Buffalo’s Failures in Urban Renewal…..a research paper.

This is just an old paper I wrote for one of my history classes. Buffalo really has a screwed up past. Love my hometown and miss my family, but that city really needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. it’s a long read, but a good one.

Failures in Urban Renewal

Buffalo Politics 1900 to 1989

Over the years, throughout America’s Rust Belt region, where steel factories once stood and American industry strived, urban decay and poverty has seen a rise. In cities such as Detroit, Flint, Gary, Indiana, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, there has recently been a steady decline in population and jobs. Buffalo New York is one such city, and the presence of urban decay and the remnants of abandonment are visible if one were to take a tour throughout much of the city’s East Side.

Throughout its history Buffalo New York has been known by many names that gave a great representation of what the city had to offer. Whether it was the City of Lights, the City of Good Neighbors or the Queen City, the city of Buffalo has always has always prided itself in identifying the positive aspects of it’s history and such a rich and vast history this city has. Buffalo New York is a city rich in history and influence, not only in the prosperity of the State of New York, but also in its importance on the American landscape, given its location on the Great Lakes. During the early part of part of the 1900s, Buffalo was a growing city with a bright future, however by the 1950s the city reached its plateau, and the loss of industry and population would follow over the next fifty years.

Over the last century, starting in the early 1900s, Buffalo’s neighborhoods have seen a number of changes and renewal projects which haven’t always shaped the city in a positive way. Political, racial and social discrimination and bias have played many roles in the shaping of Buffalo throughout the twentieth century, and these influences have forever shaped the city’s identity, especially if one looked at the way Buffalo’s African American community was created and treated throughout the last century. From the early years of the Pan-American Exposition where American Negro exhibits displayed black men and women as living in shacks and villages as a representation of the African American, to the creation of urban public housing and the riots which shocked the city in 1967, the African American community in Buffalo has a rich and sad history tied to many failures connected to city planning and political influence.

Buffalo is viewed as one of the most segregated cities in America. If one were to take a map of the city as it stands today and split it into four sections, it would be easy to identify which ethnic groups lived where. North Buffalo has been known as the predominantly Italian side with its own “Little Italy” running along Hertel Avenue. Many of the Italian families in North Buffalo had roots in the lower Westside, however with the influx of newer immigration groups and better opportunities for second and third generation Italian families, many families moved to the northern suburbs and to North Buffalo.  The Westside is predominantly Latino, with Puerto Ricans making up a majority of that group followed by a scattering of Italian families left over after the Italian exodus. South Buffalo is the blue collar working poor Irish part of town. Many of South Buffalo’s residents had ties to the steel and flour mills that dominated the industrial past of the city. The Eastside was a predominantly Polish section of the city, however over the years similar to the Westside, other groups moved in and made it their own.

Although there are still many Polish families and influences in this part of town, with the name of parishes which still have Polish flavor, Buffalo’s Eastside is known as the black or African American part of town. Unfortunately, this section of town is perhaps the largest and yet arguably the poorest, due in part to many decisions made in the past which left the Eastside a forgotten piece of the Buffalo puzzle.

The City of Lights

Years before the 1901 Pan American Exposition took place within the city limits; Buffalo had already enjoyed growth due to its importance in the shipping industry.  Set some eighty-eight years after Buffalo was burned to the ground by the British during the War of 1812, the Pan American Exposition was a celebration of the city and the area.

At the time of the Pan American Exposition, the city of Buffalo had a population of 350,000 people, making it the 8th largest city in the United States.  Thousands of people from all over the world made their way to Buffalo during the seven-month long Exposition. Many came to see Nikola Tesla give electrical demonstrations using electrical power fed from Niagara Falls which gave the city of Buffalo its nickname, The City of Lights.  Many others flocked to the city to see musical performances at the Temple of Music. The Pan American Exposition was planned to take place years before, however due to the onset of the Spanish American War, those plans were put on hold. Following the war, as the United States further began to put its imprint on Spain’s former Latin American territories such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Pan American Exposition became a symbol of Pan Americanism and the city of Buffalo became a national symbol of pride.

Buffalo was also enjoying inner growth as well with the advent of new technologies such as street cars giving its residents access to parts of the city they normally would never venture out to. Although the city at the time was beginning to show signs of ethnic segregation within its separate district, these streetcars created a sense of accessibility to many of the city’s residents. During the early 1900s people never really ventured outside of their own surroundings and neighborhoods due to the lack of transportation but this all changed once the city of Buffalo began adopting public transportation streetcars as a cheap transportation alternative. These streetcars crisscrossed the city and were powered by the same electrical source Nikola Tesla was using at the Pan American Exposition.  Streetcars helped people move about with people moving around the city, business began to pick up, especially downtown as the city’s business and commercial center began to take shape, however it was the advent and the manipulation of electricity that would help the city gain its audience. In the book High Hope: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York, State University of New York, Albany, 1983, author Mark Goldman wrote of the importance electrical power had in attracting people to the city. Goldman wrote:

