American civilization has its perfect expression in Union Road, in the entirety of its run from Orchard Park to Williamsville. Union Road is a succession of strip malls that link the marquee suburbs of Western New York. It is what the anti-suburbanites call “Generica,” and it is a refutation of every fond hope for “smart growth,” “new urbanism,” “transit-oriented development,” and “green infrastructure,” because Union Road is all about automobiles. If gasoline spikes in price again as it did in 2008, whether because Goldman Sachs speculators bid oil futures up, or because the BP disaster in the Gulf gets worse, or because Sarah Palin and Ron Paul’s racist spawn win the mid-term elections, Union Road will be just one more suburban commercial thoroughfare clogged with angry consumers with not enough money to shop because their cars ate all their discretionary disposable income.
Union Road exists in the form that it does because since the mid-1950s, it has been the connector between consumers and retailing. At its north end, the traditional retail establishments in the Village of Williamsville predominate. Driving south toward Genesee Street brings one to the wide-setback strip plazas of the 1960s, where nowadays the somewhat downscale stores are. Further south, there is layering: regionally owned grocery chain stores are mixed with various national big-box stores in a plaza that was well established more than 40 years ago, while opposite, some locally owned stores and service centers predominate up until the entrance roads to the region’s largest shopping mall. Past the next big intersection at Walden, which is itself a mile of big-box stores intermixed with discount houses and a few relatively downscale stores that are not to be found in the premium-rental malls, there is a gap of only two miles before the 1960s strip mall pattern repeats.
The village centers have a vestigial existence as retailing zones; of the 16 villages in Erie County, only Kenmore, East Aurora, Hamburg, Williamsville, and Orchard Park look like villages, but even they have shopping plazas that have more retail space than each of their main streets does. Springville’s village center is obsolete as the area’s center for commerce, having long since been supplanted by the cluster of big boxes and Wal-Mart on Route 219. Angola village’s drugstore succumbed long ago to the big boxes on Route 5. Lancaster is a curious amalgam. Akron still looks like the New England Yankee place its Civil War veterans knew when they erected the tall pole to show support for Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign, because Akron still has a village commons of the type English settlers established before they came to the Niagara Frontier when it really was a frontier—but Akron shoppers shop like Angola, Lancaster, Sloan, Clarence, and also Buffalo shoppers shop: on big roads, at big-box stores, at gigantic grocery stores, and at the Galleria, Boulevard, Eastern Hills, and McKinley malls. That’s where the retail trade is. Change the names of the roads and the municipalities, and you could be anywhere in the contemporary United States.
But there’s increasing evidence that behavioral changes driven by the internet and by age-specific consumer preferences will change all this. At the Urban Land Institute and at many other institutes and think tanks, and in the real-estate industry’s own publications, there’s a growing consensus that there is way, way too much square footage devoted to retailing.
Too many stores?
Until recently, the conventional wisdom in the national real estate industry was that when America emerges from the recession, retail will come roaring back. Retail trade took a major hit in 2008 and 2009 when 10 million Americans lost their jobs, and more than a million lost their homes, and the theory of the rebound has been that retailers are going to benefit from the newly invigorated American consumerist feeding frenzy, just like in the olden days of, say, the middle of 2006.
But that consensus is creaky. Two market research specialists named Gruen, writing in the most recent volume of the Urban Land Institute’s cleverly titled journal Urban Land, wave the caution flag about retail stores. Mayors and other officials who are trying to revive downtowns in small cities, they warn, had better pay attention to some demographic shifts and behavioral changes in the post-recession world.
Gruen and Gruen are particularly focused on two population groups: the “generation Y” folks who are between 16 and 30, and the Boomers aged 46 to 64. Generation Y-ers “don’t spend much time or money shopping,” they say. Boomers have been hurt much more than Generation Y, but they already own many of the goods they want and most of what they need. “They frequently spend their surplus dollars on their children for college expenses…as well as on caring for aging parents,” say Gruen and Gruen.
And then there are online sales. Internet retailing accounted for sic percent of all sales in 2009, up from five percent in 2008. By 2013, Forrester Research, in another study, predicts the internet will jump to an eight percent share.
But it’s when you review the numbers on existing stores, not the new ones, that the story gets a little crazy.
Scholars Mark J. Eppli and Stephen P. Laposa, writing in the Journal of Real Estate Research, came up with a measure: the Gross Leaseable Area, or GLA. The GLA per capita is reported for fareestanding retail space, shopping center space, and total retail space. For established East Coast cities and their suburbs, the GLA per capita was less than 10 square feet. Cities that maintained a high GLA per capita, i.e., over 18 square feet, were all younger, high-growth cities and include Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.
The Buffalo area, strangely, has a GLA profile that puts it into the “younger, high-growth” category. This is not a high-growth area: The Buffalo metro area lost more than 50,000 people between 2000 and 2010. The population is expected to shrink another six to 10 percent by 2020.
Others measure differently. The fast-growing Washington, DC area has more than 100 shopping centers, more than 119 million square feet of retail space, and 25.9 square feet of retail per capita. It’s one of America’s strongest economic regions and is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. The Buffalo area has more retail space per capita than DC. The Cleveland area, which like Buffalo has lost population and is expected to lose more, has a similar profile, according to the county planning commission there. The numbers there are even higher than Buffalo’s.
Why build more?
There is a theory that old central cities will be repopulated by a combination of aging empty-nest Boomers, plus Generation Y college grads, plus urban-experience-seeking ’tweeners. The Urban Land Institute analysts, like many real estate professionals who cluster at smart growth conferences, expect the general trend of urban redevelopment to persist.
But when they talk about repopulating the urban core, the first thing they all mention is housing. At his speech at the Burchfield Penney Art Gallery last Friday, the former mayor of Pittsburgh, Tom Murphy, proudly hailed his city’s new sports arenas, but noted again and again that his city’s true successes were in creating a continuous waterfront park—like the 150-block-long park in Chicago, or Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, or the waterfront in Hamilton, Ontario, etc.—and in creating new housing inside the boundaries of the formerly polluted city.
Housing. Parks. Green space. Waterfront access. That’s strangely reminiscent of the agenda of the former mayor of Milwaukee, John Norquist, in his book The Wealth of Cities. It’s the fabric of old and new, of walkable neighborhoods with locally owned stores immediately adjacent to where people live, that the late Jane Jacobs extolled. Housing and public space. Stores come later. And now that stores and shopping take place inside our computers, one wonders: Since we can buy anything at all except food and toilet paper and restaurant meals over the internet, or out on Union Road, why we would need any more stores anyway?
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.
Max 27 May 2010, 14:38
Well stated Bruce and given the trends you cited along with the impacts of Peak Oil, Union Road and thoroughfares like it will be transformed into "shovel ready" lots as those behemoth big box structures become too cost prohibitive to maintain and lack potential for reuse by non-retail tenants, except perhaps as storage/warehouse facilities. It's interesting to me that most of what was built in the 90's and the 00's is already very obsolete.
PatrickP 11 Jun 2010, 19:02
I was looking forward to this article when I clicked on it, but you lost me before the end of the first paragraph. Racist spawn? When I read stuff flike that I assume the person writing it is small-minded and entirely dependent on MSNBC or the Daily Show for his daily news and therefore lacking in any credibility. It's a shame.
Gunter Pfaff 12 Jun 2010, 13:59
There is a great need for reasonably priced small spaces in which food artisans good make healthy food. A lot of these defunct malls could be turned into vibrant gathering/eating places. When I was in Malaysia I loved those food malls, lots of little affordable food makers on the periphery and lots of benches and tables in the "parking lot". You had lots of choices of reasonably priced food and the atmosphere was very life affirming. I guess here the ownership class seems to be more interested in the bottom line and might prefer a bulldozer, rather than trying to make something like this work.
america has always been and will be until too late an infantile selfcentered throwaway anticulture with a 'lifestyle' that has neither life nor style. its a little late for new urbanism we suburbanized long ago and now we are third worlding our habitat making it increasingly unlivable for humanoids worthy of the name
Daniel Jost 14 Jun 2010, 16:44
Interesting issue. One point that may be worth further study: the area's you mention with higher retail per capita- Buffalo, Cleveland, and the once booming cities of the Southwest are all auto dependent and in my experience people tend to live in large houses rather than small apartments. You can buy a lot more stuff (volume wise) if you live in a larger house and you need more retail space to display it. That's not to say people in NYC aren't buying stuff but they probably aren't buying big cheap stuff like the kiddie pool that's displayed in Walmart.
I also wonder how much it has to do with the cost of real estate. With Buffalo's cheaper real estate, retail doesn't have to be as efficient in squeezing out money per square foot.
