Slow Death of Buffalo, New York

Decorative Snow–A Buffalo, New York, Asset

How and Why Buffalo, New York Died

Something we eventually learn about life – and with a little luck, we learn it early in life – is the virtue of moving on. When you look back, you wave goodbye. Nothing lasts forever.

Buffalo, New York, died.

The dying picked up speed in the 1950s, and efforts at lifesaving, otherwise known as Urban Renewal or Urban Removal, depending on you point of view, failed.

Even things we love and enjoy need to be left to memory, freeing us for new experiences.

The less fulfilling experiences in our lives are easily let go, their lessons learned. When so many of us understand this as individuals, it's surprising that we find ourselves unable to practice the art of letting go on a larger scale.

The Late, Great City of Buffalo

What's on my mind are the decaying urban centers all over the United States, and one the best – or worst – examples is the once great city of Buffalo, New York.

But first, here are the standard apologies to the good citizens of Buffalo and ex-citizens who still feel attached.

Yes, many fine individuals still live there, and the admirable features and enjoyable venues are many. Boutiques and other small businesses keep Elmwood Avenue busy and interesting from Delaware Park to Allentown, and downtown embraces one of the finest minor league ballparks in the country.

I have family ties with the city and count myself fortunate to have lived there for twenty years. Those years, however, ended over two decades ago when it became clear, as experience has proved, that Buffalo was a city going downhill in a hurry.

Main Street was being destroyed by an unnecessary, new transit system, from nowhere to nowhere most of the time, and the vibrant department and specialty stores were shuttering, just ahead of bankruptcy.

Even worse, political dinosaurs dug in their heels to preserve power in resistance to change.

In 1901, when Buffalo hosted it's landmark Pan American Exhibition, it was the eighth largest city in the United States. But by 1950, before the fateful openings of both the New York State Thruway and the St. Lawrence Seaway, its population peaked at over half a million, yet it was by then only our fifteenth largest city.

The Empire State Balloons

When I came to Buffalo in 1969, the slide was gathering momentum, its population having dropped back below five-hundred thousand, but no one was paying much attention. It was a trend the city's leaders seemed to think would reverse or halt on its own.

The polluting steel plants whose tax revenues paid a huge share of the civic bills were being threatened by cheaper manufacture overseas, but they were just too big, too powerful to have the nauseating soot pouring out of their stacks stopped.

Maybe if we just backed off the standards for carcinogens belched over the city, industries might stay... and so the fantasies flew.

Not only did no one have answers, I don't recall anyone even asking the right questions. It was all about holding on, not changing to go ahead.

Buffalo's growth, along with that of it's sister upstate cities–Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Albany, etc.–had been spurred almost exclusively by the opening of and expansion of traffic on the Erie Canal, starting in 1825.

"Clinton's Ditch," nicknamed derisively for the governor who championed construction, opened a channel for faster and more economic transportation of foods and other goods produced in the Midwest and transshipped across the Great Lakes.

Barges then moved through locks between sudden urban centers and wide open spaces, hauling loads across the state the Hudson River. From there, they floated south between the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains to New York Harbor.

Demand for American produce in Europe was huge and all of New York State prospered.

Throughout the Nineteenth Century, entrepreneurs clear-cut the old growth forests that settled the fabric of the state for all of history. They planted farm crops that joined in the moneymaking parade. Feeder canals were built to further facilitate transportation.

In perspective, the clear-cutting of upstate New York was one of the worst environmental disasters in history, but everyone went blind getting rich.

Population growth in Buffalo exploded, with decade by decade population statistics showing doubling and only rarely less than fifty percent.

The city, where a lock along the Niagara River rapids in Black Rock brought Great Lakes cargo boats into the canal, drew industry with it's lucky geography and natural resources.

Steel plants were built along Lake Erie's shore, and grain elevators filing up with harvests from the west extended the city's skyline.

All Things, Good & Bad, Must End

Things do come to an end, though, if only because the world is always pregnant with change.

From the turn of the Twentieth Century to the decade when Buffalo started downhill, community leaders had fifty years to look ahead and imagine ways to diversify, but nothing much happened.

Even after many efforts to expand the canal to handle larger loads and, consequently more traffic, the opening of the State Thruway in the 1950s offered haulers a much faster and higher capacity mode for transporting goods along a parallel route.

Fully loaded trucks carrying more than any canal boat raced across the Empire State at speeds never possible before.

This was a major blow to every canal city, since the Thruway generally swept traffic away from urban congestion, and one more before the end of the decade spelled the end of Buffalo as a major city.

It was only a matter of time before fewer lights were lit at night on the skyline. How long would it take? We're still calculating as a variety of crutches and booster shots have delayed decline.

