“If we are to achieve an urban
renaissance,” Ehrenhalt began, quoting urban historian Donald Olsen, “it is the
19th century city that will be
Dr. Ehrenhalt wasn’t proselytizing,
wasn’t predicting, and wasn’t advising. He came to the Burchfield-Penny and
merely reported his observations: American cities are changing, and they are
reversing the patterns of the last 50-years of exodus from urban residential areas.
It is a movement on the part of the
millennials, or most current adult generation born in the 1980s and 90s, and on the part of
retired baby boomers. It is a movement of wealth and creativity back to cities,
pushing both the lower and middle class to the inner and outer suburbs. It is a
movement driven by gentrification and development, and though Mr. Ehrenhalt's research focused on larger cities like Chicago and New York, it is a movement that is
occurring here in Buffalo.
Throughout the country, young people are moving back to cities,
bringing with them art and activism vibrancy that is lacking in suburban communities.
Following them are the wealthy retirees moving into areas that are suddenly
cleaner, crimeless, and in the first step of being gentrified.
Here in Buffalo, the artistic and preservation communities orchestrated the revivals
of Allentown and Elmwood. Today, many of the properties that once were bombed
out, empty shells of their former glory, are beautiful homes that are selling
in the hundreds of thousands.
Talk to anyone in real estate and they’ll tell you how
just 15 years ago you wouldn’t want to live west of Elmwood, and how in just
the last 10 that border moved to Richmond. Today it seems that people have
pushed that threshold all the way to Grant and beyond.
Similarly, Linwood was a ghost street just in recent
memory. Today it’s one of the most beautiful streets in the city, replacing a
lane of traffic with bike lanes to make it incredibly inviting as a residential
neighborhood. As this process progresses, it will inevitably do the once unthinkable: cross Main Street.
Linwood's new bike lanes
What happens 20 years from now? If Mr. Ehrenhalt is correct,
then Buffalo’s gentrification will continue to push lower-income families out
of the city into the inner and outer suburbs. He predicts that the suburbs will
be the landing spot for immigrant and refugee communities, communities that
today are part of the West Side revitalization process.
Essentially, what he described is a return to more
classic city principles, principles that continue to define European cities. Paris, which
did not develop around industry or manufacturing like most American cities, has
long since had a wealthy core surrounded by impoverished communities. The banlieues around that city erupted in violence in the past, and are often
plagued by health and safety issues.
Mr. Erhenhalt tried to stay positive about this transition,
noting that some suburbs are attempting to recreate urban, pedestrian friendly lifestyles
in their communities. In many cases, this is happening regardless of whether
local governments support it, as with Gwinnett County outside of Atlanta, where
immigrants bring life back to grayfields (abandoned strip mall plazas) and are
walking in areas that were only ever designed with cars in mind.
Still, many of these suburbs are slow to adapt, and are unreceptive to this intrusion to their communities, which often occur at the expense of property values. Most importantly, for residential neighborhoods, it is difficult to transition to meet the needs of communities accustomed to the mixed-use nature of urban lifestyles. Ehrenhalt said the easiest fix was changing zoning code to reflect these needs, something Buffalo is doing with the new Green Code.
Near the end of the presentation, an audience member asked what Mr. Ehrenhalt thought should be done about these issues of poverty being pushed to the suburbs. He thought for a moment, then replied, "I can't predict the future, so I can't tell you what should be done, if anything. All I can talk about is what is happening, and why."
While that is all fine and well for Mr. Ehrenhalt, it is important for Buffalo to look at these trends playing out around the country and in our city, and begin planning to address the needs of a more regionalized populace in the coming years. Already the Green Code addresses some of these needs, but soon the lack of mass transit will be an incredibly large issue to overcome.
For right now, however, we should take pride in a city that is well on its way to recovering from the century of suburbanization. Buffalo is filled with a vibrancy that it hasn't had in decades, and those of us here now are the biggest beneficiaries.