Tag Archive for 'suburbs'

Basketcase City

Here is an interesting item in the Buffalo News… it seems former mayor James D. “Jimmy” Griffin is starting a “grass-roots” campaign to recall his successor, Mayor Masiello. Just as Buffalo is starting to do the right things it needs to do to get out of financial chaos, past specters responsible for the mess the city finds itself in are in are resurfacing to reassert their influence.

There is no money in the city coffers, and NY State is occupied with rebuilding NY City… yet Griffin finds it necessary to stir up populist anger at the mayor’s insistence that a city of 290,000 cannot afford 2-man police cars.

Now, I’m supportive of unions, and labor in general. But, they’ve got the city hijacked—it’s just not the city of half-million that it was in 1905. My suburban childhood town, Amherst, probably has more class-A office space that 10 Buffalos… the reigning culture there is one of the automobile.

If You Build it, They Will Come
The State built the new campus of the University at Buffalo—on undeveloped land in Amherst in the 60s—in such a way as to confuse pedestrians. The parking lots and mega-steel-and-glass-box buildings are on a scale unfathomable to the pedestrian. It could take you thirty minutes to walk from the dormitories to class, and the only thing that separates you are vast parking lots and curving 8-lane roads. This sort of destructive and unprecedented planning will make an agoraphobe out of anyone that isn’t high on something… There is no urban fabric—you can’t comfortably walk down a block and buy a coke at the news stand on the way to statistics. The street isn’t lined with a buffer of parked cars or trees to insulate the pedestrian from the street. No. This would be the traditional way of planning. Are the streets planned at all?

The fact is, the only way the University at Buffalo makes any coherent sense is from 75 mph out your car window on Interstate-990, (incidentally a useless, sprawl-inducing highway built to link yet-to-be-built shoddy cul-de-sacs north of the city, to the new campus). And from a reactionary administrative point of view, this kind of building assures total control over the “streets”, a worry of these types in the turbulent 1960s.

A Culture of Dashboards
Where was I? Oh yes. The automobile. The Culture in Buffalo. It must be changed. Or at least modified, and we’ve got to for once put an end to people like Jimmy Griffin. Irish politicians, generally speaking, have a particular knack for killing cities for their own personal gain. In my mind, James D. Griffin was the most corrupt city mayor of the past 25 years, eclipsed recently only by Buddy Cianci in Providence. His neighborhood cronies ran the city into the ground, going so far as to poison the man-made lake in Delaware Park, by dumping chemicals such that it wouldn’t freeze for ice-skaters. No, Griffin is only interested in taking care of his clan in South Buffalo, and the whole damn rest of you can go fuck yourselves.

Speaking of his Irish clan, always mindful to underline their white, and therefore privileged status, the Irish politicians identify status symbols that might hide the otherwise sad state of the city. The car, and suburban development in general, are precisely their chosen symbols. They can’t necessarily move into a 4 bed-room McMansion in Amherst, however they can afford a five-year old Chevy or Ford—and avoid taking the subway or, god-forbid, the bus system (which are primarily employed by the African-American population). They envy the new suburban, car-oriented development of strip malls and parking lots, and politician like Griffin decided that this was precisely the kind of construction needed in the city. What resulted, was a mess. Drive down main street from the 198 to downtown to see what i mean. You can literally drive through there without seeing people on the street for blocks—and this is a 4-lane road

Cities should be organized to facilitate suburbanite commuters. Right? Well, this kind of thing isn’t going to be sustainable in Miami, Las Vegas, Philadelphia or Detroit—much less Buffalo. In fact, the financial realities that are starting to surface in less-off places like Buffalo should be a kind of warning. We won’t always have cheap oil, and it should be evident that cities actually offer a healthy way of life. Walk to work. Ride a subway car with people from different clans than you. Preserve our historical buildings, because they were built better than any building in the past 50 years.

The Restoration
Walk to work? These sort of ideas belong to elites, and that explains why the Irish politicians (and others like James Pitts, the African-American Common Council President), resist efforts in this direction. They’re too caught up in what they perceive to be status symbols, i.e., cars, krispy kremes, that they don’t realize that the health of the city and region depends on the health of its neighborhoods. And, yes Mr. Pitts, we will have to invest in the minority neighborhoods. But until we put some money in the coffers, and work on eroding the perception that cities are for non-car driving public-housing types. It’s a mania that cannot sustain itself.

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.