Letter by Al Coppola:
I grew up on Dante Place, a bustling neighborhood overflowing with Italian immigrants at the terminus of the Erie Canal. We lived in tiny apartments stacked six stories high. It was the late 1940s and early 1950’s, when Buffalo’s industry still bustled, and the steam whistles and horns of a busy harbor still animated the streetscape.
It wasn’t prime real estate, like it is today. It was what the elite called a “ghetto”. It was still the kind of old world place where you plucked your own chicken. We were all poor, but none of us knew it. You knew the shopkeepers by name and whether they preferred to speak English or Italian. Our homes didn’t compare with the mansions of Delaware Avenue, and none of us ever met the bankers a few blocks over on Main Street.
That’s why the City’s elite – mostly bankers and bureaucrats – decided to condemn my neighborhood. They said our homes were a blight on the City. They said they had good intentions, and that to complain would only obstruct progress and inhibit our future. The neighborhood was demolished, and the Marine Drive public housing complex was built in its place.
^Photo left pre 1950’s | Photo right 1951
I’m considerably older than most, so I’m inclined to see things by the long arch of history. I’ve seen the same struggles and narratives play out in the same places and among the same families and institutions that have dominated our City’s discourse for decades upon decades.
And today, history repeats itself again.
For years, the Peace Bridge Authority has orchestrated blight against the City’s most charming waterfront neighborhood: Columbus Park and Prospect Hill. Under constant threat of demolition, this bi-national authority has prevented homeowner investment while acquiring properties in order to let them sit and rot.
Their behavior is prototypically 1960s-urban-renewal-era big government. It is a manifestation of everything that the current generation of urban planners is taught against. It is a grandiose top-down plan, the brainchild of bureaucrats – motivated by all the wrong reasons. It destroys pre-Civil War architecture and a neighborhood ripe for restoration and renaissance.
There is no rational economic need for an expanded customs plaza. Truck and passenger traffic is down from peak levels earlier in the decade, and plenty of unused capacity exists.
The PBA knows and understands this, but they have their own priority in mind: a massive duty free store that will create lucrative new revenue streams for the authority. To lose a neighborhood that exudes such potential and character for something so unnecessary and obnoxious, would indeed be another stain on our City’s history.
The Westside endures all of the negative externalities associated with the bridge and truck traffic: scandalously high childhood asthma rates, a high prevalence of cancer, poorer air quality, noise pollution, suppressed property values, and impaired waterfront access. All of these would be exacerbated by putting a massive “Duty Free Supercenter and Truck Stop” on our waterfront.
At the very least, 25% of present Peace Bridge toll revenues should be permanently dedicated to fund neighborhood investments (like streetscape improvements, waterfront access, park restorations, new public spaces, or historic preservation projects). The neighborhood endures these horrible externalities, which should be mitigated with dedicated revenue streams.
Mayor Brown took a courageous position this week (see post), and decided to stand with the residents of Columbus Park and Prospect Hill. He asked the Governor to stop the demolitions. But we need your help too, to protect this historic neighborhood from the likes of so called “Democrats” – Governor Andrew Cuomo, Congressman Brian Higgins, and Mark Grisanti.
Al Coppola is the Democrat challenging State Senator Mark Grisanti after voting for massive funding cuts to Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Coppola represented Buffalo’s Delaware District on the Common Council for 18 years before being elected to the New York State Senate. He is now retired and lives in North Buffalo.