Next story: Letters to Artvoice
by Bruce Jackson
Barry Snyder and his Seneca gambling operation made two huge PR moves in Buffalo last week, both of them designed to shore up the Seneca Gaming Corporation’s claim that a Buffalo casino is a done deal and that all opposition is, therefore, pointless.
One of the moves, aided and abetted by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, was based on in-your-face bullying; the other, aided and abetted by the Buffalo News, on not-very-subtle extortion.
1. The scene at the site.
Drive south out of downtown Buffalo along the I-190. Near the Louisiana Street exit, you will see on the right the mutilated cadaver of the H-O Oats grain elevator, which is being knocked down by a huge wrecking crane wielding a 1,500-pound, U-shaped chunk of cast iron.
If you are driving northward along that same section of I-190, all you will see right now is the elevator with its familiar block letters saying “H-O OAT”—the silo with the final “S” is gone—and the tall crane rising above and beyond it. That is because all the destroyed silos are on the north side of the elevator. In a week or so, the letters you see from the northbound lanes of the I-190 will be gone and everyone will be able to see wrecked silos from either direction, and a few weeks further on you’ll see nothing at all, unless the Senecas decide for some reason to abandon the destruction project.
Only a few workers are on the site. A medium-sized bulldozer moves rubble near where Fulton Street reaches the Michigan Avenue side. A Seneca police car sits just inside where Fulton Street is blocked off on the Marvin Street side. Every time I’ve gone there there have been more signs saying
PROPERTY OF THE
Except for cleaning up rubble that falls into Perry Street, all the demolition work is done by one man. He sits in the crane’s cab and raises the iron U maybe 20 feet above the rim of one of the silos. He lets it drop. Concrete and asbestos dust bursts into the air and chunks of rubble fall to the ground below. He raises the iron U again and again lets it drop, and again there is a burst of concrete and asbestos dust and a shower of rubble.
After a while, he has cut a deep notch into the side of the silo maybe 30 feet long. He moves the iron U away, raises it a bit, then begins moving the crane back and forth. Almost in slow-motion, the iron U at the end of the long steel cable swings in a wider and wider arc until it smashes into the column it had, by the repeated chopping, isolated from the silo wall.
Sometimes it takes two hits to collapse the section, sometimes just one. The isolated section tilts, breaks up and falls, sending huge billows of concrete and asbestos straight up and off to the sides. Where the section had been is now just air, save for the curling and bent strands of one-inch steel reinforcement bars, sheared by the U-shaped device as if they had been tired strands of frayed cotton on an old shirt, and the high dust, glowing and dissipating in the afternoon light.
The wrecking crane was at work all through the Memorial Day weekend and all through this past weekend. Each time I was there, within minutes, my car, my camera, my lenses and I were covered with that dust that drifted over the neighborhood all day, every day, while the destruction workers did their work, probably being paid double- or triple-time for the Sundays and Memorial Day holiday. Money to pay people to work on holidays or do work they might otherwise not wish to do is not a problem for the Seneca Gaming Corporation.
Whenever the wrecking crane is working a single water-misting device sprays the air between the crane and the silos. At first I thought the misting device was there to keep the dust off the Perry Street projects just a block away, but then I realized it was there to clear the air in front of the crane operator so he could see where he was dropping and swinging the huge iron U. Nothing kept the dust from the street and the streets beyond.
When I visited the site last Sunday there was something new: signs warning of asbestos in the air. I don’t know what prompted the Seneca Gaming Corporation to post the signs so late in the process. The signs are only on the fence of the site itself. There are no signs to the east, where even the slightest breeze constantly blows the fine concrete and asbestos dust. There are no signs anywhere downwind, where the Perry Street projects are, where there are streets on which people walk and children play.
2. Why is Barry Snyder taking down the H-O Oats elevator and why is Byron Brown helping him do it?
There’s no pressing need for the Seneca Gaming Corporation to be tearing down the H-O Oats grain elevators right now. If they get to build a casino on that site they may have to, but that would depend on the design, and at this point they don’t have a design. All they’ve got is a preliminary design concept, which is just a piece of paper.