Jacob Halpert 15 Jun 2010, 09:49
You might be interested in Stacy Mitchell's writing on this. It's not simply that the demographics are changing, but that retail development has been out of control. The amount of retail space per capita doubled between 1990 and 2005, mushrooming from 19 to 38 square feet per person. Incomes and spending grew only modestly.
There's a long chapter in Big-Box Swindle on this, and a shorter op-ed here: http://www.newrules.org/retail/article/big-empty-box
Bruce Fisher 15 Jun 2010, 21:45
I reviewed the New Rules site's postings, but didn't refer to them in this piece. The point is important: a great expansion in retailing happened, and as four of the five writers above note, the data (none of it gathered from either the Daily Show nor from MSNBC) are pretty shocking. Now that a growing segment of retail happens via internet, the problem of overbuilt retail space is going to be more acute, and more visible, in areas of the country where the population is not growing. Cleveland, Buffalo and the rest of the Rust Belt have a problem that's going to get even worse as Great Lakes region is expected not just not to grow but actually to shrink between now and 2030.
Chris Hawley 01 Aug 2010, 22:43
I downloaded the 1997 article from the Journal of Real Estate Research and there wasn't a mention of the Buffalo MSA's GLA per capita. What's the word on this stat for this region? Not mentioned in the Artvoice post.
Once spurned by urban planners, her legacy is now claimed by the Right and the Left and everyone in between.
Yet Buffalo still goes the way of Robert Moses.
Terry Cooke is a marathon runner, the head of the Canadian Urban Institute, and the former elected head of government in Hamilton, Ontario, that nearby industrial city where they still somehow manage to operate a big port and make steel. Hamilton was on the way to becoming Buffalo—a sprawled-out, deindustrialized former rail-head—until local leaders like Cooke and an engaged electorate transformed the place into a stabilized and now growing regional city with a merged city-county government. Last week, Cooke gave out a lifetime achievement award named for a legendary urban theorist, writer, and activist who came to fame in 1960s Manhattan when she rallied a neighborhood to prevent Washington Square Park from being turned into an expressway. The Jane Jacobs award went to Bill Davis, the former Ontario provincial leader who joined Jacobs, who had moved to Toronto in 1968, in stopping an expressway project that would have ripped Toronto in half.
Sadly for Buffalo, Jacobs bypassed Buffalo on her way from New York to Toronto: The Kensington Expressway devoured Humboldt Parkway in 1967, the year before Jacobs took up residence in a place beyond the reach of Robert Moses and his expressway-building epigones.
Jacobs, who died a couple of years ago, has recently become a rallying icon for urban designers and planners, professions that used to ignore her. She is the guru for a new generation of pro-city theorists and writers, and for real-estate developers, too. She’s the neighborhood activist who beat the great Robert Moses.
Moses was the planner whose name became synonymous with huge public-works projects in the 1950s and 1960s. In New York City, he is known for massive projects including the Cross Bronx Expressway and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but also for his defeat at the hands of Jane Jacobs. In Western New York, we know Moses not from the sorry devastation his protégés gave us in the form of the city-destroying Kensington Expressway, but from the life-giving Niagara Power Project in Lewiston, and for the parkway named after him. The power project is such a great feat of engineering and clean energy that it stands in sharp contrast to Moses’s automobile-centered work: Not only does it produce clean electricity, it also produces money, including an annual payment of about $9 million that goes into a fund in Buffalo, a fund which could change Buffalo’s future for the better, or, in the alternative, which could be squandered on an automobile-centered project.
Moses, in sum, engineered many massive concrete public works that had everything to do with cars, because Moses’s calculations always favored cars over people dwelling in their messy, idiosyncratic, slow neighborhoods. But Jacobs beat him.
So when the Canadian Urban Institute sent the Canadian leadership class a message this past week, that message took the form of an attaboy for a beloved former Ontario premiere, and the award citation was all about retelling the story of how Bill Davis and Jane Jacobs beat a Robert Moses-style expressway. “If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop,” is what Davis said almost 40 years ago. Go to Spadina Avenue today and you’ll see what he and Jacobs saw then: In a city almost half of whose residents were born outside Canada, Spadina is a cluttered, buzzing, crowded neighborhood whose shops’ signs are in Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Portuguese, Ukrainian, and even English. There are cars on the street, but there are also streetcars on rails, and bicycles, and pedestrians. Masses of them.
The Canadians adopted Jacobs, and now they celebrate everything urban, but not only in Toronto, where adaptive re-use of old buildings has been a given for decades. Calgary’s mayor won an Urban Institute award for a new waterfront park and residential development squarely inside his city. Hailing from medium-sized cities all across the country, a fittingly diverse assemblage of citizen groups, local government officials, not-for-profits, and students got recognized for various happy projects. For the Canadians, Jacobs is all about neighborhoods where positive, clever people live together such that they get happier in each other’s presence. But down here among us Yanks, Jacobs is becoming something of an ideological mascot-in-dispute.
Principal and influential among the new Jacobs fans are the New Urbanists, who loudly claim her. Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who heads the Congress for a New Urbanism, leads an annual “Jane Jacobs pub crawl” in Manhattan, and wherever New Urbanists meet, real-estate developers get it crammed into their heads over and over again that the next real money to be made is going to be made in cities—or in suburban places that are set up as dense, walkable replicas of city neighborhoods.
Next are the progressives who are not in the real estate business but who write admiringly of Jacobs continuously; Google her name and it’s hard not to find right-thinking liberals extolling her as a model economist of the efficiency of urban density. Greens, too, love cities; Green writers lionize Jacobs.
And now the Right wants her, too.
The relentlessly anti-government Howard Husock, of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, might have had very wide eyes indeed last week in Toronto at seeing how non-ideological the notion of urban density has become in a country committed to the very kind of regional land-use planning that makes American conservatives choke. Husock, writing recently in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, claimed Jane Jacobs for the Right, and chided American liberals and leftists for misreading her signature 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, as anything other than a paean not only to free-market capitalism but also to the established American version of urbanization: Immigrant arrives in city ghetto, immigrant makes dough, immigrant books for the ’burbs making way for new immigrants.
It’s true that Jacobs described that “creative destruction” process, and the sequencing of uses of buildings in city neighborhoods. And it’s true that big bad Robert Moses was a planner, and that she hated his version of planning—which was all about cars and getting suburbanites to and from their suburbs. But in the Toronto Jacobs moved to, fought for, and stuck with, there is now a bagpiper’s tattoo for all things Jacobs that are about her adopted countrymen’s version of her, and in the actualized, implemented urbanism of Canada today, there is not a peep of dissension or protest against planning that has as its goal the urban density and agglomeration economics that Jacobs praised. Canadians claim that Jane Jacobs. But still, so do Harvard’s anti-planning Americans, including not only Husock but also the prolific young economist Edward Glaeser, who protests against things like regulations for historic preservation, claiming that they disrupt the natural, sometimes chaotic, sometimes un-pretty cycles of entrepreneurship and collapse in old neighborhoods.
Cities are complex, and she addressed that complexity, and as with any heroine who has competing fan bases, the debate will go on because she wrote so much that there’s evidence in her oeuvre for any argument you want to make. But the anti-government ideologues have a political agenda for which they mine Jane Jacobs’s work: She didn’t much like welfare spending as it was practiced in New York City in the early 1960s, and said so, and thus the “free market” boys love her for that and relentlessly bold-print those excerpts. But if you believe that welfare spending is the enemy of successful urban density, check out the European and Canadian cities that Jacobs admired: Their successful evolution to new levels of density, diversity and economic complexity has come about concurrently with much bigger social-service and income-support regimes than in America.
But let’s move on: The big issue, and the big change that hinges on which of our versions of city-loving Jane Jacobs gets emphasized, is our Robert Moses issue. That is, we have some decisions to make about oil-based personal transportation and the suburban landscapes that cheap oil and the Robert Moses mentality made possible. If, as some believe, the global crisis in petroleum will inevitably cause a massive re-migration to cities and an abandonment of suburbanization, then the progressive, green, Canadian version of Jane Jacobs will prevail. If cities are going to remain occasional entertainment venues for suburbanites who need massive subsidized parking garages so that they can drop by, dispose of some discretionary income, then burn some BP oil on their way back home via the Moses expressway, then the Manhattan Institute version of Jacobs will drive our spending. And the $9 million a year that is coming to Buffalo from the Niagara Power Project relicensing will be used to build us a Robert Moses version of urban life, rather than a Jane Jacobs version. For that’s what the proposed Bass Pro project is fundamentally about: constructing massive parking garages for car-driving visitors.
Most who claim Jacobs seem to be thinking of the spunky mom-in-tennis-shoes activist from Washington Square Park in 1963 or Spadina Avenue in 1971, when she fought big bureaucrats to defeat plans for expressways that murder neighborhoods and kill public space, especially green space.