Above all else it was electricity and the Electric Tower that attracted the attention of the millions of people who visited the Pan American Exposition during the summer of 1901. Every building was outlined in incandescent lights, and at dusk, peak time at the exposition, when over two million light bulbs were turned on simultaneously, the effect was staggering. Walter Hines Page, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly and an enthusiastic booster of the exposition, described the scene: “here is nocturnal architecture, nocturnal landscapes, nocturnal gardens and long vistas of nocturnal beauty. At a distance the Fair presents the appearance of a whole city in illumination.” But for page, as for all the visitors to the exposition, nothing rivaled the Electric Tower itself.[1]

Buffalo was booming. Industry was taking shape. People were moving about and the Pan American Exposition was seen as a success as it brought in many outsiders to the new City of Lights.

One of the most interesting exhibits displayed during the Pan American Exposition was that of the African Village in which sixty-two people representing over thirty African tribes were brought to Buffalo and displayed alongside their weapons, handicrafts, songs, dances and witchcraft. There have always been a question of the authenticity of the African tribesmen, and although that is an important question which should be explored further, the representation of the African village in the backdrop of the progressive and forward thinking Pan American Exposition is telling. The Pan American Exposition’s theme of human progress from savage to civilized used the African village as a representation of the savagery, untamed man, and this exhibit, for all of its popularity at the time, would go a long way to reinforcing negative attitudes and stereotypes against African Americans.

The Pan-American was also the site of a very tragic and unfortunate historical event with the assassination of President William McKinley. McKinley was originally supposed to be at the opening of the exposition in May 1901, however due to his wife’s illness delayed his trip to Buffalo.  President McKinley arrived in Buffalo in September and on the afternoon of September 6, Leon Czolgosz, a budding anarchist, shot President McKinley twice in the stomach, fatally injuring the president. Ironically, it was an African American man by the name of James Benjamin Parker who tackled and knocked the gun out of Czolgosz’s hand during his attack on the President. The President would survive for over a week before succumbing to his wounds on September 14th. In this instant, Buffalo New York, a place filled with pride and joy, would sadly forever be linked to such a tragic event.

Two months after the assassination of President McKinley, the Temple of Music along with many other buildings that housed the many exhibits of the summer Fair were demolished. Buffalo had hoped the exposition would positively promote the city however with the fallout and aftermath of President McKinley’s death, the city would forever bear shame.

Buffalo’s Ethnic City

Like many other cities of similar size during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the city of Buffalo saw a significant growth in terms of new residents due to immigration from Europe and a large migration of blacks from the post civil war south. Due to Buffalo’s reputation as an industrial center during the early Twentieth Century which provided a number of jobs for an unskilled labor force, many poor black families migrated to the city in search of greater opportunities and a better life. Buffalo’s black population during the early part of the Twentieth Century was centered in the lower east side section of the city, near Michigan Avenue, South Division and Broadway. As the black population began to grow, both in size as well as in prosperity, families began moving into other sections of the city which had been abandoned by other ethnic groups.

When the Great Depression hit the United States in the late 1920s, Buffalo was dealt a harsh blow when it came to manufacturing and industrial job loss. By 1930, unemployment in many of these industries was well over 20 percent. With the signing of the New Deal by President Roosevelt in 1933, the nation and Buffalo would finally see some relief in the form of public works programs. These programs and projects put many Americans to work, building infrastructure, roads, sports stadiums, airports to name a few. Buffalo’s War Memorial Auditorium, former home of the Buffalo Sabres, which was in the last few years demolished to make way for a dreamed Bass Pro Sports store was one of these public works projects. Along with the building of sports stadiums, many public works projects were centered on public housing. Because residents of the city were still feeling the effects of low employment due to the Depression, public housing was seen as a welcomed and needed addition to the city.

The public housing projects would become the home of many African American families; however these families would have a hard time moving out and into better living situations due to the trend towards segregation happening in the city during the 1930s. The lack of political representation of the African American community is perhaps the primary reason for this unfortunate happening. In the book Race, Neighborhoods, and Community Power: Buffalo Politics, 1934-1997, Albany: State University of New York, 2000, author Neil Kraus looks at the lack of political representation as a key ingredient to the segregated city being created in Buffalo. Kraus wrote:

Buffalo’s residential patterns have played a significant role in the local political process, both contributing to policy-making as well as being a product of local policy choices. In terms of policy-making, segregation has been important because the black community was tightly concentrated from the 1930s through the 1950s, yet had little, if any, representation during this period. Consequently, sections of the lower east side were, in effect, simply left out of the policy-making progress. And that very same process from which the black community was excluded segregated African Americans even more, particularly with the introduction of public housing in the 1930s.[2]

The building of public housing would go on to create a negative identity with the communities which housed these new projects.

