In this past week or so of our collective anguish, it was easy to overlook the eighth anniversary of “Hands Across Buffalo.” On that remarkable spring day, people from across the city and region gathered along Ferry Street and created a human chain from one side of our divided city to the other. At the time I was involved in the startup of a Niagara Street revitalization initiative, so I headed to the far west end and stood with Rich Products employees and executives, including Howard Rich.
If you took part in that event, you know that the symbolism was powerful: a literal bridging of the racial divide that we all know exists at Main Street. Co-organizer of the event (with Theresa DeLuca) Dale Zuchlewski, director of the Homeless Alliance, noted the anniversary on social media by sharing the event video:
I took some comfort in the recollection, but not much comfort. Why? The endemic Buffalo segregation that we momentarily overcame that day continues largely unabated. In fact, it enabled Saturday’s horror.
At the risk of giving any credit at all to that domestic terrorist whose world view was so twisted and thoughts were so consumed by hate, although tragically deluded he was no dummy.
From all the way across the state, as the Buffalo News’ Caitlin Dewey described in chilling detail, the murderer methodically used the very same information our leaders and public officials have been able to see for decades. What is shows clearly is that a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, a cause in which many Buffalonians gave “the last full measure of devotion,” Buffalo is one of the most structurally segregated places outside of South Africa. The “Mississippi of the North” is how Organizer Dakarai Singletary put it in this article.
And it’s not just a modern-day settlement apartheid, but an economic apartheid and a food apartheid as well. An entire half of the second-largest city in New York State has but one full-service supermarket. So if your propaganda-poisoned mind decides it’s time to go hunt Black people, where do you go? The one store they will all be at.
If that sounds a little bitter to you, thanks for noticing.
But some day – who knows when – the time will come to try to see through the hurt and rage and cynicism to find a path forward to a better day. A better day for the east side, for sure. But a better day for all of Buffalo. Because it is not just those whose family and friends and neighbors were shot who will need healing, but all of us. Including those who went to brunch Sunday morning the same as every weekend as if nothing had happened. And those of us who really understand just how bad the segregation in Buffalo is, yet managed to accommodate ourselves to it and continued to go about our lives.
So what role could a symbolic gesture like Hands Across Buffalo play in that? While clearly not enough – as it wasn’t eight years ago – it seems to me, when the time is right, it could help. And this time, instead of a one-and-done, perhaps we need to do it more regularly, to remind us all that the issue is still here and isn’t fixed yet – until, someday, it is.
And also this time – perhaps – as a collective expression of determination not to let what happened define us, divide us, or discourage us.
One of the lesser-remembered aspects of Hands Across Buffalo was the set of teach-ins conducted that day, and for a time after. My favorite was the one about housing segregation at HOME’s then-new home on Ferry Street at Main. Housing advocate and attorney Grace Andriette talked about the history of segregation in a place where we could look out the window and see Buffalo’s segregation line, Main Street. Then we watched an eye-opening documentary about the mass eviction of people of color from Marine Drive Apartments.
To heal our broken communities we’ll need symbolic acts and lots of teach-ins, but also sustained, organized action for years to come. It will take all that and a whole lot more to get where we need to go.
Just prior to May 14, a date that will live in infamy, I got a fresh look at this divide, a reminder of just how far we need to go to cure it, and also a look at a promising step forward. These came at the UB School of Architecture and Planning during final review week.
First was the review of “Experiencing the City,” a seminar class formerly taught by the recently retired Professor Alfred Price and now taught by Professor Hiro Hata. The students learned how to use the tools of observation, sketching, and various types of analysis to study urban places. This year Professor Hata had the students look at the whole length of Ferry Street, focusing on several prominent nodes such as the foot of Ferry, Grant/Ferry, Main/Ferry (Cold Spring), Jefferson/Ferry, and Bailey Green on the east end.
This was a very good group of students. Their work was of a consistently high quality across the board and – literally – across the city. And the one universal observation from this perceptive group was how drastically the character of the street and neighborhoods changed at Main Street. If these undergraduate students, mostly from out of town and many from other countries, can clearly see Buffalo’s dirty little secret (my words), then why can’t we? Or a better question: if this is so clear and plain, how can we delude ourselves into pretending it doesn’t exist, or that this deformity isn’t clearly visible to everyone else?
