Buffalo: A History of Growth, Decline and Leftovers

The following diagram (see below) illustrates a pattern of growth and decline that is commonplace within America’s Rust Belt Cities. Overly dependent upon outdated and monopolized industries, the city of Buffalo now features an excess of structural and infrastructural waste. Unused housing stock, coupled with an excess of roads and highways, now comprise an urban shell of yesterday’s economic might. 
Buffalo’s current infrastructural makeup has devolved due to a dire series of socio-economic consequences. Urban dwelling has failed to compete with suburban growth, whose townships increased greatly in size from 1950 to 1970. This trend was catalyzed by an increased demand for housing following World War II, and catalyzed by changes directed by federal housing policies. These regulations (the National Housing Act, in particular) reduced risks to lenders and caused interest rates to drop significantly, as these incentives promoted single-family housing development in peripheral residential neighbourhoods.
As an area in which labour is cheap and materials are limited, perhaps yesterday’s structures provide an opportunity for tomorrow’s progression. The greatest potential for continued structural utilization therefore rests within the reuse of unused buildings and land (unlike the demise of 639 High Street, but much like Aaron Bartley’s land use aspirations spelled out in a recent Huffington Post article).
*Lead image: Painting Sara M. Zak – Preservation-Ready Sites painting of 630 High Street from 2009
A growing number of grassroots communities are fully entrenched within the process of recycling building materials. Buffalo ReUse, a local social enterprise group, uses building deconstruction to systematically dismantle dilapidated structures. All salvageable materials are sold, and range from doors and ceramic sinks to joists and beams. While residential deconstruction constitutes a large component of their work, the group’s overall initiative is better described as “re-building through dismantlement” (Architect Dennis Maher). 
(Is The City working with Buffalo ReUse to ‘quarry’ building materials at 630 High Street that would otherwise end up in a landfill?)
Such initiatives confront contemporary society with its fears of wasting and decline, two terms often frowned upon by Westernized society. While a sense of purity and permanence often pervades our communities, municipalities must learn to brace for the uncertainties and temporality of economic development. Author Michael Southworth writes, “We live today, and not even so recently as the 19th Century. Effervescent or glacial, everything changes. Life is growth and decline, transformation and elimination. We might learn to take pleasure in that to maintain our continuity.”
city-transformation-Buffalo.jpg

^Click to enlarge

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19 comments
Kevin Hayes
Kevin Hayes

Well, Mr. Jeans (or may I call you Green?), I commented simply to make sure actual facts were stated about deconstruction and salvage in Buffalo, that's all. We started working together in 2006 to create an alternative to wasteful traditional demolition. Sometimes a reorganization, if you want to call it that, is necessary to continue doing the work we started out doing. We are doing exactly that.

If you think Buffalo ReUse, ReUse Action and PUSH are cults of personality, I'm afraid I'm wasting my time explaining these simple facts to you.

MrGreenJeans
MrGreenJeans

Am I correct in understanding that the participants in "Buffalo ReUse" have withdrawn, reorganized, and renamed themselves as "ReUse Action" ? Forgive me if I have trouble keeping track of the various "cults of personality" - which both Buffalo ReUse and (much MORE so) Aaron Bartley/PUSH appear to be.

whatever
whatever

Douglas>"Cuomo and the others will never bring Buffalo back to its glory days, … Perhaps the solution firstly rests within the voting booths,"

I voted against all of Spitzer/Paterson, Cuomo, and Brown (when he had an opponent) - but I'm under no illusion that if Governor Faso and Mayor Helfer had both won and were now in their 2nd terms that the biggest problems facing Buffalo would be noticeably much less than now. Some things would likely be better for both state & city, but not dramatically different.

Btw - I'd ask the following, but someone who comments here doesn't like it when I ask anyone for specifics. It's unfair somehow. So feel free to ignore questions.

I'm curious, who would you prefer be elected as gov (since you criticized the voters and Cuomo by name), and what big problems of Buffalo's would improve if that person was gov?

Would you have preferred for Buffalo's sake if voters elected Faso instead of Spitzer in 2006? Or would you like for Spitzer to get another chance as gov? Or Golisano? Bloomberg? Rudy? Lazio? How about Chuck Schumer as gov instead of senator?

