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Jeannine M. Pitas: Investing in East Side will make city stronger

For years I’d been driving past the Tu Hieu Buddhist Cultural Center on Buffalo’s East Side on my way to Sunday Mass at St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Catholic Church. As time went by, I became more curious. A Vietnamese Buddhist temple? Right in the heart of this historically Polish and African-American neighborhood? I had to learn more.

So, one winter day, I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again. Just as I was turning to leave, a monk in an orange robe opened the door and invited me in. He introduced himself as Tin Tam, and we spent an hour talking. I learned that Vietnamese-Americans from all around Western New York come to meet here.

I also learned that members of this small community are eager to connect with people from different cultures and backgrounds. I left the center feeling excited to see another sign of life and growth in one of Buffalo’s most marginalized neighborhoods.

The renewal occurring in Buffalo is astounding. Every few months I see a new business or arts organization – a formerly dying neighborhood showing signs of renewal. But unfortunately, this growth is not evenly distributed.

Poverty, crime and violence remain rampant on the East Side. Derelict houses abound. The beautiful Polish-American Catholic churches – such as St. Stanislaus, which my great-great-great uncle Jan Pitass founded in 1873 – are all under threat of closure due to dwindling congregations.

And yet, there is one week each year when the East Side becomes the most bustling neighborhood in Buffalo. Thousands of Western New Yorkers come to admire its churches, to buy chrusciki and kielbasa in its historic Broadway Market, to carouse in its bars and, on the Monday after Easter, to flood its streets for the annual Dyngus Day celebration. Every Easter this neighborhood we so often scoff at and disrespect is transformed into the center of our community.

If we are willing to visit the East Side at Easter time, why not come at other times? Why not shop at the Broadway Market on a Saturday in June, or attend Mass at Corpus Christi Church, or check out one of the neighborhood’s urban farms? Why not step into a clothing store on Broadway and talk to the owners, or visit the Mashid Zakariyah mosque? Why not be curious about this community that is teeming with new life?

Perhaps the hesitation lies in our fear. Indeed, one report of a shooting or robbery on the East Side is enough to scare many away. But, as someone who has spent time in the neighborhood for years, I would urge you not to be afraid. The East Side residents I’ve met are tired of the stigma and eager for change. And in 20-plus years of shopping at the Broadway Market (not just at Easter), attending Polish-American events and coming to Mass at St. Stanislaus, I’ve never once felt in danger.

I should caution that in calling for curiosity, I do not mean that we should become gawkers. We need to overcome our fears and preconceptions and cultivate a curiosity that is driven by compassion, empathy and a genuine desire to learn from the experiences of people very different from ourselves.

We need to ask the local residents – as well as ourselves – how we might support the area and show solidarity. In this way, we will join together in making Buffalo the strong, vibrant city we yearn to see it become.