Buffalo’s ailing inner-city

Buffalo is not immune to the social problems that have produced conflict in Ferguson, Baltimore and other urban centers, two prominent African American leaders said Wednesday at a luncheon hosted by Investigative Post.

“Can there be a Ferguson or a Baltimore in Buffalo? Absolutely,” said Rev. Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church and president of the Buffalo Common Council.

Dr. Henry L. Taylor, a professor and founding director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo, called for the creation of a development fund for the East Side whose participants would include government, business, nonprofits and local colleges and universities.

“I think it’s possible to pull together a partnership,” Taylor said. “I think that the mayor should be the engine that drives it. He has the capacity, he has the bully pulpit to do it.”

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Listen to WBFO report on Pridgen-Taylor interview with Investigative Post. Story includes audio of entire discussion. 

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Taylor and Pridgen were interviewed by Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney at a luncheon attended by about 60 at Osteria 166. The discussion touched on education, neighborhood conditions and police-community relations.

Pridgen recalled attending a rally in Baltimore shortly after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

“As I’m standing there, right at the stage, if I closed my eyes, I would have thought I was [in Buffalo],” said Pridgen. “What I heard from the stage were the same things that I often hear around here. The trouble with education in the area, the lack, or perceived lack, of opportunity.”

Without an adequate education, young people turn to gangs and crime, he said. Pridgen recalled the many funerals he’s officiated over the years.

“I’ve only buried one homicide victim where it was gang related who had ever had college credit,” said Pridgen.

He and Taylor said the city’s approach to education needs a fundamental overhaul.

“Education is the central piece to this puzzle,” Taylor said.

“I think the model we’re using to attack the education problem is a bad one that needs to be changed. We need resources, but resources must be connected to the correct model. Resources connected to the wrong model will do nothing.”

Taylor said any effort to improve schools must be accompanied by initiatives to improve the neighborhoods in which they’re located.

“You cannot fix the schools without fixing the neighborhoods. You can try, but you will fail.”

Pridgen, who previously served on the Board of Education, said district leaders need to be focused on the needs of students.

“I went to the Board of Education because I thought we were going to talk about education. We did very little talk about education,” he said. “We did a lot of talk about building new buildings, we did a lot of talk about union contracts, we did a lot of talk. And I was frustrated.”

Police-community relations were also a topic of discussion.

Taylor was critical of police attitude and actions towards African American males.

“The police are not my friend,” Taylor said. “They’re there to protect the status quo. They’re not there for me. They just aren’t.”

Taylor said police violence is reflective of other systemic problems, including a lack of investment in neighborhoods that are home to low-income African Americans, Latinos and immigrants.

“When you attempt to take the gang community and put them into organized programs, where there are things for them to do, we see that participation in crime goes down,” said Taylor.

“The gang issue is symptomatic of the way in which we build the city. It is symptomatic of the kind of investments that we choose not to make within the framework of our cities and our regions.”

According to Taylor, an important way to reduce tensions between residents and the police is to organize and mobilize neighborhood residents.

“The reforms that I want to fight for are ones of community control over police. Where the people who live in these neighborhoods and communities have much, much more power over them, and where we change the dynamics of that relationship,” Taylor said.

Pridgen noted that the Council under his leadership has established a Police Oversight Committee.

“That wasn’t to fight against the police or to fight against the people, it was to make sure there’s open dialogue,” Pridgen said. “I mean real dialogue. I don’t mean just getting together and saying ‘Uh, we need to get along,’ but how we continue those police and community relations is so important.”

Wednesday’s event followed a panel discussion last month in which participants agreed Buffalo’s inner-city has been left behind in the region’s economic improvement.

Investigative Post’s “At Issue” event series continues Jan. 27 with a Trivia Night hosted by Kevin O’Connell of WGRZ. Other upcoming events include a happy hour panel discussion Feb. 10 on the region’s sputtering democracy and Heaney’s “Real State of the City” address Feb. 24.

Tickets for upcoming events can be ordered here. Memberships that provide for free or discounted admission to Investigative Post events can be purchased here.

The event series is sponsored by William Bernhardi Law Offices, the M&T Charitable Foundation, Talking Leaves Books, R&P Oak Hill Development, WGRZ and The Public.