Not only were black families pushed to live in segregated sections of the city, the absence of representation created a gap when it came to political power which was beneficial to helping the black community make progress. The politics of today were planted in the past and those seeds created a difficult world for the African American community to better themselves, similar to the Irish, German, Polish and Italian immigrants who came before them. However, due to racial prejudice, Buffalo’s African American community has had a difficult time breaking out of the mould created by segregation so many years ago.

The Riots of 1967

The nineteen-sixties was a turbulent decade throughout the nation which saw many changes and challenges to the American psyche, with the civil rights movement in full force, the war in Vietnam and the assassination of leaders, and many race riots defining the decade. Buffalo was the sight of one of these race riots which spread throughout the city for several days in late June and early July of 1967. Although it can be argued that the Riots of 1967 were not an actual race riot, the political landscape present in Buffalo created an environment on the East Side which culminated with the breakout of violence and uproar that summer.

The start of the riots can be traced to acts of vandalism pointed at a group of black teenagers who busted car windows and storefronts throughout the William Street and Jefferson Avenue business district on the afternoon of June 27th. Not long after the group of youths started destroying private property, they were joined by other groups of people who continued to destroy whatever they could. As a response to the massive amounts of property damage caused, the Buffalo Police sent in over 150 riot police to quell and put a stop to the disturbance however the presence of so many police officers further enraged and angered the crowds which gathered. After a few hours, through the use of tear gas fired into the rioters, the crowds were quickly dispersed and three police officers and one fireman were injured.

The next morning, the outbreak of violence, arson and looting would continue as buildings were set ablaze and broken glass covered the landscape. In the book, City on the Lake: the Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1990, author Mark Goldman describes the riots through the eyes of Floyd Edwards, the Buffalo Police Department’s first black lieutenant. Of what Edwards saw, Goldman wrote,

Edwards had been on the East Side his whole life and had seen all the changes, from the mixed neighborhood that it once was to the black ghetto it had become. Edwards knew it inside and out and wasn’t surprised by the outbreak of violence that June. The morning after the riots Edwards was put back in uniform. With a battalion of police officers under his command, he went back onto the streets. The ghetto was still smoldering. Fires still burned at William and Jefferson, Maple and Carlton, and Peckham and Monroe Streets. Plate glass windows all along Broadway and Sycamore had been smashed, and the streets were sprinkled with glass, empty cartons of shotgun shells, tear-gas canisters, broken eyeglasses, and bricks. Many of the store windows were boarded up, covered with large pieces of plywood bearing the glowing red and white lettering of the Macaluso Emergency Enclosure Company. Small groups of black teenage boys clustered on the corners, taunting the passing police cars from a distance. As the day wore on the situation grew worse. Beginning at about 4:30 P.M. buses passing through the neighborhood were stoned. As night fell the gangs grew larger and more menacing, and still more windows were broken (even those store owners, some white, others black, who had written “Soul Brother” on their windows were not spared).[3]

The scene had been set and the Buffalo Police were challenged and dispatched over four-hundred policemen to the neighborhood that night. By the next morning, more than forty people were injured, fourteen with gunshot wounds and forty-six teenage boys arrested.

In the July 1st 1967 Edition of the Buffalo Evening News, an editorial was written by Paul E. Neville titled Violence Cures Nothing, Neville tried to argue that the violence which broke out during the four-day riot on the East Side wasn’t the answer the African American community needed in righting the wrongs it faced throughout the years. Neville wrote,

“We could sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ until doomsday and nobody would listen to us,” says a teen-age Buffalo Negro. “Throw a brick and break a window and the whole world wants to know what’s wrong – as if they didn’t know already.”

That kind of talk may have a deceptively alluring ring. But like many too-pat answers this too-pat analysis of the results of violence just won’t stand up under incisive scrutiny.

Disorder may or may nor bring quick responses, including some palliatives. But because it diverts vision and energy away from the tougher problems, and because it breeds counter-reactions, disorder is far more likely to delay or set back progress than hasten it.

Moreover, by slighting what has already been done such an easy analysis is unfair to the very Negroes and whites who have responsibly contributed the most. It just isn’t true that there was a lack of genuine, increasing concern for the Negroes prior to this week’s outbreaks. You don’t need to look far to see some of the beneficial results of this concern either.[4]

In his editorial, Neville seems to understand that the neglect Buffalo’s black community has faced, however his opinion of whether violence can cause change and bring about the attention of the city may in fact be false. On the front page of the same edition of the Buffalo Evening News, two of the top stories were centered on expansion of recreational and employment opportunities geared towards the African American community as an answer to the riots the city just faced. In addition to the city of Buffalo pledging to provide these opportunities to black youth, the State of New York also pledge to match money provided by local and private groups which wanted to provide financial aid for youth programs. In an article which appeared on the front page of the July 1st 1967 edition of The Buffalo Evening News, Wilbur Evans wrote of the changes Buffalo was willing to provide as an answer to the violence which had shocked the city. Evans wrote,

Efforts to expand job and recreational opportunities for the city’s Negro population gained momentum today as tenseness in areas of disturbance seemingly continued to ebb.

