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a view from recently demolished 669 Genesee Street

Taxpayers Revolt

BY Steven Malanga

February 23, 2005

Fed up by 30 years of a declining economy, rising taxes, and a swollen public sector, the folks of Erie County, N.Y., have risen up and rebelled, swamping their elected officials with e-mail and petitions objecting to another increase in taxes and demanding spending cuts instead. So vociferous have been their complaints that legislators, accustomed to ignoring the best interests of their constituents in order to protect their own patronage-laden budgets, have actually paused and are now trying to figure out how to balance the books without raising taxes.

With luck, what's happening in Erie County will spread to the rest of New York State and to New Jersey in time for each state's upcoming gubernatorial elections. Bereft of a charismatic figure to galvanize public support and to discipline their increasingly dysfunctional legislatures, both states have been practicing fiscal folly over the last several years, raising taxes, borrowing furiously, and spending incontinently. The result has been one budget crisis after another so that, even as other states' budget woes ease with the national recovery, New York and New Jersey still face huge deficits.

It's not hard to figure out why the residents of the greater Buffalo area have revolted. Once a great industrial economy, the area started facing intense competition from other regions and countries decades ago. Rather than help face these challenges, government contributed to the problem, raising state and local taxes and increasing the burden on businesses by, among other things, creating one of the most expensive workers compensation systems in the country, so that jobs threatened by competition disappeared quickly, and the area sank into decline.

What didn't decline, however, is public consumption of tax dollars. Thanks to corruption and patronage, government squandered valuable resources in the area. A recent series in the Buffalo News, for instance, highlighted how the city has wasted much of the nearly $550 million in federal urban aid it has received in 30 years on a series of projects that failed, on a network of politically connected social service groups of unproven and unprovable value, and on city hall salaries. At the same time, the county's budget and tax structure is groaning under the weight of a growing Medicaid bill, foisted on the county by New York State - the only state that requires localities to contribute so heavily to Medicaid. Indeed, the very sales tax that Erie residents are now protesting against was instituted in the early 1970s to pay for the county's Medicaid costs.

The final straw, however, was the recent budget proposed by Erie County Executive Joel Giambra that included a sales tax increase but preserved hundreds of patronage jobs. That impelled a loose coalition of business owners and taxpaying groups to bombard county officials with e-mail and petitions - enough to scare legislators who had recently voiced support of the tax increases. At the heart of this citizens movement is the perception from a growing number of local residents that what's happening in Buffalo is not a clash of liberal versus conservative ideas on government spending, but a widespread, nonpartisan recognition that the system is rigged by the public sector against taxpayers. "It doesn't matter if they are [politically] Left or Right. They're all saying, 'Enough is enough,' " is how one small business owner describes the revolt.

The larger question is whether voters throughout New York and New Jersey will come to the same conclusion any time soon. Both states have steeply increased spending throughout the recession, financing the increases with tax and fee increases, fiscal tricks, and immoderate state borrowing. The deficit New York State needs to close next year is $4 billion, while Jersey's is also $4 billion after the former governor, James McGreevey, borrowed $2 billion last year to increase state spending by 17% - a fiscal calamity because the borrowing to cover operating expenses means there will be an immediate shortfall in next year's budget, even before new spending increases.

Anyone looking at the fiscal situation in either state should soon figure out that, as in Buffalo, the issue is not liberal versus conservative, but taxpayers versus tax-eaters. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which measured the fiscal needs of each state based on such factors as poverty levels, number of school-age children in each state, and other things that drive public spending, concluded that neither New Jersey nor New York has unusually heavy fiscal needs. But both states tax their citizens at the high end of the scale, accumulating huge revenues that go to expanding the size of the public sector through higher salaries and pensions for public employees, among other things, without producing any special benefits for citizens, who feel they have reached the end of their willingness and ability to pay.

That kind of a formula is a prescription for a tax revolt even in tax-friendly Blue States like New York and New Jersey. And although both states lack the kind of initiative and referendum that voters used so effectively in California to sweep Governor Schwarzenegger into office, each state does have a gubernatorial election coming up - this November in New Jersey and next November in New York. The crucial question is whether any candidate can arise in either state to be the champion of the kind of people now hanging out of windows in Erie County shouting, "I'm fed up, and I'm not gonna take it any more!"

Mr. Malanga is a contributing editor of City Journal, from whose Web site this is adapted, and the author of the forthcoming "The New New Left."

Houses Around School #19

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97 Potomac Avenue

74 Potomac Avenue

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1212 West Avenue (front)

1212 West Avenue (rear)

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Houses Around Sedita School

331 Vermont Street

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'Leaders' set Course for Region's Destruction


ANALYSIS by David Staba

Erie County's government implodes in spectacularly pathetic fashion.

More than two years after the Seneca Niagara Casino opened, Niagara Falls still waits for the first shovel in the ground not paid for with state money.

An accountability-free authority that's supposed to concern itself with making sure the buses and trains run on time, and that airplanes actually land at both airports under its control, instead unveils grandiose plans for Buffalo's waterfront -- which rely entirely upon the nation's most heavily burdened taxpayers coughing up more than a quarter-billion dollars.

Back in Niagara Falls, the current occupants of City Hall can afford to create jobs for their friends and loved ones, but not fund the libraries under their control.

And voters in Buffalo and Erie County brace for an election season centered around a flawed field of mayoral candidates and an incredibly vague merger plan that not even its proponents seem able, or willing, to explain.

