In early October, I returned to my hometown of Buffalo to film interviews for my next documentary project and to spend a little time with my mother at the home I grew up and was raised in on West Avenue.
Being back home after so many years away was a real eye opener to how much of Buffalo has changed. As I drove through downtown Buffalo, I was in awe with how much this city had evolved in the ten years since I relocated to the state of Florida. I told my mother that if I were to be dropped off, blindfolded on Chippewa between Delaware and Elmwood, I would be completely lost once my eyes were free to see the views of new structures replacing old gas stations and open lots.
Continuing my drive up Niagara Street, through Buffalo’s Latino corridor on the Lower West Side, there was continued change. My eyes were amazed at the sight that the old Pine Harbor apartment buildings were now gone, being replaced by low income housing that will more than likely cost a pretty penny once all is said and done.
The more things changed, the more they stayed the same however, and this was evident as I left the main arteries and started driving through neighborhood side streets which told a different yet familiar story. Driving up from the lower West Side on Plymouth or Prospect, I viewed the same sights I saw when I left the city ten years ago. Abandoned, broken down homes. Corner stores with graffiti and folks loitering about. Different faces, but definitely the same people.
Although some homes have been fixed up, for the most part, many of the same street corners have not seen the “revitalization” other parts of the City of Buffalo saw.
Visiting Grant Street was quite the site, with the influx of newer Asian and African immigrant communities that have added additional spices to the upper West Side, the lower West Side for the most part still felt very familiar. For all the gentrification the lower West Side has seen, some places remain stagnant and have not changed whatsoever.
This thought brings to mind the issue I have with those who remained on the West Side and how the politicos and outsiders determine where this part of town is headed.
You may ask yourselves, “who is this guy to talk about the West Side” since I no longer live there. My friends, I was born on the West Side. My father had his barber shop on West and Maryland.
My mother still lives in the house we owned on West between Virginia and Maryland. Although I left the West Side my blood has never left.
Which is why I was so surprised to see the sight of white joggers running up and down West Avenue as I sat on my mother’s porch, across from this new building that now sat in the place of the old advertising agency grounds and open lot I played football and boxed as a child.
I’m not against improvements and progress. I have no issues with homes being revitalized or new buildings being built for growing populations.
I am however disappointed that many of the West Side residents who have contributed to the flavor, added the Adobo, Sazon and “Soulfrito” to the makeup and identity of the lower West Side will continue to be forgotten.
We as a people on the West Side must not let the identity be erased. We would be repeating the same mistakes Italians made when they abandoned the West Side many years ago, for North Buffalo and the Tonawandas.
I was very happy to see cultural displays, murals and even “El Batey” dance studio. These institutions are important as they promote the culture and identity that many Puerto Ricans who have settled in Buffalo either lost touch with or never knew they had.
Puerto Ricans in Buffalo need to positively promote and support one another. We are each other’s keeper and all related in one way. For too long we have been separate in our own little worlds and allowed the politicians sitting in City Hall to make decisions for a part of town that was somewhat forgotten, until folks recognized its low cost homes and prime location, close to downtown.
I don’t fault those who have sold their homes to the highest bidder and left for greener pastures. No one should have to feel guilty for making the best financial decisions possible, especially when outsiders are offering to pay well above what West Side homes used to go for.
My plea, if you want to call it that, is for those who are still there, living on the West Side, to please continue to fight for your place in this special part of town. Don’t let those outside forces price you out and drive you away, particularly the culture.
Make sure your voices are heard politically. As I write this we are only days away from the General Election and I can’t help but shake my head at how little representation Buffalo’s Latinos, more specifically Puerto Ricans have with local elected office.
My trip back home was a very successful one. I spoke with a number of people making the best of their lives on the West Side. Although my film isn’t a documentary about Buffalo West Side Puerto Ricans, I needed to start there because this is a very personal film for me. My film is going to look into what it means to be “Boricua” and in capturing that meaning, since this is a somewhat personal film, I needed to start at the place I started.
My lower West Side.
The Puerto Rican Lower West Side to be exact.
Until next time.