Monday, July 1, 2013

Dear Buffalo: An Open Letter from a Millennial

The following is an editorial piece by Derek King, a young professional living in Buffalo. He understands that Buffalo is not sentient, but has anthropomorphized it to make a point. ... a very long point. 

Dear Buffalo,

This is going to sound harsh, but I really don't want it to come across too accusatory. I'm a strong advocate for being open and truthful in my relationships, so I wanted to come out and say how I'm feeling before it's too late.

I love you Buffalo, but things just aren't moving fast enough.

Please don't take that the wrong way! You're doing so many things right! I love the late-night scene here, and I love how my life is filled with great music, tons of art galleries and museums, great food, and most of all, a cheap cost of living. You're doing so much right, and some things continue to get better: bike lanes on Delaware, Linwood, and Hudson to help make life a little easier for someone who wants to save gas. I love the weather during the summer (I know you can't help what happens in the winter, and I'm trying to accept that), and I love the free Concert Series (series, plural: Bidwell, Larkin, Harbor).

...but, to be honest, some things are still missing.

I mean, even you have to admit that the recent decision to allow ECC's new building to be constructed in Amherst was a bad decision. It was a bad decision 50 years ago with UB, and it's still a bad decision today. I know, I know, it's probably good for Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz and anyone who owns land near the Amherst campus, especially after Mr. Cuomo's decision regarding SUNY Tax free zones, but is it really good for you Buffalo?

I guess you are moving the medical schools downtown, and that's a good move to be sure, but when you go to cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, and even other Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh, the colleges downtown form the backbone of their real estate and retail markets, and the Buffalo's grad-school commitment feels like too little, too late, especially in light of the ECC decision. Like I said, I love you Buffalo just how you are, and there's a reason I'm living here and none of those other places, but can't you can see how much more sense it makes to keep as many students downtown as possible?

It's not just colleges though; what the heck are you doing with your public schools? You currently spend over $700 million on public education, and yet our schools are some of the most underperforming in the nation. How does that inspire confidence for me, down the road (waaaayyy down the road), when I'm thinking about starting a family? I don't want to live in Clarence, or Amherst, or East Aurora; I want to live in Buffalo, but it's disheartening to only see City Honors and the Olmsted Schools performing at acceptable levels.

With all the problems in our school system, it's tough to address all of them, but I'll pick one that highlights the problems and leads into my next point; consolidating students and resources for English Language Learners, especially in refugee and immigrant populations. Back in 2010, a study by the Council of Great City Schools noted the biggest inefficiencies were in spreading ELL programs around the city, reducing both student and cost effectiveness. This is harming not only the potential of 10% of Buffalo's student population, but the larger community as a whole, having to subsidize substandard education programs.

That report was compiled over three years ago, and yet, many in the education field say little to none of the recommendations have been implemented. One of the major components of the report called not only for consolidating services, but better educating immigrant and refugee families about school programs and increasing parent involvement. By coordinating education services and increasing targeted refugee resettlement, you could save Buffalo money, as well as fuel neighborhood revitalization like we've seen in the West Side.

You've had three years to begin implementing this stuff Buffalo, but why haven't you? Don't you want a better school system, and equally pressing (and for some, more pressing), to save money?

Most importantly, understand that a strong, supported, and vibrant immigrant and refugee community is what I want too (after all, this letter is just as much about me, a self-centered Millenial, as it is about you). Grant Street is one of the most exciting places to live near, not just because of places like Sweetness 7 and Guercio's, but for the incredible diversity on the street. By reaffirming your commitment to strengthening refugee and English learners around the city, you help allow these vibrant and interesting communities to survive. I long for the days when Buffalo had vibrant cultural neighborhoods, and I would be just as happy to live in a city where traditionally German and Italian streets are now Burmese and Nepali.

I could talk about manufacturing, but that's been beaten to death by many people, and I know you're probably doing your best to attract manufacturers with high material cost (but low labor-cost) who could easily benefit from our labor force and old factories. At least, I hope you're doing a better job at getting those than you are at preserving buildings.... OK! OK! I won't get into a preservation debate with you again... even though it is environmentally friendly and does create more jobs than-- OK! I'm done!

Let's talk about transportation. Like I said, great job with the bike lanes so far! It's so nice biking down Linwood and Richmond, and now with Delaware lined, I can almost make it to the waterfront entirely by bike lanes. ...but, why aren't there any cross-town bike paths? How come I can't get to Linwood from Richmond without being nearly driven off the road by a car who thinks I'm in their way? Again, great job so far, but really, I don't think it's too much to ask for a little more connectivity with the bike lanes!

I do want to applaud you on your decision to expand light rail out to UB North, even if I wish you would have used those millions to move the campus into the city... or constructed a branch out to the airport... or to Buff State and the museums...