So far as I can tell, the single reason for this destruction project that is it is a dramatic way of telling anyone traveling into or out of Buffalo on I-190, “This is a done deal. You can’t stop us. The county executive tried to stop us and he couldn’t do it. There are environmental laws that apply to anyone doing this sort of thing, but they don’t apply to us. It’s a done deal. You can’t do anything about the toxic dust coming off our property and blowing into a densely populated area. It’s a done deal. You can’t do anything here we don’t want you to do, and all we want you to do is come and gamble and give us your money. You got a problem with that, you can kiss our ass. It’s a done deal. Fuck you.”
None of that is true, but that’s what they’re saying with that wrecking crane and the 1,500-pound, U-shaped slab of cast iron.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who has pretended to be giving thought to all this foolishness, turns out to be complicit in it: Without any public hearings, he had two city streets blocked off and wired in so the Seneca Gaming Corporation could carry on this demolition work and he has helped the Senecas avoid the kind of environmental impact studies any other organization would have to do before engaging in huge demolition projects and releasing all kinds of garbage into the air adjacent to populated areas. I asked Brown’s staff if they knew of any environmental studies that had been done prior to this demolition and thus far they have come up with nothing at all.
It may very well true be that nobody can do anything about anything done on Indian land. But nobody argues Byron Brown’s authority to interdict an action pouring vile stuff into the city’s air supply. He can have those trucks coming into and leaving the Seneca property blocked; he can block off the city streets one block away from the Seneca land; he can ask the new Secretary of the Interior to force the Seneca Gaming Corporation to obey the law.
But he has done and is doing none of that. The question is why. Why would he betray his trust as mayor? Why would he betray the East Side community that was for so long his political base?
For one thing, Byron Brown needs the casino, not just for what the casino developers may be handing him or his campaign in the way of support funds, or promising him for a possible future run for Louise Slaughter’s seat in Congress, but also for the budget with which he hopes to get the city’s control board off his back. He’s projected $5 million a year in city income from the casino to offset other losses in city income in his budgets three and four years out.
That means that the Brown administration isn’t a government agency dealing with a group that wants to put a gambling joint in the heart of town. It means the Brown administration is partnering with a group they hope will help them deal with an intractable problem, only they haven’t yet had the decency to tell the rest of us about the intimate relationship.
How many members of the Byron Brown administration and the Buffalo Common Council live downwind from that wrecking operation? Do you think Brown and the Council would have turned a blind eye while the Senecas dumped all that noxious dust into the air without any serious environmental studies if it were their children living in those projects, playing on those streets?
3. Fantasy futures.
The destruction of the H-O Oats silos was an in-your-face gambit by Seneca Gaming Corporation: It wasn’t necessary, it was outside the law, they got away with it, nobody said boo and it continues in full view day after day. Barry Snyder doesn’t want you to forget that he owns City Hall.
Bold stuff. The second part of the PR assault is more subtle and it took the full collaboration of the Buffalo News, which ran over six days three articles and an editorial which, if they weren’t planted by SGC’s flacks, may just as well have been.
Each of the articles was grounded in things that were not true or in which key true things were left out; each of them was one-sided; each of them made the Seneca Gaming Corporation’s case and not one of them made even a Fox News level “fair-and-balanced” bow to the other side.
And worst of all: The articles weren’t written by the News’s editorial writers, who frequently perform at some other person’s or agency’s bidding, but were rather done by two of the News’s good reporters, Sharon Linstedt and Michael Beebe.
It began with Linstedt’s page-one article on June 1 headlined “Cutting-edge design for casino: Senecas’ vision proposes creek, parklike setting.” Reporters don’t write headlines, editors do that, but nothing in that head or subhead was dissonant with Linstedt’s sales-pitch prose. Her lead goes, “The Seneca Nation of Indians’ vision for its Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino will take the form of contemporary glass and steel on a parklike setting with a symbolic creek running through it.”
Keep in mind what this is really about: not a park, not an urban habitat, but a gambling joint designed solely to suck money out of the city of Buffalo and its environs—one that, because of a quirk in the law, will have restaurants, bars, shows and shops operating at a huge economic advantage over any other operator in Buffalo.
“The site plan,” writes Linstedt, “turns what is now a mishmash of industrial properties along Michigan Avenue in Buffalo’s Cobblestone District into a nine-acre gambling campus.”
Campus? Like a college or a research institution? Like the medical campus on High Street? Mishmash? That’s a word for a front-page newspaper article? Are the recently restored lofts across the street from the H-O Oats silos mishmash? Are the Perry Street projects one block away? Is the developing waterfront in the other direction?