But how are the lessons of Toronto and New York City relevant to the little cities that Jacobs leapfrogged over? And there’s another question that the great urban theorist left us: Before her death in Toronto a few years ago, Jane Jacobs began to have some misgivings about some parts of civilization—not the “civitas” part, to be sure—and she became a more nuanced thinker than the one who, earlier in her career, seemed to have a rule for everything urban based on her own Manhattan experience.
Maybe that’s because, in the 50 years since her fights with Moses, and 40 years since beating the Canadian expressway-lovers, Jacobs, and a few others, came to recognize that the suburbs are a part of city life, too.
The American city and 1968
The test case for Jane Jacobs is the city that was lost to racism, but that, paradoxically because of the biggest of big governments, became America’s most compelling example of how a new way of urban living might work—even here in the Rust Belt.
When Terry Cooke introduced the Jane Jacobs Lifetime Award, he made blunt, plain-spoken reference to what the Canadians of Bill Davis’s generation wanted to avoid. Back when they were fighting the Spadina Expressway, Cooke said, they were already well aware of how they didn’t want their city to “go the way of Buffalo, Cleveland, or Detroit, where the central city was abandoned.”
Cooke could have mentioned Washington, DC, which was similarly abandoned. But nowadays, people who love cities love much that has happened in Washington, DC. They particularly love the way some of its close-in suburbs have developed over the decades since Ronald Reagan’s “conservative” government poured billions of borrowed federal dollars into the Potomac River basin’s regional economy.
It’s either paradoxical or funny that Reagan’s anti-Washington spirit resulted in a flowering of government-stimulated wealth that is now much larger than the government spending that launched it.
The hallmark program of the Reagan years was the massive defense build-up, but his borrowed billions bought us much more. Reagan unleashed a feeding-frenzy for lobbyists which has never since abated. It brought Bentleys, minks, polished English-made shoes, and many glittering evenings to Washington, but it also brought dowdy downtown D.C. back from abandonment. Reagan’s unprecedented peacetime budget deficits, and his tax reform, plus the monument-consciousness and preservation-mindedness of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, engendered a showy and elegant rehabilitation of Washington—much of which had been torched and abandoned in the riots that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in April 1968. Harvard’s Edward Glaeser may gripe about how preservationists and their pesky rules are making Manhattan a destination for the rich alone, but Washington’s rules about keeping buildings no taller than the Capitol spire, and about preserving the “fabric” of the city by keeping the facades of old buildings intact, attracted so many prosperous people and so much redevelopment that their very presence overwhelmed the forces of decline. The strongest, largest, and most enduringly prosperous black middle class is a major achievement of the Washington metro renaissance.
Washington is hardly recognizable since the great tax-cutter came to town. The slums of O Street, the crack-infested rooming houses of Massachusetts Avenue, and the mess that was all of the central city in the mid-1980s have been succeeded by refreshed or replaced brick and stone structures that were always there but that looked like, and were, slums. A skid-row hotel that in Reagan’s re-election year hosted high-school students on field trips and delegations from impoverished western Indian tribes in $21-a-night rooms has long since been charging 10 to 15 times that rate. The retail landscape, supported by a larger and steadily growing local population, is more abundant than ever in the city’s history. Chinatown hums and is no longer marooned between an uncertain downtown and a self-contained Capitol Hill. The short walk from the Gallery Place Metro station to the new National Portrait Gallery encompasses local and chain coffee shops, restaurants, a multi-screen movie house, home-furnishings stores, clothing and jewelry and specialty shops, the offices of architects, lawyers, dentists, accountants, and consultants of every description, and there is more of the same in every direction where, in the 1980s, there was only riot wreckage and Georgetown somewhere off to the west.
Yet 40 years since King’s death and the great conflagrations, there remain great stretches of un-reclaimed territory, which is another way of saying that the urban racial and class divide lives on in even in one of the richest of America’s metros. Capitol Hill has been expensive for some time, but H Street Northeast, immediately behind the handsomely polished and happily functional Union Station, is a commercial strip that limps in the seemingly perpetual gloom of that dismal history, as does much of the rest of Northeast Washington. Only inches from the prosperity and renovation of the classic rowhouses with their tiny neat yards and Easter Egg pastel colors, the body language of this street shrugs “boundary.” It’s still a broken territory. Urban pioneers do their pioneering in places like H Street Northeast; in Washington, as in Brooklyn or even in Buffalo, that means young professionals, but first it means immigrants. There are refugees from Ethiopia’s harsh politics and wars and droughts who have escaped all that, and who are happy, and proud, to operate a coffee shop named for the owner’s home province. Men from the Ethiopian taxicab associations visit it on Sundays. Across H Street Northeast, a conspicuously Caucasian yoga studio proudly proclaims its first anniversary with a fabric sign anchored on the empty storefronts to the right and to the left.
But the plywood enclosures sealing the windows of those vacancies have been there through more than one season—they have, according to locals, been there for a generation. The upstairs offices, shopfronts and apartment buildings are largely unredeemed by tenants, and the farther from Union Station, the emptier. The growth outward from Capitol Hill is indeed occurring: There are more owner-occupied rowhouses than a decade ago, and fewer storefront churches. The sense of the street is that the four decades of abandonment, poverty, isolation, and street-crime will linger on, if not for a fifth decade, then at least a while longer.
This is, however, paradise regained compared to the great swaths of Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, and other cities that burned in the 1968 riots—because at least in Washington, new activity is right next door. Speculation on H Street Northeast still makes sense even after the real-estate crash. It’s coming this way—you can feel it. H Street Northeast will be next to “come back.” And another 600,000 souls are projected to enter the Washington metro over the next decade.
Not so in the other burned cities of 1968. Many, many square miles of those cities are still barely, if at all, touched by the investment of capital and of hope that restores the density of dwellings and commerce, the density of plural human life that we used to call “civilization.”
Toronto: the un-hollowed city
Jane Jacobs moved from New York City to Toronto in 1968 when Toronto was a haven for young American men who liked this continent better than Vietnam’s. Toronto was then the polyglot and dense urban affair that it is today, only much smaller and much grayer. Toronto had a big university and big banks right downtown, to be sure, and it was in 1968 a growing port city that was actually benefitting from the Saint Lawrence Seaway. That’s the project that had been imagined as the great public work that would, at its completion in 1957, catapult Buffalo and other Great Lakes cities back into the first ranks of American cities. The August 15, 1955 issue of Newsweek featured a cover story on Buffalo’s rosy economic future, a future that, the magazine shouted, hinged upon the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Business moguls, planners, and politicians were all quoted to the effect that Great Lakes cities, but especially Buffalo, would thrive as never before because the new system of locks and canals would open the world to American exports, and Buffalo to a new era of prosperity.
By the mid-1970s, when Buffalo and the other Great Lakes cities saw their middle classes flee in the wake of Rehnquist’s Supreme Court decisions on school desegregation, Buffalo and the other Great Lakes cities also saw the collapse of their industrial economies—and the Saint Lawrence Seaway helped them not at all. Instead, it was Toronto that had experienced the growth, and it was Toronto that received the trade, and a lot of Vietnam War protesters, and with them, Jacobs. Toronto became Jacobs’s favorite city—full of the life, the street romance, the inexact and idiosyncratic texture that she had observed as life-creating energy in small sections of Boston, of Washington, DC, of New York City, and of the other places she had celebrated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
That book had made Jacobs famous. It became her platform for the decades of the 1960s through the 1990s. It is hard to imagine today, when there is a stampede to out-Jane each other, that her hypothesis was largely spurned by professional planners. For those four decades, American students and urban-oriented thinkers thought of urban life and dreamed of urban renewal, and even invented “new urbanism” to characterize some of their ersatz-urban development projects hatched far from old cities—but the planners and developers lived with the rest of Americans, in a nation whose Caucasians had abandoned cities, out in the automobile suburbs.
As Jacobs left the USA, white folks abandoned cities. The watershed year was 1968. The watershed events were those post-assassination riots. Whites abandoned cities out of fear of black violence. But whites also abandoned cities at the insistence of and with the active urging of every level of government. With subsidies and with new Kensington Expressways, federal and state and county and town governments enabled rapid suburbanization and the low-density sprawl that threw North American humanity into the thrall of automobiles, subdivision developers, and suburban politicians.
Buffalo is a prime example of the new geography of Caucasian dispersal from city to suburb. Until 1960, just over half of the one million people in the 1,000 square miles of Erie County lived within the 42 square miles of the City of Buffalo. By 2000, 70 percent of the county’s population was outside the city limits. Of the 130,000 African-Americans in Erie County in 2000, all but 10,000 lived inside city limits. Of the 800,000 whites in Erie County, more than 600,000 lived outside the city limits. Back in 1950, when the City of Buffalo was almost 600,000 strong, more than 90 percent of the people living inside the 40.5 square miles were white. In short, the white population fled while the black population stayed. The tax base moved a few miles north, a few miles south, a few miles east of the municipal and school-district boundary, and the suburban jurisdictions added population, but the population of the region stagnated. This happened in Buffalo, in Rochester, in Syracuse, in Pittsburgh, in Cleveland, in Cincinnati, and in dozens of other metros in the Great Lakes states. It’s the same story.