I know, I know-- light rail is expensive, and though it does increase property values dramatically, it hardly offsets the cost overall. What about dedicated bus lanes at least? Do we really need 4-lane highways down Niagara, Genessee, Syracuse, and Broadway? If you're not going to build a light-rail line out to the airport, would you at least consider putting an express bus out there, and to the museums and colleges? Remember that time I thought about taking the bus to catch a flight and found out I'd need to leave 4 hours beforehand to make it work? That's insane. The same principle for light-rail applies to busses: development occurs around public infrastructure, and dedicated bus-lanes are an efficient (and far less expensive) option Buffalo could integrate easily.

But, thinking even smaller than that... Buffalo, what's going on with your sidewalks? Half of the east side looks like it's suffered from the outbreak of nuclear war, and centuries of abandonment. OK, that may be a little bit harsh, but c'mon Buffalo! If you're too cheap to do light-rail, dedicated bus and bike lanes, can't you at least put new sidewalks and trees along your streets?

I'm sorry, it's not fair to accuse you of being cheap; you're a city of 260,000 people, own 20,000 non-revenue producing properties, and suffer from incredibly high unemployment. This is why decisions to let ECC continue to expand outside of the city (in an area that already sees high economic investment), or to pursue silver-bullet projects with little public benefit (like the ironically named Public Bridge Authority) that actually physically hurt the neighborhoods around them, are increasingly dispiriting.

Once again, I don't mean to jump down your throat, but there's just so much I want you to do! I see how much you can achieve, what you can be, and I'm disappointed every day it doesn't happen. I'm jealous of other cities who have all of these services, and I have no reason to be jealous: those cities can't hold anything to the cultural experience of living Buffalo.

....but darnit Buffalo! Even there you're dropping the ball! It seems like you don't even advertise the things you do well! Why is it that the only thing people know about this city are the two struggling sports teams, snow, and wings? Why doesn't anyone know about the incredible theatre community, headlined by Shakespeare in the Park and Sheas, and complimented by the dozens of other private troupes and theatres? Why hasn't anyone heard about the incredible architecture here? Why are people still surprised to hear that bars are open until 4AM, and that they often feature live music or events? Why aren't you highlighting how affordable it is here, or marketing some of those ridiculously cheap properties you own, or even the Homestead program, which would definitely draw in young people from all over the country? Why is our best-kept secret (our thriving arts community) kept a frigging secret at all!

This is what's so frustrating about you Buffalo! You have so much potential, have so much going for you, but you don't even seem to realize it! You are putting all of your energy into big projects (Peace Bridge, Casino, BNMC), but are neglecting the things that make you special in the first place: unique, vibrant, and affordable neighborhoods; beautiful schools; incredible arts and night life; and efficient if underutilized public transportation.

Most people here get it: they host events highlighting these great parts of the city, write articles about restaurants and clubs, and talk daily about why we should get rid of highways along our waterfront, in our parks, and through our neighborhoods. They run things like City of Night, and the Allentown Arts Festival, and GoBike, and numerous other amazing things.

Yet none of that will matter unless the leadership of the city comes forward and matches its citizenrys' passion and intensity. Every day that Buffalo acts against the interest of its residents, particularly the young and energized that most cities covet, is another day those millennials ask, "maybe there's a city that's a better fit for me."

They don't have to look far: just an hour east, Rochester looms with a slightly more chic downtown, and many interesting neighborhoods (though not as many as Buffalo). Pittsburgh, three hours to the south, has the Cathedral of learning right in it's city center (taller even than HSBC), and feels almost exactly like Buffalo... but with hills and rivers that give it character flat Buffalo could never match. Above all is Toronto, a burgeoning city with cultural enclaves on par with Chicago, San Francisco, and LA... all of which are also landing pads for discouraged Buffalonians. My generation will not be moving back to the suburbs, just as many in the suburbs will never come back to you, but we may move to cities that better meet our needs and wants.

That has been the pattern for a long time though, hasn't it Buffalo? Your young people leave, and some come back, but most don't. All of them say how much they love what you have to offer, but lament the same things over and over again; corruption, inefficiency, and the continued repetition of past mistakes.

Looking at you today, Buffalo, I see a lot of passionate young folks who want many of the things (and more) that other cities offer. Many of them also love everything that you already have, but are torn, once again, but a perceived lack of support on behalf of the city and regional leadership.

Again, don't misunderstand me, because I'm not leaving you! My hope is that maybe you'll listen to what I'm saying, what many of my colleagues and peers are saying, and you'll make changes. I don't want you to be a Chicago, or a Rochester, or a San Francisco: I want you to be Buffalo, but a Buffalo that doubles-down on everything that already makes you special... and maybe taking a little of what has worked elsewhere to fill in the gaps.

I love you Buffalo, and I am so excited about many of the things I see happening here, but I'm worried you just might not be moving fast enough. Please stop fighting the young people who are trying to make this city a place they want to live: instead, work with us, and I promise more will follow.

If you don't however, and continue to make the same mistakes you've always made, and continue to invest in things that benefit only a few people at the expense of the rest, you'll not only lose the opportunity to become the city you deserve to be, but you'll lose the people who could get you there.

With love,
A concerned Millennial.

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