Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The year of magical thinking...

Revitalizing Upstate means not burning it down

Two scholars with Buffalo connections are among the observers who have compared Buffalo and other Upstate New York communities to the Third World. In separate papers delivered many years apart, David Perry (formerly of UB) and now Buffalo State’s Douglas Koritz have each taken a look at the local ownership of the big commercial and industrial institutions here and found that, mainly, there isn’t a lot of local ownership. They concluded that we are set up to export our capital. We’re like a Third World region: Whatever profit is derived from our work is exported to where the owners live, not kept here.

The most glaring example, of course, is Warren Buffet’s Buffalo News, which has exported $30 to $50 million a year in profit to a group of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, who mainly live everywhere but here.

I don’t know anybody who has done the study, but I would venture that the region’s tipping point came in about 1970, which is about when Upstate New York’s population growth stopped. That’s about when we stopped being primarily a locally owned industrial and commercial center and joined the ranks of regions without any significant corporate headquarters.

Ever since then, whatever prosperity the Upstate cities have enjoyed has been built on the twin illusions of rapid suburbanization and the transfer-in of Washington and Albany money via SUNY campuses and make-work projects. Sprawl gave this community the illusion of growth, but sprawl is not growth: The same number of people who lived here in 1970 live here today, but occupy 76 percent more land area. (Cornell’s Rolf Pendall did the definitive studies showing that, as bad as sprawl is in Buffalo, it’s even worse in the rest of Upstate.) We still have astoundingly high rates of new-housing construction, but there is far more supply than demand, and that gives us the illusion that our economy is still cooking along. To keep this illusion going, our political structure here is dominated by the developers, construction firms, construction unions, and banks that all depend upon producing more and more inventory for the same number of people, and that also depend upon massive ongoing infusions of public money to build new infrastructure—and infrastructure that is arguably too large for our needs, even as the pieces of it that the region truly needs (especially sewers) go under-tended.

Folks know that something isn’t quite kosher.

So in this season, as the general American economic crisis visits us—and especially as General Motors and Ford and their parts suppliers here shed thousands of jobs—there is acute angst in the air.

For many years, though, Upstate New York has had a core cadre of actual resistance fighters against corporate colonialism. They are steadfast, and persistent, and, sadly, not very effective. They include the villagers of East Aurora who refused to let Wal-Mart come in and destroy the fabric of life, but who were powerless to prevent the farmland-gobbling sprawl that now surrounds them. They also include the urban pioneers who grab up a cheap property and build enterprises like the Sweetness 7 cafe at the corner of Lafayette and Grant without benefit of special tax credits or Empire Zone programs, but who are powerless to stop the Catholic Church’s relentless and utter abandonment of dozens of churches, schools, and institutions into which immigrants poured 150 years of devotion and scraped-up pennies. Nowadays, the traditions of iconography and architecture that immigrants brought and sustained since their arrival in the 1840s, traditions that stretch yea verily unto the Middle Ages, molder and crumble and collapse in every American city that lies within sight of one of the five Great Lakes.

The resistance army has had precious few political leaders who were willing to say what needs to be said—namely, that suburban sprawl has to end because it’s killing the regional economy, and that governance has to change because governing the towns separately from the city means that racism, ghettoized poverty, energy wastage, car dependency, farm destruction, and higher taxes and utility bills will be with us permanently unless we change course.

Magic Bullets

Valiant resistance fighters struggle on. Meanwhile, a small group of the business elite—the ones who live off all the public money that comes to town, and the ones who export our capital back to the faraway world where the corporate headquarters are—have done an extraordinarily effective job of keeping most people distracted for almost four decades.

Here in Upstate, we have the politics of the Magic Bullet. Periodically, a community that does not understand that we have to stick bravely with the resistance fighters, and doggedly pursue policies like metro government and development boundaries, gets distracted—typically by politicians or ex-politicians acting at the behest of the local business leadership—by the promise of a big project. Typically, it’s a construction project.