It is not the story, however, of Toronto.
Toronto had a different experience of 1968. Toronto in 1968 was amused by all the new American boys showing up. It was brightened by the first few coffeehouses and youth-oriented saloons and shops in the rowhouse streets just north across Bloor Street from the University. But Toronto never had crowds of angry African-Canadians torching their substandard housing and looting their neighborhoods’ commercial areas in protest over yet another murder of a beloved leader. Toronto was peaceful, staid, “diverse” in the sense we mean that term now, with calm saloons for men closed on Sundays as all the shops did, and with restaurants that were required to maintain separate entrances, away from the bar, for women.
Then Toronto suddenly changed. In 1970, political crisis in Montreal, which had been the financial and cultural capitol of Canada, hit hard. Prime Minister Trudeau declared martial law after Quebec separatists kidnapped and killed a government minister. Capital fled. That is to say, big English-speaking commercial banks and insurance companies and industrial concerns abruptly began expanding their operations in English-speaking Toronto. Within a few years, some of the power and the money of Montreal, if not the city’s cultural sophistication, shifted to Toronto. The political and cultural self-awareness and assertiveness of French-speaking Quebec was a bonanza for the gray city of Upper Canada. By every measure of population (size of workforce, per-capita income, educational attainment, number of enterprises created), of infrastructure (housing units constructed, lane-miles of road, miles of public transit, water, sewer and utility systems constructed) and of activity (tons of freight handled, number of enterprises incorporated, taxes collected), Toronto’s growth after 1970 was positive and sustained. And because of the focus by Toronto and Ontario government planners—a focus on keeping the infrastructure compact and city-focused rather than allowing the sprawl that characterizes American urban regions—the city grew in density and still grows in density. Adaptive re-use characterizes every old brewery, storehouse, distillery, and factory not still (or again) utilized for its original purpose.
It all made Jane Jacobs happy.
Yet in her last book, Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs complained. She restated her ancient gripe about traffic engineers, whose antipathy to the scientific method she’d decried back in the fights over traffic-calming in Manhattan in the early 1960s. Traffic engineers had made messes in Toronto, too. In all her years in Toronto, even after the great victory over the Spadina Expressway, she nurtured a specific hatred of the lakeshore’s Gardiner Expressway.
But in her last book, she also shared her happiness about the new phenomenon of “import replacing”—the not-so-novel fact that local urban density in Toronto has created a market robust enough to support local manufacturing of furniture and other items that used to be imported. Jacobs hailed the fact that local money circulates better locally, because products that for so very long had been imported from overseas cheap-labor producers are now, in dense Toronto, being produced and sold locally.
The happy urbanist Jacobs warns, in her last book, of a “dark age” precisely like the cliché of post-Roman Europe of barbarians and illiteracy and chaos that we learned about in high school. The bad times coming are not coming due to some shortfall in Toronto’s urban success. The darkness descending on us, she says, is descending due to true science being abandoned, and self-policing by the learned professions ending, and families being so stressed that they erode, and cultural memory being obliterated, and taxes disconnecting from local needs.
This is not the book for which we should remember Jane Jacobs. Her gripe about the decline of science and of standards among professions, and her contradictory gripe about municipal-government change in the Province of Ontario, are gripes writ larger than gripes should ever get writ. (She liked local government, and wanted Toronto to be governed as a city-state, then got mad at the government she’d advocated for.) She got angry with some engineers, planners, bank economists, and other educated elites and then wrote this book, in part, to warn that it was their blindness that was dooming civilization. Some of those very local, very fleeting controversies should have been edited out of her tome.
It is when she speaks of cultural loss, though, that a chill of universal recognition descends. We have read elsewhere, especially in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, about societies that forget. Jacobs warns that we are forgetting about what it means to live in cities.
That’s the warning we need to heed. Driving through the sprawl of Generica—the suburban landscape that is precisely the same in suburban Buffalo as it is outside Chicago, outside Washington, outside every city—one sees what Jacobs loathed and what some (but not enough) young people now flee: the automobile-based roadside culture that depends upon endless supplies of imported energy, and that some well-meaning people now want to import into urban centers.
What the Canadians have figured out is that their taxes stay low when their cities sustain density. Spadina Avenue is all about locally owned enterprises. The density that works there and in the great cities comes about when new immigrants come in and create sustainable economies by lots of small-scale enterprises, and that happens most effectively when public infrastructure moving people around in vehicles other than cars.
If the small- and medium-sized cities are part of the same civilization that the great cities lead, then Jacobs is indeed the right guide for us all. What Jacobs contributed to our cultural discourse, a contribution that will long outlast her, is a warning that civilization is about cities—places where people live in close proximity, where they have a sense of shared identity, where they interact (shop, play, study, work, date) near where they live, and it ain’t about municipal boundaries. This is the point that her last book idiosyncratically makes. As she passed, she took a parting shot at all the Robert Moseses she could think of, re-fighting old fights. I doubt that a new urbanist, or an old urbanist, or even an ideologue could mine any one of Jacobs’s texts to find support for the idea of building parking garages for suburban day-trippers. Yet if that’s what keeps happening to public money in America, civilization will stay north of us. We will not only forget who we are: We will forget that we ever knew.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.
Rick Harrington 27 Jun 2010, 12:17
Another beautifully written and informative piece, Bruce. Having recently touched down in walkable NYC; the new-investment-infused formerly blighted suburbs along the recently opened Seattle light rail line; and vibrant San Francisco which is almost all about exurbanites spiriting in for the night - and enjoying long walks and bike rides around Buffalo - I make the following observation (you will observe that I need to learn to punctuate): it's all about miscegenation and overcoming fear and prejudice. Bass pro is sometimes scary for its worship of the rural life I recently moved away from. Where the statistics per capita for violent and often motorized death far out-pace any city's. The suburbs are about safety, wombs with televised views, and the illusion of storybook permanence for family for manor for narrative lines. In reality everybody is always trading up. Suburbs are built on the fiction of perpetual oil, of course, and their safety is only as bedroom communities whose violence is as outsourced as is their effluence. It is fear of difference which breeds generic sprawl; sameness is comfort. The automobile embodies the illusion that it is safe to drive through places you would never walk or bike through. Fast. It's not so much about the propulsion as about the armor and shock absorbers and simulation of living room inside. Bass Pro plunk in the city which terrifies those well-armed outdoorspeople might just, well, do some good toward mixing things up a bit more. Anyhow, the perpetual loop of a real underwater oil gusher ought to get a few more people to try walking and biking outside someplace where the view is not redundant; the city or the country, since who wants to bike in the suburbs? Might as well do a spin class. Oh!
avwrobel 29 Jun 2010, 21:18
Nice piece Bruce. 2 things to mention: First, the Welland Canal/Saint Lawrence Seaway; Pearson Airport; and the development of the 401 & QEW highways enabled Toronto to position itself as an import/export center, and therefore to support local manfacturing and agriculture. Second, Canadians tend to trust their government, and their leadership tends to make decisions and set policy with the common good in mind. We in the U.S. are plagued by charlatans at all government levels (while not the majority, make up enough of a minority to harm the country as a whole) who game the system for their (and their supporters) benefit. The rationalization system at work is that 'all interests compete and everyone wins in the long run'. This free-market mantra is their cover for corruption. So getting Buffalo (despite Albany) to plan for urban renewal through reuse? I hope it happens.
Steve Banko 30 Jun 2010, 15:18
Well done, Bruce. It remains to be discussed why what is so plain and visible to some is so mysterious and obtuse to others but that is a conversation we rarely seem to have. If enough people keep on illuminating, perhaps the light will one day pierce the darkness.
Peter Ormond 08 Aug 2010, 13:10
A well-written article, Bruce. It touches on many aspects. However, you may want to do a little more background research on your implied hero - Terry Cooke - before giving him kudos.
For example, ask him about his role in getting Hamilton's pristine Red Hill Valley paved. He was one of the biggest advocates - silver tongue and all. After all, forward-thinking Hamiltonians resisted the project for 50 years. Besides the disastrous ecological impacts, paving the valley has scarred the UN Biosphere Reserve - the Niagara Escarpment- resulting in flooding of the Red Hill Expressway and countless homes with every significant rainfall. In short, it has left our community in financial ruins, and our air even dirtier. It has also opened up the lands around the airport and mountain farmlands to development and stadium speculation.
