What Buffalo Was, and What it Should Be

If you’ve talked with me in the last few months, you know that I’ve taken an interest in Urban Planning, and more specifically those characteristics that make a good neighborhood and city. I don’t know why this subject has peaked my interest, considering I used to be in awe of places like Epcot and I grew up not far from strip-malls. But, I am deeply concerned about that place where I grew up, because the city of Buffalo is rotting at it’s core, while the endless development of pharmacy mini-malls, parking lots, and cul-de-sacs pushes farther out into the countryside.

It used to be that Transit Road was a marker or sorts—suburban development fell off notably in the town of Clarence. But now, Clarence and Lancaster are becoming the newest sprawl suburbs. Housing development is getting less and less dense, taking up more and more land, and as a result, weakening community ties. The goal in the Buffalo area these days, is to earn enough to “get yours”—which means a big house in the middle of nowhere, with lousy architecture, a big front yard, and curving streets that don’t connect to other developments. You can’t walk to a corner store, much less to work or school.

This, of course, means that cars must be used for anything and everything in Buffalo’s suburbs, and increasingly so in these new suburbs. Growing up, I could walk or ride my bike to a corner store, a supermarket, a pizzeria, a k-mart and a bagel shop. For kids growing up in Loch Lea and other developments further out, this is simply not an option—a ride from mom or dad is required, and an (unhealthy) dependence is born. Also, you spend much of your early teenage years looking for older friends, or pining for that 16th birthday, when mom and dad will provide you with a car. There is a sense of entitlement that comes in such a place.

Buffalo, however, wasn’t always so bleak. The Buffalo of my Grandmother’s youth was a vibrant and busy city. Look at some of these photographs… Streetcars zipped up and down major avenues, automobiles co-existed with pedestrians, commercial streets had first-floor storefronts with apartments above, and you knew your neighbor, butcher and neighborhood cop. I don’t want to sentimentalize what was, but I think people understood that there was an art to building neighborhoods—an art that seems to have been lost in post-war, post-industrial Buffalo. The powerful suburban developers like Ciminelli, don’t build permanent places to live. They think that there is no money to be made in traditional (that is to say, mixed-use) neighborhoods. Everything is this set-back-from-the-street, bastardized modernist, flat-roof, single-floor, horizontal monstrosity, with 5 parking spots out front for every 1 customer.

I know I’m taking hyperbolic license here, but I do it only because the prevailing assumptions are so ingrained and accepted that you almost need to shock people to wake them up.

We’ve been living in the age of the automobile. Traffic engineers say we need to widen roads and intersections to decrease traffic and increase traffic volume. Every major study of roadway “improvements” shows that more lanes = more cars. By widening a road like Transit, you are actually creating more traffic in the long-run. Even Robert Moses realized this in 1939, when traffic congestion cropped up on his highways where there was previously no problem. You induce traffic, by building more lanes. And, these wide intersections you see on Transit and other roads, are less safe than narrower, more traditional intersections. Here in Boston, despite our reputation for crazy driving, there are rarely any accidents at all, due to our small blocks, odd intersections and lack of sprawl.

Still, there is hope. I think the economic pressures that 50 years of this kind of development has wrought on Buffalo is starting to change people’s minds about living and working in close proximity. I hope environmental, and economic realities force the city and it’s county of suburbs to draw a line in the sand (and the geography), and say enough is enough. It’s not about Growth vs. anti-Growth. It’s about Smart Growth. Banks, developers and city & town officials need to be shown that it is preferable to ditch this fast-decaying suburban strip-mall way of doing things. If we are going to do this, the state needs to step in and set up stronger regional government. Many people fear this, as being ‘more government’, when in actuality it could save money by eliminating redundant services.

But there is powerful resistance to any kind of regional planning.