Sporadic incidents nagged at the East Side overnight – the fourth night of trouble, but lawless activity declined markedly.

Police made only 23 arrests. Five blazes were attributed to fire-bombers. “It was a relatively quiet night,” Police Commissioner Felicetta said at 4 AM.

City, county and state were moving to meet the demand for work and play possibilities for young Negroes. The staffs at the Buffalo Urban League and the Youth Opportunity Center will be at 234 Jefferson Ave. from 10 AM to 5 PM today and tomorrow to receive job applications from East Side youths from 16 to 21 years old.

Mayor Sedita, facing a call from the Negro community for 3000 jobs replied that “with cooperation, I think that number can be provided.”[5]

The answer to the question of whether violent outbursts can reap benefits had been answered. The black community spoke, and although the blame was directed at the black teenagers who originally started the vandalizing private property, the many reasons blamed for causing the riots, from outside agitators and forces to the many broken promises Buffalo failed to live up to, created a environment where rioting was the only way the black community could be heard. There had been many underlining issues taking place in Buffalo throughout the years as the black community grew in size, and it is important to look at the neglect the city of Buffalo showed to parts of the East Side, particularly the sections which were predominately black. Drugs, crime, poor housing, police brutality and racism were blamed as factors which lead the violence which affected the city during the summer of 1967. The riots were a wakeup call to the city and its citizens that something needed to be done and the continued neglect of the East Side had to be addressed. The local and state political establishments made promises of jobs, low cost housing, and even Civil Rights icon and baseball great Jackie Robinson was sent to Buffalo to quell angers and fears, however the damage had been done, as racial tensions throughout the city would continue to grow and force many white families of all backgrounds to move out of the city for safer, whiter neighborhoods in the surrounding suburbs.

Developmental Blunders and Fumbles

Political patronage is a sad part of the Democratic process and the Buffalo and Western New York region is no stranger this, and unfortunately due to political patronage and kick backs, an entire city can be held back due to poor decision making tied to these kick backs, as was the case with two developmental failures the city of Buffalo lived through; the failure to secure a city location for the University of Buffalo and the building of Rich Stadium in Orchard Park.

The proposal and the planning of expanding the University of Buffalo started in the mid 1950s once the state of New York, through then Governor Nelson Rockefeller, bought the private University of Buffalo and integrated it into the State University of New York system. After being absorbed by the state, there were many plans to build a new, larger campus in downtown Buffalo, and this plan was supported by many business owners and people within the city due to the amount of jobs and traffic having a downtown campus would create. The proposed site of the new University of Buffalo campus would be along Buffalo’s waterfront and  an estimated 10,000 students and over 1000 jobs would be introduced to Buffalo’s slowly deteriorating downtown. Although many small businesses and community groups supported the plans to build the new campus in downtown Buffalo, there was also a push to build the new campus in the town of Amherst, one of Buffalo’s suburbs, a good ten miles north of downtown. Due to the plans to grow the campus with new academic and athletics programs, the argument against a downtown campus was that there wasn’t the necessary space for growth and that a suburban campus in the town of Amherst provided such space. The location in the town of Amherst was mostly swamp land, empty and open for development.

The city had support through a variety of groups, starting with Governor Rockefeller and a variety of groups ranging which represented racial and social diversity, downtown businesses, media outlets and political backing. However, due to the decision made by a few, downtown Buffalo would lose out in a bidding war with the town of Amherst. During the middle part of the century, black and minority populations began to grow in cities, due to fears and anxiety, many in the white community responded to this growth by abandoning cities for suburban locations. This can be seen as one of the influences for the building of the new campus outside of the city and in Amherst.  Many felt that the proposal of a downtown campus there was a possibility of the university being influenced by “radical” students and people of color would upset and influence the city’s racial balance. The same fears that would lead to the “white flight” would also influence the decisions to build in Amherst.  In the book Power Failure: Politics, Patronage and the Economic Future of Buffalo, New York. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006, author Diana Dillaway covered the University of Buffalo proposal and decision making process. Dillaway goes on to explain that the deciding factors weren’t just relegated to location, but on personal and social feelings of prejudice. Dillaway wrote,

During the increasingly rancorous debate, a banker, who also chaired the Albright Knox Art Gallery board, blocked the display of a model of the proposed downtown university at the gallery. It was displayed instead at the Buffalo Public Library at the base of the main stairwell. “As consequence, the rest of the political and social establishment was cowed in silence….The unanswered insult sent a strong message to anyone who might harbor modern ideas for Buffalo. Another banker made his feelings known informally to anyone who would listen, but most especially among the social networks of establishment: “We don’t want all those [New York radicals and people of color] running around downtown. As fate would have it, both leaders sat on the University’s Board of Trustees – one headed the board and the other chaired the Construction Fund.[6]

Building the university in Amherst also made it difficult for many of Buffalo’s low-income residents to take advantage of the university’s academic programs and employment opportunities the new facilities provided.  The location in Amherst created a sense of exclusivity of the University to a certain segment of the population.

