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Pridgen's New Pulpit

Reverend Darius Pridgen (photo by Geoff Kelly)

Darius Pridgen is looking to change the way government does business. Will it change him first?

This week, Reverend Darius Pridgen attended his first meeting of the Buffalo Common Council committee of the whole as representative of the Ellicott District. Fittingly, the session began with a choir, though the singers were provided not by Pridgen’s congregation but by South Park High School, and the choir sang pop songs rather than hymns.

Pridgen comes to the Council shouldered with high and varied expectations: He is a friend to Mayor Byron Brown who insists that he will be an independent voice on the Council, even as its five-member majority coalition and the mayor undercut one another. He is a leader in the city’s African-American community whose name recognition extends west of Main Street. And, as pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church—one of the city’s largest and fastest-growing congregations—he has achieved material success while building an institution that provides his community with outstanding spiritual and social support, and provides him with an army of unwavering supporters.

Pridgen will be the keynote speaker at an observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Sunday, January 16, at 5:45pm, at Kleinhans Music Hall. The event is free and open to the public. Pridgen generously made time to speak with AV before Tuesday’s Common Council meeting, and we began our conversation by talking about the Kleinhans event.

Pridgen: It’s a special day, especially in the African-American community, because it highlights one of our own who really fought hard for us, and died for the rights of all people to be involved in the American dream. And it’s really a special day for me, to be asked to be keynote speaker, this year as opposed to any other year, because of the fight to get to this Council. In blogs and emails, sometimes [people’s comments] became racial. That disappointed me—that it’s 2010, and some people felt that African Americans were not worthy or qualified for certain positions.

So it means a lot to me to be asked to be a guest speaker at a citywide celebration. What it says to me is that people of color—and not just people of color but people who are concerned with diversity—feel that the fight that I fought was worth the effort.

AV: Will you enumerate some of your top priorities for the Ellicott District this year?

Pridgen: Number one is to hear from the people in an organized way. One of our first efforts is to bring together the stakeholders of the Ellicott District to create committees that the residents and businesses, even some of our visitors, feel need to be created to help us make our financial decisions.

Now, this is a little different. Usually what happens, in most cases, is the person is elected, and they have their slate of priorities—I’m going to send money here, and I’m going to do this resolution. And it’s based on what they feel should happen. I want to change the paradigm around, and bring together the residents of Ellicott, and the businesses of Ellicott especially, and ask them in a very organized way what our priorities should be.

Almost every community meeting I’ve gone to since being elected, I kept hearing the same thing: “We were promised this.” “We were promised that.” And then they want me to make the same promises. And I said to everybody, “It’s hard to promise $10 when you’re only getting $2.” One of the things I want to be very upfront about with Ellicott residents is what I’m working with. For example, right now I’m working with almost zero in the discretionary account, so there is no money to divvy out, there is no money for Little League or what have you. It’s done. It’s gone. But when that discretionary fund is replenished, which is a very small amount, the residents of Ellicott, the voters, the ones who fund that pot basically, should have a say in where the money goes.

AV: What sort of committees will you form?

Pridgen: We’re going to form a residents committee, and not a residents committee for just one side of Main Street. Almost all residents I talked to want the same things: They want decent neighborhoods, they want low crime. The quality of life issues. When we’re talking about paving streets, putting in sidewalks, should that be just my call? I don’t think so. Everyone’s going to want new streets. But if we look at all the streets in Ellicott, and we know we’re going to get four streets paved, let’s pick out the four worst, let’s agree to target areas. Whatever we’re going to do, let’s do it as a community, not as one guy who makes the decision and the residents have to live with it. That way, if you can’t do it because the funds are not there, the residents know why. They’re not getting it from newspapers or getting it from TV; they’re getting it because they’re active in their district.

Those committees are very important to me, because they will help guide me along the paths I need to be taking and to the issues I really need to be paying attention to, because I’m listening to the people—not once an election cycle but monthly.

AV: So residents and businesses. What other committees?

Pridgen: I want a UB2020 committee. My feeling is this: I need to be in Albany once in a while knocking on the doors. Some would say, “That’s not a councilmember’s job.” Maybe it’s not on the books, but I think it’s my job. I think with the connections I have been allowed to make across this state, [I should] utilize those connections to get through doors, to say, “I really need you to deliver on this.” I think one of the reasons that we don’t get the larger things in this area done—like UB2020, the Peace Bridge, Bass Pro for those who wanted Bass Pro, though it wasn’t one of my priorities—I think that we’re not all working on the same page, we’re not all working from the same playbook, and I mean elected officials. Everybody has their pet projects.

