When State Farm was looking for an agent to open an office in downtown Buffalo's Hispanic neighborhood, Lou Santiago took a chance. He bought an old gas station grocery on Niagara Street, remodeled it and, five years ago, moved his insurance office from the suburbs.
Today, he says the homey village culture of the lower West Side suits him. He has bread and butter for people who wander in to snack on, a digital window sign that scrolls out messages in Spanish, and a client list far longer than the one he developed during 12 years in North Tonawanda.
"It's unbelievable," said Santiago, who now spends 95 percent of his day speaking Spanish. "The numbers are larger. The headaches are larger."
His new customers in Buffalo's business district that serves the city's growing Hispanic population, many of Puerto Rican descent, tell him he's the first to ever offer them life insurance.
As an outsider who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Utica, and started a family here after college, it was Santiago's business move to Niagara Street that revealed the complicated problems, crime, isolation and promise in the city district where all the business of daily life can be done in Spanish.
In the past year, business owners like him and others in the Hispanic community have been working to organize, capitalize on and help the city's growing Hispanic population -- now estimated at 22,773 or 8.5 percent.
A new series of efforts has started in the past year to improve the community's business prospects. With help from people active in Hispanic associations, there are committees working on improvement plans, including a proposed Latino aid office for small businesses.
A new brochure lists the 70 or so developed businesses in the district from City Hall to where Niagara Street bends at Busti Avenue. Two proposals have been drawn up for new shops with hopes of low-interest loans and grants to fund them.
"It's lacking in services down here. We have no Latino accountants," said Santiago, president of the Latino Business Owners Association. "I'll make my noise and hopefully it will advance itself and encourage the recognition of this street."
The timing fits with what is happening nationwide. The numbers of Hispanic chambers of commerces and business associations have been increasing -- from 140 two years ago to 200 now.
"The business community is starting to emerge. They know collectively they can have a stronger voice," said Cici Rojas, a vice president at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. "Obviously they feel like their needs have not been met."
With change that may come with the new mayor, people working on Niagara Street wishfully talk of getting help to incorporate their own version of Niagara-on-the-Lake's clean, flower-basket style to the section of the street that channels in traffic from the Canadian Peace Bridge border.
"It's the gateway to Buffalo," said Cesar Cabrera, assistant administrative director for the job training nonprofit, the Buffalo & Erie County Workforce Development Consortium.
There are successes on the street now even as business owners complain of cracked sidewalks and boarded-up buildings. The three-year-old Tops grocery with its supply of Hispanic food is a neighborhood staple. "The results of the store have surpassed our projections," said Phil Perna, president of the franchise company that owns the store.
Down the street patient numbers are climbing at the Urban Family Practice, a million-dollar building that opened three years ago. Staff inside the office, which looks polished and new with charcoal gray decor and a big TV tuned to a Spanish soap opera, manage 7,500 patients with a computerized filing system.
Dr. Raul Vazquez said he can handle another 2,500. His patients are more comfortable doing business around Niagara and he'd like to invest in a series of new shops next door. "It's a growing, captured audience," he said.
Vazquez and the publisher of the monthly newspaper Panorama Hispano are teaming up to seek financing for a $1.5 million plaza, now a drawing mounted on a board.
"We're going to try to get funds from the city," said publisher Ramon Rodriguez, explaining he had just phoned the mayor's office. Another entrepreneur on the street is about to pay off the mortgage on a shuttered old movie theater, which he would also to get low-interest loans and funds to convert to shops with a Latin-style cafe.
"I got a lot of ideas," said William Ruiz, who owns a cell phone and Latin CD shop West End Communications. "The only thing holding me back is the funding."
Already Spanish-speaking restaurants, grocers, hair stylists and a dressmaker for brides are among those along the street that serves the one part of the city's population that is spiking up -- by 3 percent -- not down.
In the 2000 Census, Hispanics were 7.5 percent of Buffalo's 292,648 population. The census estimates for 2004 adjusted the counts to 8.5 percent Hispanics in Buffalo's declining population of 267,436. "Two years later I'm willing to bet it's 10 percent," Cabrera said.
At first, organizing to advocate for change was a puzzle. Santiago, who is president of the board of Hispanics United of Buffalo, didn't know how until a New York City Congresswoman came to visit.
More than a year ago, he, Cabrera and others were at a meeting with Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-New York City, ranking Democrat on the House Small Business Committee. She suggested the group discuss frustrations with government aid at their next legislative breakfast, a forum her downstate constituents use.
So Santiago, Cabrera and others arranged the first bi-annual Latino Legislative Breakfast last April. About 200 people, including elected officials, came to Shanghai Reds restaurant. Now committees are preparing for next year by working on ideas that developed -- from a discounted home-buying program to a bilingual business development center.
"There's a whole underground economy on the West Side," said Cabrera. Grandmothers sell homemade coconut ice for a quarter a cup, and homemade treats called pastels, meat pastries with a crust made of mashed plantains. With help their business could grow, he said.
Those who are more established, with listings in the new Niagara Street brochure, say business is quiet, or busy. It depends.
At the Niagara Pharmacy, every other phone call is in Spanish. Manager John Horton is not a fluent Spanish speaker, as his staff and clients are. Yet he knows enough to get by. He likes commuting from East Amherst to work on Niagara for its convivial community. "Everybody knows everybody's first name," he said. Once one family member starts using the pharmacy, soon the rest of the relations come in.
Further down the street, police officer Robert Chapelle is still looking for renters for the old Victorian mansion he converted into office space three years ago. Crime and lack of parking deter people, he said. To use the place, he moved in upstairs from Silver Creek. He likes the city's convenience and the Puerto Rican fried fish, but his car has been broken into. "I've had really bad luck," he said.
For Lillian Cruz, business is slow. Her year-old shop Latin Romance is open inside a building that used to hold her family's Puerto Rican restaurant the Niagara Cafe. It moved down the street and now she hopes her radio, billboard and newspaper ads will persuade people to shop at her place for skimpy lingerie, scented oils and soap from Spain.
"I wanted to stay in the neighborhood. I wanted to make it grow," said Cruz. "We're hoping they'll figure out this is one place that they need to work on."