The decision to build in Amherst, influenced by city bankers shows the influence that money and politics plays in the decision making process. Although Governor Rockefeller supported a downtown campus, it is argued in Diana Dillaway’s book, Power Failure, that due to the election cycle, Governor Rockefeller didn’t want to push the issue with the prominent bankers who sat on the university’s Board of Trustees. Despite local support and state, downtown Buffalo lost out to Amherst in securing the new University of Buffalo campus. The decision to forgo downtown Buffalo and instead build in one of Buffalo’s suburbs would go on to further the divide and gap between the city and its suburbs.

During the late 1960s, there was another example of a Buffalo institution looking to relocate out of the city, continuing suburban expansion while at the same time draining the city of Buffalo of a resource. The Buffalo Bills played at War Memorial Stadium, a stadium which by the time of the teams founding in 1960, was already thirty-years old and in bad condition. The stadium sat in the Masten District on the city’s East side, not too far from the location of the city’s infamous riots of 1967, a predominantly black neighborhood, and there was a push for the building of a new stadium for the team, similarly to the University of Buffalo experience, in downtown Buffalo. As with the UB proposal, the building of a downtown stadium was met with supporters and detractors alike, and when a city stadium couldn’t be secured, the team and the county looked for a suburban location which would provide the land to do so.

There are many similarities between the building of UB in Amherst and the move of the Buffalo Bills out of their East Side stadium and into a new suburban home. The Buffalo News, who supported the University of Buffalo in downtown, opposed the building of a stadium in the same location, at the foot of Main Street, due to its location close to the Buffalo News’ headquarters and plant.  The push by bankers, again similar to what happened with the University of Buffalo in Amherst project, helped influence the idea of building in the suburbs instead of the city itself.

The village of Lancaster was chosen in 1968 as the location of a new domed stadium and home of the Buffalo Bills, however those plans fell apart in 1970 due to power struggles between local governments, bankers, politicians and the city’s then two newspapers. None of the parties were able to make a decision as to where the new stadium would be built. This process was also covered Diana Dillaway in Power Failure.   Dillaway wrote,

The issue remained unresolved for another year, drawing into 1971. Finally, at a meeting of Buffalo’s business, county and state leaders, an agreement was reached – that they could not come to a consensus. Upon this realization, they took the unusual step of asking the New York State Urban Development Corporation to decide the stadium issue for them. In this unprecedented move, warring factions conceded they were unable to make a decision and agreed to support the Urban Development Corporations choice, given a reasonable price, and move on. Interestingly, the UDC chose yet another location, Orchard Park, south of the city. The cost came in under $40 million; the county negotiated a lease with the Buffalo Bills owner; and just about everyone was relieved this chapter in the city’s history was over.[7]

The city of Buffalo would again lose out to its own suburbs as the exodus of business and identity would continue out of the central city, due to egos, political influences and personal biases of those who had the monetary influences to make things happen. The push towards leaving the city would go on to create a city vs. suburbs debate that continues today.

Buffalo through the 1980s

The introduction of industry to the city of Buffalo in the early 1900s forever laid a foundation that would go on to be the backbone to the city’s reputation and identity for the better part of the 20th Century. One of the constants of that identity was Bethlehem Steel Corporation, located in nearby Lackawanna, which at its peak employed up to 20,000 people from Buffalo and its surrounding towns and suburbs.  However, as times changed and industry demands died down, Buffalo would see a growing trend of job loss throughout the 1070s and into the 1980s. Then on one cold December morning in 1982, Bethlehem Steel announced that it would permanently shut down almost all of its steelmaking operations over the next six months. The news of Bethlehem Steel closing its factories was covered like a tragedy throughout the local media and the loss of these jobs would deal a harsh blow to the local economy. Along Route 5 and along much prime real estate along the waterfront, empty factories would sit for a generation where only years before were filled with thousands of men who proudly built the steel which would go on to be used nationwide in the building American infrastructure.

