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The History of Buffalo's Public Housing at the Downtown Library

Project History

An exhibit on Buffalo’s miserable record on public housing going back to the New Deal era is currently on display at the main branch Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

A subtitle of the exhibit could be: “How the BMHA Perverted the Objectives of Federal Housing Legislation and Actively Promoted Segregation and Racism in Buffalo and Environs.”

Slums were a problem in cities like Buffalo from the end of the 19th century. Significant federal legislation to tackle the problem was enacted in the late 1930s as part of the New Deal economic recovery and social improvement program.

A main stated goal of the federal program was slum clearance. But the initial BMHA project, the Kenfield project, on the far East Side, was not in a slum area but on what had been up until then vacant land.

And Kenfield was specified whites-only. As were two of the next three BMHA projects, the Lakeview and Commodore Perry projects.

The third was the relatively modest-sized Willert Park project, on the near East Side. Willert Park was specified blacks-only, in an area that previously had been racially mixed. As to relatively modest-sized, the Willert Park project contained 172 housing units. Kenfield contained 658, Lakeview 668, and Commodore Perry 772.

Then during World War II, when the area’s black population burgeoned due to the influx of migrants from points south in response to wartime industry employment requirements, although federal housing authorities pushed hard for construction of defense housing for African-Americans near plants in North and South Buffalo and Cheektowaga, in the face of resistance from the BMHA and current residents in those then all-white locales, the federals gave in and agreed to just an extension of Willert Park, adding 300 more housing units on an additional five and a half acres of land.

The next major BMHA effort affecting substantial numbers of blacks was not until the early 1950s, what was to be known as the Ellicott and Talbert malls. Much larger and more ambitious than Willert Park, this project bulldozed some thirty city blocks in the again previously racially mixed area between Jefferson and Michigan avenues, and William and Swan streets, displacing some 20,000 residents and changing the racial makeup of the area when the malls were completed in 1959 to now almost exclusively black, housing the population in gargantuan high-rises (eight stories at Ellicott, 12 at Talbert). By the late 1970s, the buildings were deteriorating and the area was riddled with crime and violence. Talbert Mall was described as “a battleground” between cops and youth gangs. It was likened to Vietnam.

Between 1960 and 1980, the BMHA spent more money combating gangs and repairing vandalism than on normal building maintenance. In 1969, the agency deficit was $27,000. By 1980, it was $2.5 million. By 1980, at Ellicott Mall, 455 of a total of 590 apartments were abandoned and vacant.

Another slum area ripe for urban renewal, the so-called Canal Town, around what is now the Erie Basin Marina, was ignored until after a gas leak explosion in a tenement basement in 1936 killed five people, leaving the tenement a rubble pile. Following the explosion, the initial idea was to rebuild the whole area with middle-class housing, but then after years of delay getting the project going, the BMHA changed it to exclusively low-income. The project, called the Dante Project, consisting of 12 high-rises, wasn’t completed until 1952.

In the beginning, the Dante Project racial mix was 50/50, black/white, but by 1956 the project had become 65 percent black (no doubt related to the displacement of large numbers of lower-income blacks around this time due to demolitions for the Ellicott and Talbert project), and by 1959, the BMHA got permission from New York State housing officials to convert the Dante project into the present middle-income privately managed Marine Drive apartment complex. In the conversion, some 500 lower-income black residents were moved out. (Displaced one more time. Many, no doubt, to the Ellicott and Talbert malls.)

The overriding lesson (drawn from the failure of the Talbert and Ellicott and Dante projects) seems to have been about the futility (not to mention injustice) of segregation, whether based on race or income level (though both types obtained in all these cases), and particularly in high-rise housing projects. (The high-rise model for housing the poor has long since been generally abandoned.) Though the single factor of race—forget about income level, housing, and other forms of discrimination, and displacement as factors—usually got the full blame.

Meanwhile, there were voices crying in the wilderness, for example, that of William L. Evans, Sr., a co-founder of the Buffalo Urban League. As early as 1943, he wrote an influential essay entitled “Federal Housing Brings Racial Segregation to Buffalo.”

And heroes, who did much with the little the black community was given, such as Alfred D. Price, Sr., the first African-American employee of the BMHA, who eventually became manager of the Willert Park project and did a superb job by all accounts. While other public housing situations were deteriorating in the 1960s, Willert Park remained a model project.

The public housing exhibit is part of the library’s ongoing project, Re-collecting the Depression and News Deal as a Civic Resource in Hard Times. The exhibit has been located on the main floor outside the former children’s room, but may get moved around due to renovations to that room and other ongoing library projects. Look for it.

jack foran

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