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The Incredible Shrinking City...Charity Vogel & Jay Rey - January 2, 2005

The incredible shrinking city and what to do about it

This is your future, Buffalo. Here's how to change it.

News Staff

If you plan on living the rest of your life in Western New York, you -- we -- face a daunting task of changing our fate. Take a deep breath and really notice what's going on around you.

Buffalo, you are half the city you were 50 years ago. More than a quarter-million people smaller, and counting. If the present trend continues, in another 50 years, you'll be half of what you are now. You have become the Incredible Shrinking City.

Stop right now and think about that. Think about how Buffalo's decline affects your own life. Then see the big picture, a vision of Buffalo and how its residents -- all of us -- fit into its history. Do you see what's happening?

A city built for the big time, built for the 580,000 people it boasted in its bustling 1950s heyday, is now a city with a population of 292,000. Buffalo is the smallest it's been in more than a century -- since the days of horse and buggy and grain elevators and bustles on women's dresses. And that population number is in free fall, with no end in sight. Only two other major cities -- St. Louis and Pittsburgh -- have lost a larger percentage of their population during the last five decades. Buffalo is like a man who has lost 100 pounds and looks like a boy in his old suits.

It's sad. An injustice. A city so resilient, so hearty and full of spirit, deserves better.

What can we look forward to? Watching our children, grandchildren and friends move away? Worrying about our jobs and our property values? Feeling like we're the only ones who have stayed behind, while everyone else has gone someplace better?

The realization that the best scenario out there is a resourceful way to manage the decline should outrage us. The realization that it could easily turn worse -- that we're at the tipping point of worse times -- should outrage us even more.

Is this the best we can offer ourselves and our children?

Here's the one thing everyone needs to understand from this moment on if anything is going to change: Our staggering population loss over the past 50 years is behind almost everything that's going wrong around us.

Skeptical? Keep looking, this time at the issues and events we are paying the most attention to these days:

Start with an easy one -- government. With a dwindling tax base, a city that has affixed itself like a leech to state aid over the years now finds itself facing one crisis after another: laying off police, closing fire companies, tacking on user fees, giving away assets from the zoo to Dunn Tire Park to Shea's Performing Arts Center, just to stay afloat. This is what happens when your taxpaying public is cut in half.

Our professional sports teams. The only contest that exceeds the games is the ongoing struggle to stave off pressure on the Bills and Sabres to leave town for a bigger, more lucrative market. Fewer residents here mean fewer sports fans spending money on tickets and merchandise. Do the math.

Here's one -- Children's Hospital. One of the area's most emotional stories of the year was really about a hospital struggling to escape corporate downsizing because there were not enough young women and babies to keep it busy.

Education? City schools are closing because enrollment is down. There isn't money for teachers and staff, let alone supplies. The schools have become a reason for families to leave the city.

This one hits home the hardest: Our brain drain. We watch as our friends and sons and daughters -- the region's future, our smartest and brightest, our growth potential -- move away for better opportunities in other parts of the country. What's left is a region aging in place and growing old fast. This region has one of the highest percentages of senior citizens in the nation, up there with retirement meccas like Sarasota and West Palm Beach.

Still not convinced? Keep looking.

Downtown housing, empty city lots, dilapidated homes. It's at the root of all these issues. It's always there, looming in the background, lurking behind issues ranging from taxes to job shortages to poverty. It's the reason for political battles over shrinking the number of Common Council and County Legislature districts, and it's why we're losing a long-time congressman. It's at the root of why some of the roads you're driving on are getting fixed and others aren't. It's at the root of why your corner store is closing down and why your neighborhood tavern went out of business. It's at the root of where you live -- or where you want to live.

The picture is bleak, no doubt about it. Fifty years can do a lot of damage, especially when the city's main reaction to the departure of half its citizenry has been to wave goodbye.

But can the City of Buffalo be saved?

Is there any way to turn this story around -- to give it a happy ending?