Jane Jacobs apparently had one word to describe the cause of Hamilton's woes: "Corruption". Be wary of the tiger that changes it's stripes, regardless of the distance he can run. An agent of change? Like I said, do a little research. Jacobs, like countless others - including many within the City of Hamilton - would surely not be applauding.
We need 'leaders' to see the irony of their actions, and step aside or else the cycle continues.
Thanks to a Supreme Court that is resolutely stuck in Red State politics, America will be well-armed for the upcoming depression. Last week, Blue State cities that are trying to corral handguns lost when the Court’s Bush-Reagan majority decided that personal firearm ownership is an essential element of “ordered liberty.” Progressives rightly shudder: There are parts of America, like our big northern cities, where folks have figured out that they really don’t like guns and don’t see the need for them and don’t hunt anyway, and if you want to fight, then go to Tae-Bo class or hire a lawyer. Even Red-minded suburbanites are culturally estranged from Texas and Tennessee, where the only remaining gun debate is whether one should be allowed to carry concealed weapons into saloons.
A Supreme Court that sides with the gun culture of rural Tennessee over the anti-gun culture of the Blue States is a reminder that in our beloved country, innovators though we may be, our vocabulary about freedom enables some of us to act as if we’re homesteaders on the wild frontier. The rest of the world envies our country’s enduring myth of the free individual, even when Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notions of self-reliance and Andrew Jackson’s populism have been twisted by the Reagan myth that we can do without any government at all. But the rest of the world also notices that thinking and acting like early-19th-century yeoman farmers weakens us at a time when China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other regimes that scoff at the idea of personal liberty keep gaining economic power.
As Ian Bremmer bluntly advises in his new book The End of the Free Market, the world is not about fair-minded cowpokes who accept our code of honor and play by free-trade rules. Bremmer’s subtitle begs the question and gives us the grim answer: Who wins the war between states and corporations? The “states” he writes about are not Kansas and New Hampshire: They’re the thug-ruled countries. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Venezuela, a few more that are succeeding in trading with us because our financial elites commanded our politicians to rewrite the rules that used to make it hard to deal with dictators.
Bremmer’s book has lots to say about capitalism’s essential devotion to individual liberty, but not enough to say about how the financial industry got to be so powerful. Here’s an anecdote from the middle of the globalization binge. It was March 1992. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was running for president. He had just lost the Connecticut primary to Paul Tsongas. On the eve of the New York primary, he was getting the snot kicked out of him by Jerry Brown on the issue of taxes and by the tabloids on the issue of bimbos. Your humble correspondent got hired to fix the tax policy problem, and thus worked for a couple of weeks in the “war room.” The daily meetings had all the star consultants: James Carville and Paul Begala, George Stephanopolous and Mandy Grunwald. But the war room itself was run by Mickey Kantor, an attorney who would become the US Trade Representative. And every day that I was there, guys with insanely expensive suits and astounding Swiss watches showed up. They were from Goldman Sachs and other investment firms. They were there to observe, and to consult quietly with leadership while the rest of us cranked out radio spots and talking points and position papers. In New York in 1992, Clinton’s was the campaign in which a Democrat finally got the financial industry backing that had been so Republican for so long. After he was elected, the globalization process accelerated dramatically.
Was it inevitable? So say many. All the world’s right-wing tough guys had Reagan to apologize for them and to help them get access to the wealth that American investors like to send to places where there are no independent judiciaries, filibustering legislators, or executives constrained by law. After George H.W. Bush was CIA chief and before he became Reagan’s vice president, he was our man in China, helping pave the path for American capital in the post-Mao era. As Kevin Phillips and other analysts have described, the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs, the busting of American unions, the marginalization of the American working class has all occurred as financial elites have massively expanded their influence over our political class. While our Supreme Court reaffirms our antique right to play at firearm testosterone, our comparative respect for due process looks like a quaint notion in the world of trading partners described by Phillips, and by Bremmer in his book about how they’re eating us alive.
You already know the story. So-called “state capitalism” is what the world of democratic capitalism is up against. Until the bubble and crash of 2008—which the non-traditional economists of the Minsky school, the Levy Institute, and Buffalo State College, and iTulip.com’s Richard Janszen had been warning about—it was sort of halfway plausible, on sunny days, to be like Bill Clinton and believe that what was good for Goldman Sachs was good for America. “They can manufacture things so much more efficiently over there!” is the explanation. “Comparative advantage” and other such terms are meant to explain why nothing much gets produced here. The World Trade Organization, and this free-trade orthodoxy, and the various conferences at which this bunch of thugs and that bunch of thugs all swear to protect copyright, intellectual property, environmental standards, worker rights, and such, were all supposed to help those bad-guy ruling elites inch inexorably toward giving their huddled masses their own version of American-style democratic capitalism. It would never be likely that they’d get a Second Amendment, but then the notion of “ordered liberty” as proceeding from the barrels of personal firearms is hard to sell in places where the secret police use the term “disappear” as a transitive verb.
That fantasy of ever-spreading democratization gets its comeuppance about once a week these days, whenever the news about Google’s efforts to run an open, go-anywhere search engine in China comes back negative.
So back here at home in the Midwest, we should read with special interest Bremmer’s chapter entitled “what is to be done.” (How richly ironic that he quotes a great Communist when asking how our version of capitalism is going to gain power once again.) His answer, sadly, is too meek—and consists, essentially, of the same pro-globalization wishful thinking that if we just stick with it long enough, we’ll get along. Bremmer thinks that we have to remain “indispensible.”
"The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?" by Ian Bremmer (Portfolio, 2010)
What sorry bullshit that is. A few sober folks have figured out that the only reason America is still relevant is that we remain the world’s policeman. Our armed services are out there protecting the rights of our financial elites to enjoy the “freedom to hire workers and borrow money where they are least expensive and to sell in the fastest-growing markets,” per Bremmer.
Here’s what we in Buffalo know: When the decision-making is done by out-of-town investors, we tend to get left behind by the wearers of elegant suits and expensive watches, investors who can get a far better rate of return where democracy is non-existent and where labor does what it’s told to do.
But the Tea Party gives us hope!
The other court decision that came down last week didn’t get very much attention at all. A curious klatch of anti-government libertarians and progressive critics of corporate welfare won what could potentially prove to be a blockbuster case in the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division. Their argument: that handing out public money to privately owned corporations and developers violates the New York State Constitution’s ban on making gifts or loans of public money.
What the Appellate Division decided was that the anti-handout plaintiffs do indeed have a case, and that the case needs to be heard. In the context of globalized capital, here’s what this lawsuit might mean: that only democratically elected officials who make specific votes in favor of specific handouts to specific enterprises can keep the corporate welfare flowing. But the case might also mean that corporate welfare in New York State might have to come to a screeching halt.
Would that mean the end of capitalism in our state? Would all business do what Andrew Rudnick recently suggested it do, and move to Florida?
Stay tuned. But we know this tune, don’t we? For at least since the late Jack Kemp campaigned against taxes in the early 1970s, Upstate New Yorkers have taken it as an article of faith that the reason businesses won’t hire more people here is because their taxes are too high. Our political elites have been shipping American jobs overseas at the behest of their financial backers, but still we have local people who believe that the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.
That’s why elected officials in New York State and in just about every other state, too, have reacted to the globalization of capital by creating entities like Empire State Development Corporation, and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, and the Erie County Industrial Development Agency and its counterparts in Amherst, Hamburg, Clarence, and elsewhere. The specific task of these entities is to hand out public funds—in the form of tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, subsidized loans, or outright cash—on the theory that but for that public largesse, those businesses would locate elsewhere.
For the moment, left-leaning State Senate candidate Michael Kuzma and Tea Partier James Ostrowski are together winning the argument that our state constitution prohibits this stuff.
But what if they win? For should corporate welfare be declared illegal, can we not predict the hue and cry from the investor class? Will we not hear that Jack Kemp rhetoric again, and see the out-migration of yet more capital as it flees our messy gun-totin’ democracy for the high-return environments of the lands where state capitalism rules?
Luckily for us, the summer sun shines nowadays, and young people happily scoop up real-estate bargains in our rusty cities. The bloggers of Urbanophile.com celebrate the distinctiveness of Buffalo and other capital-abandoned Great Lakes cities where young folks can pick up beautiful old places and replenish them with the talent and energy and taste that created them in the first place—and because of globalized instrumentalities like the internet, these same talented people can make exports happen.
Bremmer worries about protectionism, but he should instead be worried about the resurgence of destructive economic theories and policies, like the sharp drop in government spending that the geniuses of the G-20, plus Republicans and deficit-fearing Democrats, are now advocating.