(or do you include Spitzer & Schumer as among officials who don't understand how deep Buffalo's problems are?)

Who'd be better than Cuomo, and in what ways? It isn't meant as a gotcha question - it's just that you pointed to the voting booth as the root cause, and yet I don't know which different approach you think the voters who you criticized should prefer.

If Buffalo and NYS officials are truly in denial, can you point to any positive examples where some other place's officials got real results by better admitting problems? What are real signs of success in those places? I think the frequent praise for Youngstown, OH is more for creativity and good intentions than for any real results so far. Same for Detroit, to some extent.

whatever
whatever

Douglas>"I encourage you to … analyze your city from beyond the confines of an online forum."

And I encourage you to not be so snotty and condescending as to assume I don't. Then again, my first comment to you was rude too, so maybe we're even that way. Fair enough.

Douglas>"If Buffalo's elected officials truly understood the state of their city, wouldn't their efforts be more effective?"

Nope, not necessarily. Many factors can affect the degree of effectiveness.

Sometimes officials might truly understand the state of their city and honestly predict some efforts will be effective to improve it, but results of their efforts don't turn out that way. I think this is probably what's most common - well meaning mistakes or cluelessness or positives outweighed by unintended negatives. The "$1 billion" plan will likely turn out some example of this, but we'll see what happens with that.

Other times, they might truly understand the state of their city, but prioritize interests of themselves, their party, or friends ahead of what's most effective. ("Just because I don't care doesn't mean I don't understand.", as Homer would say.)

Beyond those, there's also times when Buffalo's elected officials don't have the power to change some things even if they really knew what was best. For example, NY state-level decisions/laws that can do more harm than good, or private sector decisions of businesses & individuals - like those who choose burbs or another state for reasons sometimes nothing to do with City Hall, or decide to drop out of school, or to have multiple babies before age 20, or to close down a steel plant, or to not put some new factory here, or… on and on).

Sure, some govt policies can affect those, but not always. Even when so, often it isn't unanimous which policies will have desired effects. That doesn't necessarily mean the officials are in denial about the problems. Just look at how many conflicting views are often expressed on this blog if you read it, or if not in the Buffalo News comments.

Douglas>"neither will the cynicism that saturates attitudes such as yours"

You sound as cynically saturated too, just in different ways, when saying none of them "understand" the state of the city as well as you do.

DouglasCGibbons
DouglasCGibbons

Dear Whatever,

I encourage you to step back from the misgivings of the region's failing officials, and analyze your city from beyond the confines of an online forum.

If Buffalo's elected officials truly understood the state of their city, wouldn't their efforts be more effective? Like countless other city governments, Buffalo's municipality has failed to find an alternative solution for the problems that have plagued its urban landscape all these years. Cuomo and the others will never bring Buffalo back to its glory days, and neither will the cynicism that saturates attitudes such as yours.

Perhaps the solution firstly rests within the voting booths, and electing an administration that is constructive in both its actions and words. Something you could take a lesson in, no?

whatever
whatever

Douglas>"unfit for a city that has failed to recognize the declining of its own population and economy"

Huh? "failed to recognize"? Are you new around here?

The decline is endlessly "recognized" and frequently discussed-debated-anaylyzed, not only here in blogs but also in local MSM, national MSM, by city and state govts, in people's conversations all over the place, every day, been going on many years. Even Gov Cuomo is going around recently to other Upstate NY cities telling them how worse off Buffalo is than they are. (That part is arguable, IMO, but anyhow he's been saying that.)

If you really think you're among an elite few who recognize the declining, then you're failing to recognize how much you're stating the obvious.

Douglas>"Buffalo has devolved into a shrinking city, waiting for a reawakening that may never come."

What's internet for "Stop the presses!"? Maybe Garfield can help.

DouglasCGibbons
DouglasCGibbons

However abstract this diagram may be, it emphasizes a history of socio-economic mistakes that were made on a range of national, state, and municipal levels. As a result, cities like Buffalo (Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Rochester, etc.) are living within a structural terrain no longer fit for its own surroundings.