As this class showed, it is indeed clearly visible. And not just to college students studying urban planning, but – we now know – also to a young man their same age but with a sick worldview, looking around for just such a fault line he could rupture. And finding it here.
Later in the week, I saw a studio review presentation unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a dozen years as a guest critic at the School of Architecture and Planning. Professor Conrad Kickert, a recent and energetic addition to the faculty, and Adjunct Professor Joy Kuebler, a local landscape architect and expert on play spaces and learning landscapes, taught a studio class in which the concept of play was the basis for deep engagement with the community.
The community was Bailey Green, a case study in east side disinvestment located around the intersection of Bailey and Ferry. The School of Architecture and Planning has in recent years formed a long-term partnership with the neighborhood and Harmac Medical Products, which makes its home there. The story is nicely told in this recent Buffalo News article that also quotes Professor Hata, who pioneered the School’s Bailey Green planning efforts.
Students created concepts for a pocket park and community gathering space, in some cases with added housing. But the way they did it was remarkable. The entire class engaged the neighborhood in regular sessions of community input based on play-informed approaches like PLAYCE and also pop-up parks and playgrounds, both concepts championed by Professor Kuebler. Community members built trust with the UB students and faculty, and also with each other. Planners like to call that “social capital.”
In a sign of respect, the class presented their concepts first to the community and only then for academic review.
Students described how their individual projects were informed by these sessions and individual residents with whom they established a rapport. This is very different from how community engagement has typically been done in Buffalo, where the community is often invited to comment on plans that may be at 85% completion by the time anyone sees them. Often the community’s voice is only heard in heated wars of words at the Zoning Board of Appeals, or in a “developer proposes, community opposes” tug of war.
The long-term relationship and growing bonds of trust established between the School and Bailey Green makes me think of MIT Professor of Landscape Architecture Anne Whiston Spirn’s West Philadelphia Project.
What I saw was evidence of a process of evolution the School has intentionally undertaken in recent years, and I feel privileged to have observed it unfold. The School has long had the Center for Urban Studies, directed by Professor Henry Taylor, which has served as a kind of conscience for the city and region, not letting us forget our sins of segregation and reminding us of the work we need to do to address it.
But in the last decade, perhaps spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, the School has made a conscious, determined effort to make sure those values are embodied throughout the curriculum, programs, and centers. Last year, the spring lecture series was titled “Toward Racial Justice” and included a talk by India Walton, who had recently left the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust to run for mayor of Buffalo.
Also, discussions have incorporated terms such as “co-design,” the idea of closely partnering with communities and stakeholders most directly affected by project in shaping those projects. Just days ago, I heard Dean Robert Shibley talk about non-superficial engagement and looking outside of arbitrary borders of scope often imposed by those in authority. Those can hinder the ability of communities to shape their own destiny and achieve their own hopes and aspirations.
Helping catalyze this work at the School has been Professor Charles Davis. A distinguished alumnus of the School, Professor Davis joined the faculty in 2017, and in just a half decade his work has helped profoundly change their approach. As Dean Shibley put it,
Charles is at the forefront of a powerful movement to imagine a new narrative for our discipline and catalyze action toward a more inclusive understanding and practice of architecture. His work has transformed our discipline, changed us as a School, and shaped the next generation of architects in profound ways.
At Friday’s graduation the School’s largest graduating class will see Professor Davis awarded the Dean’s Medal, the highest award the School can convey. He will be moving on to the University of Texas, but the changes of the last decade will remain.
But can even all of this be enough to meet our present challenges? Can a school of architecture and planning – even with a based Center for Urban Studies and strong Food Systems and Healthy Communities Lab and other centers, programs, and professors eager to advance Buffalo and her people – bring about the change we need?
I would say the answer, to borrow a phrase from my math degree, is that it is necessary but not sufficient. “Not sufficient” is no knock, but a recognition that it will take all of us, from public officials at every level to the grassroots. Yet whatever we do next will take planning and design, whether it be bolstering quality, affordable housing to overcoming food apartheid to making better places and transportation systems to serve everyone.
To bind up our wounds and move forward, we will need symbolic gestures as well as good planning, and good architecture, and food systems, and mobility.
But we will also need all of us to start doing the right things, having the right spirit, and recognizing that we are all in this together.
The magic of all of us reaching out our hands is that there will always be someone reaching back.