Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Activism v. Nihilism along the Niagara

Hopeful folks fight decline while awaiting the great “inversion”

If you’ve been reading this column for a few weeks, you’re ready to apply to one of two very demanding jobs opening up in the Niagara River area. One is commissioner of Integrated Community Planning for the Niagara Region, which stretches about 1,200 square miles (1,900 square kilometres) from St. Catharines to Fort Erie. The advertisement for the job says the region encompasses “Canada’s most developed wine country, extraordinary theatre, a world class casino and some of Ontario’s most breathtaking countryside.”

As commissioner, you will join “the Regional Government in Niagara, a model of cross-community co-operation, as it serves a remarkably diverse urban, suburban and rural population of 428,000 people. You’ll contribute high level strategic leadership and planning to a Region that’s committed to green initiatives, environmental innovation and enlightened growth.”

Your mission as a Buffalonian in Niagara: Bring a little hometown “can’t do” to the job.

The other job that’s just opened up: chairman of the board of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority (ECFSA). The ECFSA does not do green initiatives, environmental innovation, or enlightened growth. Instead, the ECFSA does battle with elected officials, and has done ever since it was created when convicted felon Alan Hevesi announced that a budget dispute among elected officials required “adult supervision.” Since its creation, the ECFSA has approved one and refused to approve three successive four-year fiscal plans, and has battled two successive county executives, one legislature, and one comptroller on whether elected officials or the ECFSA will manage the annual capital borrowing for a government that serves about 925,000 people in 1,000 square miles (1,600 square kilometres).

Your mission as a Buffalonian in Erie County: Bring a little Canadian hopefulness to the job.

“Nestled between two great lakes, the Niagara Region is blessed with some of Canada’s most fertile agricultural land, the majesty of Niagara Falls and a dozen communities that are rich in both history and recreational opportunities,” says the ad for the planning commissioner.

Sounds an awful lot like Erie County, doesn’t it?

“In this new department, you will co-ordinate and engage all of the organizations with a stake in the future of the Niagara Region. Lead your team in the gathering of community planning input on land use, social equity, healthy living, growth and the environment. Put a human face on planning as you foster a departmental culture of cross functional collaboration, connectedness and open dialogue. Provide strategic advice and counsel to the Senior Management Team, to Regional Council and to the departments charged with execution of planning initiatives. Become a champion of a visionary and inclusive planning process.”

The Canadian ad invites you to apply if you feel yourself to be “[a]n agent and a champion of positive change,” and concludes with the following statement: “you won’t find a more varied, fascinating or beautiful setting to practice your profession.”

It’s just a short drive over the border, folks. You can see it from the Rath Building.

Meanwhile, back on Buffalo’s streets

Some folks have gotten so sick of the nihilism and anti-government rhetoric in our town that they’ve decided to do what we used to expect our elected representatives to do for us—to plan and execute rational strategies to preserve our community.

The director of an organization called People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo) took me on a tour of some hopeful streets near the Left Bank restaurant—streets that, for folks working to help this community, really could become the “varied, fascinating [and] beautiful setting” for a turnaround story.

Aaron Bartley, executive director of PUSH, showed me a half dozen eyesore buildings that are in the process of restoration by teams who work for this not-for-profit agency. He also showed me several very surprising private projects that are underway in the same neighborhood.

It’s a diverse area: elderly Italians, young Hispanics and African-Americans, some hipsters, some refugees. It reminds me of neighborhoods I knew 25 years ago in the Logan Park area on the northwest side of Chicago, where the opportunity for home-ownership attracted people without much dough to pick up where the last wave of immigrants left off.

And wow, has Logan Park picked up. The story in Chicago, a once frayed city, is pretty remarkable: In the past 25 years, as Governing magazine editor Alan Ehrenhalt points out, Chicago has seen an economic and demographic “inversion.” Public and private investments have moved into the city. The population within the city limits of Chicago has grown by over 110,000 since 1990 in a metro area that has grown by 1 million. Well-off Caucasians are moving into the city.

“Chicago is gradually coming to resemble a traditional European city—Vienna or Paris in the 19th century, or, for that matter, Paris today. The poor and the newcomers are living on the outskirts. The people who live near the center—some of them black or Hispanic but most of them white—are those who can afford to do so,” writes Ehrenhalt.