It depends on what you mean by salvation. Probably not, if being saved means recapturing the glory days of the 1950s, with a booming downtown, a growing population of 580,000 people and the status of a major urban center in the nation. Let's not hide from the truth. It is highly unlikely that Buffalo will ever be that way again, at least in our lifetimes. That was the old economy, built on concrete and steel, and baptized by the sweat of day laborers and factory hands. We can't go back to that, even if we want to. It's gone.

But if salvation for Buffalo means halting the loss of population -- if it means leveling off, preserving what we have and then growing stronger -- the answer is yes. We can maintain what we have here now: the people, the resources, the jobs, the companies. We can preserve the city's future for our children and grandchildren. We can grow proud again.

Buffalo, in that sense, can be saved.

But it won't happen as a result of piecemeal regionalism, casinos or silver bullets. Those ideas are too small in scope, and too fraught with the potential of failure. They won't work here. Silver bullets, like Adelphia's office tower, can fail or disappear. Casinos are not the answer and never have been. Bioinformatics is a coup, but it's not the magic answer to the city's population loss. Even regionalism on the minute scale as it is being promoted in the region -- a merger of services here, a purchasing agreement there -- won't effect changes dramatic enough to matter. It will only create a streamlined, beautifully managed decline. So say goodbye to all that.

Let's start with more passion and vision and commitment.

Then, we need a groundswell of public initiative -- truly, the cry of an outraged citizenry -- to make changes happen. We can't trust politicians with the future of this city. With our future.

Here are some ideas for halting Buffalo's population loss and turning the city around.

Some are small, some are proposals on a grand scale. They can work. Experts from around the country say these ideas can reverse the city's decline. Put a few of them together and we can start saving the city, right here and right now.

All it takes is a little courage.

One: Make the City Bigger

Apartments for rent: 58; Apartments wanted: 92

-- Buffalo News classified ads, June 4, 1952

Apartments for rent: 142; Apartments wanted: 0

-- Buffalo News classifieds, July 3, 2002

The biggest problem with Buffalo is that the city hasn't moved along with its residents.

After World War II, people moved from Buffalo into tiny suburban homes in Cheektowaga, Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda. Nowadays, city residents -- and people in the crowded first-ring suburbs -- move out even further, into big suburban homes in Clarence, Elma and Lancaster.

If the suburbs can't be stopped, Buffalo's boundaries should grow along with them.

Consider a city like Reno, Nev., where the population is growing by thousands of people each year. As new subdivisions and shopping malls go up, the City Council in Reno votes to extend the city boundaries to take in the area of new development. Voila: The city gets bigger, and stronger, every year. Reno won't decay as it grows, because all the new growth IS Reno.

"The city extends its size and its tax base every two weeks," says Charles Rosenow, an economic development guru for Buffalo who moved to Nevada in 1997. "Reno is allowed to grow. Buffalo is not allowed to grow."

Imagine for a minute what would happen if Buffalo's boundaries took in, at a minimum, the first-ring suburbs: Lackawanna, Cheektowaga, Depew, Amherst, Kenmore, the Town of Tonawanda, West Seneca. The City of Buffalo would instantly become a city of 646,316 people -- bigger than it ever was at the height of its 1950s glory days.

That would put Buffalo smack dab at Number 19 on the list of the nation's biggest cities. Bingo. We're in the Top 20 -- all of a sudden we're a player. And that's just by including the first-ring suburbs; if all of Erie County became Metro Buffalo, we would rank as the 11th-biggest city in the United States.

Think about that for a minute: The 11th BIGGEST CITY in the United States.

Other cities have thought of this before us, and that's why they've passed us by in size. Indianapolis (Number 12 on the Top 20 list) went to a metro government in the early 1970s. Places like Phoenix and Louisville have done it since. What it will take, for Buffalo, is a change in the state constitution, allowing the city to expand its borders. That's something we can't do on our own, without state approval. And territorialism is bound to get in the way, as it always does here; people don't want to lose their political jobs, their little fiefdoms, their geographic identities. But it IS something we can demand. And we should: Because metro government won't change the array of unique flavors that make up this region, but it will help to preserve them for the future.

Corporate Western New York should be leading the charge.