In the late 1980s, the big project was to build the HSBC Arena. In the 1990s, the business community here wanted a downtown gambling casino and a new convention center. For going on 20 years now, the business community has wanted a new Peace Bridge and a massive new Peace Bridge plaza, wide enough to take many acres from an Olmsted park, so that we can instead have the biggest duty-free store you can imagine. The massive public taxpayer-funded construction project known as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is the latest, after the massive public taxpayer-funded construction project known as Canal Side, that is touted as the Magic Bullet that will save us.

This group has scored big for many years. They built us a new airport. We’re now getting half a billion dollars in repairs and reconstruction for Buffalo city schools, even as the school-age population plummets. President Obama’s stimulus package will build the community some more buildings—all good stuff, so let’s not quibble. People work when the Albany and Washington money comes in, and at good wages.

But the big social movement, the mass redistribution of people, relentlessly grinds on. Population density diminishes year by year. The fundamental problem of costs goes unaddressed: Delivering services to 900,000 people who are scattered over 1,000 square miles is inevitably and necessarily going to cost more than delivering services to 900,000 people living in a smaller area—and it’s all going to cost much, much more than it should, and population redistribution that goes farther and farther away from the center will continue, so long as each little area in the region is governed separately.

Big new projects plus regionalism plus growth boundaries might help the region revitalize. If the business community and the New Urbanist resistance movement were to team up on these issues, we might get somewhere.

But there’s an ominously angry and negative movement underway that could leave us trapped in our own poisonous version of Groundhog Day.

The burned-over district

The lesson of history is that too often, conquered people get sad, then stupid, then self-destructive, before they get free.

It’s the story of the Xhosa prophet in South Africa in the late 19th century, when the British conquered Nelson Mandela’s people. In their rage and impotence, the Xhosa listened to a “prophet” who came forth, the child Nongqawuse, who told them that the people could get free of the conqueror if they would only destroy their wealth—in the Xhosa case, slaughter their cattle herds. The prophet promised that then divine forces would sweep the British away and restore Xhosa independence and prosperity, and make the old young again. What followed was a great self-destructive act that left the Xhosa poorer and even more powerless, until a century later, when resistance fighters finally won.

Over here in South Dakota in 1890, some desperate Lakota followed the advice of the Paiute prophet Wovoka, and joined the Ghost Dance movement. Folks put on special shirts, gave away all their property, and tried to dance the conquerors away. The Seventh Cavalry responded by shooting them down in the snow of Wounded Knee.

The comparisons are brutal, but the psychology of magical thinking here is similar. In Upstate New York, we’re now being told that we can turn the course of history by undertaking the magical, transformative project of reducing the number of members on town boards.

Sadly, the very worthy and sensible long-term undertaking called regionalization—which is really a movement to stop further suburban sprawl and to modernize government—could soon become a twisted, suicidal Ghost Dance. In town after town, it’s already taking on the negativity of the Xhosa prophet. “If only we cut the size of our town council, we’ll have prosperity again!” goes the magical thinking of today.

What to prepare for

Let’s put it simply: Town governments should become branch offices of a metro government that is headquartered downtown. Town governments should be replaced, as should city and county government, by a single metro or county-wide structure that functions like the structures in Hamilton, Ontario or Arlington County, Virginia or Indianapolis, Indiana. Each upstate county should have one police force, one sewer system, one water system, one executive. The management of these places should be professionalized, and all the separate little city and town and village government offices should be closed unless they can serve as branch offices or customer-service centers.

And the governor of the State of New York has to use his authority to command the creation of county-wide planning agencies that immediately stop sprawl, preserve farmland, and work with the new regional governments to reallocate resources within the urbanized areas.

That’s the hard work that needs to happen. Politically, it means that the governor has to get engaged; that county governments need to merge functions with cities; that the state has to disempower townships that have for 60 years abused their land-use planning authority under Home Rule; that school districts need to be consolidated; and that the home-builders and real-estate developers need to be told where they can and cannot build.

We need, in short, to replace dysfunctional government structures with better structures, not with nihilism.

But that’s not what you will hear over the course of the next year. Rather, you’ll hear a campaign against all government, led by the full-throated cry of the business community as it screeches about taxes. (This would be the same business community that takes billions of dollars in Washington and Albany money to keep itself in power.)

Next: A modest proposal on how to change the community conversation in Upstate New York.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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