As a good friend and former editor at the Niagara Gazette used to ponder when such characteristic foolishness ensued -- "How did this happen?"

A better question might be, "What took so long?"

If there's any good to come from the ongoing collapse of Erie County Executive Joel Giambra's fiscal house of cards, it's that harsh light will finally shine on the rodentia infesting the halls of government and quasi-public boardrooms of Western New York.

And the latter are in even greater need of fumigating. The region's self-proclaimed "business advocacy" organization, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, is the common thread connecting Giambra, Buffalo Mayor Tony Masiello, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's fantasy of building a new downtown Buffalo on the taxpayer dime while continuing to neglect Niagara Falls International Airport, and the gum-and-string governmental merger plan.

The Partnership backed Masiello in each of his first three mayoral campaigns, helping build a war chest that scared off any serious opposition in 1997 and 2001. It also gave the region Giambra, a Democrat-turned-Republican and an alleged reformer whose primary previous experience was in helping make sure business continued exactly as usual in Buffalo's City Hall for the better part of two decades.

Word has it that the self-important organization led by Andrew Rudnick plans to back state Sen. Byron Brown in this year's mayoral race, but the Partnership's prior generosity to Masiello helped him build a war chest of more than a $1 million for an increasingly likely re-election bid.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt proved himself the most sensible mayoral hopeful last week when he pulled out of the race. In addition to the economic problems that have dogged the city for decades, the eventual survivor will have to operate under the emasculating eye of Buffalo's state-imposed control board. That body is headed by -- you guessed it -- another member of the Partnership board, Brian Lipke of Gibraltar Steel.

Not that the Partnership much cares who holds what office, as long as they go along with the program. That, of course, entails making sure members of the Partnership get as much free stuff as possible.

The breathlessly announced plans for the dormant stretch of waterfront the NFTA has squatted on for nearly half a century follow the Partnership playbook perfectly.

Former Carborundum Corp. President Luiz Kahl heads the NFTA, while also serving as president of The Vector Group, a private investment group based in Williamsville. He also serves on the Partnership's board of directors.

Other members include NOCO patriarch Reginald Newman, whom Kahl -- his longtime friend and sometime business partner -- guaranteed a monopoly on jet fuel and cargo handling at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport while making sure its poor cousin in Niagara Falls provided no competition, and Carl Montante, managing director of Uniland Development Corp.

Last month, to the surprise of absolutely no one, Uniland's $750 million vision for housing, retail, office and hotel space and, you guessed it, a convention center was chosen by Kahl's NFTA.

Uniland's sketches of its proposed mini-city look nice enough -- if you like the cookie-cutter red-brick office parks that the company has built throughout Amherst and other suburbs, sterilized cubicle farms that sucked thousands of jobs and much of the life out of Buffalo's existing downtown.

The notion that a city government that needed the imposition of a control board nearly two years ago just to remain solvent, a county government whose leader claims it can't afford to keep plowing or patrolling its streets and a state government that can't pass a budget on time somehow are going to come up with $300 million to give to Uniland isn't just laughable. It's shameful.

Then again, the Partnership's leaders had their capacity for shame surgically removed long ago. When Adelphia's financial scandal broke in 2002, the Partnership propped up one if its own, Mark Hamister, as the white knight riding in to save the Buffalo Sabres, then owned by the cable-television company.

Problem was, Hamister didn't actually want to spend much of his own money. His purchase offer hinged entirely on his demand for about $40 million in public money, and collapsed quickly after the public found out.

It's clear from the timing of both the Uniland fantasy and the cobbled-together merger plan that would combine the City of Buffalo and County of Erie, but leave the scores of surrounding towns and villages intact, that the Partnership plans to use the utter disgust its minions have already generated to its advantage.

"People are so mad right now, they'll go for anything that even sounds like reform, or something new," said one Buffalo business owner.

One of the Partnership's greatest allies, the Buffalo News, appears poised to help sell its latest schemes, just as the region's largest daily newspaper has played cheerleader to every other bill of goods sold by the exclusive group of country-clubbers and kitchen-cabineteers.

Despite the push by proponents to get the merger plan on the ballot in November, the News has yet to offer any substantive look at its merits, or flaws. Instead, the paper has channeled its resources into a self-laudatory and self-indulgent bit of navel-gazing entitled "Why Not Buffalo?"

Sporting a bizarre hood ornament of a logo and a rather desperate-sounding title, the promised year-long series blames the area's woes on the scapegoat favored by politicians and business-advocacy groups alike -- you.

"Lose the attitude," reads an introductory story in the newspaper's First Sunday insert, a bit of preachiness that embodies the blame-the-victim mentality favored by the local elite and its media mouthpiece.

"You know the one -- the we-can't-get-out-of-our-own-way, we-can't-get-anything-done, Buffalo-is-doomed attitude that feeds the beast of economic and cultural stagnation that could devour this city. If we let it.

"Lose it. Now."

Aha! So that's the problem. It's not the politicians who act as if public money and property are theirs to give -- or take -- or the backroom dealers who put them in power and keep them there. It's those of us who spend our waking hours trying to pay bills, keep a job or run a business and raise a family without the benefit of professional domestic help who brought this upon ourselves.

What a relief. And here we thought it was the people who discuss how best to divvy up our money, while they enjoy leisurely lunches at the Buffalo Club.

Thankfully, though, the News is going to save not just Buffalo, but the entire area.

"Over the next 12 months, the newspaper will make this effort a top priority, by producing a series of stories that will define our region's central problems in new and innovative ways," read yet another introductory story. "Better yet: These stories will offer real solutions for change."

