May 30


A different approach to revitalizing Buffalo’s East Side

UB professor outlines “radical” challenge to traditional neighborhood redevelopment.

What do you like about your neighborhood, the interviewer asked. What are your concerns? How optimistic are you that things will get better?

There was no right or wrong answer for the 567 residents who took the survey, but their responses will help determine which neighborhood serves as a pilot to help rebuild Buffalo’s East Side and elevate the city’s Black community.

Henry Taylor, director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies, unveiled the framework last November in How We Change the Black East Side: A Neighborhood Planning and Development Framework.” 

The model poses a radical challenge to traditional American concepts of neighborhood development. Elected neighborhood councils to oversee community growth. Land trusts to obtain properties. Non-profit housing organizations. Housing cooperatives and other shared-equity housing favored in place of private, individual homeownership. 

“In highly diverse neighborhoods, you must have diverse strategies,” Taylor said. “Shared ownership is more realistic than individual home ownership for low-income populations, such as Black Buffalo,” his report says.

As it stands, many East Side neighborhoods — most of which have Black populations of at least 40 percent — consist of substandard yet unaffordable homes that are largely inhabited by renters, Taylor said. Most tenants spend well over 30 percent of their income on housing, which classifies them as severely rent burdened by federal standards.

Henry Taylor, director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies. Photo by I’Jaz Ja’ciel.

“The City’s profit-making approach to neighborhood ‘development’ will not change the Black East Side,” Taylor wrote in his report. “More importantly, it threatens the community’s long-term sustainability by unleashing the menace of gentrification.”

The new model, he said, will lead to lower rents, improved housing and increased community and generational wealth. What’s more, improving housing will lead to an overall better quality of life on the East Side, he said.

The most devastating outcome of divestment on East Side neighborhoods is its effect on residents’ health, Taylor said in his report.

“These underdeveloped neighborhoods by their very character become sacrifice zones, where people are expected to sacrifice their lives and well-being so that others can live better,” he told Investigative Post in an interview this week.

“We can see it in the horrendous infant mortality rates. We can see it in the equally infamous low birthweight babies. We can see it in the premature death rates. We can see it in all of the people we know whose bodies are ravaged with disease.”

It’s also apparent in the disproportionate number of lead-poisoned children who live in zip codes on the East Side that are made up of predominantly Black households, according to data from the Erie County Department of Health.

“We’re saying that these neighborhoods have to be transformed, because they’re killing people,” Taylor said. “Black people have always lived in these neighborhoods that kill them, and so we say, enough. Enough.”

The early stages of the project’s first year are largely focused on gathering data through community surveys, focus groups and neighborhood tours. Working with the community is considered essential to successfully rebuilding the community, according to Taylor and Marcus Watson, coordinator of Buffalo State University’s Africana Studies program, who is assisting Taylor on the East Side plan.

Marcus Watson, coordinator of Buffalo State University’s Africana Studies program. Photo by I’Jaz Ja’ciel.

A timeline for future steps is already in place, with the next milestone around the corner. Organizers hope to have the pilot neighborhood selected by the end of June.

Taylor said he plans to approach funders by September or October, and hopes to have all necessary resources by early 2025.

Enactment of the plan will cost money — roughly $2 million to $3 million over a five-year period. Funds will be used for consulting, organizing a team to work within the pilot neighborhood, travel to study similar projects, organizing and mobilizing. Money will also be needed for land bank acquisitions and other housing development costs.

If the pilot is a success, the plan would spread to another East Side community.

Phase I underway

Collecting data has been a boots-on-the-ground effort for the project’s “Agents of Unity” — volunteers who surveyed community members to collect and report data about residents’ attitudes toward their neighborhoods, their concerns and their hopes for the future.

They spent six weeks surveying nearly 600 residents in five communities to determine which will become the pilot neighborhood. The decision will be based on several factors, including community characteristics as well as residents’ interest and attitude toward their neighborhoods.

