From UB2020 and the BNMC to Andrew Cuomo’s Solar LED Green Tech Riverbend Jamboree, I’ve been accused of hating on everything that generates headlines in Buffalo, which is only a slight exaggeration. I think most of the big ticket economic development projects in Buffalo are far better deals for the area’s elites than for most of the people living here, I think that attempts to market Buffalo have been dopey, and I think that local desperation for outside approval is unseemly.
That being said, I love Buffalo and its people (and its bullshit) and I wouldn’t live anywhere else. There are a ton of things that have developed and are still ongoing that make Buffalo such an amazing place and that are contributing to make it even better. Some of them have generated local headlines, some haven’t, but all of them deserve a far greater share of recognition than they get compared to the billion dollar blockbusters like the Medical Campus and the hotels at the waterfront. These projects are set apart from the ones that get all the media shine in that largely they’re bottom-up initiatives that have simmered below the radar making small gains that have cumulated to large strides in improving Buffalo’s resiliency and quality of life.
Here’s six things going on in Buffalo that are actually cool and good:
- Urban agriculture
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am involved with this, but the reason I’m involved with it is because it’s such a great opportunity here. There’s all kinds of projects going on already in Buffalo that all look slightly different. On the west side, the non-profit Massachusetts Avenue Project has been going for 10 years now, jumping from a community garden to a full-scale urban farm focused on youth education and entrepreneurship. MAP sells CSA shares as well as vegetables, eggs, chicken, and tilapia from their mobile market and farm stand.A group of people engaged in urban ag on the east side (including the city’s most well known farm, the Wilson Street Urban Farm) formed a cooperative, Farmer Pirates, that serves a variety of functions. Farmer Pirates cooperatively own about 2 acres of land on the east side, removing it from the speculative real estate market and preserving it for agricultural uses. The co-op also owns equipment available for its members to use, buys seed and supplies in bulk, and operates a compost pickup service, bringing residential and commercial food scraps to a central facility where they’re composted for use by members.
Urban agriculture makes a ton of sense, especially in a place like Buffalo with so much vacant land. More than a quirky hobby or a stopgap measure to beautify lots “until demand picks up,” growing food in the city is a way we can take an active role in our food security, both in terms of lessening control over our bodies by giant global corporations and of ensuring that the things we put in our body are wholesome and nourishing. It’s also a way to reclaim basic human skills that we lost in the late 20th century and improve our environment with carbon-fixing, oxygen-producing green plants and less reliance (however marginal) on fossil fueled-shipping. Best of all, everyone can do it on any scale. Yards can be turned into food gardens, block clubs or other groups of neighbors can lease city land for gardens through Grassroots Gardens, and vacant land can be purchased at the city tax auction.
The advances made in Buffalo’s urban ag movement have come in fits and starts, hindered by a building-focused government for which the benefits of urban agriculture haven’t always been as apparent, though progress is being made. A huge step will be the ratification of the Buffalo Green Code (a new zoning code and land use plan), which should allow market gardens as a matter of right in all land use zones as well as reforming the city’s chicken and beekeeping laws to tie permits to lot sizes. To further encourage urban agriculture, Buffalo should adopt a policy explicitly endorsing the practice and more aggressively dispose of its vacant land to agriculture projects. People in Buffalo should capitalize on the movement’s momentum, planting gardens in their yards or keeping container gardens on their windowsills or balconies and availing themselves of resources such as Farmer Pirates, Grassroots Gardens, or Urban Roots, a garden store on the west side.
- Bike infrastructure
If only every year were election year. From 2012 to 2013, we saw a huge increase in the number of bike lanes in the city, and on major thoroughfares like Linwood, Delaware Ave, and Fillmore. While Buffalo may have been a little behind the curve in installing the lanes, the city made great leaps this year in its bike infrastructure and hopefully will continue in 2014 when the mayor isn’t still angling for votes.
Buffalo is a really easily bikeable city overall. It’s flat and easy to navigate, in some areas there are ample bike racks, we have a complete streets law on the books that requires bike lanes where feasible, and this year we’ve seen the launch of Buffalo BikeShare, a project of Buffalo CarShare that allows its members to borrow bikes from hubs currently centered on UB’s two campuses.
The progress Buffalo has made is mostly attributable to GObike Buffalo, a tremendous bicycle advocacy organization that spearheaded the push for complete streets in 2008, works with the city to provide bike parking for businesses that request it, and runs community bicycle workshops.
- Urban homestead program
One of the most impressive programs run by city government is the urban homestead program, though it is woefully under-marketed and administered as a sort of afterthought.Through the homestead program, first time homebuyers can purchase a house owned by the city for $1. Seriously. One dollar. There are caveats: You have to be a first time homebuyer in the city, you have to bring the house up to code in 18 months, and you have to live in the house for three years. Also, the homestead program is limited to city-owned houses in designated “urban renewal” (I know) areas.
Still, the program is a fantastic idea, especially in the years since the recession when young people are increasingly putting off buying a home. Homestead eligible areas include some lovely neighborhoods on the lower west side and on the near east side, like Hamlin Park and Cold Springs. Through the program, the City can get vacant buildings off of its hands and back onto tax rolls while young people can get a pathway to homeownership without adding a mortgage to their debt load.
Applicants to the homestead program need to demonstrate ready access to at least $5,000 and show proof of income as well as submit a rehabilitation proposal and budget to the city’s real estate department once they identify a house they want to buy. Applications have to be reviewed and approved by the city’s land use planning committee, then applicants sign a sales contract, and close on the house. The whole process can take months, hindered by short staffing at City Hall and a program that is underdeveloped for the kind of impact it can make. City government would do well to place more importance on this program, streamline sales, and market it better to the young, enterprising types that Buffalo hopes to attract. The blogs Views of Buffalo and Fix Buffalo have featured several east side homestead stories and are great resources for people interested in finding and rehabbing a house. Unbreak My House is a blog by a young couple rehabbing a formerly abandoned house on the west side, though theirs was just outside the homestead district.