Thank goodness. "Real solutions" from an institution that backed just about every development that it now pours gallons of ink into bitching about -- from building the new University at Buffalo campus in the suburbs in the 1960s to the NFTA's infamous train to nowhere to an imbecilic plan for expanding the Peace Bridge that created a seemingly endless stalemate. Oh, and let's not forget that the News has repeatedly endorsed both Giambra and Masiello.

It's a safe bet that those "real solutions" will include ideas just as bright as the Uniland proposal, which centers on building a 300,000-square-foot convention center. This, even though a study released last month by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute shows that demand for such facilities is steadily plunging, with even places with much more to offer conventioneers -- like New York, Chicago and Atlanta -- desperately trying to attract events by giving away space.

Such support from the region's dominant media outlet emboldens our "leaders," elected and otherwise, to advance their agendas without fear of second-guessing or accountability. In November, Giambra gambled that he could grab another sales-tax penny to hoard in the county coffers -- which he's been busy depleting for five years -- by threatening the public with a draconian "red" budget.

No snowplowing or sheriff's patrols, Giambra warned gloomily. No libraries -- a tempting target for politicos in both Niagara Falls and Buffalo -- or zoo for the kids.

Just one problem there. He couldn't even get the members of his adopted party to back his power play. Instead, he had to rely on his old party to come through with enough votes for a two-thirds majority. And with that sort of leverage there for the taking, opportunist extraordinaire Al DeBenedetti, the lone city legislator to ultimately oppose the penny increase, snatched it.

Forget that DeBenedetti used to parcel out the same patronage jobs he now rails against under former County Executive Dennis Gorski, or that the self-appointed protector of the citizenry couldn't find the time to pay his own property taxes until learning the story was about to break.

And forget that the whole "red budget-green budget" charade was meant to blame Albany for rising Medicaid costs. After weeks of repeating Giambra's finger-pointing, even the News finally pointed out that the increase in the Medicaid tab accounts for only a fraction of the money pit Giambra himself dug by doling out a 30-percent tax cut without even trying to slash spending by a similar amount.

That, of course, would have meant trimming a list of patronage hires that makes Niagara Falls Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello's Friends and Family Plan look downright austere by comparison, or saying "no" occasionally when Giambra's pals at the Partnership came around looking to dip their beaks in the government trough.

Instead, Giambra thought he could walk his political high-wire indefinitely. At least until last Friday, when DeBenedetti gave it a good twang.

The legislator's second flip-flop in less than a week triggered a rebellion among Giambra's immediate underlings, with the sheriff, comptroller, district attorney and county clerk each either filing or threatening lawsuits in an attempt to avert the thousands of layoffs promised by Giambra if he couldn't get that extra penny.

Maybe, just maybe, the self-proclaimed leaders -- in government, business and the media -- who have made Western New York what it is today will watch Giambra's self-immolation. And realize that they, and not the people they supposedly serve, are the ones in need of an attitude adjustment.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at

Niagara Falls Reporter

Feb. 8 2005

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Interview with Jane Jacobs, July 2000

[published in ARTVOICE v11n30, July 27, 2000]

The Convention Follies, Part 5: A Conversation with Jane Jacobs
by Hank Bromley

[This is the fifth in a series of articles about the convention center controversy. Previous articles in the series are available at]

Even though—or perhaps because—she has no formal training whatsoever in architecture or planning, Jane Jacobs has utterly transformed the field of urban planning. Born in Scranton in 1916, she observed first-hand the demise of a regional coal-dependent economy and the towns it formerly sustained. A series of writing and editing jobs in New York City bred a lifelong fascination with cities: how they function (or fail to) as living, complex webs of relationships in dynamic balance; their fundamental role in economic life; the parallels in the behavior and needs of urban economies and natural ecosystems.

Her first and most famous book appeared in 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was a frontal assault on urban policy of the time. Its first sentence reads "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding." No mere "quibble" over technique, the book denounced the very "principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding." Professional planners were dismissive of the unlettered upstart. The New York Times’ reviewer, on the other hand, called it "the most refreshing, provocative, stimulating, and exciting study of this greatest of our problems of living which I have seen." As discussed in Part 2 of this series (Artvoice v11n6), the book illustrated the importance of densely interwoven, diverse, mixed-use streetscapes, full of varied pedestrian traffic and indigenous vitality—polar opposite of the prevailing (and since discredited) Garden City model of "urban renewal" that bulldozed communities and scattered new high-rise residential structures across plains of greenery, replacing the "chaos" of traditional city life with tidy sterility. In the years following the book’s appearance, Jane Jacobs helped lead a successful community campaign to block a Robert Moses plan for just such a project in her beloved Greenwich Village neighborhood.

In 1968, with two draft-age sons, she and her husband moved their family to Toronto, where she has lived ever since, continuing her writing and her local activism. Her books since then have included The Economy of Cities (1969), on the processes of economic growth and decline, The Question of Separatism (1980), on Quebec and sovereignty, Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), on the primary role of cities in regional and national economies, Systems of Survival (1992), on the two moral systems of business and politics, and her current book, The Nature of Economies (1999), analyzing economies as a form of natural ecosystem, developing according to the same principles.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jane Jacobs about her work, the shared features of economies and ecologies, the nurturing and abuse of cities in general and Buffalo in particular, and convention centers; Tim Tielman, executive director of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County, joined us. Following is a slightly condensed version of our conversation. JJ=Jane Jacobs, HB=Hank Bromley, TT=Tim Tielman.