Meanwhile, the Ivy-educated activists of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange will hold their annual conference in Cleveland this summer (many came to Buffalo for our Great Lakes Metros summit last summer). These folks are clever enough to celebrate the possibilities that we still cherish, even if Bass Pro may be prohibited by law from getting tens of millions of dollars to entice it to build a store here rather than…where, in China? We here in the left-behind globalized economy have our summer theaters, our local produce, and even our summer operas to entertain us as we fade from historic dominance. Perhaps as we sing our summer song, we can choose as our mascot a different character than Alberich the dwarf, the Wagner creature who foreswore love so that he could get the gold, the character I nominate as the icon of globalized capital.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.
Frederick Stimson Harriman 01 Jul 2010, 11:21
A nice synopsis of the mess we've gotten into. The last thing we need right now is for the Libertarian fantasy to take hold and distract legislators from the measures that need to be taken to keep the country stable and make it possible for America to be solvent again.
Rosalie Guttman 01 Jul 2010, 14:22
A brilliant analysis and commentary about the state of affairs in this country. One wonders when the frontiersman mentality of many of our citizens will evolve "out" so that we can all enjoy the same freedoms and security..
Max 01 Jul 2010, 16:28
Well done again, Dr. Fisher!
The court's decision to co-opt local and state gun laws flies in the face of the typical conservative rallying cry of "state's rights" which has been used to deflate civil rights measures and most recently, elements of the health care reform enacted by Congress.
That coupled with the apparent free reign granted to the corporatists by the court in Citizens United decision means it's open season to buy influence through any and all means available.
My hope was that Congress would remedy the situation, but with the likely swing in mid-term majorities that seems remote.
Our voices will be drowned out by the resulting deluge of dollars; our streets will echo with the sound of gunfire. I'm reminded of Franklin's admonition of "A republic if you can keep it."
I don't think we can keep it under those circumstances.
Lloyd A. Marshall, Jr. 01 Jul 2010, 18:57
A sheriff in Florida, when news came out that "right-to-carry" became the law, said it best: "The people should freely arm up; they need to protect themselves."
mike hudson 02 Jul 2010, 10:19
While I'm aware of the anti-gun culture embraced by some Blue Staters, it is not shared by myself or the rest of the members of the LaSalle Sportsman's Club, which is also located in New York.
Likewise, the 1 million New York hunters who harvested 300,000 deer last year would also likely be offended by your characterization.
The Supreme Court has done great work in its adherence to the 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution. And there are many of us in New York and all the other Blue States who believe that the 1st Amendment simply isn't any good without the 2nd.
Bruce Fisher 04 Jul 2010, 19:07
I've had a hunting license since age 14, and venison is my favorite (except for partridge or wild duck). Hunting has nothing to do with the discussion of appropriate regulations for handguns, which constitute a class of weapon that is distinguished by its limitation: handguns, like military rifles, have but one purpose, which is to kill humans, which is why those classes of weapons should be left to the military and to those charged with the task of securing public safety.
mike hudson 06 Jul 2010, 14:55
bruce...you might want to tell that to the maine guides who assisted me on my bear hunt season before last, or to the guy whose camp i hunt out of down in allegheny county every year who hunts alternately with a s&w .44 magnum or a muzzleloading rifle and takes a buck every year.
as for military rifles, i use a customized .30-06 mauser or a similarly worked 6.5 mm beretta for my big game hunting. one was made for the argententian military in 1909 and the other for the imperial japanese government in 1938.
and also, do you just make this shit up as you go along?
In Cleveland this weekend, community activists, pols, and academics will re-imagine the Rust Belt
This weekend in Cleveland, the Great Lakes Urban Exchange is bringing 100 thinkers, activists, elected officials, and wonks to kick around ideas about how one of the richest but most challenged Great Lakes cities can turn itself around. It’s going to be a three-day sequence of sessions on the “urban laboratory” that is underway in Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Toledo, and other towns that are struggling with the prospect of global economic irrelevancy. The participants are going to describe their experiences with policy innovations like land-banking, with block-by-block reinvestment in distressed neighborhoods, with business plans that work, and with policy initiatives that still need work. The program is noticeably focused on how community-based organizations and small-scale investors are achieving increments of success in places that have been synonymous with economic distress for more than a generation.
The program is also notable in a way that Buffalo should pay close attention to: Nobody is showing up to share a success story about how the advent of a Bass Pro or any other big-box retailer has engineered a turnaround for a neighborhood, a town or a metro area. Why? Because there are no such success stories.
The cities of America’s north coast have been losing population and internal coherence for decades. Of all the metros in all the Great Lakes states, only Indianapolis is actually governed as a metro. Every other one is experiencing what Cornell geographer Rolf Pendall calls “sprawl without growth,” and features a hollowed-out central city surrounded by a patchwork quilt of independently governed suburbs that spread ever more expensively and ever farther from the urban core thanks to the dimwit state governors who keep giving them road and sewer money. Yet each of these metros’ anchor cities has a university, a cathedral, a central library, a city hall, a big sports arena or two, museums, and concert halls, because since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 until at least the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974, these cities anchored and dominated their metros. Now in the fourth decade since depopulation, deindustrialization, the Rehnquist Supreme Court’s decision against metropolitan school districts in Millikin, and the inept urban policies of each American presidency, there is another new pro-city movement afoot.
The hopeful, the engaged, and the talented are the new crop that will convene in Cleveland. They take heart from the sensible work of the analysts at the Brookings Institution, which recently published a report entitled “Hubs of transformation: leveraging the Great Lakes research complex for energy innovation,” which is about all those universities, mainly public, that keep pumping out intellectual capital and selling it to the world. They are emboldened by their own stories, in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Flint, Akron, and even Detroit, that most troubled of metros. Small-scale investors and neighborhood activists, cooperating with folks from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the Gamaliel Foundation, Greater Ohio Policy Center, the Tides Center, the Rockefeller and Surdna foundations, and other groups, have detailed case studies about how there has been headway made against the negative trends in these towns.
There is, though, an area the size of Buffalo, more than 40 square miles, pretty much abandoned in Detroit. Another recent survey says that Detroit, Toledo, and Youngstown are all still suffering double-digit unemployment and severe housing devaluation because their car-centered economies are not recovering. (Meanwhile, this week’s news from Wall Street is that investment banks large and small there are hiring thousands.) A shadow overhangs these Rust Belt towns—the shadow of a Chinese workforce that is more than twice the size of the US population, a workforce that is the target of that Wall Street investment, but a workforce whose average wage is so low that the notion of a community benefit agreement, or of a “living wage,” much less a union-scale “prevailing wage,” could only be seen as fantasies.
Yet there is hope in Cleveland. Smart hope.
There should be some smart hope here in Upstate New York, too. Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse have weathered the calamities of the past 30 months reasonably well compared to peer metros. Albany is close to finishing up a budget that will continue to transfer over a billion more dollars into the Buffalo metro than the Buffalo metro pays in state taxes and fees. And there is hope among advocates of “smart growth” that Governor Paterson will sign a bill sponsored by Assembly Democrat Sam Hoyt of Buffalo and three state senators from Long Island, Brooklyn, and the Hudson Valley.
The bill is about infrastructure. If Paterson signs it, all state agencies, authorities, and public corporations that spend a nickel on infrastructure will have to adhere to smart growth criteria. They’re going to have to form advisory committees that include environmental and community stakeholders, and to issue written smart growth impact statements. It is far short of a command to town governments to eschew go-it-alone planning; it is not a bill to create an urban growth boundary around Albany, Binghamton, Syracuse, Rochester, or Buffalo; it is not a bill to create empowered metropolitan planning organizations. Nevertheless, a law that tells the state itself to stop its own operations from furthering economic self-destruction through sprawl is a huge positive step.
In Cleveland, the assembled will learn how Buffalo’s activists succeeded in preserving the Central Terminal and the Commercial Slip. They’ll hear about housing reclamation on the West Side, about the growth of Buffalo ReUse, about Howard Zemsky’s Larkin District redevelopment, about the Garden Walk, about new businesses springing up in the penumbra of Hauptman-Woodward and Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and about Congressman Brian Higgins’s stewardship of the Buffalo River corridor which, inch by inch, is going from wasteland to green-belt.
But beside job-exporting investment bankers, hundreds of millions of proletarians who are only just now beginning to demand something like American standards for themselves, and the legacy of bad policies, our Great Lakes cities suffer most acutely from cynicism, defeatism, and self-dealing. Here in Buffalo, we have egregious case after egregious case of crony capitalism on display, too. A 30-year revenue stream from the New York Power Authority, about $9 million a year, is about to be securitized and invested in all the infrastructure and accoutrements that a sporting-goods retailer wants in order to build a store overlooking Buffalo Harbor.
There is some hope that that $9 million a year may grow, which would be a good thing—because just to fix the sewers in the greater Buffalo area is a $300 million proposition that is currently without a source of funds.
