On a soft, sun-splashed August day last summer, the kind we Western New Yorkers summon to mind in the midst of harsh, winter blizzards, I attended Buffalo’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington.
Listening to the speakers that afternoon, I realized that with the commemoration of the day an African-American preacher forever changed America, we began a period of marking 50 years since a broad range of events took place that shaped our country, our community and ourselves. From King’s dream, to President John Kennedy’s death. From students against a war, to women for equality. From a bright Earth Day, to a dark Watergate night. And from a large music festival on Max Yasgur’s farm, to a small step taken by Neil Armstrong’s leg.
These anniversaries offer us an opportunity to pause and consider who we are, where we’ve been and for what we want to stand after we’re gone. As well, they coincide with a unique moment for Western New York as we emerge from a 50-year period of dark decline, and feel a shaft of light across our communal face. As we slowly begin to reverse our region’s long economic slide, it appears that, together, we’re going to receive one of humankind’s most rare and treasured gifts: a second chance. A second chance to create a vibrant, lasting community. One that sustains its youth, nurtures its own and honors its middle class by affirming what President Abraham Lincoln recognized and simply stated long ago, “labor precedes capital.”
Several hallmarks will define Buffalo Niagara’s new age: emphasis on that which renders us unique in culture, heritage and history; recognition that the structure of public education is not just broken, but obsolete; embrace of the rich diversity of our growing minority populations – Burmese, Vietnamese and other Asian immigrants – and their potential to reverse our population decline; a local government system that boosts citizens with opportunity, not burdens them with taxes; and, yes, a little spring in our step, firm in the conviction that there are stars in our path.
Throughout my 20 years of governance reform work, I’ve strived to advance regional collaboration, reduce the burden of our excessive number of governments and officials, and recast the role of private citizens in deciding public policy. At the core of my work was an idea: history chose our generation to either observe our region’s demise or cause its recovery.
Some folks thought my purpose was to reduce politicians. In truth, it was to restore a sense that we could actually change things, at a time when virtually nothing – from our urban waterfront to our suburban staidness – had been rethought, reformed or reimagined in decades.
With change now afoot, the new year in its infancy and our new age in embryonic form, it seems fitting to respectfully offer some ideas to foster our new identity, firm our new direction and ensure that having finally composed the melody of change, we learn the lyrics as well. Successful community is always an act of becoming, an ongoing search. In that spirit, some of my proposals are symbolic, others perhaps obvious, but all are in service of the notion that the unique sense of place that is Buffalo Niagara should be sustained, celebrated and ever engaged in the act of reinvention.
Embrace Erie Canalside
In the 1990s, and under the auspices of The Buffalo News, a communitywide competition was held to name what was then called Buffalo’s “inner harbor.” Coinciding with a citizens’ battle to preserve our Erie Canal western terminus from Albany bureaucrats bent on burying it, the winning moniker was, of course, “Erie Canal Harbor.”
In the hands of incurious developers, that history-filled name has devolved into “Canalside,” a generic term that evokes soulless, interchangeable Florida developments. “Erie Canalside” should serve as the street address for every new building on our waterfront. If not, then why did we struggle so to retain the Commercial Slip’s original structure and streetscape? While we’re at it, let’s call the outer reaches of our urban waterfront what it is: “Buffalo Harbor.”
Eliminate town supervisors
During my downsizing work, I attended more than 400 town, village, city and county legislature meetings – for which I’m not sure if I should be commended or committed – and studied the structures and practices of every level of local government. Among what I learned is this: our 25 elected town supervisors are unnecessary.
In 1967, Erie County residents voted to abolish the Board of Supervisors – a bloated body of 25 town supervisors and 29 Buffalo representatives – and replace it with today’s County Legislature. Research of the debate that produced this reform reveals that voters were told that ending the Board of Supervisors would also eliminate all town supervisor positions. Forty-seven years later, it’s time to make good on that promise.