Although the loss of Bethlehem Steel was a touch blow it wasn’t a total shock due the trend of manufacturing decline throughout the 1970s. In the early 1980s, the state, under then Governor Mario Cuomo, created the Western New York Economic Development Corporation whose goal was to plan, finance and manage development projects in the Buffalo and Western New York region. This new political corporation had ambitious plans and priorities which it had outlined as a way to give the Buffalo area the shot in the arm it needed and get development started.  Among the plans was the development of a medical initiative, centered on Buffalo’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute.  Many leaders believed that strengthening its standing within the city and by using Roswell Park as a foundation fro the medical corridor.  Roswell Park sits bordering on the Fruit Belt neighborhood in the East Side of Buffalo, a neighborhood full of urban decay and due to this the development of such a medical corridor was possible, as the surrounding area contained abandoned homes and was an easy target for urban renewal and revitalization.

Many other grants and projects benefited from the Western New York Economic Development Corporation. In addition to the Western New York Economic Development Corporation, Buffalo saw federal funding through Community Development Block Grants. The federal system of block grants was started in 1968 approximately $12 million in federal funds was allocated to the city to support human service agencies.  By 1980, under Mayor Jimmy Griffin, these federal funds increased to approximately $22 million, and due to political posturing, trading, and back-door deals, a new city structure was created to disperse these federal funds. Buffalo Development Companies was a shell company nonprofit which was created by the Department of Community Development in order to make grants and loans to whomever politicians saw fit. Instead of funneling block grant money to the neighborhoods   under the Buffalo Neighborhood Revitalization Corp., the Buffalo Economic Development Corp. financed industrial projects, funded private hotels like the downtown Hilton Hotel and a number of other downtown development projects which didn’t benefit the communities the federal dollars were aimed at.

The Community Development block grants went to downtown and wealthy neighborhoods, all but ignoring the neighborhoods the moneys could have seen better use in, such as the East Side and lower West Side. The loans given by the city to private developers and downtown businesses was at low to no interest and there were even cases where grant money was given to business which were intending to develop downtown and after receiving the federal dollars, these businesses would close their downtown headquarters and mover their offices into the suburbs.

The Buffalo Common Council and the Mayors office were at odds through most of the 1980s due to the allocation of federal grant money. Mayor Jimmy Griffin was in control of the federal funds and would bypass the common council in most decisions. Due to the creation of these shell companies, with the backing of Mayor Griffin, and there was a political war taking place in Buffalo over the control of federal dollars. The argument over federal funds being awarded to private developers through non-profit corporations was possible due number of seats on the development board Mayor Griffin appointed.  In the book Power Failure, Diana Dillaway covers the questionable political dealings of Mayor Griffin and how the Community Development Block Grant funds failed to reach their intended purpose. Dillaway wrote,

While the amount of the Community Development Block Grant funds during the 1980s doubled, funds going into the neighborhoods remained at the same level. One former public official who was intimately involved suggests that this strategy, if not illegal, could have been considered immoral in that it denied the bulk of these communities for who the funds were originally designated. Others argue that the rules for the block grants in the early days were still flexible, “even though they got here on poverty so no one really challenged it at that point.”

City council members had supplanted Democratic Party committeemen, ministers and grassroots organizations as the voice and power for communities. Blacks and whites on the Common Council united in response to the flow of nearly 98 percent of Community Development Block Grant funds to downtown development and industrial retention strategies.[8]

The power struggles between the Common Council and Mayor Griffin’s team on the development board would continue through the mid 1990s, when Griffin left office, due to the tenure these board appointees were given, and thus, the city of Buffalo would continue its rapid decline and neighborhoods such as the predominantly black East Side would have to continue to wait before it was given the attention it drastically needed.

Jimmy Griffin’s Legacy

James Donald “Jimmy” Griffin was a son of Irish South Buffalo, was sworn into office in 1978 and served as the city’s Mayor for sixteen consecutive years. Often outspoken and controversial, Mayor Griffin alienated much of the city due to his political actions which ignored much of the city, outside of his old South Buffalo neighborhood. Mayor Griffin’s relationship with the black community was distance. Although Griffin was an Irish Democrat and received support from Buffalo’s black populous, the black communities on the East Side rarely were in Griffin’s plan for reshaping Buffalo.

Under mayor Griffin, downtown Buffalo saw the return of a rail system with the building of the Metro Rail system. The Metro Rail system was to connect the downtown business and retail district to the outlying suburbs including the University of Buffalo in Amherst and do away with car traffic in and around downtown Buffalo. However, the plans to connect the city lines to the suburbs were scrapped due to the massive population decreases the city saw as construction of the project began. The Metro Rail project first broke ground in 1977, just before Mayor Griffin took office and would not be completed until 1985, and is considered by many to be the main reason for downtown Buffalo’s decline as a retail and business center due to the stop of car traffic along Main Street.

