Q&A: Stephanie Simeon


Stephanie Simeon is executive director of Heart of the City Neighborhoods, a non-profit housing development corporation serving Buffalo’s Lower West Side.

Simeon, 31, is a native of Brooklyn who moved to Buffalo to attend the University at Buffalo, where she earned an undergraduate degree in social science and master’s degree in urban planning. She serves on the board of the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women. Last year she was selected by Business First as one of the region’s top 40 young people under 40.

Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed Simeon on Nov. 20. A 4 minute, 45 second video clip including interview highlights is posted above. The full 18 minute, 5 second interview is posted deeper in the transcript, which has been edited lightly for clarity.

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Heaney: You work at  ground zero of urban ills in Buffalo. I think you  Marlies Wesolowski with the Matt Urban Center in Broadway – Fillmore work in two of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. Let’s talk about from a street level, what’s going on on the Lower West Side when it comes to crime, housing conditions, family issues, education issues. What is life like on a day-to-day basis for people living in that community. Who is living in that community?

Simeon: The Lower West Side is very, very, very diverse and not in the sense of black and white. We’re talking about cultures from – we’re seeing an influx of folks from sub-Saharan Africa to a small influx of folks coming from Burma. We still have a little bit of our old Italians. We still have our Hispanic population. We have a small spec of African-American and a small spec of white. So we have a medley of folks moving into the neighborhood, and it’s a community that’s ready for them.

We have a mix of housing to provide them what they want, so if folks need to rent because that’s what they can afford, we have that. If folks want to own their homes, they can do that. We have some high-end condos. You name it.

Heaney: You’ve got the Census track with the worst poverty in Western New York. So what is the face of poverty in the Lower West Side?

Simeon: Actually it’s our youth. We’re seeing more impoverished young children. What we see is that the average age, the average income is about $17,000 per person in our neighborhood.

Heaney: Which is a little more than $300 a week. What’s the unemployment rate like?

Simeon: Very high. It keeps jumping up. It jumped up to 23 percent. We’re talking about a population where it’s very difficult in general in Buffalo to get a job. But then you’re going to add in a layer of “Can I speak English?” You add in a layer of education, which is a significant challenge to folks in our neighborhood. But then you also have a significant question of our population. It has city jobs and federal jobs, just because of the location of being downtown. So you have that mix of folks and a significant portion of the population that’s unemployed.

People can go out on their porches. People are feeling a lot more safer.

Heaney: Crime-wise, how safe or not safe of a neighborhood is it? Is it getting any better or any worse? What’s the nature of crime?

Simeon: Much better. We saw in the last five years a huge change in the gang violence. We were known in that neighborhood for having a Tenth Street Gang, and I can say that our boys and girls in blue have done a significant job tracking down gang activity. Unfortunately some people can say that it’s moving from one side of the street to the other.

Heaney: So in other words the gang problem has not gone away; it’s just moved. And it’s moved because of police pressure?

Simeon: Absolutely.

Heaney: So where has it moved to?

Simeon: I just met with the police chief, he’s showing areas in the 14213 zip code, in the Massachusetts Avenue area.

Heaney: So it’s moved to the other side of Porter. So we’ve just kind of moved the problem elsewhere.

Simeon: For that neighborhood, they can definitely use the reprieve. We’re seeing huge drug busts happen – about a year or two ago when we saw 23 of the major drug pins pulled out. So that’s definitely helping in the neighborhood. People can go out on their porches. People are feeling a lot more safer. But it also made room for folks coming in and causing quality of life concerns. We’re seeing more car pops, we’re seeing some home burglaries. So things that we have to do to maintain, we’re not dealing with shoot ‘em up.

Heaney: So there’s less violence but more property crime and quality of life crime. What are the housing conditions like? That’s really where your business is. What kind of shape is the housing in and what is Heart of City doing toward alleviating some of the problems?

Simeon: The Lower West Side has some of the oldest housing stock in Buffalo. The average age of housing in that area is 1840.

Heaney: The average is 1840? Really? Of course, some of that was wiped out by urban renewal in the ‘60s right?

Simeon: Some of it has, but we still have a significant portion of that housing stock still in place in the lower west side of Buffalo.

Heaney: So these are singles, doubles?

Simeon: You’re looking at one to four units. Still Queen Anne’s. We still have the painted ladies. We have rich architectural character, but we’re also dealing with it being so old we’re looking at lead issues, asbestos, hard homes to maintain.

Heaney: So what exactly does your organization do?