Little evidence points to potential re-growth, leaving in question the welfare of structural and infrastructural remains. While preservation and conservation efforts present an idealized solution for the city's existing fabric, these efforts are unfit for a city that has failed to recognize the declining of its own population and economy. Those who left Buffalo now reside either in fully autonomous townships or in states which encourage business growth through tax incentives, as a redevelopment of existing structures for re-inhabitance will likely never occur. As a result, Buffalo has devolved into a shrinking city, waiting for a reawakening that may never come.

Waiting for state and federal legislation to right Buffalo's ship is not only naive, but also fails to find a solution within the city's existing conditions. Because these cities exist within a larger paradigm of financial transition, one in which shrinking municipal economies are rarely included, Buffalo's greatest potential therefore rests within a re-use and recycling of its own resources (e.g. structural deconstruction, secondary usage of existing housing, or temporary use of unused property parcels).

Jesse
Jesse

Let's see, try a visually attractive and new display of information, or just whine and complain that anything new and different is stupid and wrong... what to do, what to do...

buffalofalling
buffalofalling

Probably the worst example of data presentation ever. There is a reason why this is probably the last time you'll see something like this and what is has never caught on:

It's called a divided bar graph. One of the main rules when producing graphs and charts and maps is not how cool it looks or what its telling the reader, it's cognition and comprehension and this fails miserably. Anything that can't be understood almost instanteously is useless. Looks cool, sure, but cognitively it's trash. Epic fail.

A divided bar graph with time in decades on the x-axis and population on the y-axis with the bars properly divided and labeled can tell the same story, even the infrastructure info.

Kevin Hayes
Kevin Hayes

The best reuse of building parts is to leave them intact and rehabilitate the building. Dismantlement and reuse is a poor second.

And, by the way, Buffalo ReUse is no longer doing deconstruction and not, to my knowledge, doing any salvage either. All founding employees and the entire team of skilled green demo'ers left Buffalo ReUse by May 2011. That team, the people who performed the Extreme Makeover demolition in 2009, is now working at ReUse Action, which is the only green demolition contractor in WNY.

fixBuffalo
fixBuffalo

Douglas - a provocative and thoughtful post. Thanks.

To your question regarding the quarrying of stuff from the Brecker Building at 630 High Street. Your question is spot on. Unfortunately the answer is no. The prismatic panes in the Brecker's transom windows are exquisite. The railing systems adorning the sweeping staircases, sublime. The Brecker's south facing fenestration - off the hook, gorgeous.

Why is the answer still, no - after years of Buffalo ReUse raising the bar and increasing awareness about the reuse of these architectural treasures.

Are there answers? Anyone?

LouisTully
LouisTully

Shut down and returned to forest, eh. That's a rather radical statement, even on this site.

Where is your 60% vacant land figure coming from?

paulsobo
paulsobo

Buffalo is 60% vacant land and growing with continued demolitions (even though some buildings are getting saved.

The city needs to invest money in relocating buildings.

The most intact area of Buffalo is between Niagara and Main, though one could add Hamlin, Humboldt and Masten which are east of Main. These areas can be preserved by moving buildings from the eastside to the westside achieving infill.

The eastside than then be converted to park, farm, warehouse/industry or shut down and returned to forest.

john.straubinger
john.straubinger

I think you left out 4 lane expressway development - usually through minority neighborhoods - and the subsequent movement of those minority populations into new neighborhoods that then caused white flight by the old neighborhood residents and redlining for the new neighborhood residents. I believe that was the way it played out in the Fruit Belt, Cold Springs, Masten Park and Hamlin Park.

john.straubinger
john.straubinger

I think you left out 4 lane expressway development - usually through minority neighborhoods - and the subsequent movement of those minority populations into new neighborhoods that then caused white flight by the old neighborhood residents and redlining for the new neighborhood residents. I believe that was the way it played out in the Fruit Belt, Cold Springs, Masten Park and Hamlin Park.

Crisa
Crisa

If ever this site needed to caption in order to... Who is the artist that created that ingeniously contrived and visually gorgeous pie chart???

elias
elias

so the picture says we're going down the drain?

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