Buffalo’s use of the Model Cites program in Hamlin Park stands out as one example of attempting a holistic approach to urban planning that attempted to combine physical and social planning concepts. As defined in the 1966 act that authorized the program, a model city was “any municipality (city or county) selected to receive planning funds as the first step of a five-year program to improve physical, social, and economic conditions in a large blighted neighborhood. The target area is generally known as the model neighborhood.” Improvements were not limited to private housing but included “better education, improved health and medical services, increased opportunities for economic development, job training, and better physical surroundings.” The Buffalo Model Cities Bulletin explained some of the program’s lofty goals:
The Model Cities program seeks to help cities deal more effectively with the broad range of urban problems by giving them the technical and financial assistance to coordinate and concentrate public and private resources in a locally developed program. The unique features of the program are the supplemental grants to give the city greater flexibility in carrying out its program, the promise of a coordinated Federal response to local needs, and the encouragement of a working relationship between city government and residents. The program targets neighborhoods with serious social, physical, and economic problems: In attacking these human and physical problems, these selected cities are expected to use innovative approaches, new techniques, and reach a high degree of coordination of Federal, State, local, and private resources. Accomplishments should serve as ‘models’ to be followed by other cities facing similar problems.
The program began with an in-depth analysis of the problems affecting each neighborhood. From there, it would be determined what could be initiated in terms of social and physical development programs to help alleviate issues in the neighborhood, particularly areas that were being bypassed by the area economy and its infrastructure. This component of the Model Cities program was essential; unlike other physical development programs, which merely gave areas a temporary facelift, this program was premised on an understanding of the underlying problems of a neighborhood. By 1967, 200 cities had applied for Model Cities funding, of which 75 were given first round approval, one of which was Buffalo.
POST MODEL CITIES ERA
In 1972, after the program had been in existence for almost five years, critiques of the Model Cities program began to appear. Judson L. James, writing in Publius, called the program “horribly ambiguous,” centered around vague goals of increased “citizen participation” and providing “delivery of service.” This resulted in a constant shift in exactly how much was expected from “citizen participation,” which could mean anything from driven entirely from within the community to being handled by mayors and governors. Additionally, the goals of the program were so lofty (not to mention enigmatic), that it often surpassed the capabilities of the local governments responsible for enacting the policies. The Model Cities program began as a way to sift through the innumerable, and often inscrutable, existing community development programs, but it quickly became unwieldy and unhelpful itself.
After his election in 1968, President Nixon attempted to address some of the issues that were already apparent only two years into Model Cities. By passing the act of 1968, Nixon formalized the program by streamlining the relationship between the local community and the offices of mayors and governors. Another key change was classifying Model City funds into four subcategories: urban renewal, social programs, grants for basic water and sewer facilities, and rehabilitation loan programs like the concentrated code enforcement used in Hamlin Park. As James noted, however, one of the goals of the program was to decentralize federal programs. By reconfiguring the programs, with increased emphasis on the state and national level, the program moved in the opposite direction of what was originally intended.
Robert Aleshire noted several other problems with the program in 1972. His article for the Public Administration Review focused on the crux of the problem with the Model Cities and other poverty programs: power. The goal of these programs, he contested, was to give power to individuals and communities that found themselves relegated to the outskirts of institutional power. He noted that the involvement of the poor in these programs was a double-edged sword for organizers. If the poor were not involved, then it was the same case of institutional power dictating their lives to them and, more than likely, not even addressing the problems in their community. However, when the poor were involved, the slow pace of bureaucratic operations created frustration and distrust with community members who wanted to see change. Officials who chose to involve the poor in these programs tended to lose standing in those communities regardless of how they acted.
Bennett Harrison picked up the issue of jobs in 1974. His piece, “Ghetto Employment and the Model Cities Program,” used statistical analysis to determine what independent variable contributed to the fact that of the 25,000 jobs created to run the Model Cities program, less than half actually went to members of the communities it was meant to serve. Despite the fact that the law explicitly stated a preference for employing residents of the model neighborhood in all phases of the program,” only 44 percent of all Model Cities positions were held by community members in 1969, a percentage that remained constant in 1971. Harrison, an associate professor at MIT at the time, also used almost 20 independent variables to determine the wage discrepancy between workers, both resident and non-resident, and the variable with the highest significance was race, often accounting for over $1,000 in wage differences. According to Harrison’s report, organization members remained skeptical even as officials assured them measures were being taken to promote African Americans in the program. This was a concern in Buffalo as well, and in October 1968 the Hamlin Park Community Association demanded an explanation from city Urban Renewal officials. One association member asked, “Why do black people always have to be assistants?”