“Plans,” Linstedt writes, “call for substantial landscaping, lagoons and a creek to form parkland along Michigan Avenue from Perry Street to South Park Avenue. The swath of green also would run along the Perry Street boundary of the site. ‘We want this to be a neighborhood park, a place where people who live or work in the Cobblestone District could take a walk and enjoy the green space,’ [the Seneca spokesman] said. ‘We want to be part of the neighborhood. We don’t want to put up barriers.’ The green space also would be home to historical elements marking Seneca history in the former Buffalo Creek territory.”
This is like saying the prison will have well-manicured grounds and sweet music to play while the convicts work like dogs and the guards whip for pleasure. The amenities are irrelevant. It’s function that matters. This is still a gambling joint, designed to suck the life out of Buffalo’s economy. Who cares if a symbolic creek runs through it?
Next, Linstedt and the Buffalo News become instruments in the Seneca Gaming Corporation’s extortion.
“The design,” Linstedt writes, “assumes the city will abandon the two-block stretch of Fulton Street, which runs through the Seneca territory and dead ends at Marvin Street. Talks with the city to permanently close the street are under way.”
“The design assumes…” What’s with the intransitive? Who assumes? Designs don’t “assume”; designs just are. People assume. Who is assuming that the city of Buffalo will just give up two blocks of public land that do not, as Linstedt has it, run “through the Seneca territory.” The Senecas bought small parcels of land bounded by city streets, and they’re acting as if the city should therefore give them one of the streets in the middle of their parcels. And the Buffalo News is acting as if the street were on their territory.
This is nuts. This is the world upside down. And then it gets worse.
What happens if the city doesn’t give up the land? Then, says the Seneca spokesman, no lagoon, no park, no creek. We’ll just build ugly because the gamblers don’t care what’s outside, right? You give us what we want or we’ll build an eyesore.
Where were the city representatives responding in anger to the way the city was being extorted into complicity? Where were the citizens’ representatives commenting on the cynical ploy?
Not in Linstedt’s article. No voice of contradiction or even interrogation appears anywhere in Linstedt’s page one article about the Seneca Gaming Corporation’s preliminary proposal for what it might do in downtown Buffalo if everything doesn’t go exactly as it wants.
4. Playing hooky.
The following day, Linstedt had a second article on the presentation of the preliminary site plan, this one on the front page of the City & Region section. The headline was “Brown skips ceremony for unveiling of casino plan,” and had a subhead reading, “Unresolved site issues with Senecas blamed.” The gist of this was that former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello had always appeared at Seneca Gaming Corporation PR events but Byron Brown and the Buffalo Common Council hadn’t appeared at the presentation of the preliminary design plan. In Linstedt’s words, “Conspicuously absent was Mayor Byron W. Brown.”
But why should he have been there? This was, save for the Buffalo News giving it page one status, a non-event. It was a PR, nothing more. At most it should have been back in the Business section in the area reserved for “things people are talking about doing sometime.”
Brown’s own PR man, Peter Cutler, told Linstedt that the mayor’s absence wasn’t a snub but it was rather because the city and the Senecas still had issues to work out. Linstedt said that one of the issues was whether or not the city would shut down a two-block section of Fulton Street. In fact, Fulton Street had been shut down long before the Seneca’s presentation of their drawing.
Common Council President David A. Franczyk told Linstedt that he had been invited, but “Probably the main reason I didn’t go was I met with Seneca representatives on Wednesday and got a preview of the designs. I didn’t need to show up to find out what it will look like.” He also told her that he didn’t want to “seem too easy” because “we’re in the middle of discussions with them on some key items and have to maintain a tough stance.”
Franczyk offered to go to Albany with Brown to meet with the governor about economic development funds that might be available to pay for the work the Senecas want done. He said he would like to see the Senecas “buy” Fulton Street if it is necessary to their project. “If this casino is a fait accompli and they are counting on us to give up Fulton Street, then that land has some value,” Franczyk said. “It’s the Yellow Brick Road to their casino. It might be worth millions, maybe thousands, I don’t know, but I intend to get a valuation.”
What’s with the “probably”? Doesn’t he remember? Does he think he’s a character in a novel about someone else? What’s with not wanting to “seem to easy”? You say that, it means you’ve decided you’re going to do it, you just haven’t gotten your price yet.
So Common Council President David Franczyk, generally regarded as developer Carl Paladino’s man-in-city-hall, ponders not whether the city’s virtue is for sale, but only how much he can get for it.