HB: I thought I’d start by asking how you started writing about cities and what makes them work.

JJ: Well, I really explain all that in the Introduction to The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In brief, I was working for an architectural magazine, and I became dismayed at how unrealistic the plans that I was writing about were. I saw that they didn’t really make very magnetic or attractive city areas; people seemed to shun them instead of enjoying them. And then I was fortunate in having a good mentor who had been thinking about the same things, the head worker of a settlement in East Harlem. And he got me thinking along the lines of how city streets work.

HB: In ways that professional planners hadn’t really been considering?

JJ: No, they didn’t like the street.

"Progress occurs funeral by funeral"

HB: What was the reception to Death and Life when it first came out? I had heard that it was initially treated quite negatively by the professionals.

JJ: Well, it divided into two startlingly different kinds of reception. I got a very good public reception. The planners hated it. The architects were divided.

HB: What determined the nature of the division, which side one came down on among the architects?

JJ: I used to wonder about that, and I decided there were foot people and car people. I treated that in the later Introduction I wrote for the Modern Library edition of Death and Life.

[She wrote there that "foot people," who prefer to walk, found the book to corroborate their own—frequently devalued—experiences, and responded enthusiastically. "Car people" had no such reaction. Since architecture schools of the time were vehemently anti-foot, the foot people among the students found the book wonderfully subversive, as it exposed the unworkability of the ideas behind the form of education they were enduring.]

JJ: What I’ve just explained, about the reception of it, was for when it came out. It doesn’t hold for now. There are quite a lot of planners who like it now.

HB: Yes, I was going to ask about that, as well. It’s been half a lifetime for you since you wrote that, and indeed for many of the readers an entire lifetime since it was written—

JJ: Yes, more than a lifetime—

HB: So I was wondering what kinds of things have changed in that time about your own understanding of the topics discussed there, and in the reception.

JJ: Well, it’s a generational difference in the reception. Somebody said "Progress occurs funeral by funeral," and I think that’s basically what happened. There were a lot of planners who never could embrace this view, but they retired; they died, a lot of them, and a new generation saw things differently.

HB: So these days it’s treated as a classic text, really, but it seems the policy-makers don’t get it yet. Why is it so hard for the people making decisions about how to run cities, outside the planning profession, to grasp what makes their own cities work?

JJ: That’s a very good question, because it is puzzling. The people they represent, the public, seem to be ahead of them, by and large. I think maybe we have to reach the sad conclusion that policy-makers are old-fashioned and behind in getting it, in understanding things. They take received knowledge and often don’t test it against reality; they just assume it never changes. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s a strange obtuseness.

Failed policy and the neglect of local resources

TT: People meeting people seems to be an essential characteristic of why cities exist, the need for people to come together, and I think the argument for public subsidy of convention centers is "What’s more fundamental to cities than people getting together?" What would the proper role for—

JJ: I think you’ve jumped to the wrong conclusion. That’s called teleological thinking: people do get together in cities, but it’s not because they decide "Well, we’re going to get together and we’ll have a city." No, you have to have work in a city, or you have to draw a whole lot of taxes or tribute of some kind. Essentially, cities are economic units, and from those economic circumstances you get various social things, but you have started that train of thought altogether wrong by saying the reason for the cities, if I understood you, is for people to get together. That’s like saying the reason for plants is to use the rainfall.

HB: The plants show up where there’s good rainfall for them to use, and cities appear where there’s a good reason for people to get together.

JJ: And they persist where there’s a good reason for them, and if they lose those economic reasons, they begin to dwindle away. That’s been one of your troubles in Buffalo.

HB: Yes, in one of the footnotes to Nature of Economies you briefly mention Buffalo and why you think our economy has dwindled. Given our position now, as a city that has fallen on hard times, what kinds of actions would be appropriate for local officials to take, that would promote the conditions for the kinds of activities that we do want to see?

JJ: Well, you can’t decide ahead of time what activities you want to see. Economic life is full of surprises, and if you decide what you’re going to base your economy on—what do you have to think about? Things that already exist. You’re ruling out innovation right away, and yet innovation is of the essence for a live and prospering economy. And that’s a very important thought for Buffalo, because as I see it, the beginning of Buffalo’s decline economically was it becoming too much of a branch plant sort of city, depending not on innovation that came from itself, or that grew organically from what it was already doing, but copycat stuff, or bestowed stuff. It stopped being an original city. And those things die away, and if the custom, or the spirit of a city’s self-confidence and its innovation and its belief in its own people has in the meantime been lost, there’s nothing to depend on for the future. That’s the sort of thing I think has happened in Buffalo and I think is illustrated by this cavalier attitude toward disposing of things that have been engendered locally, that are the kind of innovation and local initiative that Buffalo desperately needs. And the idea that such things should be despised or treated with contempt or ignored, in favor of some copycat thing that has nothing to do with local innovation, is very disturbing.

HB: What are the kinds of local resources you have in mind that we should be building on rather than—

JJ: The kinds of things that I read in Hank’s article about the existing businesses in the district the convention center is planned for [Part 3 of this series, in Artvoice v11n9], these are the things that are the economic treasure. They come out of the city itself, they come out of the people itself. And there was a time when Buffalo had a lot of originality, you can tell that from the architecture and from the public amenities that are left.

