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It Takes a Barkeep

City focus, water awareness, and collaboration keep hope alive

When play is in the pellucid autumn air, the perfidies of bankers, and of the politicians who enable them, seem far, far away. Walking in the sunshine to the China Lighthouse with Sail Buffalo’s Pierre Wallinder, surveying the sun-dappled Buffalo River from beneath towering cottonwoods, hearing how he and Assemblyman Mickey Kearns and a group of sailing enthusiasts negotiated a land-use agreement with the US Coast Guard and a grant from the Greenway Commission to turn a few yards of riverfront into a three-season sailing school—complete with floating docks and a floating classroom—it’s just too good, too positive, too sweet not to savor, even on the fifth anniversary of the Lehman Brothers banking collapse that triggered the greatest global financial calamity since 1929 and cost the Buffalo area almost 20,000 jobs.

Sail Buffalo’s plan is to bring Buffalo schoolchildren to the water to learn knots and wind- and wave-management from credentialed, volunteer captains using donated boats. Its slip and docks are just across the Buffalo River from the Hatch, whose operator owes the City of Buffalo a few hundred thousand, and downstream from Rick Smith’s art-repurposed grain elevators, and from the new rowing club, and from the great big new sandbox at Canalside, the most toddler-friendly play-space a parent could ask for. The new recreational space on our formerly industrial river feels like victory for the preservationists and paddlers and scullers, and for generations of children yet to come, no matter how slow they may be in coming here. The community yet awaits the changes in public policies that will make income-earning more possible here, policies that will decide what work will get done here, even as we settle in in earnest, in the sunshine anyway, into a new thought pattern about Buffalo’s harbor, once the engine of New York’s commerce, once the country’s most crime-ridden port, once the entry point for more immigrants than Ellis Island. Now, it’s not a workplace, but a play-space.

That’s the new policy, the local response to the policy hegemony of Wall Street. Policy is about governing, and those who get to govern, so we want to keep thinking, are the ones who win elections. At the local and regional level, we don’t usually think of our policy choices as economically meaningful in the way that choosing a member of Congress directly affects federal income tax rates, starting wars or just continuing them, or funding basic science research. So generally, our local elected officials seem to get to decide only about non-essential issues.

Don’t be fooled. Choosing to invest public treasure and effort in urban landscapes is profoundly meaningful—in potentia. The regional economy will continue to drift if public resources are spread thin across the sprawled landscape, with no thought to effective regional planning for where roads go, what land is used for, where what we flush ends up. In the recent primary elections, the barely visible, non-executive races did not engage the economic future of the metro, with one exception: the race for the county legislator who will represent South and East Buffalo and Cheektowaga.

A slim plurality of the tiny voter turnout chose Patrick Burke, a South Buffalo barkeep (at the Irish Center) whose job it will be to help his Cheektowaga constituents, and not just his Buffalo voters, understand their common interest in his advocacy for the city. Burke’s key issues—consolidating the county’s community college downtown, and ending the county’s subsidies for the sprawl that devours farmland and degrades the values of old homes in old neighborhoods—are important and simply said. He actively campaigned on these issues while doing the usual face-to-face, door-to-door work that legislative candidates have to do. Burke won in South Buffalo and came a distant third in Cheektowaga, but here’s his opportunity: If he’s positive about the shared self-interest of the old city and the old suburb, and doesn’t mind advocating for farmland, too, then he may be able to put together a coalition of interest groups that can save the Buffalo metro’s future from its current trajectory of overall decline except in the fortunes of bankers and suburban real-estate developers.

The lads of the South

Patrick Burke got help from Buffalo City Comptroller Mark Schroeder and Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, and from former legislator Greg Olma. Burke accepted campaign contributions—nickels and dimes—from some unlikely sources, while the big money (sources unknown) went elsewhere via a political action committee with the term “progressive” in its title but a blank space in the place where policy advocacy would normally appear.

