I was born at Children’s Hospital in 1963, which means that I grew up in a time when Dutch elm disease was laying waste to our beautiful tree-lined streets, big factories were moving operations to Mexico and the region’s population was starting to shrink. More and more Buffalonians were choosing to live outside the city – in suburbs and exurbs. But despite these blows to our economy and our cohesion, Buffalo always struck me as a proud and neighborly city. Like many of my peers, I thought the “Talking Proud” jingle was a little embarrassing, but I also knew it by heart and enjoyed serenading my college roommates with it at the least provocation.
I spent roughly 20 years away, living in Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. About 10 years ago, I was lucky enough to return, along with my wife and our two daughters. I co-direct the Partnership for the Public Good, which does research and advocacy on behalf of 160 community groups, and I teach at the University at Buffalo Law School and Cornell University. Through my work, I have come to know countless people who are making Buffalo better, and my hope for Buffalo’s future has never been stronger.
One thing I like about the community leaders I work with is that they make the most of two Buffalo tag lines: “Talking Proud” and “City of No Illusions.” In other words, they manage to celebrate the great things about our city without glossing over its very real problems. Perhaps the most serious challenge we face is inequality, particularly concentrated, racialized inequality. Take poverty. If you look at the Buffalo Niagara metropolitan region, our poverty rate (14 percent in 2010) is actually below the national average (15 percent). But if you look at Buffalo by itself, the poverty rate is a shocking 30 percent. Although poverty is growing fast in some inner-ring suburbs and rural areas, it is still very concentrated in the city.
Our racial segregation and inequality are among the worst in the nation. In 2010, the poverty rate for whites was less than 10 percent, but for blacks and Hispanics it was 36 percent. Only 11 percent of whites live in high-poverty neighborhoods, but 80 percent of blacks and 59 percent of Hispanics do. Growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood has a tremendous impact on your life opportunities, affecting everything from education to health.
Buffalo’s challenges are real, but they are not insoluble. Every day I see people turning abandoned houses into beautiful homes, and vacant lots into community gardens; people changing children’s lives with after-school and arts programs; people reaching across geographic and racial lines to do what’s best for the community. That is why I was so excited when Dale Zuchlewski, the executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York, told me his plan for Hands Across Buffalo – an idea he first heard from former Buffalo Common Council Member Beverly Gray.
And now it’s happening. At 11 a.m. on Saturday, thousands of people are going to link hands along the length of historic Ferry Street – joining residents from all parts of the region, all races and ethnicities, all religions and cultures. It’s a simple gesture, but a deep one: to show us and the world that what unites us is greater than what divides us and that we stand committed to making our city what Martin Luther King Jr. would call a “beloved community.” For more information, visit www.handsacrossbuffalo.org.