In 1990, a team of researchers for the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies released a report that concluded that the trajectory of Black Buffalo was trending downwards with low-wage jobs, high unemployment rates, and the overall decline in Black workers participating in the labor force.
Fast forward to three decades later, and the Center for Urban Studies concluded in a follow-up report that not much has changed for Black residents in Buffalo.
“We’ve got to win City Hall over,” said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., the director of the Center for Urban Studies and professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. “Because we can’t do this without City Hall. But if City Hall knew how to do this, then why isn’t it done?”
Taylor’s updated report did not get much traction with policymakers and city leaders when it was released in 2019.
In fact, only after the racially motivated mass shooting on May 14 at a Tops supermarket that left 10 Black people dead did Taylor’s report garner more attention.
Anna Blatto, a research associate for the Partnership for the Public Good, said that while segregation has slightly improved in some areas, “the conditions on the East Side of Buffalo have remained largely the same over the course of the past several decades.”
“Not much improvement has been made,” Blatto said.
And while state, local, and nonprofit groups are beginning to funnel new money into projects on the East Side, including about $200 million prior to May 14 mass shooting and an additional $50 million after the tragedy, Taylor said most of the work does not address the key challenges facing the East Side.
Portions of the roughly $200 million will be spent making the Broadway Market a more attractive regional destination, developing plans for the reuse of the Central Terminal, and creating a business model and plan for capital improvements in the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor.
The $50 million investment announced last month includes $10 million to assist about 1,000 residents in need of home repairs, $20 million to help thousands more who are in tax arrears, and $3 million to reduce food insecurity on the East Side, which has been a decades-long problem even after the Tops grocery was built on Jefferson Avenue in 2003.
“A huge issue is there are no plans for developing on-the-job training programs, which are needed for Blacks to take full advantage of East Side development,” Taylor said. “If most of the contracts and jobs required for East Side development go to Blacks, they will be able to rebuild their lives as they rebuild their communities. As it currently stands, East Side development is a big jobs program for whites, who will get most of the contracts and jobs to do the actual work.”
A major problem that sticks out is how Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in America, and the region is even worse.
Depending on which study you pick, the Buffalo region is between the 4th and 6th most segregated in the country.
According to 2019 Census Bureau data, the estimated racial and top ethnic makeup of the city of Buffalo is 47.4% white, 36.7% Black, 11.6% Hispanic or Latino, and 5.6% Asian.
But some neighborhoods on the East Side are more than 80% Black.
In fact, writings believed to be by the 18-year-old accused of the mass shooting at Tops state that he chose the Masten District neighborhood because of the large percentage of Blacks who live there.
Blatto, who released a report in 2018 that provides a brief history behind segregation in Buffalo, said the biggest impact segregation has had on Buffalo’s East Side is the disinvestment.
“Segregation happened by design, and segregation continued by design,” Blatto said.
Portions of the East Side are unkempt vacant lots, streets are riddled with potholes with fainted or missing crosswalks, sidewalks are uneven and crumbling, and nearly 79,000 residents east of Main Street live in or near poverty.
The construction of the Kensington Expressway over 50 years ago further segregated Buffalo’s East Side, and also subjected Black residents to more air pollution and reduced access to banks and grocery stores. In addition, redlining by banks, where loans and insurance were denied to someone because they were deemed a financial risk, and predatory lending further pushed the East Side into decline, Blatto said.
“Almost every factor of life is determined based on where you live,” Blatto said.
Blatto said the conditions on the East Side remained largely the same over the course of decades.
Taylor’s study reduces the East Side’s challenges down to seven root problems: racial residential segregation, underdevelopment, structural joblessness, low wages, limited educational attainment, gentrification, and poor health.
Blatto, Taylor and others who have researched these problems believe that the root causes of segregation, particularly on Buffalo’s East Side, have not been resolved. In some cases, they have been ignored.
Taylor’s report states that current and past city administrations focused attention on downtown and around the new medical campus, as well as the waterfront. Meanwhile, demolitions continued on the East Side without much of a plan to rebuild.
“It was demolition or what we call destruction without construction,” Taylor said. “And without even interfacing with the residents who lived inside of the neighborhoods and communities. So, in solving the abandoned housing problem, which was an issue, they created the vacant-lot problem. Then, instead of solving that issue, the city doubled down on it by commodifying these vacant lots and that process itself creates huge barriers to the development of the East Side, as well as lowering the property values of the existing owner-occupied housing units.”
The disinvestment created blight, Blatto said.
“And blight creates conditions where there’s a high number of vacant homes,” Blatto said. “There’s high rates of poverty, there’s less visibly appealing neighborhoods and communities and public assets, and that also fuels a public perception about the people who live in those communities.”
Now, state and local leaders are looking to transform portions of the Kensington Expressway and recently announced that the five-year Department of Transportation capital plan includes $1 billion to reconnect the neighborhoods that it divided.
“The Kensington Expressway project represents a historic opportunity to reshape the City of Buffalo and reconnect communities that were severely impacted by the highway’s construction more than a half-century ago,” said Governor Kathy Hochul said.
Blatto’s report deemed the Expressway a “destructive” project.
“So, it ruined the urban fabric and the neighborhood fabric of the entire East Side,” Blatto said. “It was a huge loss of a cultural asset and a green space.”
The question now is whether the infusion of new money will be enough to change the trajectory of the social and economical challenges on Buffalo’s East Side?
“We feel a sense of hope and optimism for the future of this community,” Mayor Byron Brown, after Hochul announced plans to invest $50 million in projects for Buffalo’s East Side.
That is in addition to the roughly $200 million already proposed prior to the mass shooting at the Tops market.
Taylor said the governor’s $50 million program has some good points, such as establishing a memorial commission for the May 14 mass shooting and reducing food insecurity on the East Side, but it still does not address some of the core challenges.
“The root issues: the substandard housing that people already live in, the vacant lots that are unkept that embed these houses, the streets without walkable sidewalks, and potholes – that’s what we have to go after,” Taylor said.
Some of the money will go to fix up some homes and help residents on the East Side become homeowners, but Taylor said the cash is mostly a “symbolic gesture.”
“There are 26,046 Black renters in Buffalo, and 150 homeowners is 1% of all renters,” Taylor said. “Thus, while these investments will ameliorate the conditions of a few homeowners winning the ‘help’ lottery, they will not impact most East Side homeowners.”
Most importantly, Taylor said, is that the governor’s plan does not offer assistance to the renter class that makes up most of Black Buffalo.
“There are thousands of renters being rent gouged and living in unhealthy homes, and the governor did nothing for them,” he said.
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