Yeah, the people in Ellicott elected me, but if the only thing I care about is Ellicott District, then the city goes down and what do we have? We end up with nothing in Ellicott or Delaware or South, because we’ve all stayed in our silos. I have a master’s degree in organizational leadership. The first thing we were taught, the first month, was about destroying silos. When Chrysler made a comeback, they had a leader who made people talk to each other. So design had to talk to marketing, and marketing had to understand the brakes, and that’s how you brought back Chrysler. Well, I believe that the way for Buffalo to survive is that anyone who’s elected to represent anyone in Buffalo has to meet. I don’t have on my agenda the meeting of the representatives of Buffalo. It’s not on my calendar. Because there is no meeting. There is no meeting with the Common Council, with the county, with the state folks, and with the federal folks, every quarter or three times a year, so we can say, “We’ve got to deliver on UB2020. What are we going to do? How many busloads of people are we taking to Albany? How are we going to influence the media to be on our side and to cover this?” It hasn’t happened.

So that’s another priority. But I know that Darius won’t be able to pull it off. I’m not ignorant. Because someone will feel that it’s a political move, and he’s just trying to raise himself up. And that’s a shame. So I’m looking for some entity who can I go to and say, “Will you put us all in one room and make us work together?” I’m going to initially try, but there are some who will say, “I’m not going over there, are you kidding me? He’s a friend of the mayor. This is Pridgen’s thing.” When sincerely, from my heart, with everything in me, it’s the people’s thing. So I have to find a person who is neutral, a person who is not a threat. Maybe someone older who has no skin in the game, and who just wants a better Buffalo and to make us all come together.

AV: So citizen committees and regular summits among the city’s elected officials. What else?

Pridgen: We’re working right now on what we call “Ellicott Back to Work.” We’re working with three of the largest present and future employers, and I won’t say who they are, and then three smaller employers, to bring them together and say, “What are the skill sets that are needed now that you don’t have, and what will be needed in the next three to four years?” Gather that information, and then work with agencies that do employment placement and training. I’m working with two community groups, and again I won’t name them until we announced it, to go door to door within Ellicott to ask people to train, to help them to come out of these horrible situations they’re in because of unemployment, and to get them to train and to get connected.

Reverend Darius Pridgen at his swearing-in as Ellicott District councilman. (photo by Rich Wall)

AV: Door to door?

Pridgen: I went door to door to get elected. I put people together and I asked them to stay with me. Like, don’t elect me and then leave me. Don’t abandon me. I’m going to need you. I said to them, “Help me go door to door in Ellicott. Let’s take the same walk sheets that we used and banged on people’s doors and said vote for us, and go door to door and put these flyers in and say these are the skill sets they need, and really start to get information to people.”

One of the things you’re going to see out of this office as a priority is information. We’ve got a website for the Ellicott District. We’ve got Facebook. We’re trying to use every bit of technology that we can. After our first meeting, we’re going to ask people who want to be notified by phone. We have a thing called “One Call Now.” We’re going to be able to instantly call Ellicott District residents to notify them of emergencies, but more importantly to notify them of committee meetings and community meetings. We won’t robocall them every day, but the point is I want to share information, I want to use technology.

AV: In the past you’ve expressed your opposition to the casino downtown. Where do you stand currently?

Pridgen: Still reservations about it. Had a meeting yesterday to learn more about it.

My opposition to the casino has nothing to do with morality. It has everything to do with plopping down a money-sucking entity from poor people who, many of them, will see it as an opportunity to make quick cash. I said yesterday in a private meeting that I would probably change my position if we could change unemployment—if we focused there first, if we changed those numbers.

I just don’t want to see us try to build our community around the hopes of a casino. When we look at it, it didn’t work in the Falls, and it hasn’t worked in other cities to bring an economic boom to those areas. I think if we’re going to spend time and attention, or any tax dollar money or public assistance in any way, it needs to be for some type of entity that gets our people working, that keeps businesses here.

AV: Where do you stand on the Canal Side project?

Pridgen: Canal Side is a promising project, but they’ve got to deliver. I went to one of the community meetings. At this meeting, I brought up the Michigan Street corridor. My concern is, again, silos. I said, “I know that’s not yours. However, have you talked to these folks so that somehow we have tie-in? So that Michigan Street ends up leading to the Canal Side project, the Canal Side project leads to the Michigan Street corridor, and we do some things together, so we create in Buffalo this sort of diverse but unified effort?” I got some of the same resistance like you always do when you’re suggesting a change: “No, haven’t talked to them. That’s their project, this is ours.”

I think Buffalo could really be on the map if it starts to work together on these bigger projects. Canal Side is a promising project, they just have to deliver, and it has to show our diversity. Buffalo was a place in which people who were enslaved, once they got to this area, had comfort, because groups of people worked together. If we don’t see and utilize that as being who we are, we’ll forever be known as the place with a lot of snow that’s very segregated and poor. I say we capitalize on it.

AV: Do you think the Canal Side project should be bound by a community benefits agreement?

Pridgen: From the beginning I’ve been in favor of a community benefits agreement. I signed off on it. There are some cautions I have now, which I’m researching right now, that it doesn’t hurt developers going forward. I don’t want to cut off my nose to spite my face.

AV: What do you make of Sycamore Village? Is that a good housing development model for restoring life to distressed neighborhoods?

