Author: Dan Delluomo
Sometimes all it takes to get the ball rolling is a little push. And Aaron Bartley is giving Buffalo a big one. Aaron is the co-founder of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), an organization that is busy transforming the West Side right under our noses. I had the chance to meet with Aaron last week and get a tour to see what PUSH is up to these days.
PUSH’s goal is “making community stronger at the grassroots,” says Bartley. Its territory is exclusively west of Richmond—precisely the demarcating line between what many of Buffalo’s more affluent have historically called the “good part” and “bad part” of town.
New Builds on Normal Avenue
But there are worse parts of Buffalo—so why the laser-focus between Niagara and Richmond? Because that’s the part of the city where funding dollars go the longest way, the part that’s closest to a tipping point, and the part that could do the most to improve Buffalo overall, potentially extending the quality of the bordering Elmwood Village all the way to the 190. The beautiful new brewery that just opened on Niagara Street is an example of where this area is heading, its name emblematic of what PUSH is helping to accomplish on the West Side: Resurgence.
PUSH targets houses known as “long-term vacants.” These are homes that have been empty for years—eyesores, in other words. The kind of structures that not only prevent many families from moving onto a street, but tarnish it for the people already there. With lots of community input, PUSH selectively targets these houses, and—together with partnering organizations—buys them, renovates them, and rents them to deserving families.
The renovations are extensive, thorough, and practical. Affordable rent doesn’t matter when you’re paying National Fuel $300 a month during winter. So poorly insulated homes are professionally insulated, faulty wiring is corrected, and appliances are upgraded.
And PUSH doesn’t outsource all this work to contractors. True to its noble cause, PUSH has its own training center where it teaches contracting skills to people from the West Side and then employs them on its building projects. In other words, PUSH is providing work to people who need it—and the work is to improve the workers’ communities. Generate good will much?
PUSH has already renovated 18 such houses on the West Side—it’s turned 18 vacant dumps into solid homes occupied by solid families. But PUSH is just getting started. It’s currently renovating 24 more West Side houses. PUSH calls itself a “community organization,” but it’s a massive effort with massive funding. And it’s making a massive difference.
Part of PUSH’s mission is to redefine what we think of as a “good neighborhood”—a term that often means “white neighborhood.” PUSH’s goal isn’t to gentrify the West Side and force poorer minorities out; it’s goal is to improve these neighborhoods for the sake of the rich diversity of ethnic groups already living there—so these residents can keep “exchanging their cultural experiences from all over the world,” says Bartley.
And it’s not just houses. Before 2011, the park on Massachusetts Avenue was neglected and decrepit. That was before PUSH secured $350,000 in funding and gave it a giant makeover. Now the park is somewhere parents want to take their kids.
PUSH has also taken several abandoned lots and turned them into beautiful community gardens with separate plots for each house on the street. These gardens feature ingenious systems that divert water from the gutters of surrounding homes—water that otherwise overflows the sewers, thereby polluting the Niagara River and Woodlawn Beach—and collects it in giant rain barrels surrounded with watering cans. (If you’re interested, PUSH has 200 free rain barrels like this.)
We visited such a garden on 14th street. The garden was a large, lush cornucopia of vegetation that ranged from squash to sunflowers—where before grew only weeds and trash. I saw a little old lady carefully tending her plot towards the back, and I knew I had come to the right place.
Two, four-unit buildings planned for Sherwood Street
Houses on PUSH’s past and present agenda include 12-16 Sherwood St, 18-20 Sherwood St (lead image), 37 19th Street, 135 Chenango St, 248 Vermont St, 257 Mass Ave, 264-266 Mass Ave, 269-271 Hampshire St, 359-363 Normal Ave, 367-371 Normal Ave, 373-377 14th St, 384-386 Normal Ave, 13 393 Mass Ave, 405 Mass Ave, 494 Mass Ave and 527 Utica Ave.