Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The History of Hamlin Park Part IX: Concentrated Code Enforcement and Model Cities Bring Positive Change

Now that Hamlin Park has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places I've decided to do a short series of the history of the neighborhood. This information comes directly from the National Register nomination that Preservation Studios completed. Check back for additional installations in the series in the coming weeks. Stay up to date with all things Hamlin Park by liking the Hamlin Park Historic District on Facebook.


In a 1967 article by Ralph Taylor and George A. Williams called “Housing in Model Cities,” the authors summarized the goals of the program as meeting the housing needs of residents by improving existing homes and providing housing for citizens of all income levels. This was meant to alleviate concerns that such a program would be used to gentrify a neighborhood while failing to provide low and moderate-income housing.  

If only low-income housing were provided, cities posed the problem of perpetuating conditions of poverty without solving the problems that lead to those conditions in the first place. As such, part of the program stipulated that locating housing projects in areas of high racial segregation would be “prima facie unacceptable,” lest the federal assistance be “used to solidify ghetto housing patterns.”  The Model Cities Program’s solution to this problem was to emphasize rehabilitation; not only was this a less expensive option, but it ensured that federal money could be implemented from within the community and not by forced gentrification measures or ghetto entrenchment.  The program was directly influenced by principles of the Baltimore plan the decade before, and HUD promoted Model Cities as well as several other programs beginning in 1966.

The incredible dome at St. Francis De Sales Church

Hamlin Park, nestled between Main, Jefferson and Humboldt Parkway, managed to avoid many of the problems that plagued Buffalo’s East Side neighborhoods but not all of them. The southern and eastern edges in particular  faced many issues resulting from poverty, including the spread of blight. In the mid-1960s, city officials began a sweeping reform of urban renewal initiatives, implementing many of the new HUD programs, including Model Cities.

In 1966 the Buffalo Division of Rehabilitation and Conservation began a seven-year, citywide, housing inspection program. For Hamlin Park and several other neighborhoods, the division’s goal was to qualify them for a program known as “concentrated code enforcement,” which would trigger federal funds and loans.  Areas were chosen for this HUD program because they did not suffer as strongly from the physical and social problems ailing other parts of the city: as described in the grant handbook, this program was “not a vehicle for correcting the diversified problems of so-called “rock bottom” slums.”  


In order to qualify, city officials surveyed an area and noted any houses that were either out of code or in disrepair.  In addition to receiving funds for home improvements, the area would also be able to take advantage of money for new parks and infrastructure, such as streetlights.  Homeowners who qualified for the program, which was the vast majority of residents, were able to take advantage of federal grants up to $3,000, with the goal being, “to maintain and stabilize the predominantly residential Hamlin Park neighborhood and prevent it from slipping into decay and blight.”   The Allentown-Lakeview code enforcement project was the first to occur, followed by Hamlin Park, and then the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood. 


The Hamlin Park Community and Taxpayers Association formed 1966 to assist the city in these efforts. The association was the culmination of efforts from several other organizations in the area, including the Humboldt-Delevan Interest League, the Humboldt Family Association, the Community Action Organization, and several local block clubs. The taxpayer’s association was integral in helping the city perform surveys, in ensuring community involvement and in coordinating the proper dispersal of funds. 

During the Model Cities era, the association was directly involved in helping to preserve the character and integrity of the neighborhood and community. Indeed, prior to the organization’s formation, “Hamlin Park” had very loose interpretations, sometimes referring to small portions of the area (such as the Driving Park development after 1912), or blending into the adjacent Humboldt Park or Cold Springs neighborhoods. The taxpayer’s association clearly defined Hamlin Park as the area “bordered by Humboldt Parkway on the east, Jefferson Avenue on the west, East Utica on the South, Main-Kensington on the North.”   This solidified the identity of the neighborhood that has now been known as Hamlin Park for nearly fifty years.


During the concentrated code enforcement surveys, the Division of Rehabilitation and Conservation utilized a rating system to determine building quality that covered fifteen categories, eight for the interior and seven for the exterior, and covering most building features, including foundation, porches, stairs, windows, roof, ceilings, walls, plumbing and heating. “Building Specialists” performed building by building surveys, noting key structural and aesthetic issues as well as rating each of the categories listed.   The use of the word “aesthetics” suggested that the program’s goals were intended to extend beyond simply code enforcement and improve things that might suggest blight and neighborhood deterioration.  Structures judged deficient in this category might have missing or mismatched roofing materials, missing or broken window panes, and missing or rotted porch supports, treads, risers or railings.  


After buildings were surveyed, owners were able to apply for federal funding to complete any modifications or repairs. Homeowners were qualified for up to a $3,000 grant to complete repairs on their home, as well as eligible for rehabilitation loans at reduced interest rates.  Members of the Division of Rehabilitation and Conservation department called “Rehabilitation Specialists” helped residents complete applications for the funding.  Though the $3,000 “Section 115 grant” was limited to households that made under $3,000 a year ($20,683 inflation-adjusted to 2013), there were caveats that allowed homeowners above that limit to still get funding. Additionally, the “Section 312 Loan” was available to all building owners, regardless of income, for up to $10,000 for residences and $50,000 for commercial spaces.  Once code violations and estimates for so-called “beautification expenses” had been made and loans and grant money had been secured, financial officers from the department would contact and secure bids from contractors.