6 Responses to “What Buffalo Was, and What it Should Be”

  • Wow, what a tirad. Pretty cool little editoral. You know, you almost have an e-zine going with all these opinion pieces you put out. However, I do take exception to a paragraph in your article. You state that not living in a “mixed use neighborhood” creates an “unhealthy dependence” on Ma and Pop, and/or resulting in those younger “vehicularly-challenged” people seeking out older, “automobile-endowed” individuals, coupled with some sort of sense of “entitilement.” Those statements are baseless and comepletely untrue. You have effectively alienated every non-suburbanite kid in America. Unfortunately for me, I was dependant on my parents until I turned 16, because if I wanted to bike to the nearest K-mart it would have taken me literally a day (one way). The closest pizza shop? 1 hour both ways which, to my great joy, was situated on the opposite side of a valley from me. The closest kid my age was greater than a mile away (and he was a weirdo. Plus he smelled). I understand that you are pulling on your own experiences in your article, but before you make such wide generalizations, please think of the implications of what you suggest and the fact that not everyone grew up as you did. Rural America isn’t unhealthy because they have to get a ride from mom and dad, or feel that they are “entilted” to anything, just like suburban America hasn’t lost all sense of values and morality in their empty, pre-fab lifestyles.

  • Hey ben, thanks for your comment. However, I was talking about the harm of spreading the suburbs of a city into the countryside.

    I take your point though– you didn’t live in a town, city or suburb. i can’t really speak to that. It seems to me that human beings have always tended to clump together. I guess, for me, the debate is how best to accomplish that.

    Rural living has always been a part of American life. This is a traditional sort of living pattern, that is ecological, aestetically wonderful, and probably more family-oriented. I think that you would find more of a ‘community’ sense in a rural place than in most of today’s suburbs. Certainly, you are a perfect example of its merits.

    Saying that “Those statements are baseless and comepletely untrue,” seems to me, unfair. True, I made an observation comparing the cultural and social effects of raising kids in cul-de-sacs carved out of the countryside, vs. a traditional town or city neighborhood, and this may seem generalized. I will say, however that i am not the first person to write about or have experience with this problem.

    Take, for instance, the observation of Andres Duany, a noted urban planner and New Urbanist:

    Children suffer from a loss of autonomy in suburbia. In this environment where all activities are segregated and distances are measured on the odometer, a child’s personal mobility extends no farther than the edge of the subdivision. The result is a new phenomenom: the “cul-de-sac kid,” the child who lives as a prisoner of a thouroughly safe and unchallenging environment.

    Dependent always on some adult to drive them around, children and adolescents are unable to practice at becoming adults… Typical suburban parents give their children an allowance, in order to empower them and encourage independence. “Feel free to spend it any way you like,” they say. The child then says, “Thanks, Mom. When can you drive me to the mall?”

    You’ve got to remember that this is in context of a larger movement of families from urban to suburban environments over the past 50 years. Again, it’s about the big picture. I think, when talking about rural dwellers, you’re operating under a different list of assumptions and observations. (and there are wonderful traditional town centers in the country).

    I have first hand experience of suburbia (growing up), urban-living (these past 5+ years), and i’ve read several books on town and city planning. You accuse me of being general, but i think it’s a lack of general, communally-focused critics that have gotten us into this mess. I’m certainly interested in exceptions to my generalizations, but there is a problem here and it is time that it got addressed.

    I think that we’re taught in school to reject harmful generalizations (such as stereotypes), but more often than not we choose to reject ALL generalization as “bad”. This refusal of many nice liberal people to make ANY kind of value judgement, means that we get the lowest common denomenator– art that involves feces, crappy hollywood films, and 7-11 parking lots. I TOTALLY SUPPORT ARTISTS — they can be both reflective of our culture, and they can lead our culture. There should be a place for Robert Mapplethorpe. But we reap what we sow.

    SO i’m not saying we should regulate morality in any way– we should instead focus on creating an environment that is nuturing, satisfying and positive. There are conflicting political cultures in America– and I am of the ‘community’ variety. We’ve had 50 years of the individualists having their way. Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate.

  • always putting your best effort in there, danno.

    anyway, i added a planning news feed to the site. not sure how good it is, or if it will last. but we’ll see.

  • saw something interesting in Charlotte, NC a while back. The city limits are way way out past where there is any real development- a few houses and apartment buildings, but mostly just nothing. i guess the benefit is that the city has to grow a lot before there will be any “suburbs.” maybe the problem is that cities are too eager to create their own boundaries.

  • yes, or they can’t. amherst isn’t going to help the city swallow itself.

    How do you feel about all of this, sara?

    i read in the art voice that james pitts, in another obstructionist move, said recently that buffalo absorbing its suburbs won’t work because it didn’t in indianapolis. so maybe having a state or regional governmental body determine where development ends — a line in the countryside — is a way of countering pitts. that way, you can’t just move the suburbs farther out, as in indianapolis.

    i donno.

Comments are currently closed.