Simeon: We do affordable housing development. We understand that we have a very old housing stock and that we have unemployment. We have some pockets of wealth and some pockets of poverty.

So what we did to deal with the vacant housing issue, to deal with folks who were leaving our neighborhoods in rapid volumes, and dealing with folks who wanted to stay. We decided to introduce programs to the neighborhood that dealt with those issues. One being we take vacant property, we gut them, we rehab them, and resell them for some homebuyers. We also introduced minor home repair for folks who want to stay in the neighborhood. We want to make sure they have the abilities to do that so they can deal with these 100-year-old homes and the repairs we can take care of that for them.

And we’re also introducing multi-family housing, green, make sure that it’s clean, safe, and environmentally friendly.

Because of the proximity to the Peace Bridge we have high rates of asthma. And also because we have some of the oldest housing stock, we’re seeing kids being lead poisoned.

Heaney: How many units a year are you doing?

Simeon: Right now we’re doing 30. We applied for funding to do 30 more. We’ve increased our partnership so we can turnover the minor home repair much faster. When it comes to the gut rehabs, that’s a significant undertaking for the organization, so we’re only able to turn out two a year.

Heaney: You’ve got a very diverse population. I imagine there are probably challenges in terms of intergroup relationships – I don’t know if that’s the right phrase. But you mentioned off camera about some conflict with some of the immigrant groups.

Simeon: In some of our refugee populations we’re seeing where they were in some of their refugee camps, there’s different hierarchies that were there in their native country and when they come here, you can get a job and you can change where your hierarchy, where your caste is now. And so there’s still that challenge of saying, “In our country, you would have been my servant, and now you’re not standing your place.” So you still have a lot of that in-fighting going on.

And you also have a huge paradigm shift of power that when parents need to take care of their day-to-day business, the kid is the one that has to come in and tell the parent what’s going on, fill out the paper work, get them adjusted.

Heaney: It’s a very different family dynamic than they’re used to.

Simeon: Absolutely.

Heaney: Waterfront Elementary School is in the heart of your service area. You know there’s a battle back and forth on whether or not it stays a Buffalo Pubic School or it converts to a charter school. Do you have any insights on Waterfront? Any opinion about what direction you think that should go?

Simeon: We are now in strategic planning, so we’re looking to work with the Community Health Network of Buffalo and working with other partners like the Partnership for Public Good and some of the cultural groups to see if we can provide a comprehensive approach so that we can do development around the school.

Heaney: There’s a lot of land down there.

Simeon: Absolutely. There’s a lot of land. There’s also high absenteeism from the students there, and we know that that is based because of the asthma and the lead issues in these old homes, substandard housing. So we want to be able to track where these kids are going from when they’re not in school, where they’re going to at home and what we can do about those situations to deal with the quality of life concerns around that school.

Young people have the energy to get the work done and that they want to do it.

Heaney: You mentioned asthma. What, if any, public health issues are you seeing on the Lower West Side and what do you attribute them to?

Simeon: Definitely because of the proximity to the Peace Bridge we have high rates of asthma. And also because we have some of the oldest housing stock, we’re seeing kids being lead poisoned. We’re seeing low levels of lead in the blood that causes learning disabilities, developmental disabilities.

We’re seeing problems on the education side that teachers are complaining that these kids aren’t learning at the speed they should be. And we can link that to the old housing stock, the fact that they are in hospitals all night long because of their asthma issues and are not able to make it to school. They’re not able to catch up, which deals with the issue we talked about in the beginning which is the poverty. So it’s cyclical. You can’t get out of it.

Heaney: By way of disclosure – my daughter Erin Heaney is executive director of the Clean Air Coalition, which is in the middle of the issue on the impacts of the Peace Bridge. For full disclosure to viewers, nobody put me up to that question. When you mentioned asthma, I thought we we’re talking about problems in the Lower West Side. It’s kind of fair game.

Is your neighborhood getting better, getting worse, and why?

Simeon: I think it’s definitely getting better. It’s seen a significant amount of change. It’s gone from 20 years ago when you’re getting properties for $10,000 because you have flight to now where properties are being sold for $100,000 to $200,000 a pop.

We still have rich architectural character, which draws people to the neighborhood. We have a rich cultural environment – the BPO. This is the kind of community where you can go from Pre-K to college. And walking distance – a very walkable community. Access to food. You have a lot of the good things still there. And we have this insurgence of urban pioneers who want to make sure that we are providing a better quality of life, so it’s getting better.

Heaney: Is there any gentrification going on?

Simeon: Absolutely.