Schroeder, whose Assembly seat Kearns succeeded to, was the political enabler of the Buffalo River play-space at the foot of Hamburg Street, the place where kayakers and canoeists have a put-in. Decades ago, it was the site of the Mutual Rowing Club; it was Schroeder who helped the New York Power Authority find the funds to clear out the debris in that bend of the Buffalo River that’s directly across from Rick Smith’s big grain elevators. Schroeder led the effort to put in the boathouse and docks and debris-boom when NYPA moved its storage site for the mile-long chain-linked ice boom from the Outer Harbor upriver.

Kearns enabled the Sail Buffalo site under the towering arbor of ancient cottonwoods on US Coast Guard property, more of which is soon to become accessible, and next to which there is already a lovely path to Buffalo’s ancient lighthouse past some formidable Buffalo River cottonwoods. Those trees are, I think, the northernmost and easternmost stands of the river forest that clothes the interior North American riversides all the way west to Montana and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Cottonwoods are chan wakan, sacred tree, to practitioners of a very ancient annual celebration of the return of growing season. Every early June, the cottonwoods shed millions of fluffy seeds onto the Buffalo River, the Allegheney, the Ohio, the Missouri, the Mississippi.

Soon, Ohio Street, which is and will probably remain the main inland street along the Buffalo River, will get even more attention. The example of Milwaukee’s riverfront development will come into focus in 2014, partly because it’s a lesson Buffalo can comprehend, partly because the former mayor of Milwaukee, John Norquist, will be in Buffalo leading the national conference of the Congress for a New Urbanism.

Overcoming the slow suicide of sprawl

The picture is coming into focus: Buffalo is re-centering at its point of origin, and reconnecting to the geography that has repeatedly been the rationale for every human presence here. Even some real-estate developers recognize that the momentum, formerly suburban, is now urban. More, it’s central.

At the moment, though, the dominant economic paradigm isn’t producing new employment opportunities sufficient to change the region’s trajectory of shrinkage, and of increased dependency. The region’s workforce continues to shrink. Enrollments in local colleges seem to be shrinking, consistent with the national pattern, as the “echo” of the Baby Boom wends its way through post-secondary education, and as the population trend of Upstate is stuck in neutral. It’s not too much to ask of our local government officials, who have done a good job of making attractive play-spaces inside the city, to make a redoubled pro-urban effort given the consensus among demographers that Erie County will shrink another 100,000, down from 900,000, in the next decade—and that the first-ring suburbs will lose tax base just as surely as the old city has.

Local leaders can choose to avoid incurring the cost of any new sprawl by stopping it—at the county level. Then there’s the positive work that needs to be done—at the city and county level alike—the work of re-siting industry where it used to be. Any of the very expensive public subsidies for economic development that are focused outside the 40.5 square miles of the old city, or for that matter outside the 100 square miles of the old city and its first-ring suburbs, would be ineffective in bolstering the regional economy. Ditto any construction of public amenities.

There are difficult budget conversations ahead, now that there will be a renewal of a strong urbanist streak in local politics. Yet there are more promising developments every day, including the emergence of a strong pro-agriculture lobby within Buffalo. It’s decidedly elitist now, very trendy, very hip, and that means small-volume, and currently a very tiny piece of the overall geography of food here—unlike in Chicago, or in Cleveland, places where the regional food economy is being reshaped by large-scale, politcally empowered rural-urban coalitions. The next phase of policy-shaping here will happen, or not, starting in 2014, when the new urbanists take their seats. Once they do, then positive advocacy for the good stuff, like farmland protection and urban amenities, will necessarily run into the budget reality—which is that elected officials in the second-ring suburbs want their share of sales tax, and their road subsidies, and their library subsidies, and their subsidized Sheriff road patrols—which the current crop of state, county, city, and town elected officials is very content to maintain. As temperatures drop and sailing-courses end and rowing races wind up and the season of outdoor play on and near our waterfront ends, the season of work on budgets begins. That’s where the real fun will be had, if by “fun” one means “fundamental conflict” between the status quo and a potentially disruptive change.

Bruce Fisher is a former deputy executive for Erie County and 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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