HB: So if you can’t predetermine what the economic drivers are going to be—

JJ: No, who predicted in Seattle, for instance, when they thought their whole economy hung on what happened in Boeing, who predicted that computers and Microsoft…it’s impossible.

HB: Right, so if these developments have to arise out of the efforts of individual innovators, what role can the government play in promoting the right sort of conditions to enable that?

JJ: The government often needs to remove barriers of one sort or another, and certainly not destroy these things. That was the great tragedy of urban renewal, that so much was destroyed, and lots of cities simply haven’t recovered from it. It’s taken New York a long time to recover. It’s healing itself now, New York City. Newark, not at all yet. Cities can destroy themselves beyond a point of no return, if they just become inert and dumb.

HB: By trying to copy ideas from elsewhere rather than building on what’s unique about them and growing their own ideas?

JJ: And valuing the ideas of their own people.

Destructive uses of money

TT: The convention center project proposed in Buffalo right now shares a lot of the features of bad old urban renewal projects—

JJ: Yes—

TT: And I’m wondering if the reason for that is that the underlying laws, the funding and everything, is still based upon the 1940s legislation and elected officials simply find it easier to follow the path of least resistance to the money, rather than pay attention to, or get educated about, what actually makes cities work.

JJ: I think that you’ve got it. If the inducements of the money weren’t there, the subsidies of one sort or another, I don’t think we’d be bothered by this nonsense.

TT: Now, is one of the problems with urban development that money is available? If it were a free market, and cities had to make do as they had for millennia in the past, we’d actually have better cities than with this government intervention we have now?

JJ: Yes, except with qualifications. There are certain things that cities do need to finance in a public way, in fact that any settlement needs to. You can’t rely just on moneymaking activities in the private sector to supply everything. I hate to keep sounding like an advertisement for my books, but I went into this in a book called Systems of Survival, in which I separated the worlds of work into guardian operations, which have to do with territory—that means politics, religion, all the things that people have to do who are responsible for administering or guarding territory, and providing public amenities for it—and the other division is what is usually referred to as the private sector—commerce, manufacturing, banking, that sort of thing. When the two get mixed up—it’s sometimes inevitable that they do, but mostly it’s not, and in every case it’s hazardous to mix them—they get corrupt, and they get skewed in non-functional ways. The urban renewal kind of subsidies are a terrible example of mixing this sort of thing, so that the politicians you’re talking about, the policy-setters, they’re really guardians, they’re really territorial administrators, but they have provided monetary incentives for the private sector to do things it wouldn’t do otherwise, and that’s a mess.

[These comments should not be taken as a blanket condemnation of all subsidies. In Death and Life, she draws a careful distinction among kinds of subsidies, promoting some while criticizing others. She says subsidies given to builders and developers to construct segregated housing for low-income tenants have led to the public housing disasters so many cities are now tearing down; that would presumably qualify as "monetary incentives for the private sector to do things it wouldn’t do otherwise." But she does advocate subsidies to individual tenants (residents and businesses), so that the market could still determine what kinds of structures were needed where, while the government stimulated diversity by helping people who otherwise couldn’t afford it get into the game—without creating ghettoized all-subsidy districts, since tenants would be renting units alongside those paying full price. She also recommends subsidies for rehabilitation of existing buildings.]

Essential webs of diversity

TT: One of the justifications for the site chosen for the convention center is that, "Well, the buildings, they kind of look junky (even though they’re mostly occupied), the people who live in the hotels are not the kind of people we want downtown, the businesses are just small ones, and anyway, what we could do is move everyone out, give them a new place of business elsewhere in the city or in some industrial park, and the people—well, there’s plenty of other housing available." Is there some value, above and beyond the wages paid by a business and the supplies they buy within the local economy, in having them in a particular place within a city?

JJ: Yes, they are not dopes about where they locate. You can’t put them in the boondocks and expect them to operate the same. Location in a city is very important, and being in a central location is most important for the small businesses, because they aren’t as self-sufficient. You can look at downtowns, which are the most economically intense parts of cities, not only in New York State or in America, but all over the world, and what do you find? If it’s a lively place, if it’s not dying, if its windows aren’t all boarded up, what you find is it’s full of small enterprises. This is not an accident. It’s telling you something. The cities grow in a way that we can only call organic, in the sense that one thing depends on another and another and another—they’re webs of mutual support. And if they don’t have that, they die away. You can’t make a downtown like a one-crop plantation and get anything out of it. One trouble with having great massive things, like a convention center, smack in the middle where small things were flourishing, is that it turns an area that had diversity and variety and opportunity of many kinds in it—small kinds, but many kinds—into something resembling a one-crop place.

HB: So the effect of putting an enormous single-purpose entity within this fine network of the city core is the same as putting a huge field of a single crop in the middle of an ecology: it renders the whole thing essentially sterile, incapable of generating anything new.

JJ: That’s right, and wow, watch out when a disease hits that one thing.

HB: It no longer has the resilience of the natural system that relied on the interdependence of many different ingredients.

JJ: Right. Buffalo has many examples of that. Look at all the grain-handling infrastructure. You know, all these special uses, no matter how big and impressive, they’re temporary. Life is temporary.

HB: One of the common themes across your books seems to be the value of difference, of heterogeneity.

JJ: Oh, absolutely. That’s where all the safety lies, where the future lies, where expansion lies—healthy expansion.

HB: You’ve suggested that not only is that how nature works, and how cities work—since cities are a part of nature—but that it’s the way things work for humans as well.

JJ: Yes.