HAMLIN PARK AND MODEL CITIES
In Buffalo, city officials relied heavily on federal Urban Renewal funding to achieve their goals. At the center of the city’s efforts were the demolitions of historic structures downtown for large modern buildings and parking lots. The trend began in the Central Business District (CBD), when blocks of Main Street and Delaware Ave were demolished to create towering offices and the required parking for their occupants. The modernization of the downtown reverberated outwards, often with harsh ramifications for the surrounding neighborhoods.
Humboldt Parkway, before and after
Employees of these new skyscrapers, choosing to experience the American dream of owning their own home made available to them through cheap housing developments, often lived in the suburbs outside of the city. The city planners, acquiescing to the needs of these suburban drivers, encouraged the sale of buildings for demolition and use as parking lots, as well as construction of several major arterials to ease traffic in and out of the city. One of the most famous examples of this was the sacrifice of Humboldt Parkway (part of the Olmsted park and parkway system), which stretched from Delaware Park through the East Side, for the creation of the Scajaquada and Kennsington Expressways. The new six-lane highway significantly altered one of Buffalo’s most important public spaces and created a chasm that divided neighborhoods on either side.
For many of those neighborhoods on the east side, as well as some of Buffalo’s well-known west-side Italian areas, renewal came at a high price. In the years leading up to the 1960s, Buffalo had shown a remarkable willingness to demolish neighborhoods that were found unsavory, beginning as early as the 1930s with the destruction of the Hooks, an Italian neighborhood that filled the canal side. Following passage of the Housing Act of 1949, which allowed the use of federal funds for slum clearance, the city began an ambitious project to revitalize the CBD-adjacent Ellicott District. In 1958, six years after the project began, the program had little to show other than several vacant lots for the millions of dollars of federal funding it had received, and by 1966 the U.S. General Accounting Office was investigating the delays and mismanagement of the project. A second Italian neighborhood came under siege in the 1960s, when the city began buying up properties in the lower-west side in preparation for a large-scale development project. The latter was eventually scaled down into the complex known as “The Shoreline,” though much of the neighborhood had already been razed.
These projects, while destructive to the character of Buffalo, were not completely unnecessary. As Mark Goldman writes in City on the Edge, “considering that most of the housing units in the city were made of wood and that more than 85 percent of them in 1960 were more than thirty years old, a great deal of the city’s housing stock… was in need of repair.” Decision makers in Buffalo enacted urban renewal campaigns to raze and rebuild some of the oldest areas in the city, compromising the appearance and identities of historic neighborhoods. An alternative approach would have been to rehabilitate existing structures, similar to the approach taken in Baltimore, but planners and developers of the time did not have a vision of the future that built on the historic fabric of the city.
The Urban Renewal programs of the 1940s and 1950s were designed to target physical manifestations of poverty and disrepair but did little for social ailments, and by the 1960s, the results of race-based inequality resonated throughout Buffalo. The “white flight” from the east side coupled with the construction of the expressways created a segregated city, and many of those communities were struggling with poverty and overcrowding. These issues boiled over in 1967 with riots on the east side south of Hamlin Park that lasted from June 26th through July 1st and resulted in forty injuries, fourteen by gunshot wounds. In the preliminary report from the Store Front Education Information Centers at University of Buffalo, the director wrote:
In viewing the Buffalo riots, it is difficult at most, if not impossible, to pinpoint the initiating spark. If anything, the outburst may be attributed to long periods of frustration. As one young Negro youth explains, “We jus’ tired of bein’ lied to, that’s all.” For a long time the people have remained disgruntled about the poor housing and jobs with no future. In seeking answers, they have been told that poverty programs, city, state and Federal, would help them out of the ghetto. None have worked as yet, and the city continues to make similar idle promises. Promises mean nothing anymore and the people are no longer willing to listen.
Author's note: It's very hard to find good photos during the urban renewal and model cities years in Hamlin Park and most are owned by the history museum. Instead I've opted to use current photos to show how beautiful the neighborhood is currently and how well it survived the urban renewal era.