Heaney: So you’ve got gentrification at the same time you’ve got a lot of influx of immigrants. That’s a pretty interesting cocktail.

Simeon: It is. It makes the work that we do relevant.

Heaney: Let’s step back and look at the city as a whole. You’re originally from Brooklyn. You moved here to attend UB, and you’ve worked at Heart of the City for how long?

Simeon: Five years.

Heaney: So you’ve got an outsiders perspective, but you’re part of the fabric of the community now. What’s your take on Buffalo in terms of how we’re doing, what direction we’re moving in, what are we doing right, and what do we need to do better?

Simeon: I love it here. You’ve been able to capture a girl from Brooklyn for this long. Obviously there’s something here. I found my life’s work and I think what we’re doing is that I’m seeing more and more young leadership in the community development world, in the not-for-profit world, and that’s encouraging because you know that the young people have the energy to get the work done and that they want to do it. They want to better Buffalo and they have an opportunity to do so, that’s great. What I think we can do better is that we need to have consistent funding to make sure that as we are piloting a lot of these programs that they can stay consistent in the community.

Heaney: You’re not the first person I’ve had on this program who’s talked about a good cadre of young leadership coming up. Where is it coming from? How is it playing out?

Simeon: It’s interesting that you say that because when I was at a conference, one of the people when they were listening to some of the challenges of that we’re facing in Buffalo, the first thing they said was, “Where are the young people?” And at that point two years ago I can count them on one hand. That’s changed. And you can see at the community levels – especially you can see the insurgence on the West Side – who are leading the charge and making sure that it’s changing. Most of it is people who are under 40.

Low-wage jobs are not doing anything for our community and the Lower West Side is an example of that.

Heaney: What’s your sense of the establishment in town, so to speak? To what degree are they helping versus getting in the way.

Simeon: They need to get out of their own way.

Heaney: Out of their way, or out of everybody else’s way?

Simeon: A little bit of both. I think they paved the way. If anything, they were used to different approaches, and what’s the method of madness when you keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results. It’s time for them to say, “This is all that we can do. This is all we thought of. Let’s make room for new folks to come in and see what we can do to change it.”

Heaney: Are you talking form a corporate perspective, a political perspective, from a grassroots perspective, from a labor perspective?

Simeon: I would say definitely from a corporate perspective. I think this idea of how many jobs we’re getting into the community, big jobs, more companies – that’s great, but they need to think about the income of the folks that they’re saying are getting all these jobs. Low-wage jobs are not doing anything for our community and the Lower West Side is an example of that. Offering those kinds of jobs are not sustainable.

Heaney: So you’re not a fan of a lot of the economic development strategies that we’ve employed here for 20 to 30 years?

Simeon: No, I’m not.

Heaney: The problem is it’s not creating living-wage jobs?

Simeon: No it’s not. Our community can greatly change when people can stay in that neighborhood and have money to do so.

Heaney: Let’s talk a minute about the black professional class in Buffalo. I did something years and years ago that documented that Buffalo has a relatively small black professional class. What’s your sense on what that’s like today? Is it still a relatively small professional class?

Simeon: It’s a relatively small professional class. I think it’s because many folks think that as an African-American, you cannot get a decent, well-paying job here, that there is not room for advancement.

Heaney: How much of that is rooted in reality?

Simeon: I’ve been here, I’ve been able to climb. I’m the executive director of a nonprofit, doing my life’s work and I have had no problems. But I also have a master’s degree. I took all the steps to climb socially and professionally. But I can turn to my left, from my right, and see an African American person next to me getting the same degree.

Heaney: One final question. Western New York statistically is one of the most segregated communities in the country, and I think that holds true for large sections of the city, too, when you look at the East Side, when you look at the South Side in particular. You’re coming in from the outside about 14 years ago. You’re living in the community. How much of that statistical reality is in fact the on the ground reality?

Simeon: I think what you can see is just the aftermath of the years and decades of segregation. Even though things may have changed, people don’t feel that way so they’re stuck in a way of 1950s of thinking that can never happen. Just look at the divide of Main Street of west and east. There’s no difference between what’s going on on the West Side. The same thing can be happening on the East Side. We talked about the crime statistics on the Lower West Side. That’s no different than what you see on the East Side. It’s a perception issue, of people feeling, “Well, I can be safer in that neighborhood that has that much crime but it’s located near this.”

Heaney: Is racism still a reality that people of color have to deal with in this town?

Simeon: Absolutely. I deal with it in a professional arena. I mean how many times do I see people who look like me in upper management? I don’t.