Last week in Allentown, we caught an unpleasant glimpse of the future.
Michael Mulley, whose popular College Street Gallery has operated out of a closet-sized space on Allen Street since 1997, announced that his landlord was booting him from the space to make room for a neighboring restaurant to expand by adding a bar.
The news prompted a small eruption of community outrage over the displacement of a beloved Allentown institution and what some view as the degeneration of Allentown into an alcohol-based monoculture.
“They’re really messing up our neighborhood with this stuff,” Mulley said. “No matter how classy a bar is, the end result is drunk people. It doesn’t matter if they’re drinking martinis or PBRs.”
The vocal reaction against the news from some in the art community, in turn, provoked a backlash from others who view the restaurant’s expansion as evidence of the neighborhood’s natural evolution and the gallery’s supporters as members of some big, bad artistic elite.
It’s fair to say that much of the rhetoric on both sides was overheated and that neither Mulley nor the restaurant next door to his gallery are the villains they’ve been made out to be.
But if you look past that rhetoric to the central issue at play – a landlord’s decision to displace a grass-roots cultural destination in the pursuit of short-term profit – you can see a sneak preview of the movie that will soon be playing in neighborhoods throughout Buffalo.
Indeed, one gallery paying below-market rent being displaced amid increasing investment is not an earth-shattering development. But as the shadow of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus looms larger over Allentown and the prosperity of the Elmwood Village extends westward, we’ll see many more displacements in the years to come.
Now, rather than next year or next decade, is the time to figure out how historically affordable neighborhoods like Allentown can retain a diverse mix of affordable housing, retail and nonprofit offerings in the face of new development and increasing rents and property values.
There are many tools other cities have used to safeguard the future vitality of cultural spaces in rapidly developing neighborhoods.
In San Francisco, an innovative partnership is afoot among two foundations and the mayor’s office to buy buildings in the city’s Mid-Market neighborhood for nonprofits before less community-minded developers get their hands on them. Denver’s active public ownership and stewardship of properties such as the Denver Performing Arts Complex means that the city will long have a static and stable downtown headquarters for many of the city’s arts groups.
In Buffalo, where foundation money is much more limited and the city is selling off troubled properties such as the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre, these kinds of remedies don’t seem to be on the horizon.
Paul Hogan, vice president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, the largest private philanthropy in the city, said the best way to preserve affordable cultural spaces in changing neighborhoods is to appeal to private developers, property owners and investors and to take the long view.
“Philanthropy is going to have a pretty limited impact, unless we want to become land owners, and we don’t. We don’t have that kind of money,” Hogan said. “What has to happen is that people who own the properties and are looking to make the money need to be convinced that it’s good to have a good mix of economic representation in the neighborhoods and a good mix of different kinds of businesses, not just for-profits, but nonprofits.”
Hogan also praised the work being done by community groups like Open Buffalo and PUSH Buffalo to preserve affordable housing and foster a broader range of economic activity, but he suggested that the fate of small galleries like Mulley’s lies primarily in the hands of property owners and developers who favor long-range returns over short-term gains.
“It’s like, look, man, if we can build the neighborhood, this will be better for your investment,” Hogan said. “Some will respond and some won’t.”
We’re lucky to have a number of progressive developers in Buffalo, among them Rocco Termini, Howard Zemsky and William Breeser, who to various degrees embrace the presence of cultural spaces as vital ingredients in truly vibrant neighborhoods. Others are more interested in making a quick buck than in maintaining long-term cultural vitality.
It would be great if Buffalo had San Francisco or Pittsburgh’s private money or Denver’s culturally progressive regional government, but it doesn’t – at least not yet. And while it’s too early to dismiss some of the more radical strategies now being developed in other cities, Hogan’s suggestion rings true:
For those seeking to benefit from Buffalo’s resurgence, it’s crucial to their bottom line to do so in a way that doesn’t rip its cultural fabric to shreds.