Perhaps they should have held the outer harbor public forums in a barbershop. After all, that’s where Buffalo’s blacks are most vocal about solving the region’s problems.
Unfortunately, though, the sessions to see if people want parks, shops, a football stadium or something else on the waterfront were held in public venues – a virtual no man’s land for African-Americans, as evidenced by a history of invisibility when it comes to shaping the region’s public agenda.
This isn’t Ralph Ellison’s invisible man. This is a self-imposed irrelevance that has nudged the stadium complex – long talked about among blacks – completely out of the Outer Harbor review process.
The stadium has been pushed for years by WUFO radio sports director Pat Freeman, who’s working with the Greater Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Complex/HKS that developed a formal proposal. He gathered more than 3,000 petition signatures, got Common Council backing and 42 letters of support from community organizations and churches excited by the jobs that could be created.
Nevertheless, when Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. sponsored three public forums, plus a session last week to rate suggested uses, African-Americans were virtual no-shows. One forum was even held at the Makowski Early Childhood Center on Jefferson Avenue – in the heart of the black community – yet one participant estimated that blacks were only about 20 percent of the audience.
So much for having a voice.
“The majority of the people there weren’t even from our community,” lamented Willie Stewart, long active in grass-roots organizations.
Stewart’s take on the apathy is that African-Americans look around the community, don’t see much evidence of their tax dollars at work, and therefore don’t feel they can have an impact.
“We don’t see ourselves as taxpayers, so we don’t come out to these events,” he said.
If true, it’s a sad commentary on a people who once were energized by inequity, not cowed by it.
One result of being MIA is that the stadium complex wasn’t even up for discussion at last week’s meeting, an insult that Freeman said never would have happened if more of those who claim to support it had been among the 340 at WNED studios saying what they want on the Outer Harbor.
No matter how one feels about the multifaceted waterfront stadium plan – and there are valid arguments against it – it deserves to be part of the conversation based on the buzz that it has generated in the community.
But buzz without follow-up action is just noise.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that people who will stand in line for concert tickets or to get into a club are no-shows when it really counts. It’s not the first time blacks have ceded the debate to others, only to then complain of being shut out or marginalized by racism, as if it were still the 1950s.
What’s the answer? Stewart thinks it’s better communication among African-Americans about such issues.
But at this point, I have another suggestion: The next time there’s a community meeting of great public import, someone should hang a “whites only” sign on the front door.
Maybe then, blacks will show up.