The East Side of Buffalo has been weighing heavy on my mind as of late. After years of watching the West Side pick up speed, it’s hard to fathom that approximately half of this city is still waiting for similar efforts. Yes, there have been plenty of discussions, but little action. When we look at streets like Broadway, Genesee and Fillmore, for some it’s easy to see the potential if you know where to look (and how to look). For others, these streets are a mystery, and shall remain a mystery until a private-public collaborative effort commences.
Last week I met up with Ibrahim Cissé, President and founder of the Bailey Business Association, and an energetic East Side activist, who is deeply invested on Bailey Avenue – a street that is unfortunately (or fortunately depending how you look at it) divided into three districts.
It was a mural project that first led me to reaching out to Ibrahim, and it didn’t take long before the two of us were talking about similar issues that we had both faced (me years ago, and him today) regarding efforts to revitalize Buffalo neighborhoods. You see, Ibrahim feels that Bailey has been left out in the cold, much the way that I felt Elmwood was suffering over 20 years ago. Don’t laugh. Most of us don’t remember when Elmwood was a mess – with broken sidewalks, a pothole-riddled street, numerous empty storefronts, graffiti, panhandlers, drug dealers, etc. I was a young business owner on the street at the time. Believe it or not, where Globe Market is found today, was (then) a small park that neighbors referred to as “Needle Alley”.
As Ibrahim discussed all of the issues that Bailey Avenue is currently facing, I couldn’t help but sympathize and understand his pain. The man is invested in his street much more than I ever invested in Elmwood Avenue (money-wise), and he’s hoping that his efforts pay off for the community. Ibrahim is frustrated that he is seeing the rest of the city rebounding, and still can’t figure out when the East Side will start to see the trickle effect. These types of initiatives usually start with the community investing time, money and love into a commercial street. That is happening on Bailey right now.
With the help of numerous grassroots activists and organizations, Ibrahim is on the lookout for The City to come up with a comprehensive plan to invest in much-needed infrastructure (similar to what happened on Elmwood once The City saw that a passionate grassroots spark had been lit), which he feels will offer hope to people who have literally thrown their hands up in the air and given up. “They don’t believe that they will ever see public investment into this street,” Ibrahim told me, referring to the people who live in surrounding blocks. “They have been waiting and waiting. We have been told that Bailey is going to get new infrastructure. Then, when we talk directly to people in the engineering department (who would be aware of such plans), they tell us that there is nothing on the table. It’s frustrating, but there are a number of us that are not giving up – we are going to continue to invest, and we’re going to plant trees, and create public art. We’re going to replace our lights and make this a safe community, no matter what it takes.”
Ibrahim, who was born in the Ivory Coast of Africa, first came to Buffalo in ’94. Shortly after, he bought a house in the Bailey community and set up a computer shop called ABC Technology Services on the street. “Bailey didn’t have a computer shop,” said Ibrahim. “The business was across the street from the old Varsity Theatre, which, at the time, was still in use by the community. The building was for sale for $135K, and had an income tax shop on the first floor (still open), along with a barber shop, a restaurant, and there was a church upstairs. Everyone was paying rent, but there was not a bank that would lend me the money, despite the fact that I had a successful business of my own that I planned on opening within the building. At long last, First Niagara agreed to give me a loan, which is the only way that this would have been possible.”
Today Ibrahim is putting a plan together to turn around the entire historic Varsity Theatre building – 3165 Bailey Avenue. He has purchased a Subway franchise, and is in the midst (slowly but surely) of building out the space. He is now operating his computer shop in the building, which he partnered with Dell and HP to give him a line of credit to grow the business. He is also creating nine small offices upstairs, because the original footprint of each office was too large for interested takers. And now he’s partnering with socially and environmentally responsible utility providers/organizations to help bring the theater back to life. National Grid’s green programs are helping to offset the costs of the lighting, and NYSERDA is contributing to insulate the building.
Recently Ibrahim’s theater project was awarded $130K from NY State. In order to secure the grant, he personally needed to sign a loan for $68K. Ibrahim has already invested his own money into offices, outdoor lighting, paint, carpeting., etc.
On the street, the businessman has joined forces with the University Heights Collaborative (Bailey Fights Blight), Roseann Scibilia from UDCDA, The Tool Library, Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, LISC, Block Club Coalition, University at Buffalo student groups, Junior League, various other community stakeholders, and even a forward thinking politician – University District Councilmember Rasheed Wyatt. “We are focusing on collaboration efforts now,” Ibrahim told me. “The West Side is shoring up and now it’s time for the East Side to get going. Can you imagine what would happen if University at Buffalo really got involved on Bailey? Just like Main Street, this is their neighborhood. This is where their students should be shopping and eating. But they are not going to come here if the sidewalks are torn up and there are no bike lanes. This street is heavily trafficked with cars and dangerous. Through grassroots efforts we have Main Street and Bailey groups talking to each other. UB could be the hero here, and so could The City. We are removing the graffiti and conducting cleanup efforts. This is our time!”
In an impressive move, Ibrahim started the Bailey Business Association out of frustration (just as Mike Attardo did for Elmwood), in order to shake things up. Unfortunately, people had already given up and didn’t trust anything that they heard. So Ibrahim made every business a non-paying de facto member. He and his small group of believers began to take photos of the 70-80 abandoned buildings, many of which The City owned. Then they put all of the businesses and the buildings onto a spread sheet (sounds like what happened when the West Side first started to shape up). “At first, I was the only person showing up at the meetings,” said Ibrahim [laughing]. “Now we get 25-40 people to each one. There are close to 20,000 cars a day that come down this street. That’s potential, if we can get them to slow down and take a look around. People are on their way to the airport, UB, and points in-between. We have not seen any major infrastructure investment since the 70s, and a little paving does not count.”
When The Varsity Theatre opens, Ibrahim wants Bailey Avenue to shine, just as it did back in Buffalo’s booming days. He wants people to pay attention, and he doesn’t want to see a divided city anymore. The first show to be held will be Nickel City Opera’s Figaro, if that doesn’t say something about his want to be inclusive to the region. Ibrahim is also working with high schools, community groups and others to keep the lights on throughout the year. One day there might be a high school play, and then a concert, a film, a rally, a festival… who knows? What I do know is that without a key figure working some magic to pull the project together, Bailey would be left with another shell of a building.
Instead, the Varsity Theatre could become the lighting rod that helps to electrify Bailey Avenue. After meeting with Ibrahim, I am certain that we have the right guy, in the right place, at the right time.