Riding Through Poor Neighborhoods With New Urbanists

A bike tour in Buffalo that aimed to "inspire feelings of civic duty and moral outrage" may have also exposed weaknesses in a movement's philosophy.

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David Torke, fixBuffalo

The most important event during this year's Congress for the New Urbanism wasn't in a convention center.

Upwards of 75 people, myself included, took part in a "Tour de Neglect" last Saturday as this year's CNU, held in Buffalo, wrapped up. The guided bike tour took riders through the city's economically devastated and mostly African-American East Side, where some census tracts have lost as much as 89 percent of their populations since 1950.

On a ride with wide streets and few cars, the first stop took us to a hulking but shuttered Catholic church a few minutes from downtown. There, someone in the crowd of bicyclists handed out a flier with a list of "five things to think about" during the tour. The first one said:

The East Side is not a zoo.

-These are neighborhoods where people live their lives every day. These residents are people just like you, with full lives and dreams of their own.

-Do not romanticize or demonize what you see.

-Do not treat them as lab rats to be observed for research.

The woman, unaffiliated with the tour organizers, stealthily passed around the two-page, stapled list to the group of mostly self-identified New Urbanists. She disappeared as quietly as she arrived.

After a half-week of CNU sessions that spoke to the aesthetic values of cities (it was, after all, a large gathering of mostly planners and architects) more often than the poverty and inequality they too often host, there was reason to worry the tour would quickly unravel into an uncomfortable two hours of professionals and students marveling over the "potential" and "authenticity" of their surroundings.

But it didn't. 

Leading the tour was activist and blogger David Torke. Torke has been living on the East Side and documenting its decline for a decade now. Involved with CNU NextGen, a group of young professionals who put together unsanctioned events for CNU attendees each year (this year, the Congress added NextGen events onto the official calendar, bypassing host committee consent), the bike ride was a rare opportunity for CNU attendees to find out about the other side of Main Street. 

"Otherwise," Torke tells us, "the East Side—the elephant in the room here in Buffalo—would have been swept under the rug."

Atlas Johnson (center), speaks to the crowd in front of St. Ann's church about his memories of the neighborhood. Image courtesy David Torke, fixBuffalo.

A nearby resident, Atlas Johnson, happened to be riding his bike by our first stop, the fenced-off St. Ann's church. He not only decided to join but nearly took over narration duties. Sharing his own story and memories of the church standing behind him, we then went to another shuttered church nearby with Atlas enthusiastically leading the way.

Without mention, the path down Emslie Street took us by one of local celebrity-developer Rocco Termini's first forays into the construction world: a blighted, vinyl-sided apartment building built for a veterans housing non-profit before eventually sold to an overseas investor. Long before he became the face of downtown and North Buffalo's most luxurious, New Urbanist-inspired developments, Termini got his start building modest homes on the East Side that, in many instances, have aged poorly and without much notice. Earlier this year, he publicly wished Buffalo had "Manhattan rents."

Heading further south, we arrived at Larkinville, the inner-city business district filled with whimsical public spaces and high-end offices inside former industrial buildings.

In front of a massive old warehouse in rough shape but anchored by a popular Army Supply store, city planner Chris Hawley shared the story of old Buffalo's blue collar economic might. The remains of that era aren't hard to find in what was originally known as "the Hydraulics." Now, Larkinville attracts white collar jobs, mostly relocated from Buffalo's suburbs. 

The owner of Uncle Sam's Army Supply store shares his story during CNU NextGen's "Tour de Neglect." Image courtesy David Torke, fixBuffalo.

But as it continues to evolve into something more like the type of warehouse district you'd expect to find in Seattle or Pittsburgh, Larkinville has still failed to add much at all in the way of housing. Just before the neighborhood gained popularity, the census tract it sits on had lost 10 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010. An abundant amount of surface parking and a nearby highway make the site more attractive to employers than residential developers.

After a stop inside the jaw-dropping Central Terminal, a former train station that has benefitted from a slow but impressive stabilization effort by a non-profit organization, we arrived at a nearby urban farm. Successfully operated since 2009 by a husband and wife team on formerly vacant land, Hawley and Torke reminded us that the city's new Green Code, once adopted, will make it easier to encourage similar successes. 

On the way back downtown to the beautifully restored Hotel Lafayette (Termini's crowning achievement) we returned to the version of Buffalo the host committee wanted us to see. 

Image courtesy David Torke, fixBuffalo.

Buffalo News arts critic Colin Dabkowski was one of the few local journalists to question CNU's priorities during the organization's time in Buffalo. In an open letter to them last Sunday, he suggested the movement often appears regressive and unwilling to shout as loudly for equality as it does for walkability. 

"While there was some talk about developing mixed-income neighborhoods," says Dabkowski, "neither the New Urbanist manifestos nor anything I heard during the conference proposed a convincing or coherent strategy for accomplishing that on a grand scale." He concluded, "we don’t need to rebuild a traditional city, a traditional neighborhood or a traditional way of life. What we desperately need is to create a new one."

"Tour de Neglect" participants head from Larkinville to Central Terminal. Image courtesy David Torke, fixBuffalo.

For Buffalo, which spends a lot of energy on its past and has been failed by so many postwar planning decisions, New Urbanism is understandably appealing. But in many cities, developers, upon discovering the profitability of quaint architecture, walkability and transit access (all pillars of New Urbanism and things Buffalo certainly has), have helped turn what should be very basic neighborhood amenities into marketable commodities for luxury housing.

In economically stagnant cities like Buffalo, there's concern that leaves neighborhoods dependent on some sort of trickle-down renewal, where inequality and poverty wait to be addressed while each preservation effort and historically sensitive new building creates the illusion of a city being fixed.

With a growing collection of art galleries, trendy restaurants, and rising rents on the city's West Side, and an abundance of construction cranes downtown not seen in decades, signs of so-called progress in Buffalo are easy to spot.

According to the Buffalo-Niagara Enterprise, there's over $5 billion worth of completed, underway, or planned construction in and around downtown in the last decade. In the past year, however, the region's job force has shrunk nearly 2 percent while generating a growth rate (0.7 percent) that's about half the national pace. The city's racial and household income distribution reminds us just how unequal that modest growth looks.

If you're a building, it's a more promising time than usual to be in Buffalo. But for the average person, not much is different. 

Reasons for the East Side's long decline are complex. Solutions for places like it, whether from the minds of New Urbanists or some yet-to-exist movement, will be challenging to execute. Today, few either have the answers or the ability to affect meaningful change, including many of those who spoke at this year's CNU. 

"If the revival of distressed cities does not become the mission of the Congress for the New Urbanism," stresses Torke, "the movement will become irrelevant."

 

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