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CNU Dispatch: Ed Glaeser is Still a Jackass

Come on back to Buffalo in 2014, Ed Glaeser. Have we got plans for you.

Harvard economist and Rust Belt maligner Edward Glaeser was challenged again about his notorious 2007 hit piece on Buffalo over the weekend in Madison, where he was making a speech at the 19th Congress for the New Urbanism. Glaeser’s article, “Can Buffalo ever come back? Probably not,” appeared in the New York Sun and the City Journal, raising eyebrows among Buffalo folks who are working hard to do exactly what Glaeser believed “probably” couldn’t happen.

CNU board chair Victor Dover delivered this audience question to Glaeser after his remarks: “In spite of continued population loss, Buffalo is said to be still the 17th most densely populated city in the United States. Since 2000 the Buffalo MSA had the ninth highest Gross Metropolitan Product per capita growth, the second highest percentage gain in graduate degree attainment, and the second highest percentage increase in property values. So Buffalo somehow is growing wealthier and smarter and more valuable as you say we should, so did you mean Buffalo is too cold and should drop dead just for that?”

Now, there’s a whole lot of content in that question and no one would expect Glaeser to address it fully, yet the question speaks to a lot about how Buffalo has actually been doing in the past ten years. These are the facts about Buffalo that naysayers will refuse to believe and folks like Glaeser would rather ignore because it doesn’t fit the story they’re trying to tell:

• Buffalo MSA experienced the ninth highest growth (+10.63 percent) in per capita Gross Metropolitan Product in the United States from 2001 to 2009. It was the only Rust Belt or Great Lakes city to make the top 10 list. (Bureau of Economic Analysis)

• Buffalo MSA jumped from #33 among the top 100 metros in graduate degree attainment in 2000 to #24 in 2009. This gain represented an increase of 22,306 graduate degree holders, or an increase in share of the population with graduate degrees from 9.5 percent to 12.5 percent. (US Census American Community Survey, 2009)

• Buffalo had the second highest percentage growth in property values (+10.8 percent to to $118,100) in the United States, behind only Charlotte, NC. A common explanation for Buffalo’s real estate strength is that because Buffalo never experienced a boom it likewise experienced no bust, yet the experience of other Rust Belt metros does not confirm this notion. Cities like Youngstown, Akron, Lansing, and Toledo all experienced precipitous home value declines in the range of -12.5 percent to -24.4 percent, yet Buffalo gained value by 10.8 percent, the strongest by far in New York State. (National Association of Homebuilders)

Anyway, here was Glaeser’s response to the audience question: “It’s not that I don’t wish Buffalo well. It’s not that I don’t see a lot of great assets in Buffalo. There are a lot of older beautiful buildings and a great education system, great higher ed institutions, lots of great things. But we don’t want to engage in this magical thinking that thinks that, you know, we want to throw infrastructure in declining places and all of a sudden miracles will happen.”

Fair enough. Buffalo may indeed have “great assets,” but that appears to have nothing to do with the question. The question is, why write off the future of a place when the prerequisites for economic growth that Glaeser cites point to a possible revival of the city’s fortunes?

Buffalo’s latest trends may all be linked to precisely the kind of investments Glaeser suggests federal and state governments should be making: in human capital, not fixed infrastructure. Yet Glaeser would be surprised to find these newly educated, home-buying, wealth-producing Buffalonians are not leaving to Atlanta and other Sun Belt burgs as his model suggests they would. Buffalo is gaining big time in these demographics in spite of overall population loss and even relative to many of the boom towns. Heck, Buffalo’s percentage gain in graduate degree holders was ahead of every region in America except for Washington, DC. And per capita income growth demonstrates it: In the Buffalo MSA per capita grew by 38.5 percent from 2000 to 2010, from $27,074 to $37,511, a significantly faster gain than the national per capita gain of 28.2percent. Per capita incomes are still five percent below the national per capita income of $39,635, but in 2000 Buffalo was 10 percent below the national average. It’s nice to be in a growth mode.

Certainly, not all is rosy in Buffalo, which did lose 10.7 percent of its population over 10 years. Twenty-seven percent poverty still rocks the core of the city, and has shown little or no abatement since 2000. Income inequality is expanding as young professionals make income gains while others are no better off than they were, or are even getting poorer.

Yet this increase in inequality within regions is now becoming a more prevalent American reality, whether it is Buffalo or Miami (which is the second poorest American city, and also one of its wealthiest). And Buffalo is less like Detroit these days and more like Pittsburgh, which is a huge wealth generator and talent attractor in spite of continued population loss. Turns out population stats don’t tell the whole story.

Glaeser might forget that his beloved New York has an 18.7 percent poverty rate and it’s rising fast, and who would doubt that a family making less than $18,000 per year in Buffalo lives much better than a family making the same income in New York?

Buffalo has a lot of catching up to do to compete the Bostons and Seattles of the world, yet name an economic growth metric and Buffalo is doing vastly better than the Rust Belt places that continue to lose population as well as wealth, smarts, and value. If Buffalo keeps up in its gains in these other metrics, population gains may follow. Time will tell.

As Jane Jacobs said in an interview with James Howard Kunstler in Metropolis Magazine in 2001: “Never underestimate the power of a city to regenerate. And things everywhere are not as bad as you are picturing it.”

Buffalo is making progress, by the way, in progressive planning with a new form-based zoning code in the works. This new code is likely to make it much easier for investors to develop in the compact, smart growth patterns that Glaeser suggests is vital to urban success. This planning work is also one of the reasons the Congress for the New Urbanism is hosting its national conference in Buffalo in 2014. Will Glaeser speak then, too? And if so, will he acknowledge that some things in Buffalo are indeed getting better and that the city might even come back?

raymond ban

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