There remains, writes Linstedt, the matter of infrastructure improvements that will cost a good bit of money. The city is balking at paying for street construction the only function of which would be to make it easier for gamblers to drop money at the proposed casino. Snyder said that the Seneca Nation could lend the city of Buffalo “a couple million” so the city could undertake the infrastructure improvements the Senecas want. “I know they don’t have any extra money, so we could help them out by fronting the money and they could pay us back later,” Snyder said.
I take that to mean that the city would pay for the improvements that wouldn’t be necessary without the Seneca gambling joint. The Seneca gambling joint will lend the city the money to make the improvements with funds area residents have lost in the Niagara Falls casino so city residents can lose a great deal more in the Buffalo casino.
Which proves you don’t have to be Jewish to have chutzpah.
6. Fantasy pasts.
There would be one more article in this week’s Buffalo News casino triptych: Michael Beebe’s June 4, “For Senecas, return to Buffalo Creek helps right an old wrong,” the point of which seemed to be that since the Buffalo Creek area of Buffalo was Seneca ancestral land, it was only appropriate that they should come here and put up a casino with which they could screw the non-Indians who had screwed them and so many other Indian tribes in so many places over so many years.
But the article is grounded in a fallacy. Buffalo Creek land wasn’t originally Seneca territory. It belonged to two other tribes, the Erielhonans and the Neutrals, which the Iroquois wiped out. Buffalo Creek was never Seneca territory until they got it from General George Washington as part of their payoff for having sided with the settlers against other Indians who had sided with the British. Whatever the rights or wrongs of that, aboriginal ownership has no part in it. Beebe starts his discussion of Seneca Creek history as if it began after George Washington became president. That subtracts too much from the real story. (All of that is summarized in Judge Richard Arcara’s decision denying the Senecas’ claim to Grand Island, which was upheld by the US Court of Appeals in 2003 and by the US Supreme Court on Monday of this week.)
And, more important, why do wrongs that may or may not have happened 200 years ago justify wrongs about to happen here now? I’d think the goal would be to stop wronging anybody, not to perpetuate the cycle.
At issue here are not historical rights to run a gambling joint in land that various Indian tribes may or may not have owned at various times in the past. Rather, at issue is a gambling operation set up in three New York locations by a governor on the ropes after New York’s economy took a huge hit on September 11. George Pataki’s solution wasn’t to create new wealth or to import wealth from elsewhere, but to shift wealth from one place in New York (the general economy) to another place in New York (the casino economy) from which the state government could skim a few bucks to help balance its troubled books. It was totally cynical then and remains so now.
The question is, why is the Buffalo News doing this PR work for the Seneca Gaming Corporation? Its editorial page has long been doing questionable service for questionable masters, but the news department has been, on this issue, mostly reliable. Why did it now run a page-one story about a non-event grounded in a Disneyland-wannabe fairytale, with a backup the next day? Why did it run a history story that favored one side and ignored the others? Why, after so much good journalism on these issues by Jerry Zremski, Mike Beebe and others, are the Buffalo News reporters now doing stenography for the Seneca Gaming Corporation?
Finally, on June 6, the 52nd anniversary of the allied invasion of Europe, it all came back to the Buffalo News editorial page. An editorial titled “Energetic Seneca casino design” that featured a photo of Barry Snyder and former mayor Anthony Masiello at last year’s groundbreaking, said the design was wonderful, just wonderful. The News, said the editorial four paragraphs in, “still believes that a casino is not good for Buffalo,” but as long as it seems to be coming, well, the design is wonderful, just wonderful.
This is like the person who is in the hotel room with somebody else’s spouse who says, “Oh, what a lovely, lovely room. I really shouldn’t be here at all, but as long as I am I might as well get fucked.” Which is exactly what happens next.
And on it goes. The 1,500-pound, U-shaped chunk of cast iron keeps chopping at the silos, smashing long irregular slits in the cylinders and thereby creating isolated columns which it then knocks down, leaving wiry pieces of steel reinforcing rods bent in the dust like horizontal strands of pubic hair. Every day, the huge chunks plunge to join the debris below. They hit bottom and send up plumes of fine concrete and asbestos dust that drifts eastward, coating cars, streets, trees and houses, coating walkers in the city and children playing outside in the fine early summer afternoon.
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v5n23: Greed and the Demolition of the H-O Oats Elevator (6/8/06) > Greed
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