Conversation About Nothing
Talk Does Little to Expose Real Issues Behind Buffalo's Demise
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,
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.