HB: So one thing that’s hard for me to understand is how it is that for a lot of people—setting aside those of us who love cities and are drawn to the difference and the tension and the dynamism—a lot of people tend to be suspicious of the different, to want to withdraw into homogeneous communities, and avoid outsiders or even vilify outsiders. You see the ethnic conflict of the outsiders being "bad." Where does that come from?

JJ: That’s right, that’s their problem and it’s a sad problem, but you cannot make cities to accommodate that.

HB: Right, but why, if this is the way of nature, and this is what’s good for us—this heterogeneity and mixing—how is it that so many people end up repulsed by it, and preferring to withdraw into some homogeneous community?

JJ: Well, they’ve had bad experiences. And they haven’t had much good experience with diversity and variety. But now, this connects with the convention center thing. The cities that are successful with conventions are not successful primarily because they build a hall. It’s because it’s the kind of a city people want to go to.

HB: Right, they don’t have a lot of conventions in New Orleans because of the convention center, but because people want to come to New Orleans anyway.

JJ: That’s right, and people say "Oh, hooray, we’re going to have a convention in such-and-such," or "Oh my god, we’re going to go to Milwaukee"—whatever. People are looking for—people who go to conventions, people who visit other cities—are by definition looking for something different from where they live. In fact, they complain that the airports are all the same, they complain about "Oh, it’s no different from being home." The great tourist attraction places are full of surprises and diversity and differences from what people may normally have.

HB: And they appreciate that when they go on vacation. Yet when they choose a place to live—I have colleagues who will come join the university as faculty, and many will choose to buy a place out in the suburbs, where it looks just like where they came from. They’ll see all the same stores; it’s interchangeable. And some say that’s great, because it’s predictable, and they know what they’re getting into, and it’s familiar, and it’s comfortable. Others of us look at that and say "It’s sterile and lifeless, and I want to be surprised, I like unpredictability.’

JJ: Yeah.

HB: But we seem to be in the minority. So many people are moving to the suburbs and cities are losing population.

JJ: Well, not all of them. The ones that are really healing and are liveliest are gaining population now. These things change. One thing you can be sure of is life is not going to go on the same. Every once in a while, a generation comes along that just can’t stand what the previous ones did. Victorianism came to an end that way, and it’s one reason so many wonderful Victorian buildings were destroyed later. There was a real hatred for Victorianism. And yet it had been the thing for several previous generations. A lot of people are more adventurous than that, they don’t want just the culture that was handed down to them, and if it seems too oppressive to them and too pervading to them, they really get nasty about it. I don’t think that’s changed, and you can’t predict when it’s going to happen and what it’s going to be.

HB: So at some point you think there’s going to be a reaction against the suburbanization, and the malling of America?

JJ: Yes, sure there is. In fact, a lot of malls are now going out of business. Probably because there were too many of them, and because people are bored with them. You know, people get bored, and one thing that your colleagues of all kinds probably have in common is that they hate boredom, and some of them get bored sooner than others.

HB: So in time, hopefully people will recognize what the more diverse and heterogeneous environments offer, and turn back to that? And turn against the sameness and homogeneity of the suburban style of development?

JJ: You don’t have to say "hopefully," it’s bound to happen. It’ll happen whether you want it to or not.

Cars and downtown retail

HB: You mentioned that some malls are losing business and closing. One of the other issues that’s caused strong feelings in Buffalo is the loss of retail activity downtown. Some years ago, before I moved here, one of the strategies that was tried was to convert Main Street to a pedestrian mall and to build the light rail system down the center of the street and stop car traffic.

JJ: This was another imported idea that didn’t arise in Buffalo. Your policy-makers saw it in some other places, and "Okay, we’ll try that in Buffalo." So it didn’t grow out of Buffalo, it was an applied, artificial thing.

HB: There have been proposals to reopen Main Street to car traffic again. I know you’re not a big fan of cars, but do you think in this case that would be a helpful move?

JJ: I don’t know Buffalo well enough to answer that in detail, but I can tell you this: The trouble with cars on a main street is not cars per se. In fact you have to have some for servicing and all that. The trouble is cars to which everything else is sacrificed. And how is everything else sacrificed? Well, the roads are made too wide, too hard to cross. The cars are allowed to go too fast. Too much parking is provided. Those things are not necessary for allowing cars on a main street. Disneyland out in California gives you some lessons about this. It has streetcars and other conveyances running through those little streets. They go slowly; the streets are easy to cross; the parking is all somewhere else, not cutting up the interesting places people want to be. Those are good principles for any main street that you want to be good for business. You can have cars there, but they can’t be racing through. You can have the street, but it can’t be unfriendly to pedestrians.

HB: We’re seeing that debate played out near the edge of town, also on Main Street, where the original campus of the university is. The state transportation department came in with a plan to widen the street and smooth the traffic flow and synchronize the lights, and it was exactly the issues you’re talking about: do we displace everything else to make it optimal for the cars, or do we try to maintain the pedestrian traffic and help the retail businesses with wide sidewalks and so on?

JJ: Well, that’s what transportation departments do. The reason cities need so much transportation, somebody has said, is not to move so much, as to exchange things. That’s what cities are all about, exchanging.

HB: And what’s the implication of that for what transportation departments—

JJ: If you begin to think it’s all about moving—it’s like magic carpets, getting from here to there the fastest way possible and skipping everything in between—you’re missing the point.

HB: It just moves you through from one place to another, but the point is what happens while you’re there.

JJ: That’s right.