“We focused exclusively on five neighborhoods and communities, so we know we have the kind of information for us to generalize to the other populations across these five neighborhoods,” Taylor said.

The survey isn’t to determine which neighborhood deserves to be selected, Watson added. Instead, the project’s organizers are looking for residents who will actively participate.

“All Black communities deserve something, including each of the distinguishable neighborhoods in predominantly Black Buffalo,” Watson said. “It’s not about who deserves it. What we’re looking for is which particular neighborhood is most likely to be willing to come out of their homes and put in work to work together.”

In a debriefing session, one Agent of Unity volunteer discussed her findings with Watson, identifying the Census tracts that she felt seemed the most and least prepared for transformation. Her observations were based on attitudes of the residents being surveyed, levels of optimism, their interest in the pilot project and overall behavior.

Both negative and positive experiences that surveyors have had are helping determine which neighborhood has the characteristics that the project’s team is looking for, Watson said.

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The surveys have yielded findings that have surprised and moved the project’s leaders.

For one: Many East Side residents appreciate their neighborhoods, despite living with crime, poverty and scarce resources.

“In much of the writing that we do, we emphasize the negative dimensions,” Taylor said. “Sometimes it gets lost that people love their neighborhoods and communities, and the surveys brought that out, that the people love their space.”

Another element that fascinated Taylor was the duality that many survey respondents exhibited when describing hopes and fears for their communities. He noted one resident who said they felt safe in their neighborhood, yet relied on a security system in their home because they were aware of crime in the area.

“That existence of that paradox which we tried to capture in the beautiful and the terrible allows us to see the powerful connection between how much I love this space and how much I fear this same space,” he said.

Next, the team will hold a series of focus groups in select census tracts to explore its findings with community members. Educating the community will remain one of the most important elements throughout the project, Watson said.

Why rebuild the East Side?

“Black Neighborhoods Matter” has been Taylor’s rallying cry since the publication of his 2021 report, The Harder We Run,” which revealed little to no progress for Black Buffalo residents over the past four decades.

Despite millions of dollars poured into the East Side, as Taylor reported in “The Harder We Run,” past city- and county-driven revitalization efforts have yielded little if any success, he concluded. He cites homogeneity as the culprit, using the ongoing Adams Street Infill Project as an example.

“One of the problems with the infill housing strategy that’s being rolled out is a lot of people are just randomly building houses without an idea of who is your target population. What specific group are you attempting to reach? How will this design versus that design work in this neighborhood as opposed to that neighborhood?” he said.

Taylor said he has spoken with organizers of the infill project and other government entities in hopes of broadening the scope of what he refers to as the micro-level revitalization project model.

“That model is limited when it comes to transforming neighborhoods and communities, and so rather than quibble with it, we want to complement it so we can work closely together,” he said.

An important element that planners must consider is the economic and social diversity that already exists among residents, he said.

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“In some instances, in a specific neighborhood we have about 20 percent of the population making $75,000 or more. Same neighborhood, we have 33 percent of the population making $23,000 or less.”

The concept of “targeted universalism” is at the heart of reconstructing the communities, which serves as an antithesis to racist practices of decades past which contributed to the current state of the predominantly Black East Side, according to Taylor.

“In 1932, the real estate appraiser Frederick Babcock and others developed a land value system based on the theory that Blacks and other low-income groups triggered neighborhood decline and falling property values when they moved into communities dominated by homeowners,” Taylor ‘s report states. “So, they should be excluded from these residential areas.” 

Class segregation has done as much damage to neighborhoods as racial segregation, according to Taylor, and the way to repair that damage is through a shared vision. Transforming the neighborhoods will require meeting the needs of all groups, he said.

“If you want to segregate yourself from somebody just because they’re poor, then what can you say to someone who wants to segregate themselves from you just because you’re Black?” he said. 

“We have the responsibility of creating spaces and places that are truly inclusive and that’s why we always say that inclusivity and belonging must grow together.”

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