Under state law, town supervisors possess few if any executive powers, and act in effect as an additional town board member. Each of our 25 towns has a full-time, elected town clerk who, along with nine other elected town officials, provides more representation per resident than any municipal government in America. Moreover, the scores of department heads and hundreds of full-time employees, who do the real work of delivering town services, are self-sufficient and capable. Eliminating town supervisors would save taxpayers $2.3 million per year, or $23 million per decade.
Promote ‘Buffalo Real’
In May 2011, our local marketing and tourism entity, Visit Buffalo Niagara, unveiled its new slogan, “Buffalo For Real.” Conceived by advertising and marketing executives, the phrase rightly seeks to emphasize Western New York’s heritage and cultural assets, and brand our community with our uniquely American, wonderfully Western New York narrative. The slogan captures its goal, but misses doing so in a clean, unclunky manner, inviting snarky satire by virtue of its inadvertent echoing of “for real?” the current idiom for poking fun at implausible behavior.
For the past 70 years, all Harvard College undergraduates – including Mark Zuckerberg – have known the annual “Harvard Freshman Register” by its nickname, “the Facebook,” by virtue of its inclusion of a photo of every first-year student. In homage, Zuckerberg named his world-changing website “the facebook,” until a colleague suggested that he drop the word “the” to achieve a cleaner look and feel. In like manner, we should delete “for” in our community’s slogan. Like “Boston Strong,” “Buffalo Real” would in clear, punchy manner convey the defining characteristics of Western New York’s people and place: original, unaffected and authentic.
Tap young civic leaders
The past 20 years of Western New York history can be divided into two halves: the final decade of the era in which turgid public servants changed nothing; and the first decade in which impatient private citizens began to change everything.
On any given evening in Western New York, you can find a meeting, debate or seminar on virtually every important challenge our community faces – from our nation-leading poverty, toxic air and contaminated water, to cutting-edge strategies on funding cultural institutions. But you rarely find a politician attending them. Our elected officials still hunker down among themselves, frightened to be blamed for chronic unemployment and population loss, and thus absent in perhaps the most important endeavor for any community: devising innovative ideas and initiatives.
Most if not all of the forward-looking influences in our region emanate from emerging young civic leaders. Aaron Bartley’s housing work with PUSH Buffalo; Erin Heaney’s and Rebecca Newberry’s environmental activism at the Clean Air Coalition; Tillman Cleve Ward’s and Buffalo Peacemakers’ effects on the lives of young African-Americans; Jason Zwara’s and Buffalo ReformEd’s public education work; Bernice Radle’s and Jason Wilson’s fresh energy in historic preservation; Jill Jedlicka’s and Jessie Fisher’s work at Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper; Sam Magavern’s economic justice work; Seth Piccirillo’s “talent clustering” in Niagara Falls; and new Elmwood Village Association Director Carly Battin.
Each of these innovators is testament to Buffalo Niagara’s greatest strength: human capital. Our challenge is to connect their ideas and energy with decision-making circles that are disproportionately centered on politicians and the affluent developers who keep them in campaign cash. Indeed, the over-influence of government in Western New York is one of many symptoms of our chronically challenged economy, in which public sector jobs constitute too high a percentage of all employment.
Local public servants should aggressively seek the counsel of these young private citizens, and meld their sense of direction into public policy.
Hold monthly meetings
In 2003, on the eve of New York State imposing a financial control board on the City of Buffalo (followed three years later by a second control board to oversee Erie County), I convened a citizens’ forum to examine government’s role in our economic collapse. As pols engaged in feckless finger-pointing, I culled through the legislative records of our county and city and discovered that the Buffalo Common Council had never met in open session with the Erie County Legislature. Seemingly blind to their overlapping constituencies, the two bodies acted as if one was in New York and the other in Los Angeles.
The “Buffalo Conversation” forum featured the first-ever joint meeting of our city and county legislative bodies, which I naively thought would lead to continued shared sessions. I was wrong.