The improvement project for Hamlin Park advanced significantly in August 1967, when the Buffalo Planning Board approved $1.2 million for the project. News coverage of the announcement explained the “the total cost of the Hamlin Park project is estimated at $1,223,737, of which $815,824 would be the federal government’s two-thirds share and the $407,913 the city’s share.”  In addition to the home improvements, the entire area would see sewer improvements, tree trimming, new parks, and new playgrounds. The final cost of the project was later estimated at $2.3 million, devoted to the effort to “preserve the value and character of this fine neighborhood.”


After several delays due to resistant residents and absentee landlords, homeowners began making improvements in the final months of 1969, by which point the code enforcement program had been folded into the Federal Model Cities program, becoming synonymous with the larger program in Buffalo as well.  Though the evaluation process, outside of the code violations, was largely subjective and based on the evaluator’s opinion of a building’s appearance, many of the improvements cited in local newspapers included general exterior and interior remodeling, the addition of aluminum siding, and “modernization.”  More specifically, the majority of these projects included partly or fully enclosing open porches (usually to create more living space) and the replacement of deteriorated wood porch elements with wrought iron or steel. 

It seems that modernity was associated with contemporary materials, cleanliness, and the elimination of detail that might be difficult to maintain.  A number of stained-glass windows were also removed, not because they were undesirable but because they were too damaged to repair. In the years between 1969 and 1975, many houses in the district filed building permits for “general repairs,” of the interior and exterior, “window replacement,” “remodeling,” and replace “existing front porch, [with] new posts and railings.” Sometimes these repairs would be accompanied by “as per the Hamlin Park Project,” though the sheer volume of repairs documented in Buffalo’s Permit Office during that time period suggest more projects than the ones noted were prompted by the code enforcement funding.  Approximately 19 percent of the residences in the district (or 292) have enclosed porches today, while 284 (or 18 percent) have replacement porch elements.  Fifteen percent have aluminum siding. 

A publication issued in 1971 by the Buffalo Planning Board served as a guide to understanding why Hamlin Park was chosen. The brochure explained, “what generally became known as Hamlin Park was the first large-scale residential development or subdivision in this part of the country…the great majority of its fine older homes have been well maintained and preserved by their owners. The community, the City, and the Federal Government are cooperating in a massive effort to upgrade the remainder.”  


The code enforcement program utilized in Hamlin Park was consolidated with several other HUD-funded programs (including sewer and health services) under the Model Cities umbrella in 1968. In Buffalo, though the initial code enforcement funding, while separate from Model Cities, came through the same HUD channels, the city made a clear distinction between Hamlin Park and the rest of the city’s urban renewal programs:

The early scheduling of this predominantly nonwhite area was dictated not only because of its position on the blight index, but also because of its strategic location in relation to the overall pattern of blight. Early completion of Hamlin is essential if it is to be maintained a stable area. 

In many ways Hamlin Park was not like the neighborhoods south of it. The middle class nature of the community not only prevented the area from slipping further into disrepair, but also meant it was not in as dire condition as the remainder of the model cities areas. Over 30 percent of the families living in the “Model City” area designated by Buffalo earned less than $3,000 annually, and 7 percent earned under $1,000. In an area of 61,000 people, there was 14 percent unemployment, and 37 percent of the housing stock was substandard.


Jesse Nash became the first Model Cities Association director in 1967. The association was the governing institution of the city’s many Model Cities funded programs, or City Demonstration Agencies (CDAs). Nash’s prerogative was to assist the neighborhoods experiencing the most problems: the Ellicott District, the Fruitbelt, and parts of the Masten neighborhood that bordered Hamlin Park. By engaging communities in smaller neighborhood sections, he hoped to get greater citizen participation. The first boards were made up of about 30 residents and 10 mayor-appointed members, and while Nash butted heads with the common council over self-determination, he was eventually able to secure a great deal of control over Buffalo’s Model City association. 

Among the CDAs sponsored under the Model Cities program that targeted the social ills of these communities were the ECCO Co-operative Food Mart at 300 William Street, which offered lower prices for food, and the Langston Hughes Art center, which helped local artists highlight cultural aspects of the community. Additionally, David Collins, director of the Employment Information Center, enforced a strict policy concerning employee education in the Model Cities program. Individuals who had not obtained a high school diploma were enrolled in an equivalency program, and those who had not attended or completed college were entered into a program through the University at Buffalo to obtain college credit for their work with Model Cities. The 1490 Jefferson Community Service Center opened in October 1971, providing a base of operations for Model Cities programs in the city and supplemented the health and wellness programs already offered at the Clinton Street “Build Academy.”


In all of its forms, Buffalo’s Model Cities program was active between 1966 and 1975. On June 30, 1975, the Buffalo Courier Express reported that as federal funds for the program ran out, programs in the city would continue to shut down. By that point, only four programs remained of the 47 Buffalo boasted at the height of the Model Cities program, which had contributed $18.5 million to inner city revitalization. Though it was ending, the Buffalo Model City Agency was renamed the Division for Demonstration Projects, which was used to oversee programs that had not become self-sustaining over the course of the previous half-decade. One program that was temporarily saved was a bus program that provided free service for the elderly and the handicapped.


Other programs in the city were not so lucky. The Employment Information Center, responsible for securing hundreds of jobs for inner city residents, ended the day the article was released. The article noted a great deal of optimism surrounding the program, as through community meetings in poor neighborhoods had direct input on the distribution of $11.7 million of U.S. Community Development funds. David Echols, acting head of the Division for Demonstration Projects, noted that the program’s real success lay in helping those on public assistance into good jobs, as well as fostering a sense of commitment to maintaining the community. Though many of the programs related to drug prevention, recreation and art, and health and wellness had been phased out over the previous years, Echols estimated that 400 of 800 employees whose positions were funded by the Model City Agency found work in other public agencies or private industries.

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