"Louisville just put itself on the international map, without gaining a person," says Bruce Katz, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., about Louisville's leap from 63rd to 16th among American cities. "The corporate leaders made a case: Do we want to be on the map? When you're the 63rd-largest city in the U.S., nobody pays a hell of a lot of attention to you. But when you're the 16th-largest city, people listen."

Why should you want to see this happen, if you're a suburban resident in Erie County?

Because that nice $250,000 mock-Tudor with the half-acre lawn and attached garage won't be worth a plug nickel in 10 years if the population of the area continues to drop. Who will be around to buy it? When that happens -- which it will, if nothing is done -- it won't matter that your address label reads "Amherst" instead of "Buffalo."

The boat will have sunk, with everybody aboard. It won't much matter what deck you were standing on when it went down.

Two: Go After Big Game

The Zoning Board of Appeals granted two applications to the metals processing division of Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which will permit the immediate start of a $10 million expansion program at its Northland-Grider plant. The press would be one of the world's largest.

-- Buffalo News, June 12, 1952

The chances of Boeing or Microsoft or Warner Brothers deciding to locate their headquarters in Buffalo are, admittedly, pretty small.

But the chances are zero if we never ask them. Think big.

We need to go after the hottest corporate game, asking major companies to come here -- offering them incentives, and selling them on what a great region we have. We need to pester these companies like fire ants until they agree to give our region a look-see. Beg them, if need be, or send chicken wing bribes. Give them what they want. Just get them here. We need to be aggressive in ways we never have before.

When Seattle-based Boeing was looking to relocate last year, cities like Chicago, Denver and Dallas were in there pitching. Chicago won. Buffalo made a bid, albeit a small-scale and unsuccessful one. It was a good start, but now we need to turn up the heat.

The University at Buffalo's bioinformatics center, when it gets built, fits in here. We can say to big companies: See? We're doing exciting things here. And we want you. So come to a place where you can make a difference.

Three: Exploit Toronto

To learn the latest highway and industrial techniques, 44 professional engineers from 30 countries began visiting the Buffalo area on the first lap of a three-week inspection tour of New York and New England.

-- Buffalo News, June 4, 1952

Which cities will do well in a 21st-century economy built on knowledge and information rather than grain and steel? The ones that are global.

New York City will do fine. So will Boston; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; and European cities, like London, that are hard-wired into the burgeoning global economy. The new world, experts say, is one where the concept of place is simultaneously important and not important. It can work for cities or work against them. Global cities will be the ones that capitalize on location without being bound by it -- they will be linked to the world, and they will derive economic strength from doing business with everybody.

Toronto is not just poised to succeed in this new economy -- it is already succeeding. Now Buffalo needs to latch onto Toronto's success like a suckerfish on a fast-moving shark.

What can we do? Exploit every aspect of life here for its potential connections to Toronto.

Start with a rail line between Buffalo and Toronto's outer suburbs, just an hour away, says Richard Reinhardt, a former Buffalo economic development expert who now heads Central Atlanta Progress in Georgia.

After that, he says, we should: Market Buffalo-area colleges and universities heavily in Canada. Swap faculty between UB and the University of Toronto. Expand media coverage of Canada and Toronto to the point that residents on both sides of the border start to THINK of the binational region as one region. Force elected leaders here -- Mayor Masiello, County Executive Giambra, and so on -- to drive to Toronto each week, to seek out opportunities for Buffalo. Bring their officials here for the same reason. Realize that our economic future will depend on how we exploit our proximity to Toronto as it becomes a worldwide leader in the new economy.

"In Buffalo, people act as if it's 1901 just before McKinley was shot, when Buffalo was the ninth-largest city in the U.S.," says Reinhardt. "It's not anymore. The region is more important in driving the city than vice versa."

Because even if the suckerfish only gets to eat the scraps the shark leaves behind, it's still a lot more than the fish has been getting.

Four: Dismantle the Political Machine

The Common Council spent 20 minutes Tuesday respectfully participating in a "Know Your America" ceremony, and then took the next 4 hours and 25 minutes in a legislative donnybrook.-- Buffalo News, June 11, 1952

Things haven't changed much.