Another project that Mayor Griffin oversaw during the 1980s was the building of Coca Cola Field, then known as Pilot Field on Swan and Washington Streets in downtown Buffalo. Mayor Griffin was an avid baseball fan and there was a push for a Major League baseball team to be located in Buffalo, even though the city was continuing to see a decline in population during the 1980s. The Mayor convinced the State and then Governor Mario Cuomo, also an avid baseball fan, to fund the project centered on building a downtown stadium with the hopes of attracting big league expansion once Major League Baseball was ready to introduce two new teams to the National League in 1991.

The Buffalo Bisons baseball team played their home games in the East Side of Buffalo at the old War Memorial Stadium, former home of the Buffalo Bills and also home to the New York Knights as seen in the 1984 Robert Redford film “The Natural.” Those who championed the push for Major League Baseball expansion in Buffalo felt the building of a new baseball stadium would push Buffalo ahead of other cities in competition for a big league team.

Pilot Field was completed in 1988 and was considered the crown jewel of new baseball parks in the nation. The design of the stadium was a harkening back to the ballparks of old, and although the stadium only seated just over 25,000 people, it was designed with an easy to expand upper deck for more seating if and when Major League Baseball came calling. The Rich family owned Buffalo Bisons, through avid baseball fans, broke many attendance its first three years of existence, in anticipation and excitement over the prospects of finally realizing Buffalo’s Major League dreams. However, those dreams would be dashed in 1991 as the cities of Denver and Miami were chosen as the expansion teams for the National League. Although it was a valiant effort on the part of city and state politicians, it was apparent that Major League Baseball was never going to expand in a city which had lost half its population, especially when bigger money could be made in south Florida and Colorado.  Buffalo now had a state of the art minor league facility with no Major League team to show for it, and this can be seen as a perfect example of how Buffalo planning throughout the years has failed the city and its residents in spending money wisely, a common complaint and critique of Mayor Griffin’s administration and tenure as the leader of the city.

Many of the Mayors opponents argued that with the amount of time and energy Griffin put into the building of Pilot Field, the lack of interest the Mayor showed to the basic needs of many neighborhood communities, especially the black community was telling.  As poverty and the growing crack problem of the mid to late 1980s continued to grow in the inner city, the problems within these communities continued to be ignored. The segregation seen throughout the black community in lower income neighborhoods continued to grow and make the escape of these segregated neighborhoods nearly impossible for those living in these communities.  During the 1980s crime in the city also exploded and the black East Side became synonymous as a ghetto; a place where whites shouldn’t and wouldn’t go to.

Many of Mayor Griffin’s failed policies and continued lack of attention to addressing problems on the East Side are to blame for the deterioration of these once safe neighborhoods. Throughout Jimmy Griffin’s sixteen year tenure as Buffalo Mayor, his relationship with the black community was mostly non-existent outside of election time. Whenever Mayor Griffin and his administration did pay attention to the city’s neighborhoods it was primarily to South Buffalo, North Buffalo, Lovejoy and the Niagara districts, sections in which a strong pro-Griffin sentiment was shared and sections which were stronger voting districts. The black East Side just wasn’t important enough to Griffin and his administration and it would continue be ignored for years, until Mayor Byron Brown, Buffalo’s first African American Mayor who represented the East Side took office in 2006.

After winning his record breaking fourth term as Buffalo Mayor, Jimmy Griffin was called to diversify his administration. In an editorial written by Daniel H. MacDonald in the Buffalo News, there wasn’t much to celebrate with the Mayors victory. Of the Mayors victorious election, MacDonald wrote,

In Buffalo, Mayor Griffin faced no genuine competition after out-maneuvering all the city’s political factions again. Griffin made no new promises in the campaign, so Buffalonians can expect a continuation of his conservative, brick-and-mortar administration.

Yet his election to an unprecedented fourth term has also handed Griffin an unprecedented opportunity to become the mayor of all the people. That should include, for example, bringing more black residents into his administration. It should involve closer cooperation with the School Board and a consistently visible interest in building excellence into Buffalo’s system of public education.

Thus, this election presented to Griffin, along with a solid victory, a challenging opportunity that we urge him to capitalize on – and one in which he will have our support.[9]

Mayor Griffin’s power and influence can be seen throughout downtown Buffalo as the Metro Rail and Coca Cola Field, then Pilot Field, were built under his watch but it can also be seen in his lack of leadership and attention to facing problems within the city outside of the downtown area. Although the Metro Rail is still in operation, it only goes in two directions; north and south. Similarly, although Pilot Field, now known as Coca Cola Field still hosts Americas Pastime during the summer months, Major League dreams are only on the minds of the minor league players who suit up in uniform on the field.  The end of car traffic on Main Street in downtown Buffalo was also a death blow to retail business and the building of a now mostly empty ballpark and failure in securing a Major League baseball team are two examples of how Griffin’s leadership failed the city. Instead of focusing attention and federal funds on the city’s neighborhoods which desperately needed it, attention was paid to dreams which never came to fruition. Griffin’s legacy can be seen as that of a man who took care of his own, dreamed big and failed miserably, all while getting elected four times and doing nothing as his city crumbled around him.