In 1959, Canada provided the bluntest ax, opening the St. Lawrence Seaway, where new shipping lanes ushered Great Lakes carriers straight through to the North Atlantic. Their speed and capacity dwarfed anything the Erie Canal ever handled.

By 1960, there no longer was any need for the historic canal to do anything but build up sediment. It could no longer compete.

Buffalo and its sister cities began shrinking quickly, and by the Twenty-first Century, fewer lived in the city than during the 1890 census. The trend slowed but hasn't stopped.

Buffalo, New York is Dead

Is Buffalo, New York Dead

  • Long Ago. Well, maybe it's on life support–paid for by the rest of us.
  • Buffalo is a tough place and will once again thrive.
  • Turn out the lights, the party's over.
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The Next, New Buffalo, New York

It's possible Buffalo will find it's own natural level and become a pleasant middle-sized town where families grow and small business are born and flourish.

The problem with this quaint image is that the city continues to drain downstate and national coffers to support an unrealistic image of itself as a thriving urban center.

I came to Buffalo in 1969. I loved the place.

The University of Buffalo campus was packed with academic giants like Leslie Fiedler and escalating war protests. Great bands played in the city, and the Albright and Knox families endowed a museum with treasures of modern art you were invited to visit for free. The Olmsted-designed Delaware Park, although crudely bisected by Robert Moses, remained a gentle place to romp and relax.

Downtown a brand new mall hauled in traffic, and the department stores along Main Street were busy.

I remember looking into a stream of red taillights as my friend, Larry, and I inched toward the shopping district at Christmas, only to find that so many people arrived ahead of us that the mall's parking spaces were full.

The Buffalo Bills drafted O. J. Simpson the year I arrived, and soon, the Sabres became a new NHL franchise. There was much more, but suffice to say, it was a great place for a young man to live and enjoy city life.

When things started to go seriously bad, layoffs at the steel mills were the most scary news. It seemed like every family had someone who worked at Bethlehem or Republic.

Then, the grain elevators were abandoned and left to rot all along the waterfront.

Soon, the department stores began to close as the population shifted to the suburbs, the city core remaining too poor to support them.

Perhaps the worst blow was an effort, sponsored by then Senator Al D'Amato, to spark downtown commerce by building a subway line along Main Street. Years of construction messes and detours probably killed more businesses than they ever hoped to save.

Now, downtown is empty, even during rush hour, as the above ground trolley rattles along streets devoid of pedestrians or popular stores.

The enormous price tag for the subway, paid by the rest of the country, provided badly needed jobs, but it left them with nowhere to go when construction ended. It was a giveaway with no future.

Similarly, the ongoing feed of federal and state funds to support the city continues. New York and other downstate areas are expected to sustain Buffalo on life support as long as the politicians supporting it believe their actions deliver votes.

And the stagnation continues.

Just as individuals cannot grow while stuck in one place, populations harden when change is resisted or not welcomed, and change will not occur in Buffalo or in cities like it until they are able to support themselves.

Left to their own devices and using only their own resources, cities would, of necessity, resize and learn how to better manage themselves.

Cities can reinvent themselves, just as New York, the biggest and most cumbersome of all has, consistently through both good and bad times. The continuing funnel of taxpayer dollars into decaying cities only encourages them to sustain the romance that they will return to greatness.

But how can they? Will a subway line running down Main Street replace the Erie Canal of old as a resource for commerce? Can a beach restored from from the ravages of industry bring giant freighters into the harbor?

Of course, none of these things nor any of the other optimistic scenarios occasionally advanced can change the course of history. Buffalo boomed with the Erie Canal, and now it has to be left to die with it.

The canal is evolving as a rehabilitated recreational district where pleasure craft cruise history during the nicer seasons. Buffalo can reinvent itself too. First, it needs to remember that it's not, well, Buffalo anymore. It's a new city that needs to find its human resources.

Maybe the historic city on the eastern shore of Lake Erie can set an example for other needy places, being the first to discover its pearls among its ashes.

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What do you think? 6 comments

David Stone profile image

David Stone 2 years ago from New York City Author

As a social policy, we let the small towns go in favor of suburbs because it favored the car culture that then drove the economy. It's sad to see the results.

Thank you, Pam.

Pam Irie profile image

Pam Irie 2 years ago from Land of Aloha

I recently went back to a small rural town where I used to spend my summers growing up. It was so disheartening to see the tiny main street in a shambles. Nothing stays the same. I wanted the place to match my memories and that sure didn't happen.

David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

Right, Dan, large and small.

Dan Carpenter 6 years ago

Good post David. Detach from all things and flourish!

thevoice profile image

thevoice 6 years ago from carthage ill

powerful reading thanks

Sandyspider profile image

Sandyspider 6 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

Thank you for sharing this.

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