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Mayor Who?

How to make the office relevant again

A growing throng of enthusiastic, smart, and well-networked people will tell you that cities have never been more important. According to former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist’s The Wealth of Cities, or Ed Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, or Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, or Aaron Renn’s blog The Urbanophile, and the message is the same: All innovation, all verve, all happiness, all greenness, all good taste, and certainly all smart solutions to problems that burden the human condition, will be solved, or indeed have already been solved, in cities. Among intellectuals anyway, we are in a new age of near-consensus about the primacy, desirability, and economic efficacy of the urban form.

Cities are where the media are, which is why most Americans know who Mike Bloomberg is, and many know who Rahm Emmanuel is, too. Nearby, all Canadians know that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been accused of starring in a video, viral for weeks now, in which a large white guy who looks just like him looks to be smoking crack. The contrast between big markets and small is a contrast of degree, not of essence: Not many people outside Syracuse, New York, know that Stephanie Miner has had a fight with Governor Andrew Cuomo, but everybody within the reach of Syracuse media knows, and that’s a pretty broad area of central New York State. The mayor of a media center, no matter the actual physical boundaries of the municipality he or she was elected to govern, is pretty much the biggest public celebrity in the metropolitan media market, whether in a huge metro like New York or in a relatively self-contained metro like Syracuse. When the Lord Mayor of London opined that Mitt Romney was a nitwit with bad manners, it was the masses of the UK’s capitol speaking.

Then there’s Buffalo. Everybody from Toronto to Bradford, Pennsylvania, from rural Orleans County to suburban Hamburg, knows who Buffalo’s mayor is, and that this year Buffalo will choose its next mayor. The region in which Byron Brown is now known, and in which his Democratic primary election challenger Bernie Tolbert will become known, is geographically as large as the home media markets that know Mike Bloomberg, Rob Ford, or Rahm Emmanuel.

And here, the two-nation and two-state reach of our media means that a very broad patch of the binational region very sensibly thinks that being the mayor of the City of Buffalo is a large, powerful, meaningful position—because anybody that widely known, and anybody with official powers, a police force, media access, and the powers and duties of a representative, has some significant influence, possibly enormous influence, on the lives of everyone around.

Big footprints?

Maybe so, maybe not. Everybody in Ontario knows who Rob Ford is because big media are concentrated there. Contrast that reality with Hamilton, Ontario, the city between Buffalo and Toronto. Hamilton, a city of 500,000 in which the old urban center plus the 20th-century suburbs are governed as a unit, knows who its mayor is, but neither we nor Toronto knows.

Welcome to the gap between what people “know” and what is.

Of course there is a gap between the views of the intelligentsia and the rest of us. As elitist as he is, author, filmmaker, and provocateur James Howard Kunstler knows something that the New Consensus doesn’t: that the suburban hegemony over urban infrastructure, demographics, and economics is likely to keep winning, and to keep defining most of North America’s options, far longer than enthusiastic, sensible, smart urbanists want to acknowledge. Kunstler has made himself the indispensible entertainment at “smart growth” and new-urbanist conferences because he asserts to all within easrshot that American car culture not only really rules us all but will kill us all.

And all the enthusiasm of the new elite opinion, coupled with all the new inputs into downtown Buffalo, have a curious synchronicity with the election cycle. It is as if there are three parallel universes operating side by side by side, not touching one another, even if they are definitely within sight of one another.

As reported here recently, of the more than 700 building permits for single-family dwellings issued in Erie County (which encompasses the largest US portion of the Buffalo metro media market) in 2012, only 43 of those permits were issued within the boundaries of the City of Buffalo. Norquist and Renn and Florida and Glaeser may be absolutely correct about what should be happening, but what is happening, right here, within video range of the office once held by Grover Cleveland, is what Kunstler calls “the clusterfuck” and what Joel Kotkin, author of The Next 100 Million, calls “the future.”

