A NEW U.S. Census Bureau estimate that Buffalo's population has dropped 12.4 percent since 1980 should be taken exactly for what it is -- bad news.
Explanations that it is all part of a downward trend in northeastern manufacturing cities make a valid point but are small consolation to people who live here.
And anyway, Buffalo's decline goes beyond regional trends. Rochester lost only 4.9 percent and Syracuse, 9.7 percent.
The message is that Buffalo -- both its public and private sectors -- must work on many fronts to overcome the steady population decline of several decades. Public officials, business interests, community institutions and citizens cannot afford to either bask in the comfort of individual successes or become fatalistic about the future because of some general trends outside their control.
Job creation and encouragement are basic. With much of its old manufacturing base gone, this area must continue to work hard to diversify and expand employment opportunities. Local and state government programs have helped, and they must continue to get strong support.
But within the geographic limits of the city itself, there are also actions that can be taken to make urban living more attractive and to help stem the flow of population to the suburbs as well as to other parts of the country.
There are some obvious areas for action:
Public education has gained strength under the "magnet" school concept. Desegregation efforts have worked. But the system is underfunded, has an aging set of buildings and is in danger of being led by an increasingly politicized board. Many Buffalo homeowners are senior citizens. When they are not here any longer, it would be nice to have new homeowners with young families, attracted by a successful school system.
Some city neighborhoods are deeply troubled by drugs. Pushers infest the streets. There are fortified houses for drug sales. Police have increased the number of officers assigned to the Narcotics Bureau and stepped up patrols. But some residents say they are afraid to leave their homes, and others talk of leaving the city altogether.
There must be an adequate police presence to make all areas of the city livable.
Buffalo has a large stock of wooden houses susceptible to deterioration without regular care. City Hall and the courts need to take housing inspections and enforcement more seriously. Each house that becomes uninhabitable is a contributor to Buffalo's decline.
New housing is essential. The Griffin administration has been successful with a series of subsidized new houses. Public funds reduce the purchase price. The pioneering Pratt-Willert housing program recently won an Urban Land Institute award as an outstanding model of urban revitalization. But it's time for the private sector to take a chance on unsubsidized new city houses.
Buffalo needs stronger retail activity in some of its neighborhoods. Large supermarkets would be welcome. Generally, the roads, the sewers and the water lines are in place. What is needed are more venturesome businesses to take advantage of them.
The city must do all it can to take advantage of Metro Rail as a catalyst for new housing and commercial development. Waterfront planners must keep in mind attractions for all Buffalo residents. The city Parks Department needs to get serious about small parks and playgrounds.
Jobs -- and more:
Job development is both the most obvious and the most elusive goal. Publicly aided projects too often do not produce the number of forecast jobs. It is ironic that nearby Amherst is beginning to question commercial expansion, while Buffalo needs it. Mayor Griffin is right to have a variety of commercial and industrial sites ready for developers. The federal government could help by approving a loan for the proposed Free Trade complex on Rano Street.
But jobs do not stem population declines if the workers choose not to live in the city because they are not attracted by the schools, fear the drug scene, are dissatisfied with housing and find neighborhood amenities inadequate.