This is how it is supposed to be. America. Land of opportunity. Hard work is rewarded. Drive leads to destination. Ours is fertile ground for ideas, the country where ambition – coupled with creativity – shapes a better reality.
For every Bill Gates, who changes the world, there are countless Ibrahim Cisses, who alter a neighborhood. Success. It’s just an idea away.
Cisse sat Thursday in his office on Bailey Avenue. Twenty years ago, he lived on his grandfather’s farm on Africa’s Ivory Coast. Today, his revival of a dilapidated theater marks a path for other local entrepreneurs and injects hope on a street more used to heartbreak.
“I look at the city and see development happening everywhere, except the East Side,” he told me. “But there is a lot of potential here.”
Fashionable in dark shirt and tie, striking with his shaved head and linebacker shoulders, Cisse bears down on every word and looks you in the eye – a man chasing opportunity. He followed it to America 20 years ago, joining a brother in New York City. He tracked it to Buffalo, where the less-frantic pace suited his style. He pursued it with a tech consulting business – everything from computer repair to company set-ups – run out of a Cheektowaga apartment. He grasped it by moving his tech business to a storefront near his home on Bailey Avenue, a tattered street of possibility.
“People here, they don’t have cars. They would load their broken computers in suitcases and get on the bus,” he said. “That’s a service they should have in the neighborhood.”
That’s how Cisse thinks. Streets like Bailey Avenue need more people who see with those eyes.
Dominating the view from his storefront window was the marquee of the Uptown Theater. Cisse saw not an empty former porn palace. He, again, saw opportunity.
“Especially for a community of this size,” he said. “There’s no event space, there’s nothing like this theater.”
There are different ways to grab the American Dream – and it works both ways. Immigrants have long been our renewable resource, bringing a work ethic and an appreciation for the freedom we grant and the opportunity we provide. Cisse – bright, educated, ambitious – is equal parts entrepreneur and urban warrior, a prime candidate – in a sci-fi world – for replication. Simply, we need more like him.
Cisse three years ago paid $135,000 for the fixer-upper, sunk $85,000 into a new roof and nearly as much into interior re-do’s and lighting. A half-dozen offices bring rental income. He last month earned a $150,000 grant that solidifies the theater’s 2015 re-opening, for everything from concerts to stage shows to wedding receptions.
“I want to bring real change to this community,” he told me.
He already has uplifted spirits. Christopher McNeal manages the K-1 Mini Mart across from the theater.
“It’s beautiful to see someone doing something, where people can see new life again,” said McNeal, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years. “To see some type of progress, it’s a big breath of fresh air. We need this kind of revitalization.”
Despite its decline, Bailey Avenue has good bones. It fits the classic model of a commercial street backed by residences. Although not as lofty an income demographic as, say, on Elmwood or Hertel avenues, it never went full belly-up – and pipelines into UB’s South Campus. It potentially can grow beyond a landscape of nail salons and Rent-A-Centers.
In his office, Cisse unrolled a sheaf of blueprints for the coming Subway franchise in the corner of the building.
“There is no place for people to get a quick sandwich around here,” said Cisse, the franchisee. “Soon there will be.”
He is creating a mini-empire which, with the Buffalo Promise Academy next door, will lift a full block of Bailey Avenue. Not just an island unto himself, Cisse is carving a path for others. He reached out to UB’s management school, state officials and the Urban League to run business workshops and dispense advice.
“We’re telling them what we need,” he said, as serious as a storm cloud, “instead of outsiders telling us what must be done. That’s how the conversation has changed.”
It starts with one man, his eyes fixed on Opportunity.