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Just Looking For a Home

Rodena Perry, left, with Lorraine Chambley, right. (photo: Rose Mattrey)

A new campus for UB could displace hundreds of Buffalonians

Get Lorraine Chambley and Rodena Perry together, and you’re bound to hear the relaxed sort of conversation that’s typical between old friends. “The way we are now, we’re a family,” Chambley explains. “I live a door and a space from her.”

We’re in Perry’s living room, which shows off her obvious flair for decorating. Chambley’s sister and niece also live in the same apartment building, and it’s a nice arrangement because Chambley’s sister doesn’t have a car. “If either one of them need me, I can just do what they need, right here. But if they really needed me, and they were seventeen blocks away, I’d have to get myself together to get to them. And it’s unfair. We’re all right here together, and they’re not trying to find an area where they can put us back like this,” she says.

Perry, Chambley, and Chambley’s sister and niece are all residents of McCarley Gardens, the HUD-subsidized, low-income housing development that sits on 15 acres of land bordered by Goodell, Michigan, Virginia, and Oak streets in Buffalo, two blocks east of Main. The place was the vision of the late Reverend Burnie C. McCarley, and the late Reverend Bennett Smith, of St. John’s Baptist Church, located at 184 Goodell Street. Built in 1978, the apartments today house some 150 families comprised of single-parent and low-income households, senior citizens and physically challenged individuals. For some residents, it has been home for 30 years.

McCarley Gardens doesn’t fit the negative stereotype of low-income housing. And pity the individual who would use the term “projects” to describe the complex within earshot of any of the residents. Walking around the well-maintained grounds, you won’t see any graffiti or litter. One exception is the occasional cigarette butt that gets carelessly tossed there by someone walking away from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus—where smoking is prohibited even on the sidewalks. But even those little intrusions are becoming less frequent, thanks to the vigilance of residents unafraid to scold interlopers who don’t respect the grounds.

However, the pride the residents take in this place they call home may not be enough to stop a more aggressive intrusion by the BNMC, if things move ahead according to plans sketched out by the University at Buffalo and current St. John’s Reverend Michael Chapman. McCarley Gardens became a reality at a time in the 1970s when the land it occupies was valued at next to nothing. UB was accelerating development of its Amherst Campus, while students at the South Campus were often attending classes in “temporary” Quonset huts.

Now, according to Chapman, the University is offering his St. John the Baptist Church Fruit Belt Community Development Corporation a figure in the neighborhood of $15 million for the land in order to build a new campus there. It is hoped that creative “synergy” will be the result of relocating all of UB’s medical, nursing, and dental students from the South Campus to the BNMC—five miles down Main Street—near Buffalo General Hospital, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and other medical businesses. The bolder hope is that the resulting increase in activity will resurrect a section of the city that has suffered disproportionately over the past 60 years.

A bit of history

Henry Louis Taylor Jr. is the Director of the Center for Urban Studies at UB. In “A Historical Overview of Blacks in the Fruit Belt,” he outlines the history of the place. Beginning in the 1950s, the population composition of this traditionally German neighborhood began to shift, as more and more whites fled to the suburbs—hastened by news that the Kensington Expressway would soon be cutting a swath through the East Side.

In addition, Taylor writes, “during the 1950s, a massive urban renewal project on the lower East Side destroyed about 30 city blocks and decimated the historic center of Black Buffalo. Many of those displaced African Americans, along with black newcomers to the City, settled in the Fruit Belt. Between 1940 and 1970 more than 70,000 African Americans poured into Buffalo, as the number of blacks living in the City soared from about 18,000 to 94,000, an increase of 422%.”

Then, in the 1960s, the Fruit Belt went through an aggressive component of Urban Renewal that focused on improved housing to regenerate the area. Demolitions began in earnest, destroying countless old Victorians to make way for new builds. Compounding this questionable strategy was the fact that many more houses were destroyed than were ever rebuilt, resulting in vacant lots.

Taylor points out the tragically different approaches that were employed in the Fruit Belt and neighboring Allentown, beginning in 1970. “In Allentown, they did not use massive demolition. Instead, they provided developers and upwardly mobile residents with low-rate loans to encourage the rehabilitation of the existing structures; while in the Fruit Belt, the city bulldozer destroyed homes and made no effort to maintain the neighborhood’s historic character...between 1970 and 1990, the value of housing in the Fruit Belt increased by 140%, while in Allentown it increased by 409%.”

The path ahead

Looking back at the past, it’s impossible to ignore all the mistakes that were made. Now one of the stated aims of building up the medical corridor is to reverse these mistakes. Thousands of employees and students would be injected into the area.

According to UB Architecture Professor Robert Shibley, one of the goals is to avoid “concentrating pockets of poverty, but rather finding ways that we create the mixed environment. Mixed income, mixed race, mixed class, in a way that gives us a much more equitable and supportable social ecology. The question I come back to is, in twenty years, what do we want our city to look like?”

New shops and living spaces would be created, but the tricky part is the fact that the neighborhood is not a blank slate for designers. Residents, like those in McCarley Gardens, have built contented lives there. But because they are renters, and not homeowners, they fear their voices have not been included in the planning process. And there is plenty of reason for them to feel that way.

Discussions between Reverend Chapman and UB have been taking place over the past three years, but according to McCarley residents, they first got wind of things this past February. At a recent meeting, many questions were raised about the state of negotiations, and what the impending sale of the property would mean to them. Where would they go, and what would happen to the relationships they’ve established with friends in their apartment community?

Chapman offered assurances that new, better homes would be built for them in the Fruit Belt. What he didn’t offer was a glance at the “St. John McCarley Gardens Relocation Proposal Site Map,” created by Foit-Albert Associates back in February. The map illustrates proposed relocation sites where forty-three townhouses designed for two, three, and four family units would be constructed to offer housing for the displaced residents.

The map confirms Lorraine Chambley’s fears that they will be scattered over 22 blocks. Some will be on Best Street, between Michigan and Masten, while others will be moved across the Kensington Expressway on Cherry Street near Mortimer. Still others would land on Earl Place, across from the Makowski Early Childhood Center.

Other options

Shibley stresses that the acquisition of McCarley Gardens is not essential to implementing UB’s plan. There are other ways to create the kind of square footage needed to move university departments to the BNMC. Another option on the table calls for obtaining Pilgrim Village, another set of HUD-subsidized apartments situated on the block bordered by Ellicott, Best, Michigan, and North Streets. Pilgrim Village is owned by Mark Trammell, and he says that UB representatives have contacted him regarding the property. He also said he supports them, and medical research in general, but he said UB has not made an offer. He says they showed him drawings, but that discussions were “exploratory.” There have been no conversations with the residents at Pilgrim Village.

Before anything can happen, HUD will need to approve such sales, having pushed many millions of dollars into the properties over the years. They would also need to approve any relocation proposals for residents.

There may also be higher levels of approval, if you listen to Rodena Perry. “We’re not giving up. It’s not too late. And it’s not up to Reverend Chapman. It’s up to the Man Up Above. We’re the middleman. God’s gonna tell us what’s going on.” She reflects and says, “If they do take it from us, we put up a good fight, and we tried. We just wanted somebody to listen to us. To hear our side of the story.”

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