But as it stands today, 30 years worth of that $9 million-a-year settlement is about to get sunk into a retail, restaurant, and hotel complex in one of the most over-retailed, over-restrauranted, over-hoteled places in America. As hotelier David Hart points out, the structure once known as the Statler Hilton Hotel was a functioning hotel until a local investor convinced public officials to give him millions to turn the E. B. Green-designed Genesee Building into a Hyatt, which created more hotel inventory than has ever been needed. And now there’s more “free” money to build even more hotel inventory, despite a shrinking regional population and a flat demand for hotel space. Creating supply, as restaurateur Mark Goldman says, does not create demand.
Yet despite the well documented subsidy calamities and outright failures of the Bass Pro promise in other markets, Buffalo’s hometown newspaper editorializes endlessly in favor of this permanent misallocation of public funds. Instead of letting independent investors decide whether to put up a hot dog stand in Erie Canal harbor, or a condominium developer taking a shot at selling Lake Erie sunsets to suburb-weary empty-nesters, the current plan of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation and of the Empire State Development Corporation that signs off on its work is to invest 30 years’ worth of our money in creating dozens of parking spaces for recreational vehicles, and another couple of thousand subsidized parking spaces for a downtown that has a huge existing supply of both surface and structured parking, and which has an office vacancy rate of well over 20 percent.
The mentality that drives this behavior is a poisonous combination of cynicism, despondency, and greed, all promoted by absentee-owned media that suck revenue out of the region while advancing an anti-government, anti-democratic message that strangely includes loud, repeated demands for public funds, but only for private interests these media endorse. The justification: “There’s nothing happening in Buffalo, so we have to do these big projects.”
The discussion in Cleveland will include a presentation on how the old-line media peddle despair, false hope, and cronyism to audiences that may actually be growing weary of that stew. The revitalization movement has allies in the independent alternative media, including RustWire and other blogs, some public radio stations, and the networking of GLUE. The movement also has a potential partner in the White House and its executive agencies, which within the last month let it be known that there’s money available to help do some integrated thinking about transportation, housing, and environmental issues, as we used to say in Buffalo, “side by each.” Cleveland’s meeting may be a first draft of watching folks from municipalities, non-governmental organizations, and colleges set aside magical thinking and work together. And despair, cronyism and absentee landlords be damned.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.
International Institute of Buffalo 16 Jul 2010, 09:40
If you are going, Bruce, I would very much like to hear anything that comes up about the immigrant/refugee/new arrival communities in GL cities and how they are (or are not) figuring into anyone's plans. We at the International Institute want to be helpful in supporting Buffalo's incremental rebuild. thank you! Eva
Team BEN 20 Jul 2010, 05:21
Finally, an honest, comprehensive and intelligent summary of the shortfalls of this current BassPro fiasco, as well as what could be done as an alternative-thank you Bruce. Please consider the expat network and ally in helping to disseminate factual and candid reports on this issue, as you have done here. We believe it is time to shed light on the cronyism, self dealing and self defeatism to which you speak...once and for all.
We are for development, but smart, sustainable development with a vision...which you mention herein. Looking forward to hearing about the outcome of the Conference.
Incidentally, are any of Buffalo's elected leaders in attendance this weekend? Thank you again for an insightful article. Team BEN
jay ferrari 21 Jul 2010, 10:22
Bruce you are a voice crying in the wilderness, BUT an impassioned and correct voice. But the ears that need to hear don't listen, This is a city that requires only the anointed ones to profit Damn the rest of us and the obvious. Once again thank you for a great editorial.
When a group of concerned citizens joined with a veteran attorney to file a lawsuit against Bass Pro Outdoor World LLC, and all the government entities that want this private Missouri company to get public New York money, a 20-year-old community conversation about Buffalo’s identity came of age.
Many people are perplexed that yet another lawsuit has been filed concerning the Canal District. That’s the area in and around the 12-acre parcel of City-owned land that now has a re-watered portion of the Commercial Slip in which boats can actually dock, just as they did for 130 years before the Commercial Slip was filled in and the area paved over. Across the street from where the War Memorial Stadium was torn down last year, there’s also a replica of the old “bowstring” bridge, and a pretty good portion of the Central Wharf, too. Much of the mid-19th century historic street pattern has been restored, and there are 97 parcels, all told, in the Canal District, pretty much ready to be developed if anybody wants to do so.
Preservationists are generally happy with the victory they achieved: the Slip, the Wharf, the streets and the bridge were the four critical elements they’d sought, and now, right there where they used to be, right there in Buffalo’s historic Canal District, they exist out in the open, where before they were buried. The Naval and Serviceman’s Park next door has a new building that is architecturally compatible with the Canal District structures that had been there in Buffalo Harbor’s century-long heyday. The foundation stones of Dug’s Dive, the notorious saloon that doubled as a hiding place for enslaved people headed north for freedom in Canada, are there, and marked, and doing fine with the exposure. The limestone canal stones are there, too, just as they are along the length of the Black Rock canal, to the everlasting embarrassment of a UB professor who warned that exposing the original Canal District stones might cause them to “explode.” None have.
Citizen activism, activist journalism, lawsuits and some sensitive leadership by elected officials achieved all that. The Canal District began looking like a winner by 2007 when the elements people had fought for started becoming visible. This summer, despite parking not being immediately adjacent to the site, there is a steady trickle of visitors on warm weekdays, a bit more than a trickle on weekends, and good crowds when concerts are held there. It works as a seasonal attraction, and as a year-round place for some of the nearly 40,000 downtown workers to stroll through at lunchtime, even when the winter winds off Lake Ere are very tough to face.
But then came Bass Pro, and Canal Side, and what many had seen as a victory for Buffalo’s genuine heritage was re-imagined by a new group of empowered but not elected officials, namely, the Board of Directors of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, as an opportunity for subsidized retail development.
The fight that has been joined today is a long time coming, but it was inevitable, because some very different views of Buffalo’s future are in conflict—as is the question of how more than $150 million in public funds should be spent.
The business owners argue that this metro area has a far greater supply of retail stores, restaurants, hotels and office buildings than there is demand for them. The economists say that the economic impact of subsidized development will merely be to displace existing firms. The policy people say that more and better jobs will come about if the waterfront project refocuses on clean water and green space, the original purpose of the public funds at issue. The preservationists would love to see enterprises in the Canal District—fashioned enterprises, the ones that pay their own way.
Mark Goldman, the entrepreneur who is justly credited with resurrecting Chippewa Street as an entertainment district, the historian who has published three books about Buffalo, the preservationist who has put his own money up for his developments, is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Goldman is joined by Scot Fisher, the president of Righteous Babe Records, business partner with Ani DiFranco in saving and restoring the former Asbury Methodist Church, and the preservation enthusiast who led a petition campaign that gathered nearly 15,000 signatures from citizens inside and outside of Buffalo in favor of restoring the Commercial Slip.
Susan Davis, associate professor of Economics at Buffalo State College, joined the suit with a statement that is simple and direct: “Public money is legitimately used to build the infrastructure for commerce, but not to give one business an advantage over others. The Bass Pro deal is crony capitalism at its crudest and should not be tolerated.”
UB Political Science professor and attorney Stephen Halpern and Elizabeth P. Stanton, a professor of occupational therapy at D’Youville College, are also parties.
So am I. The attorney for the case is Arthur J. Giacalone, Esq.
The lawsuit says that it’s a violation of the New York State Constitution to make a gift or loan of public funds to any private enterprise. The more than $150 million of public funds from various sources—over $105 million is from the New York State Power Authority—are all public money. Some would-be theologians have tried to parse “taxpayer” money from “settlement” money, but here’s the legal fact: it’s our money. Public. Period.
Ironically, it wasn’t until some Tea Party supporters won their own anti-corporate welfare case a few weeks ago that anybody in New York State had ever successfully argued against the massive subsidies handed out by Empire State Development Corporation and its subsidiaries (the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation is one such). That’s all changed now—even here in Erie County, the home of a case from 39 years ago involving Ralph Wilson Stadium, when the idea of giving a private entity public money for a “public purpose,” like entertainment, still had to be litigated.
But that was a case about a stadium that arguably provided a unique public entertainment. This case is about a handout of public money to a chain retailer with a cookie-cutter approach to selling stuff that has nothing to do with Buffalo. The people in charge of the project want to put over $150 million in public money into a big retail and restaurant complex—$35 million in direct subsidy for Bass Pro’s proposed store building, plus $1 a year rent for them, plus 30 “controlled” boat slips at the end of the Central Wharf for them, plus parking for school-bus-length “recreational vehicles” for fishing-tackle customers, plus thousands of underground parking spaces and some ersatz (fake, non-navigable, 3-foot-deep) “canal” replicas.
Conflict of interest?
The lawsuit addresses a couple of procedural issues—including how it was that Empire State Development Corporation decided to rubber-stamp an Environmental Impact Statement before it was even completed. But the suit also takes on one of the more glaring examples of inside baseball to have come to light in recent years.