While the New Urbanists celebrate the diversity, inventiveness, and the desirability of cities, Kotkin rebuts, using the same language. As the US grows from 310 million to over 400 million within the next 25 years, Kotkin says that seven out of 10 of the next 100 million Americans will go to live in the suburbs.

What’s a mayor to do?

Voting for what was, is, or might be?

In Buffalo in 2013, voters will probably not be reminded much of the 200th anniversary of the city’s destruction during the War of 1812 as they choose a new mayor. Nor will they be reminded that theirs is a city whose boundaries have not changed in 170 years, but whose population has fallen from over 550,000 50 years ago to under 275,000 today, and whose legal functions have changed just as radically.

The City of Buffalo hasn’t operated its own hospital since 1946. The city library system merged to become part of the Buffalo and Erie County library system. Ditto the botanical gardens. The city is still the landlord of Kleinhans Music Hall, but the city budget has only a token line for supporting cultural activities in a place where arts-related economic activity accounts for more than 3,000 jobs and almost $400 million in economic activity. Early in the first decade of the 21st century, city government withdrew from funding its parks system, which was taken over by Erie County in a deal that transferred parks operations and management to the not-for-profit Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

The city has not handled social services, except for some token liaison offices, since the Depression. The City of Buffalo contributes about a quarter of its revenue to the Buffalo Public Schools system, but does not run that system.

The city has transferred sewer and water services and infrastructure-management to quasi-independent authorities. An alphabet soup of “economic development” agencies channels federal and state money and tax breaks into projects.

In sum, today, rather than being a unified command structure where the chief elected authority supervises all services to the people remaining within the boundaries of the historic municipality, the mayor in Buffalo is the boss of the police, the fire department, the streets maintenance and sanitation operations, a very small portion of the parks, and of some administrative functions handled in a big polyglot operation under the supervision of the city clerk. But governing, which is to say, supervising and directing all the public services that are delivered to people who either dwell in or visit the 40.5 square miles of Buffalo, is fractured, splintered, and managed elsewhere, sometimes with input from the mayor (sewer and water employees tend to be connected to the second floor of City Hall) but mainly without.

Of the 42,000 persons who participated in the mayoral election of 2009, about 26,000 voted for Byron Brown, leaving about 16,000 to his opponent, now-State Assemblymember Mickey Kearns. Of the 26,000 who voted for Brown, it is no surprise to anyone that a very large portion of the electorate consists of people who directly owe their employment to the public sector here, or used to, or are related to current or former members of the public workforce—and that although the Buffalo mayor of 2013 may have very little direct influence on their livelihood, there is a broad acceptance of the notion that he did, or does, or could.

Does the mayor of Buffalo bear either responsibility or blame for the economic condition, growth prospects or big-picture policy scene here? In a word, no; in a more precise few words, not currently. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, which has control over a couple of hundred million dollars of Power Authority reauthorization money, decided what to do with Erie Canal Harbor. The Seneca Gaming Corporation and Federal District Judge William Skretny decided that the Seneca casino on Michigan Avenue is legal. The State University of New York decided, with the New York State Health Department, to move forward with the Main-High medical corridor complex. The Public Bridge Authority decides, or doesn’t decide, on what happens in Front Park at the international crossing. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, not the mayor, decided what was and what was not going to be the policy on cleaning some of the sewage out of Buffalo’s water. Fully 36 percent of Buffalo’s revenue comes from New York State; another 15 percent is the New York/Erie County sales tax, which Buffalo gets under an often-criticized sales tax distribution agreement. Slightly less than half the city’s $461 million annual intake comes from inside its boundaries.

Were those boundaries adjusted to reflect the realities of the regional economy (not of the regional media market, which stretch not only across the state line into Pennsylvania but across an international border) then the appearance of power, influence, relevance, and impact would be much more real. As it currently exists, the office of mayor of Buffalo is a much-curtailed, much-reduced office—constrained not by the democratic process of an elected legislature’s power, as in Toronto, where Mayor Ford is free to cavort but not to influence much, but by the processes that William Howard Kunstler decries and that Joel Kotkin celebrates.

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

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