As an added bonus and as a tie-in to the first thing on my list, in addition to the city-owned houses for sale through the program, people already living in homestead districts can purchase a city-owned vacant lot next to their home for $1, a great way for a homeowner and their family to jump into growing their own food.
- The Foundry
The Foundry is a 30,000 square foot building on the near east side, known to most as the former headquarters and retail outlet of Buffalo ReUse. In the years since the schism at ReUse, the space has been turned into a multi-use community space, housing ReUse Action, a green demolition company in the ReUse vein, as well as workshop space for numerous artists, tradespeople, and entrepreneurs. In their own words, the Foundry is:
- A workshop and office space – for artists, artisans, tradespeople, small businesses and technology enthusiasts.
- A multi-functional community space for performance, education, art and public gatherings.
- A neighborhood anchor institution for artistic expression, creative exchange, and the encouragement of new ideas and action.
The Foundry has become a hub for all kinds of do-it-yourself economic activity that also has a focus on community. Cooperative woodshop Rusted Grain works closely with ReUse Action to use wood salvaged from demolition projects “to build furniture, cabinetry, and other commissioned pieces.” The artists and workers of the Foundry’s different businesses collaborate on a variety of projects and also offer open workshops and classes for people to come and learn from the Foundry’s residents.
The Foundry is seemingly constantly expanding, and many of their residents are present selling their wares and hanging out at the monthly Second Saturday sales.
- Silo City
Silo City, a former industrial site with a set of vacant grain elevators on a bend in the Buffalo River, has exploded as a cultural venue in the past two years. Another bootstrapped project, Silo City has twice hosted City of Night, a multi-disciplinary arts event in the summer with music and dance performances, light shows, and incredible installations by local artists, as well as Boom Days, an end-of-winter celebration of the removal of the ice boom from the Niagara River.
One of the coolest part of going to events at Silo City is the almost illicit feeling you get being there. The elevators are full of rusty, jagged metal with big holes the floor and drips of water coming down and there are barely any areas on site that are closed off to exploration. Even large events at Silo City feel like some kind of underground happening thanks to the apparent disregard for potential liability. If this sounds like a negative, it’s not. The place is awesome in the literal sense of the word and it’s great to be able to go to events there before it’s sanitized for mass consumption.
Over the last two years, in addition to City of Night and Boom Days, Silo City has hosted events for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies national conference, a periodic flea market, and poetry readings. Currently under development at one of the elevators is Silo City Rocks, an indoor/outdoor rock climbing gym in Silo City’s Marine A elevator affiliated with Buffalo Harbor Kayak. The place has quickly become one of the coolest arts venues in Buffalo. Hopefully as time goes by, it will be allowed to remain that way.
The c-word has come up in a number of the things I’ve already talked about, but Buffalo’s burgeoning co-op community deserves an entry all of its own (again, I should include the disclaimer that I am involved with co-ops in Buffalo as a founding member of the Farmer Pirates Cooperative). Buffalo’s co-op community is by no means a new development, but the equitable, human-centric business model has gotten much renewed interest in the post-2008 landscape.There are all kinds of different cooperative businesses, from patronage co-ops like the Lexington Co-op (where member-owners shop in alongside regular consumers, but receive a yearly dividend from the business’s profits and can vote for the company’s board of directors) to worker co-ops like the newly formed Bread Hive (where the business is owned and managed by the people who work for it) to financial co-ops like the Buffalo Cooperative Credit Union to agricultural co-ops like Farmer Pirates (where members share ownership in productive resources and take advantage of collective purchasing power).
The UN named 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives, and that year the Erie County legislature passed a resolution recognizing the social and business contributions of the area’s co-ops. Dedicated to democratic governance and social responsibility, co-ops represent a way for businesses to empower their workers and their communities. At risk of sounding like a broken record, this model is increasingly appealing in a world where Millennials are disillusioned with the conventional jobs market and want more fulfilling work where they are owners.
Looking forward, some enterprising folks are looking at another intersection of cooperative business and urban agriculture. The Grooperative is a planned worker owned co-op to be housed in an abandoned factory where an indoor urban farm will be combined with beer and kombucha brewing, mushroom growing, and aquaculture in a closed loop system where the waste products of each business facet are input into the other ones. The plan seems to be modeled on the Plant, an existing indoor farm/food business incubator in Chicago.
The proliferation of Buffalo’s co-ops is an exciting parallel to the city’s traditional economic development, whereby public money is given to large corporations in exchange for promises of job creation. The co-op community is creating its own jobs with its own capital, and the dividends it generates accrue to the people doing all of the work, rather than being exported to a corporate headquarters out in the suburbs or farther or to hedge fund and venture capital managers.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the good projects currently underway in Buffalo, but these six are real highlights that deserve recognition. Looking back, there seems to be a theme of do-it-yourselfness, environmental sustainability, and Millennial appeal to the projects that came to mind when thinking of developments that I actually approve of in this town, and I don’t think that that is a coincidence. Having to exist just south of mass public consciousness and without huge inputs of public money make these projects more sustainable, and their re-skilling and equity focus increases their actual value to the community beyond a shiny building and a vague promise of jobs and economic development. Environmental consciousness and determination to adapt and reuse resources already available keeps these projects cheaper and their negative impact low. They’re not dependent on automobiles, gigawatts of energy, or exotic minerals. While they may not have the sex appeal of a new skyscraper, these projects are creating real good, providing livelihoods and opportunity, and investing in quality of life in Buffalo.