Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Alan Ehrenhalt and the Inversion of Buffalo

Last night Alan Ehrenhalt, professor of Urban Planning, and recent author of The Great Inversion, gave a lecture at the Burchfield Penny as part of a larger lecture series hosted by Buffalo State College’s Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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“If we are to achieve an urban renaissance,” Ehrenhalt began, quoting urban historian Donald Olsen, “it is the 19th century city that will be reborn.”

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. 

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