same agenda as white faces in high places. From a city building perspective, the sad reality is there is no difference between Byron Brown, who’s been in office for the past ten years, and Jimmy Griffin, who was mayor from 1978–1993.
Yeah, yeah. I know the mayor does hire more blacks and he makes better speeches than his predecessors, but his approach to city building still marginalizes and deems black neighborhood development unimportant.
It pains me to say this, but the mayor is fiddling while blacks are being displaced from neighborhood after neighborhood in Buffalo. He is fiddling while underdeveloped neighborhoods are spewing undesirable outcomes in housing, education, employment, and health. He is fiddling. The mayor knows about black suffering and pain, but the solutions to these nasty problems do not fit into the economic growth model he celebrates.
So black neighborhood development is chronically placed on the backburner. Yes, black faces in high places can support systemic structural racism.
But we, the people, have a choice. We have a right to the city.
Don’t get me wrong. The white latte group moving back to Buffalo is a good thing. I get that; but the choice we face is not between the white hedonic latte city and blacks living in blighted, disfigured, and slum-like neighborhoods. That’s where the mayor gets it wrong. The real choice, my friends, is between the hedonic latte city and the just city.
Hear me, Buffalo.
Our city does not belong to those powerful faces in high places; it does not belong to the developers, the bankers, and all those folks profiting off the latte city.Our city does not belong to those powerful faces in high places; it does not belong to the developers, the bankers, and all those folks profiting off the latte city. We have a right to this city. The masses of black, brown, yellow, red, and white faces have a right to build the just city. We can make that choice. The future is “uncreated.” It is not some type of pre-ordained, futuristic place, which is immutable and fixed. No! The future is “uncreated,” and we have a right to build the just city, a good place, where we find liberation and the higher freedoms.
Buffalo! The time has come for us to answer Rabbi Hillel’s question, “If not us, who? And if not now, when?”
Excerpted from Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology, available now from Belt Publishing.
Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. is a full professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo, and director of the university’s Center for Urban Studies. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University at Buffalo. Taylor has authored or edited five books, and written more than 120 articles, essays, and technical reports on planning and neighborhood development. He has received numerous awards for his research and neighborhood planning activities, including the 2016 Excellence in University–Community Engagement Award. Taylor lives on Buffalo’s West Side.