Chicago ain’t paradise. It has had “ghetturbs” for decades. And inside city limits, Chicago still has the West Side, but the big concentrations of ugly poverty, like the Robert Taylor Homes, have been demolished.

Big additions to the adjacent-to-downtown University of Illinois campus helped. So did the massive investment in public art, massive festivals, and green waterfront space—get it, green waterfront, not privatized or commercialized waterfront—made Chicago, the city space, a hip place to be. The young moved back. So have the old.

Massive investments in mass transit worked. A stable commercial center downtown helped, too, as Chicago maintained it all along, in part with downtown campuses: Loyola, Northwestern University Medical Center, University of Chicago night business school, three community colleges, Roosevelt University, Columbia College, and Chicago-Kent Law School, all downtown…

Paradigm shift: wish for it or fight for it?

But the highly personalized politics of Buffalo meant that the plan for a unified downtown campus for Erie Community College became “Joel Giambra’s plan” rather than a regional consolidation plan. The plan to reclaim abandoned blocks of city residential areas pits Byron Brown against Sam Hoyt and not-for-profit entities that don’t like City Hall’s style.

The challenge of urban revitalization is much larger than local personalities.

Governing magazine’s Ehrenhalt notes that the “inversion” that has brought hundreds of thousands of new investors and homeowners into some of Chicago’s formerly iffy and abandonment-pocked neighborhoods is not a universal phenomenon.

Cleveland proves it, two hours’ drive down the Lake Erie shore from here. In a city where the Cleveland Clinic is financing a $2 billion expansion, and where the philanthropic community is so strong that it can handle more than $250 million in local donations for expanding the Cleveland Art Museum, the fundamentals—endless sprawl, intractable poverty in the urban core, an anemic re-migration trickle, more suburban jurisdictions than you can shake a stick at—produce the same regional population stagnation we see in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Binghamton. And Erie and Toledo and Cincinnati and…

And all the cities that make up GLUE—the Great Lakes Urban Exchange. Activists in a couple dozen cities are collectively advocating for their hometowns. “Cities are our world’s economic drivers,” shouts their blog. “Great Lakes urban centers need to overcome feelings of despair and isolation by forging a shared perspective and developing strength in numbers.”

Go to and see that this effort to energize Great Lakes cities has the support of a dozen of the most high-minded foundations and individuals, from Buffalo’s Oishei Foundation to the MacArthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation and the Brookings Institution, and the UB Regional Institute, too.

It’s great stuff. Everybody should join. All the bloggers of Buffalo should join.

The movement (and I count myself among its supporters) reminds me of the great revolutionary vanguards of the 19th century, including the many that originated here in New York State, where there was an effort to create a social revolution without resorting to much change at all in the distribution of power.

The one social revolution where compromise and comradely spirit proved insufficient, however, was, the fight over slavery. That fight was not resolved through negotiation, but by a prolonged and difficult struggle that seized power from one set of economic actors and put power elsewhere.

The GLUE movement is evidence of a widespread desire for a paradigm shift, without any recognition of the need to seize power.

The movement for the paradigm shift that so many desire—namely, an end to federal and state policies that result in the progressive pauperization of the smaller Great Lakes urban regions—will benefit from GLUE. The paradigm shift may well be hastened by the incremental successes of PUSH, and its seven restorations a year in a city with 7,000 vacancies. The enduring revolutions do indeed require the kind of widespread popular buy-in that Ehrenhalt shows is occurring in the giant metropolis of Chicago.

The untidy confrontation that remains, however, is unavoidable. That confrontation is between those who profit from the status quo of regional fracturing and urban disinvestment, and those who would change it.

In the end, if we want a “[r]egion that’s committed to green initiatives, environmental innovation and enlightened growth,” which is what they have just across the Niagara in Ontario, then we will have to shift the power from many local authorities in each urban region to one regional authority per region. GLUE is all set up and ready to applaud such a development. But it will take a legal change, by governors ready to recognize the need for a paradigm change, and with the help of a new president, to make it happen.

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