A functioning region is a communicating region. As we move from yesterday’s stasis to tomorrow’s growth, we’ve made ours a more collaborative, less combative community. But fully eliminating political turf protection will require even more “cross border” cooperation. Monthly joint meetings of the Common Council and County Legislature will advance understanding and increase empathy.
At the Chautauqua governance conferences in the 1990s, we learned that successful policy-making derives from inclusive decision-making. Building coalitions means enlisting individuals and groups with whom perhaps you disagree on some matters, but can agree on others. And just as self-serving politicians must abandon their silos, like-minded citizens must shed the habit of consorting only with their own. The business community’s Buffalo Niagara Partnership should find a cause with which it can team with the spiritual community’s VOICE Buffalo; urban block clubs should be strategizing with suburban taxpayer groups; and the Center for Economic Justice should meet with opponents of the SAFE Act.
It will be a challenge for these disparate groups to find a common purpose. But until they do, we’ll never join the company of growing American communities, the hallmark of which I’ve found in my travels is civic practices that embrace and value all voices.
Merge Lackawanna, Buffalo
It’s been 39 years since the collapse of the steel industry, which first set us on our path of chronic economic decline. During those four decades, no City of Lackawanna government or politician has identified, let alone attracted, a new idea, investment or industry to take its place. Father Nelson Baker would not be impressed. Meanwhile, since 1970, Lackawanna has lost 35 percent of its population and 38 percent of its young people between ages 18 and 34. More than 27 percent of Lackawanna children live below the poverty level. Remediation of its contaminated brownfields remains a dream, while some of its politicians’ behavior is a nightmare. Its hardworking citizens – in particular its rising Yemeni population, as well as its white, Catholic longtime-core residents – deserve better. Merging Lackawanna’s government with the City of Buffalo offers them a way out and up.
Originally the lakefront portion of the Town of West Seneca, in 1909 the City of Lackawanna was carved out, created and named for an incoming steel business, Lackawanna Steel Co. In 1922, Lackawanna Steel was purchased by Bethlehem Steel Corp.
Making Lackawanna a part of Buffalo would increase its access to “Buffalo Billion” funds by eliminating competition between two governments. It would reduce taxes, and streamline everything from devising proper historic preservation policies to delivering snowplowing services. Lackawanna’s identity can be preserved (as strong as that of the Elmwood Village), and its vital services protected (by retaining all police and fire department personnel), while folding its residents into our urban core that’s now attracting investment and growth.
Engage the community
As any airline pilot will tell you, it’s at takeoff that an aircraft is most vulnerable. So it is with a recovering community like ours with, as Alexis de Tocqueville described it, a “longing to rise.” Our age of transition is fraught with perhaps more peril than our time of decline: over-euphoria in initial successes; accepting politicians’ words that we’re cured when we still feel the pain; confusing development with growth; and our imperfect, human tendency to be complacent.
In his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” penned 50 years ago, King wrote of the myth of time. The idea that if you just let time pass, social injustices will disappear and righteousness will reign. In truth, on the pressing challenges of any era, time is impartial. “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,” King said, “but comes through continuous struggle.”
Time did not heal Western New York’s social and economic wounds. Citizens did. And we must continue being an engaged, questioning community. Yesterday’s queries were about replica slips, twin spans, bickering governments, fallow waterfronts, ignored cultural treasures, main streets without cars and suburbs without soul.
Tomorrow’s questions are: Why does our region suffer such a high rate of birth defects among infants? How do we finally create successful public schools? How can we have a new nation-leading medical campus, and still see fliers in shops seeking donations for yet another family economically destroyed by the illness of a child? What must we do to reduce the growing disparity between affluent and impoverished? And how do we create a truly equitable community? In answering these questions, Western New York will finally return home to the community we should and can be.
Kevin Gaughan is a Buffalo attorney and civic leader.