Here’s how Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) got the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to hand over a 30-year stream of payments worth a few million a year: ESDC had its own employee, an attorney who happens also to chair the State Economic Development Power Allocation Board, to okay the deal.
Sweet deal, says ESDC! Our guy says that we get to hand out his money to our friends.
But there’s a problem: there are rules that even the State Economic Development Power Allocation Board has to follow, specifically, its own rules, and they are pretty precise about where NYPA power and money can go.
So here is what the people who filed the suit want. First, we’d like the Court to stop money from being spent until the case is decided. If the money disappears into the project, it’s gone forever, and the good work that our Congressional Delegation and the previous County administration did in getting a settlement from NYPA will be gone. There is a good use for all that money—the use for which it was originally sought, namely, to clean up the filthy Buffalo River basin, which is full of what we flush into it every time winter runoff and spring, summer and fall rains make our sewers overflow. Greenspace on the waterfront, including the river’s banks, is a sane and worthy and achievable goal. Water that doesn’t stink? That doesn’t have to be combed for “brown trout”? Priceless.
Second, we’d like the subsidies for Bass Pro and for the mystery “second anchor tenant” to be voided as violations of the New York State Constitution’s clear prohibition of gifts or loans to private parties.
Third, we’d like the State agencies, authorities, boards, corporate governmental agencies, municipalities and their employees to follow their own rules for a change, especially concerning the $105 million in NYPA money that has been shunted into the Canal Side project.
The true deliverable
But there’s more, and this the lawsuit can’t deliver. Everybody who worked for or signed a petition in support of the Commercial Slip knows what we’re talking about: Buffalo has to stop grasping at big projects that always promise regional transformation but that deliver only short-term economic impact.
The rules of globalization do not favor us. All the public subsidies to the GM PowerTrain project in the first years of this decade were supposed to help the region retain about 5,000 jobs there. Today, there are 1,000 jobs, or fewer. HSBC Bank may or may not stay in the HSBC tower. HSBC’s North American operations center is in Vancouver, not Buffalo; its chief of Information Technology operates out of a brand-new office north of Chicago; its global CEO just moved to Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, as Great Lakes cities that used to be global leaders in manufacturing struggle, we seek to re-invent ourselves. It’s hard work, and nobody has yet figured out how to stop the population from shrinking.
Buffalo just held a weekend Garden Walk that I can hear the economic “development” geniuses all laughing about. But check this out: we hosted some senior planning officials from another shrinking Great Lakes metro, Cleveland, this past weekend. They walked and toured the part of Buffalo that lies west of Main Street, south of Delaware Park and north of downtown. They were astounded by the level of citizen engagement. They were thunderstruck that there is what one termed an “intact fabric” of older housing where reconstruction, rehabilitation and adaptive re-use projects were noticeably underway. Cleveland, a city of under 450,000 in a region of 2 million, used to be 900,000. Cleveland wants to learn from Buffalo’s citizens and community groups.
So we discussed the challenges that Great Lakes metros all share—especially the fact that our politicians and civic leaders cannot quite bring themselves to accept that our population will continue to shrink. (The Buffalo metro area will shrink by as few as 50,000 and as many as 100,000 people in the next two decades, according to independent estimates by the US Census Bureau, a project at Cornell University and one at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business.)
When the conversation about the Canal District began in the 1990s, everybody had experienced shrinkage and decline, but the age of the Big Project was in full swing. Jim Griffin was mayor, Dennis Gorski was County Executive, Mario Cuomo was governor and the public toolbox included an entity called the Horizons Waterfront Commission. Buffalo’s unique history wasn’t of much concern to anybody official. Luckily for those who like what is uniquely Buffalo about Buffalo—even an area of our town that was synonymous with violent crime, prostitution, pollution, bad smells and bad politics for a hundred years—Horizons moved at a glacial pace. By 1999 when Dennis Gorski was running for re-election, a polyglot group of activists correctly sensed that the pro-preservation challenger Joel Giambra, author of a much-derided but prescient “Canal Village” plan ten years before, wanted to save what was left of the Erie Canal’s terminus. Activism, clever demonstrations, relentless editorializing and much litigation ensued. By and by, Giambra engineered support from then-governor George Pataki, who happily stood on the deck of one of the blue-water warships that Jim Giffin had installed on the Buffalo River and ceremoniously accepted, on the 175th anniversary of Governor DeWitt Clinton’s inauguration of the Erie Canal, a red jug full of Great Lakes water, which he promised to “marry,” as his predecessor had done, with the salt water of New York harbor.
Those of us who were involved in some or even much of that history liked that outcome. This being public land, of course, and political careers being as evanescent as they are, by 2007, when Giambra was no longer popular and Pataki was no longer governor, the current crop of the politically powerful tried to undo what preservationists, elected officials, lawyers and judges had agreed upon.
The lawsuit we filed this week is an 11th-hour attempt to keep what was won, and to knock some sense into folks, too. Our region is over-retailed, and our water is dirty, and generations of Buffalo residents yet to be born will benefit more, body and soul, will and wallet, from a steady effort to reclaim public space than from a crash program in corporate welfare. The NYPA money could fund a lot of hardhats working to give us some more clean and a lot more green. If Goldman and his fellow plaintiffs prevail, we still have a chance at that kind of waterfront. If we lose, congratulations, folks: you’ve just bought yourselves some more stores, maybe a bank building, lots of parking spaces for RVs, and some fake canals. Remember, though, to hold your nose when you visit it. You’ll need to.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.
Agree with biniszkiewicz! Excellent article that needs to be read and realized by many.
Lillith 29 Jul 2010, 19:41
Agree with biniszkiewicz totally. I interview people daily about their desire to visit a Bass Pro and I have not had ONE positive response. Do some checking with Bass Pro's success in other cities...NONE! Serious fishermen buy from catalogues like Cabellas. Let's not muck up our chance for a class act Canal District. Aren't Buffalonians tired yet of the closed door deals which have set us so far back?...I sometimes doubt we'll ever recover. Go visit some successful cities with water front renovations. Shame on us...we definitely need new leadership. Great article Bruce Fisher. Sign me up to help rid the parasites from preventing serious progress. Buffalo needs total fumigation! Email this article to everyone you know who cares about Buffalo.
Expat 30 Jul 2010, 07:44
Thank you Bruce (and Mark and al.)! Although I am not clear on what grounds BassPro could/would be sued, I think going after the self-interested, small-minded "leaders" behind this project makes complete sense (and, I applaud your bravery.) Quinn and Levy should step down when/if the BP plan falls. They clearly have no clue.
Elise 30 Jul 2010, 09:30
Great article and hopefully a wake up call for our fellow Buffalonians. I participated in the 175th anniversary celebration of Governor DeWitt Clinton’s inauguration of the Erie Canal. It was moving and meaningful, if only we could take a leap to move forward to a more prosperous future for our beloved city.
jay Ferrari 30 Jul 2010, 12:33
Great article Bless You.
You should also review the stalled " Peace Bridge" versus the Windsor Bridge folks that assembled land to build a private bridge for trucks that would obviate the need for Front Park and the balance of the historic area to be decimated by a larger truck parking with their diesel fumes and tarrif free store. Our Boards of elites love to move their projects without concern for our welfare BUT their welfare!!
Ed Albert 30 Jul 2010, 14:46
Bass Pro is finally DEAD!!! Yahoo!
Levy and Quinn-your services are no longer required. Please step aside-let's get some true urban planners in there.
stinglikeabee 30 Jul 2010, 18:31
who cares who goes in there as long as they do something with the area???? This project would bring jobs to Buffalo which we desperately nee. Now this area is going to sit vacant for how many more years. Come on Buffalo, You've got nothing to lose at this point.....
Fredo 09 Aug 2010, 09:35
Here we go again....Numb nuts Fisher (does it mater which?) received gov subsidies out the ying yang for asbury church, now wants to cut hairs on who gets the gov dole out, hypocrite. Then we have brother, visting a-hole Brucy who now been reborn and is going to tell us how, we low life scum bags, need to live our lives. BTW, when is your vist up? Can you leave for God's sake? How's ertswhile friends Giambra & Pigeon doing these days?, you freak!
This rag of a paper, is just that, needs to get some feakin credibility, from Bruce Fisher's bi-monthly pontification upon Mt Sinai to Jamie Moses' beach ball interview with Larry Quinn, this place is for those edumactedly challenged and the mentally insane.
Whether their nmessage is right or not, how can anyone believe the crap that comes from those that made their careers lying to people, politicizing events and taking advantage of the overall system, for their personal and political gain?, which ultimately hurt the community at large.
Jamie grow a pair, and get rid Brucy and stop interviewing your BFF. Let professionalism root itself back in your paper.