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Urbanicity in Autumn

A $9 million investment transformed vacant waterfront land into Hamilton's Bayfront Park.

Can Buffalo be the 19th-century city of the future?

On the second Saturday in September, a group from Hamilton, Ontario will come to spend the day in Buffalo to explore “success and failure in city-building.” The tour will start at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed boathouse then go to the pretty places of Buffalo—past the Saarinen-designed Kleinhans Music Hall and all the flowers in Symphony Circle, then up Richmond to Olmsted’s parkways and the Albright-Knox and the Burchfield-Penney galleries, then down Elmwood to Erie Canal Harbor, Rick Smith’s grain elevators, and the stunning architectural achievement of the Seneca Gaming Corporation’s box on Michigan Street.

Then it’s off to Howard Zemsky’s Larkinville, which on weekdays is a holiday for calorie-counters, then to the Central Terminal and Corpus Christi and Saint Adalbert’s and the mosque on Sobieski Street. Up Fillmore Avenue to Martin Luther King, Jr., park and what once was Olmsted’s glorious Humboldt Parkway until Robert Moses and his servant-boys replaced it with the Kensington Expressway. We will then show off several of the refurbished Buffalo Public School buildings, the refreshed former German Catholic campus on Dodge Street, the massive public expenditures underway in our “private” hospital campus on High Street, and then the big restorations underway at Rocco Termini’s Hotel Lafayette and Mark Croce’s Statler Hotel before we head back to the Burchfield-Penney for an open panel discussion with a historian, an economist or two, and maybe a journalist who follows the money.

There won’t be time to show the group the 1,500 acres of Buffalo that comprises parcels valued, as of a couple of years ago, at less than $10,000 apiece, but we will get a glimpse of what Hamilton’s civic and educational leaders are assiduously trying to bust up in their town: the concentrated poverty, the income-segregated schools, and the suburban sprawl that relentlessly devalues real estate in the city by providing an ever-growing supply of housing in a metro region that is losing population.

The Hamilton folks have politely offered to host a mirror group of Buffalo civic leaders, journalists, academics, and other assorted urbanists to drive the 60 miles (pardon me, the 100 kilometers) to see a town that decided to merge its city, county, and town governments into a single metro government 12 years ago, that made its waterfront a park, that is trying to convince its university to expand downtown and its transit system to build not one but two above-ground trolley/streeetcar lines, and that faces the same poverty-segregated schools, big-box retailing, car-centric sprawl, and economic transition issues we face, but which somehow hammers along without a National Hockey League franchise to call its own. (Pity about Blackberry, which is headquartered just up the road a piece from Hamilton; the former CEO was going to buy a team until the iPad arrived.)

The good news is that the Hamilton people think we have a lot to teach. The other news isn’t news: What they’ll see is a whole lot of physical developments, many of them funded with public money, that neither individually nor collectively have prevented Buffalo from losing more than 50,000 souls since 1990, and Erie County losing more than 100,000 since then.

The writer in October

Alan Ehrenhalt will be coming to speak at Buffalo State College in October. His will be the first big community learning event in Buffalo State College President Aaron Podolefsky’s “year of the city” program because his new book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, is a sober, sensible, measured, and eminently teachable piece of work. There’s next to nothing in Ehrenhalt’s book about Buffalo—the author, who for almost two decades edited the wonkish Governing magazine, prepared for this book by visiting and interviewing in eight metros in 2009 and 2010, including Cleveland, Chicago, and Philadelphia, but not here.

Ehrenhalt’s historical perspective on how some old cities changed their built environments is curiously relevant, for example, when he reviews how the redesign of Paris by Baron Haussmann in the 1860s rid that city of the revolution-spawning narrow streets where the poor lived…and from which the poor were physically removed. That’s the setup for the rest of the book: Ehrenhalt observes that more of the well-off have decided to shed the suburbs for the city, and that even when cities are depopulating, and even as suburbs continue to sprawl, there is indeed a great inversion underway, and that the pattern of the past 50 or 60 years is reversing.

It’s a strong wave in Chicago, and in Philadelphia, two big cities with old bones (but only Chicago is bringing in the immigrant entrepreneurs in big numbers). The in-migration of well-off people is a very strong wave in New York, where the author observes that even after the 2008 financial crisis and economic crash, vacancies deep in downtown Manhattan (where Jane Jacobs predicted, wrongly, that nobody would ever want to live) were almost impossible to find only a year later. High rents and low vacancy rates near Wall Street may have had something to do with the insane persistence of bountiful bonuses after the crash, but the same pattern exists in the other “superstar” cities where there are high concentrations of big financial-economy winners and the people who cater to them.

Maybe that’s not what our Hamilton visitors will see much of here, though we’re pretty well-off in terms of places that well-off people should want to be, with our classic archtiecture, our accesible water, our stunning parks. Rich as we are, we yet fade in demographic terms. Buffalo-area readers would do well to pay close attention to Ehrenhalt’s chapter on Cleveland Heights, the eight-square-mile suburb stuck between shrinking Cleveland (down 17 percent since 2000) and the ever-sprawling suburbs. Cleveland Heights is an inner-ring suburb, sort of an Amherst that looks like North Buffalo and Snyder. It’s marketing itself as an arts-freindly place. It has succeeded in enticing micro-communities of well-off immigrants to come in. But the macro economy matters, as does its region. The city of Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs comprise 33 percent and 39 percent of the county’s population; dealing with the macro-economy and with the regional trend-lines would be easier if the overhead of running separate municipal services were not so crazily expensive.

Were Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs to merge—Myron Orfield advocated for this solution for Minneapolis-St. Paul 20 years ago—then the shrinking city and its at-risk older suburbs would achieve some sanity in administrative overhead costs, and they’d lose some of the dysfunction that gives them staggeringly high property taxes. But neither the author nor the people he quotes are optimistic about economic self-interest trumping parochialism. “And so,” says Ehrenhalt, “Cleveland Heights sits on a fragile fault line of demographic inversion.” Translation: It could chug along or it could go to hell, depending on whether there is a regional economic transformation that brings back the kinds of jobs that spawned that great housing stock in the first place. Pretty only gets you so far.

The challenge for experienced observers like Ehrenhalt is to make American sense of the profoundly diverse regional economies of profoundly different places that happen to share the same national identity. Denver’s story is interesting. So is Atlanta’s. New York is New York. It’s difficult to see that the unversal principles of agglomeration economics are ever going to be applied, or thwarted, without some acknowledgment of the great economic distinctions. The sorry history of racial sorting in urban regions is an American universal. So is the sorry reality that though some regions are so rich that they can better afford to be inefficiently governed than others, all American metros suffer the costly externalities of sprawl. The coming wave of municipal bankruptcies is precisely the moment when governors and the national government should step in and require an end to go-it-along parochialism for every Cleveland Heights in the land.

When the Canadians come visiting, they’re going to want to know why the last $1 billion that Albany sent us got spent on making palaces for city-only schools, and why it is that during the refurbishment period, the school population in Buffalo dropped from 45,000 to 32,000. They’re going to see beautiful new buildings, beautiful old buildings renewed, and they’ll get a glimpse of lots of abandoned old buildings, too. It’s our American way: a little bit of population inversion amidst a lot of abandonment and a lot of sprawl. Ehrenhalt’s book is a nudge to skeptics to see that inversion in historical context. What’s old, he says, is increasingly going to become the American new. That could put Buffalo at the leading edge of a new wave for the first time since our leaders hired Frederick Law Olmsted, shortly after the Civil War.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His new book is Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, available at bookstores or at

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