To see the problem that is Buffalo politics in concrete terms, take an elevator ride in City Hall. Stop at the 13th floor, get out, and walk around. You're seeing a slice of Buffalo that hasn't changed one bit in decades, except to get bigger and more bloated.

Those dark, closet-like little rooms you see sitting empty? That's where Common Council members used to work, decades ago, when their positions were part-time jobs -- the way they were meant to be. Now, check out the offices that today's Council members occupy. A far cry, isn't it?

City Hall -- a downright enormous building -- is still chock-full of staff members and offices, the same way it was when the city was at its population peak in the 1950s. The city has shrunk by half, but you'd never know it from the bureaucracy. Buffalo City Hall is a beautiful, 28-story metaphor for what is wrong with politics around here.

Who in local politics should be blamed for Buffalo's decline? The better question is, who shouldn't be?

The Common Council is at fault. Mayor Masiello, a nice guy with limited vision, is at fault. Council President James W. Pitts, in office for 25 years while the city has shriveled, is at fault. Bickering county legislators are at fault. State lawmakers who are merely useless mouthpieces are at fault. Steve Pigeon is at fault. The mindless political hacks who work for the two major parties are equally at fault, because they keep the machine well-oiled and running. It's their fault there are never any new faces, or new ideas, to elect. And you're at fault, too, for voting for the same politicians year after year, or even worse, not voting at all.

"The city has been in crisis virtually every year since 1969. That kind of wears on you after a while," says Rosenow, the former Buffalo planner now in Reno. "How can a city be in crisis for 33 years? People don't believe me when I tell them that."

The reason for the crisis is the machine that perpetuates politics in the Buffalo Niagara region. If that doesn't change, nothing else will.

Five: Fill the City With Immigrants and Refugees

Permanent residential status in this country was a step nearer to reality today for Alexander Wieczorek, 927 Fillmore Ave. Formerly a colonel in the Polish Army, Mr. Wieczorek entered the U.S. as a visitor. Permanent residence is authorized when the individual would be placed in danger if forced to return to their country of origin.

-- Buffalo News, June 6, 1952

Let's get back to our roots.

Buffalo was built by European immigrants, who flooded this country and this city in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were eager to start anew. They made Buffalo grow. They made it strong.

Let's do it again with today's immigrants.

The cities that have grown over the past decade -- particularly those in the South and West -- are those that have seen an influx of immigrants. Tens of thousands of new immigrants added to the population in places like Phoenix and San Diego, or even up North in places like Boston and Minneapolis. Meanwhile, Buffalo's recent track record has been woeful in comparison.

Each year on their way to Canada, thousands of refugees pass through Buffalo and the Niagara Frontier -- a major port of entry into the United States. Few stay. There's not much here to keep them.

But why not make them want to stay? Why not make Buffalo the place where refugees seek asylum? Welcome them.

The cost of living is low here. Many of Buffalo's more recent arrivals are homeowners and are busy fixing up neighborhoods on the East and West sides. Sure, the winter weather may not be what most of them are used to. But the pace here is slower, and often more agreeable than life in major metropolitan areas.

That's the city's appeal to Minh Tran.

Tran and his family cast off from Vietnam in 1979 in a tiny sailboat, spending nearly two months on the South China Sea before making it to a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Now he has a house on Buffalo's West Side, helps run the family's store, and works as a case worker for the International Institute where he's helped hundreds of other Vietnamese refugees settle in Buffalo.

"For me, Buffalo is very good," Tran says. "I know many companies are moving out, but for many immigrants, they like Buffalo better than other places because Buffalo is cheap. If you get a job for $5-, $6-, $7-an-hour you can live on that."

Granted, a city struggling to keep afloat financially doesn't have the funds to lure people from overseas, much less help them get on their feet when they're here. And while an influx of new immigrants isn't going to create jobs, they do provide an energetic, hard-working labor force that companies can't ignore.

Think about it.

Six: City County Hall?

