Jay Robertson was 8 when he moved to Buffalo from Los Angeles to live with his grandmother in 1985. Back then, he played basketball at Glenny Park against the backdrop of graffiti-stained high-rises.
The brick towers that made up the Kensington Heights apartments were vacant then, too, already a symbol of failure in a city pockmarked by defeat.
Robertson is grown now, with a son of his own, a good job as a medical driver and a house on nearby Chelsea Place. Buffalo’s on the upswing. Cranes are on the horizon.
Yet those Kensington apartments on Glenny Drive – now fenced off and nearly torn down – remain a persistent reminder of what has gone wrong.
“It’s just always been an eyesore over there,” Robertson said last week. “There’s just too many empty promises in this neighborhood by itself.”
The Kensington Heights complex is no longer just a symbol of the city’s decay. Until it is fully dismantled, the site will remain a monument to the laziness, ignorance or just plain greed that trumped the safety of children who use a nearby park and school.
The last of eight defendants caught up in a federal investigation into the poor handling of asbestos in the buildings is expected to take a plea deal this week. Two city inspectors pleaded guilty last week to misdemeanor crimes of negligent endangerment. Their pleas followed the admission by a contractor that he cut corners on the job and allowed his employees to dump asbestos down holes cut in the floor.
It has been five years since politicians gathered in the summer sun to make speeches in front of the Kensington Heights towers. Some wore hard hats as they lined up for the cameras. The pictures show parked construction equipment and buildings with blown out windows. The plan, then, was to build a retirement community on the site.
It was supposed to be a turning point for a housing project left for decades to rot. Instead, it became a rotten deal for residents waiting too long for change.
“We don’t know what’s what,” said Robertson. “I think that’s the only frustrating part as far as a lot of parents. They don’t know what’s going on, and they really wish they’d get it done and get it done properly and efficiently.”
Robertson’s son plays football for the Buffalo Ravens, a Pop Warner team that practices not far from the towers. He’s been told the park where the boys play is safe, but like other parents, he still worries about what was in the air after the cleanup went bad.
Environmental Protection Agency air and soil tests done in the neighborhood after the botched job was discovered showed that asbestos levels outside the complex did not exceed federal standards, but that the levels inside did.
The tests helped allay fears. The EPA moved to ensure that the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority committed to completing the cleanup and demolition correctly.
But it was too late to build back the public trust that had already eroded. Residents rely on city inspectors, compliance monitors and those that hire contractors to ensure work gets done safely.
When the watchdogs stop watching, residents are left with little more than doubt.
They shouldn’t have to wonder whether their children are safe.