Final Thoughts

The history of Buffalo’s political relationship with its neighborhoods is one which can span a library’s worth of material. Events and actions of the past have shaped the city of Buffalo into what it is today; a vibrant yet poor, multicultural yet segregated, dying yet surviving big little city. From the dreams and future the Pan American Exposition provided, the hopeful wishes of black southerners who came looking for a better life through the turbulent times seen in during the 1960s and 80s, Buffalo has survived many ups and downs in its history. Although many who aren’t familiar with the area can only picture snow, four Super Bowl losses and a plate of chicken wings when the city of Buffalo is brought up in conversation, to those who live here the story of this city, is much deeper.

Similarly to many other Rust Belt cities which have pushed for urban renewal projects, unfortunately many of these projects failed to grow and benefit the people in the city of Buffalo, particularly the African American community. Although the failures of past political leadership has stunted the growth of the city’s population and job opportunities, the heart of the city, especially within the people which make up the city, Buffalo will forever be a living, thriving place to live.

Known as the “City of Good Neighbors,” Buffalo for all of its faults and disappointments continues to find a way to survive and be a good neighbor to those who have come here. Looking at the current population trends in the city, although there continues to a decline of city residents, newer immigrants are moving into the city, primarily on the lower West Side. In a neighborhood which saw the Italian “white flight” during the 1960s and 1970s as Puerto Ricans began relocating to it’s the lower West Side, the neighborhood is again seeing change as groups of immigrants from Burma, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan are now calling it home.  Buffalo throughout its history has opened its arms to people of all backgrounds and has been a good neighbor to those seeking a better life. Although much of its history can be viewed through segregated eyes, especially when one looks at the politics that shaped the current identity of the city, Buffalo has provided many with the dreams they were seeking, and for some of those people, those dreams did come true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Dillaway, Diana. Power Failure: Politics, Patronage, and the Economic Future of Buffalo, New

York. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006. Print.

Evans, Wilbur. “Drive to Find Jobs For Negroes Gaining; Lawlessness Declines.”  Buffalo Evening

News 1 July 1967, Evening ed., Section A1. Print.

Goldman, Mark. City on the Edge: Buffalo, New York. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007. Print.

Goldman, Mark. City on the Lake: the Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo, NY:

Prometheus, 1990. Print.

Goldman, Mark. High Hopes before the Fall: the Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York. Albany:

State University of New York, 1983. Print.

MacDonald, Daniel H. “Amherst, other towns, steal the spotlight on Election Day” Editorial            Buffalo News 8 November 1989, Evening ed., Section B2. Print.

Neville, Paul E. “Violence Cures Nothing.” Editorial. Buffalo Evening News 1 July 1967, Evening

Ed., Section B2. Print.

The Staff of the Buffalo City Planning Association, Inc. “Buffalo’s Recreation Survey: A Digest of

the Studies Conducted under the Buffalo City Planning Association, Inc.” Social Forces

4.3 (1926): 566-75. Print.

Thomas, William B., and Kevin J. Moran. “Centralization and Ethnic Coalition Formation in

Buffalo, New York, 1918-1922.” Journal of Social History Autumn 23.1 (1989): 137-53.

Williams, Lillian Serece. Strangers in the Land of Paradise: the Creation of an African American

Community, Buffalo, New York, 1900-1940. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999. Print.

Wolcott, Victoria W. “Recreation and Race in the Postwar City: Buffalo’s 1956 Crystal Beach

Riot.” The Journal of American History June 93.1 (2006): 63-90.


[1] Mark Goldman, High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York, State University of New York, Albany, 1983, p. 7

[2] Neil Kraus, Race, Neighborhoods, and Community Power: Buffalo Politics, 1934-1997, Albany: State University of New York, 2000, p. 44

[3] Mark Goldman, City on the Lake: the Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1990. p. 112

[4] Neville, Paul E. “Violence Cures Nothing.” Editorial. Buffalo Evening News 1 July 1967, Evening ed., Section B2. Print.

[5] Evans, Wilbur. “Drive to Find Jobs For Negroes Gaining; Lawlessness Declines.”  Buffalo Evening News 1 July 1967, Evening ed., Section A1. Print.

[6] Diana Dillaway, Power Failure: Politics, Patronage and the Economic Future of Buffalo, New York. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006. p. 69

[7] Diana Dillaway, Power Failure: Politics, Patronage and the Economic Future of Buffalo, New York. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006. p. 79

[8] Diana Dillaway, Power Failure: Politics, Patronage and the Economic Future of Buffalo, New York. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006. p. 181

[9] MacDonald, Daniel H. “Amherst, other towns, steal the spotlight on Election Day” Editorial Buffalo News 8 November 1989, Evening ed., Section B2. Print.

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