A busy summer and fall for Buffalo's commercial grain elevators was forecast today, as it became apparent that bumper wheat crops will be harvested this year in the Southwest, Midwest and Northwest.

-- Buffalo News, June 11, 1952

City Hall is too big for Buffalo the way it is now, and it's too pretty to let go. What to do? Turn it into the Metro Buffalo municipal building, and make it the home base for both city and county operations.

That would:

Force city and county officials to actually talk to each other, when they meet in the elevators and at the snack bar. How's that for radical thinking?

Broadcast loud and clear to the rest of the world that Buffalo is committed to change -- to doing things differently, and in a dramatic way.

Save money by housing our two largest government operations in one building.

Plus, Joel Giambra could auction off the Rath Building and use the money to buy Tony Masiello a really nice housewarming present -- for going along with the idea.

Seven: Invest in the Core

The Council's finance committee deferred action for a month on what the city's waterfront should be used for, and suggested a meeting of all interested parties during that time.

"We hope to inspire in someone the vision of a Buffalo harbor such as they have in Milwaukee, Chicago, and other places," said Richard H. Templeton, port division director.

-- The Buffalo News, June 3, 1952

Every public dollar spent here should be spent in the City of Buffalo, until the city is strong again. For as long as it takes.

The collective gasp you hear is the sound of cities like Tonawanda and Lackawanna recoiling in horror, and the cry of frustration among residents in far-flung suburbs like Lancaster who want to know why the state isn't expanding their commuting roads now.

That's not the way to save the city. And saving the city is the same thing as strengthening the suburbs. So, from now on, every spare public dollar -- for every pork project, capital expense or one-shot spending item -- in state, federal and, yes, even county money should go into improving Buffalo in the most basic ways possible.

That means: Fixing the city's roads and bridges. Expanding the light-rail system or getting rid of it altogether. Investing heavily in city neighborhoods, from Elmwood to Niagara Street to North Buffalo to the East Side. Making small businesses and start-ups in the city a priority, especially those run by members of minority communities. Turning the Buffalo Public Schools into the premier educational system in upstate New York. That last one is the most important, so we'll repeat it: Turning the Buffalo Public Schools into the premier educational system in upstate New York.

Doesn't sound much like the Gospel of the Silver Bullet that's been preached in Buffalo for so long, does it?

That's exactly the point. We're talking basic services, not fancy projects that never get built -- or piffle out into nothingness when they do. We're talking, plainly and simply, about making Buffalo the best place to live and work in the region.

"This is not about charity. It's not about pity. It's about hard-line economics," says Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution, where he is director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. "These are serious interventions. This is not, 'Let's build a stadium and people will come.' Places like Buffalo should be reinvesting in the core."

Every time public money pays to widen a road in the suburbs or in rural areas, the government is subsidizing sprawl. Adding infrastructure where it wasn't before -- public water and sewer lines in outlying areas, better roads, and so on -- is the surefire way to guarantee that subdivisions will follow. And every time another subdivision springs up on farmland, Buffalo takes a body blow.

Basics like good schools, safe streets and quality services are still the best way to attract people to live in a city. It doesn't take a fancy degree to know that. A city that excels in these areas will attract new people from other places. It will attract suburban and rural residents who want to give the city a try -- who want to live in such a great, busy, lively place -- but who have been held back by fears of bad schools, bad housing, and high crime rates.

If we focus on the things that people -- just average residents -- want, the problem of declining population in the city will take care of itself.

Eight: Talk Ourselves Up

Members of the Main Street Association Inc. were urged to join with all Buffalonians in an "area thinking effort" to "publicize the greatness of the Niagara Frontier."

...efforts should be made by all Niagara Frontier residents to acquaint themselves with the economic, industrial, and commercial greatness of the Frontier, and to tell the world about it."-- Buffalo News, June 12, 1952

We couldn't agree more. Great once before; great again. It can happen.

Charity Vogel is a writer whose grandparents ran a corner tavern for many years on the East Side. Jay Rey is writer who spent his early childhood on the East Side.

Their e-mail addresses are and

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