Pridgen: I think we should continue doing housing development, but I think it has to fit the community that’s it’s being developed in. I don’t know what was going through Tim Wanamaker’s mind at the time when he came up with Sycamore Village.

AV: Let’s rephrase the question as a positive. What sort of development should government encourage in distressed neighborhoods?

Pridgen: I think you need to do area rebuilding. When I bought [True Bethel’s] Ferry location, I knew sticking a church in there wasn’t going to be enough, because they would just vandalize it and tear it up. So we started buying vacant properties. We did a housing project, we helped lead the cleanup of the brownfield across the street, $7 million, we put our own business in. And what ended up happening? That area began to grow. Now some of the people who only wanted $200 for a lot want $2,000. But the area is starting to grow. There are stores opening up. I think that’s because we looked at the whole area.

I think part of the reason that doesn’t happen, where you’re able to target a whole area, is that elected officials have to run again. So you’re trying to take care of a little bit of everybody, and by doing that, so that everybody’s happy come election time, you don’t get a whole lot done.

You first take your worst area. It’s easy to go to your best area and quick throw some flowers up, but usually the folks in those areas are going to throw up their own flowers. We’ve got to take the worst areas and work on them. But it’s got to be more than just sticking a house there.

AV: How do you feel about the proposed sale of McCarley Gardens, as part of the UB2020 plan, to make room for expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus?

Pridgen: When I was running, someone put out a malicious flyer that said I was on the board of St. John and that I voted to get rid of McCarley Gardens. There’s nothing further from the truth. I think that if there’s any way to make UB2020 work without moving residents, we should explore it. The assurance that I’ve gotten from Pastor [Michael] Chapman is that, if indeed McCarley Gardens is sold, then residents will be moved into better housing than what they had. I’m not necessarily a fan of housing projects where people live in long rows of houses and are kind of squished into a small space. But with that being said, we have to always remember that people have an interest in where they live, and where their families grow up, and where their kids go to school. So I think it’s important that the residents of McCarley and the owners of McCarley work together to resolve this issue. And I stand at the ready to help that process if need be, because I would just hate to see a situation in which residents feel that government has moved them out, or development has moved them out.

AV: What do you think you need to do for Allentown?

Pridgen: Allentown? I need to bring them foot traffic. I need to give them everything they need to continue to grow. I love Allentown. My youngest daughter and I walk Allentown in the summer. I think it’s one of the greatest communities we have because it is so diverse and eclectic. I think it’s very important to the growth of Buffalo, but I think that a lot of people on the east side of Main Street don’t know what’s going on over there. I almost want to erase Main Street from our way of thinking. When I go to Virginia, when I go to Atlanta, black and white and Asian and Latino are all involved in the same areas. I come back home, and there’s almost this invisible line. And I can’t stand it.

AV: How about the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of the Lower West Side?

Pridgen: We have to celebrate the cultures that are there. Until I was going door to door, I didn’t realize how many cultures were there that are not really connected to the life of Buffalo. They didn’t know what a Common Council was, many of them. And many of them didn’t care. But I think the Common Council could really help them, if we knew what their needs were.

AV: When the Grassroots organization first began to challenge Arthur Eve’s political machine, you were there, saying that the city’s African-American leadership needed to be more responsive to the community and its problems. Twenty years later, many of the same criticisms that Grassroots directed at Eve are being directed at Grassroots: East Side neighborhoods are not improving, they’re getting worse. There has been no real economic development. There are no jobs. Are politicians helping their communities or themselves? Do you share those criticisms of our political class generally, and of the city’s African-American leadership in particular?

Pridgen: I think that the African-American leadership in Buffalo has done well, and I think they have to do a lot better. I don’t think I’d be sitting in City Hall right now if I felt that everything was okay. I’d be over at True Bethel and I wouldn’t worry about it.

But I feel that this is a time for a new kind of leadership that crosses the hallway, that crosses the aisle, that says, “How are we going to work together to get things done?” Many of my friends are electeds. I think they’ve done well with what they were working with. But we have to change the paradigm of how we work in government. I’m not sure you’ll find an African-American elected who will tell you different.

One of the parts of my speech for the King holiday is about the lack of unity in the African-American community, and how it has killed us, and how it continues to take us down.

AV: Will you run for mayor?

Pridgen: Me? Listen to this. The first time I ever heard “Pridgen” and “mayor” in the same sentence, I thought someone was making a joke. I can’t even imagine being on the second floor. I like to work where I’m really, really happy, and right now I’m really happy here. I’m in my zone. I really love to come in to work.

I’ll never say never, because once I said I would never be a pastor. After I left the school board, I said I’d never get involved with elected office again. I never say never, but as of this moment I will tell you from my heart: I have never considered being on the second floor. Mentioning Darius Pridgen for mayor is like mentioning Darius Pridgen for president.

Councilman Pridgen will host a district-wide community meeting on Monday, January 24, 6-7:30pm, at the JFK Community Center (114 Hickory Street, at the corner of Clinton). For more information, contact the Ellicott District office at 851-4980.

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