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.

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