Eye from Albany
Endangered City of Buffalo
by Paul M. Bray
It looks possible that we are going to have to kiss the great city of Buffalo good-bye. A proposal, “Uniting for a Greater Buffalo”, by The Greater Buffalo Commission chaired by retired President William R. Greiner of the University of Buffalo and backed by Erie County Executive Joel Giambra would result in a so-called merger of the City and County. In the process it would lop off the head of the City and turn it into a “municipal service district”. The City of Buffalo would become a self-supporting ward of Erie County.
Buffalo grew in the 19th century into an industrially muscular city and birthplace of many great civic ventures. When the renowned architect Walter Gropius was telling Europeans that America was the future because it was “the motherland of industry” he pointed to photographs of the massive grain elevators along the shores of the Niagara River at Buffalo. While industrial Buffalo thrived in the nineteen and twentieth centuries, civic spirit was present. It attracted the great park maker Frederick Law Olmsted and architects like Louis Sullivan, H.H.Richardson, Stanford White, Eliel and Eero Saarinen and Frank Loyd Wright who did some of their best work in Buffalo. Buffalo boasts one of strongest architectural histories in the United States.
Why should we care about the fate of the City of Buffalo? When suburbs dominate our politics and sprawl and urban disinvestment continues unabated, why not consign traditional eastern American cities like Buffalo to the dustbin of history?
To answer that question lets start with City historian Louis Mumford. He viewed the main function of cities to be an agent of human continuity. Fearing what he saw happening to American cities, he wrote “When the living memory of the city, which once bound together generations and centuries, disappears: it inhabitants live in a self-annihilating moment-to-moment continuum. The poorest Stone Age savage never lived in such a destitute and demoralized community”.
Throughout the world the culture of nations (their identity and narrative) is rooted in their cities. For city residents and other nationals alike, great cities are cultural pillars giving form to the attainments of previous generations and helping define who they are. Needless to say, for example, Paris does that for the French whether they live within Paris, in the Paris suburbs or in the south of France hundreds of miles away. If there is a cultural pillar for upstate New York, it is the city of Buffalo?
Cities are also economic engines. Great cities drive state and national economies. They are complex systems attracting and magnifying creativity, labor, capital and entrepreneurialism. New York city is the economic engine for New York State driving the vast downstate region as well as supporting the whole economy of the State. Yet, its city effect lessens the farther upstate or into the State’s hinterland you go. Upstate to have a decent economy needs its own great city to be both a cultural pillar and economic engine. That should be Buffalo’s role.
The current picture of the City of Buffalo and Erie County, the most populous upstate county, is ugly. Buffalo is bankrupt and functioning under a State imposed control board. It has lost half of a 600,000 population in the last fifty years and its tax base continues an exponential decline. The condition of Erie county government is also a mess. It is being called a “nightmare” and a “train wreck” as it accommodates a $108 million budget shortfall having to cut up to 2,500 jobs and close county parks. The sheriff’s road patrols may be halved and hospital services at Erie County Medical Center are threatened. The 2000 census pictured a County that lost 19,000 residents and is the 4th most segregated county in the nation. Not a pretty picture for a major section of the State.
It appears that the time has come to post a sign on Thruway declaring “The former Great City of Buffalo is closed, moved south”.
The current “nightmare” has obscured the “merger” proposal not because the merger proposal is good, it isn’t, but because the must do job of reviving the City of Buffalo is off the radar because of the County’s fiscal plight.
Lets take a look at what is wrong with the merger proposal and what really needs to happen.
The merger offers the “image” of a regional city, but there is a lot less to the proposal than meets the eye. There is no regional city when the 43 remaining cities, towns and villages in Erie County remain independent. What happens under the proposal is that the City’s leadership or management functions of planning, finance, infrastructure, law and code enforcement, etc. guided by the Mayor would be transferred to the county government. Who then is going to lead and inspire the residents of Buffalo? The County Executive is responsible to a larger electorate and is having enough problems meeting the County’s current financial needs.
City residents would still pay the bill under the proposal’s “dual service and taxing system”. Six new county legislative positions would be created and only city-based legislators would vote on city service and taxing issues for the new Municipal Service District that was the real city of Buffalo.
The proposal is a well-intentioned road to greater disaster. At best it may send a message to the world at large that the Buffalo and its county are trying to get control costs and increase efficiency. In the short term it accomplishes some economies. But it doesn’t really address the “little boxes” issues of the high cost and ineffectiveness of fragmented local governance in areas of infrastructure, housing and land use except by eliminating some city government management positions.
The proposal is not a real merger of local governments nor is it even a “compact” or intergovernmental collaboration on common matters as Assemblyman Sam b and regional expert David Rusk proposed where cities, towns and governments collaborate to adopt common land use and infrastructure policies and plans and consolidate municipal services as appropriate.
The time has come to stop the nonsense of half measures to address upstate’s decline. Real measures to revive the City of Buffalo are critical to the future of upstate’s economy.
From the Governor and the State Legislature down it is long overdue to make it a matter of statewide urgency to revive the Great City of Buffalo from a city on the skids (threatened with ward like status) into the vibrant, healthy, attractive city that is the economic engine for upstate New York. The “merger proposal” and some incentives for shared services as found in the Governor’s budget proposal, for example, do not do it.
The place to start is with a top notch, can do plan for revival that sets a vision and overarching goals for city revival, blue prints a full range of linkages to western New York, Great Lakes and Canadian economies and provides a block by block chart of what is needed to remake Buffalo into a financially sustainable and first class education, commercial, high tech, historic, cultural, environmental and beacon city for investment. The full resources of State Government need to be applied to realizing this revival plan to be complemented by leadership from within the City of Buffalo.