Local exchange as the source of wealth

HB: That reminds of what I take to be one of the main points of the current book, The Nature of Economies, that what’s important for an economy isn’t so much the wealth that gets pumped in from the outside, but how efficient the region is at keeping that wealth local, and exchanging it back and forth, before it exits the region. So we shouldn’t be looking so much at import and export rates, but the efficiency of re-use and exchange, just as in the biological sense, a rainforest works well and a desert does not, even if they’ve got the same amount of sunlight and perhaps even similar soil, not because of the difference in inputs but because all the energy coming into the desert just bounces back out. One of the claims that we hear frequently from the main proponent of this convention center idea, getting back to that, is that building a convention center is a printing press for money. People come in from out of town and spend their money here.

JJ: Yes, and what do they spend it on here? What they spend it on is imported into Buffalo, and goes right out in their stomachs, or however. It’s not going to help Buffalo much.

HB: Well, I suppose the argument is they spend it on staying in hotels, and—

JJ: Well, they don’t stay there long if they don’t enjoy Buffalo.

HB: And then they buy things while they’re here, there are services that are needed to support them and the convention center, and those generate jobs, and the people who have those jobs then spend their money elsewhere. Isn’t that the kind of local multiplier we’re talking about?

JJ: You know what? If this were a very good foundation for an economy, just this sort of thing, the Caribbean islands would be so rich, and all the people who live on Jamaica and Nevis and so on would be such rich people.

HB: And why aren’t they?

JJ: Because everything’s imported and goes right out again.

HB: The example that occurred to me in reading that part of the book was maquiladora export processing zones, where if you just measure imports and exports, there’s a tremendous amount of wealth passing through, but it’s just like the sunlight in the desert: it’s abundant coming in, and then it bounces out, and it doesn’t bounce around within and get exchanged, with the opportunity to generate additional wealth with each exchange. It just passes right through.

JJ: That’s right. And you know, you could have said the desert is the way it is because it lacks the rain input. But one thing that’s been discovered is that deserts are often made by the plants that had been there being all eaten up by goats or whatever [not by a reduction in rainfall]. And the deserts can be reclaimed by reestablishing the ensemble of plants; [the community] itself creates the conditions of survival.

HB: So, if you have something that has deteriorated into a desert, what kinds of steps—thinking again of the economy—

JJ: It’s pretty hard to get it back, it’s a very hard long-term thing if it’s really reached that stage. It can happen, but it’s much easier to stop it becoming a desert before it does.

Visitors and economic development

TT: One of the themes in Death and Life and some of your other books is the necessity of proximity, various pathways going to and from one block to another, short blocks, as creating conditions which allow economies to develop. The same argument is being used by some people regarding location of the convention center: it must be right on top of a convention center hotel, and it must be right on top of a burgeoning entertainment district, because that’ll create synergy. And on the other side are arguments that a convention center can be located seven, eight blocks away, or a mile away, convention center attendees have different behavior patterns, and they will go further for entertainment, whereas someone working on a daily basis in a downtown needs something absolutely close at hand. What’s your feeling on that debate?

JJ: I think the idea of making a kind of compound for the out-of-towners, the convention people, and plunking it right in the middle of Buffalo, is terrible. If they get to like Buffalo, if they enjoy Buffalo, it’ll be because Buffalo is a place that its own people like, and its own people enjoy. That’s true of any city. People like to go to conventions in New York, because they can go to the theater and all those amazing restaurants, and find anything they want in a toy store, and so on. But that wasn’t made for out-of-towners; out-of-towners share in it. The same could be said of Paris, or any great destination. The basis is the local use, and then the gravy is visitors’ use.

HB: You can’t build local development around visitor use, then.

JJ: And when somebody gets a bigger convention center, or Buffalo’s falls out of favor, look how much will fall out of favor, in what a vital place [if it’s built downtown]. And you can be sure that it will. When you add up all the subsidies and tax forgiveness and destroyed things that really aren’t recompensed—they never have been—it’s very doubtful whether convention centers pay. Certainly not ones in ho-hum sort of towns.

HB: And it’s something that a great many cities have been convinced recently that they should be using as a strategy, so we’re looking at an incredible number of competitors who are expanding or upgrading their facilities at the very same time.

JJ: So expand it. You can have a convention center, but for heaven’s sake, don’t do it where you’re destroying what innovation you do have.

HB: That gets back to Tim’s initial question. If you’re going to build it, against our advice, you can at least build it someplace where you’re not displacing something else; build it on a parking lot or something that’s abandoned.

JJ: That’s right, make it an addition to Buffalo, not a displacement. Don’t act as if there’s a zero-sum economy in Buffalo and if you add something you’ve got to take something equal away. You never get anywhere that way.

The "obstructionist" label

HB: One of the problems we face when we talk about preserving what we have that’s already special and we oppose projects that—

JJ: You’re called against progress.

HB: That’s right. We’re obstructionist, we’re preventing progress, we’re looking backward, we’re just trying to prevent people from doing anything to get things started in Buffalo, even though when they recognize that Buffalo has been inert they say, "Well, we need to do something, like build a convention center."

JJ: You need to do something—I hate to keep repeating myself—that’s unique to Buffalo, that comes out of Buffalo itself. You don’t want to keep acting like a company town.

HB: Again, it seems that it makes us susceptible to the charges of being obstructionist and selfishly preventing progress. Do we just put up with that, let them call us that, or do we have a way of countering it?

JJ: You put up with it, and you tell your side of things. Also, turn those arguments around. Don’t be frightened by them, they’re not true in the first place, and in the second place, selfishness: for goodness sake, who’s going to reap any rewards from this?

HB: Largely, it seems, it would be people involved in construction, lawyers and bankers involved in making financing arrangements, for whom if the thing fails, so much the better, because then we build another one ten years later and they profit all over again.

JJ: Sure. Show that they’re being selfish. Show that they’re being old-fashioned and repetitive and afraid of new and different things, and new and different ways of doing things. Why let them have all the arguments about progress and selfishness, which are specious? And don’t mind if you’re called names, you get thick skins. Don’t be defensive, go on the attack. You have to explain why you’re right, but you have to explain it aggressively.

The future

HB: I think we’ve covered a lot of the ground I had hoped to. To wrap up, in looking around at what you see these days—after many years of observing the world and how it works, and what things change and why they change—what gives you the most hope about the future, and what worries you the most?

JJ: The thing that gives me the most hope about the future is the young people. They don’t know how hard it is to make change, or to improve things, and it’s a good thing they don’t know how hard it is, because they have lots of energy and they often have lots of idealism, and they work at it. By the time they’ve gotten tired, and they know how much effort it takes to move things a few inches, there’s another generation coming along. That’s what gives me the most hope. That sounds so banal, but I don’t know anything as hopeful as that.

HB: And what do you find most worrisome, what makes you anxious about the future, if anything?

JJ: I suppose the things that are done out of despair, and out of hatred. When I look at the worst mistakes of city planning—to take one example, although I think this is true of any activity—I marvel at how these policies were set by people who hate cities. You can’t prescribe decently for something you hate. It will always come out wrong. You can’t prescribe decently for something you despair in. If you despair of humankind, you’re not going to have good policies for nurturing human beings. I think people ought to give prescriptions who have ideas for improving things, ought to concentrate on the things that they love and that they want to nurture.

HB: That certainly describes our group and our feeling about the city of Buffalo.

JJ: That’s right. If you have somebody who says "Oh, Buffalo is for the birds, and you’ve just got to go somewhere else to learn what to do" and so on, no, that’s not good, nothing good will come of that. People who see what is good about Buffalo, and there’s an awful lot that is good about Buffalo—it’s a wonderful place with a wonderful heritage, goodness, it’s got a much better architectural heritage than Toronto does, it’s got a glorious architectural heritage, just go out on the streets of Buffalo and marvel at what’s there.

HB: And that’s what we should be building our revival around.

JJ: That’s right.

Hank Bromley teaches at the UB Graduate School of Education and is a member of Citizens for Common Sense. He can be reached at

Artspace ArchiveAnnals of NeglectBAVPAWhere is Perrysburg?Broken Promises...
Writing the CityWoodlawn Row HousesTour dé Neglect - 2006


Here are few links to something fascinating and occuring globally. Urban exploration or urbex. Interationally and around the country the motto seems to be, "take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints." Sounds like a viable ethic...

Lots of suggestions on these sites about private property, cooperation with security guards if busted and of course pre-cautions like getting a tetnus shot before infiltrating particularly dangerous places.
Artspace ArchiveAnnals of NeglectBAVPAWhere is Perrysburg?Broken Promises...
Writing the CityWoodlawn Row HousesTour dé Neglect - 2006

Artspace Letter of Support

This is the model letter which may help you when you write your own. Something short and to the point. A few paragraphs should be sufficient.




February 2, 2005

Dear :

I am writing to ask you to participate in an exciting project in Buffalo - a project that will build affordable family housing, revitalize a community, create local jobs, stimulate small business development and bring national attention to the "creative class" in our city. Called the Artspace Buffalo Project, it will provide affordable housing and work space to low-income artists and their families, as it anchors the rich arts and cultural landscape in Buffalo.

A letter of support from you for this project is critical if Artspace Buffalo is to happen.

The Artspace Buffalo Project will provide:

  • 60 affordable apartments with work spaces for low-income artists and their families.
  • Hundreds of short-term and long-term local jobs, and a supportive environment for the creation of small businesses.
  • The resources to preserve and re-use the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Building, located at 1219 Main Street at Northampton.
  • An opportunity to link the multi-million dollar investment in the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Corridor to the revitalization of a depressed Eastside neighborhood.

Our partners in this project, ArtspaceUSA, have seen these results and more with each project they have developed.

We need you to partner with us in bringing this exciting project to Buffalo. Without an allocation of low-income housing tax credits, the project cannot move forward.

Please help by writing NYS Department of Housing and Community Renewal Commissioner Judith Calogero, 38-40 State Street, 6th Floor South, Albany, NY 12207, and urge her to allocate low income housing tax credits to the Artspace Buffalo project.

So that we can include it with the Artspace application, your letter of support must be forwarded to Steven J. Weiss, Cannon Heyman & Weiss, LLP, 50 Fountain Plaza, Suite 301, Buffalo, New York 14202, Attention: Artspace; letters may be faxed to 716-856-2311 or e-mailed to They must be received no later than February 18, 2005.

With your help, the Artspace Buffalo project can break ground as soon as this summer. If you have any questions, please contact Chief of Staff Eva Hassett or me at 716-851-4841.

Thank you. Sincerely,

Anthony M. Masiello Mayor of Buffalo

Artspace ArchiveAnnals of NeglectBAVPAWhere is Perrysburg?Broken Promises...
Writing the CityWoodlawn Row HousesTour dé Neglect - 2006

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