Share this article

print logo


Attention, fellow survivors. All those who have stuck it out and stuck around during the long decline of Buffalo and Western New York, read the following short passage and take our brief but revealing test:

Once upon a time there was a fair city filled with docile, friendly, hardworking people. There was a Big Plan in the works, one that would help the kind and gentle people who inhabited the region, one that would create jobs and generally make the fair city a better place to live. The Big Plan was run by a Big Group of Powerful People. They met to discuss what needed to be done and how best to do it. They made Big Decisions, and then came to the people of the fair city to tell them what was going to happen.

Question Number One:

Did the Powerful People:

A) Have the best interests of the people at heart, help to advance the local economy, make the best, most informed decision based on realistic assessments of needs and resources?


B) Make a decision to line their own pockets, feather their own nests and knowingly pull one over on the unsuspecting and innocent people?

Question Number Two:

This scenario applies to which of the following local issues:

A) Twinning the Peace Bridge

B) Building the current convention center

C) Constructing a new convention center

D) Moving the Buffalo Zoo

E) Covering up the Erie Canal terminus

F) Moving Children's Hospital

G) Rebuilding the Lakeview Hope IV housing project

H) Installing the Metro Rail

I) Closing downtown Main Street to car traffic

J) Putting Rich Stadium in Orchard Park

K) Bailing out the Buffalo Bills

L) Building the University at Buffalo in Amherst

M) Putting the Squajaquada Highway through Delaware Park

Answers to Question One and Two:

You are correct. No matter which one you picked, you win the Aware Citizen of Western New York Award. That's because the answers to Question One and Two are both sides of the same mythic coin, the predominant ways citizens of Buffalo and Western New York have been looking at some of the most passionately debated issues of our time. And the principle applies to every one of the local issues listed.

Something, however, has happened in recent years. There's been a sweeping change, a movement large enough to change a community if it takes root. There's been an about-face on key projects like the Inner Harbor Development, a change in plans to build a new zoo, a request for more studies on a proposed new convention center and the stunning back-tracking on the Public Bridge Authority's single-minded intention to twin the Peace Bridge.

There are signs that a new era is about to begin.

That change is directly related to our cultural and regional past. To see the implications of that new era clearly, we must look at how we got here.

Deeply rooted in Buffalo's industrial past is a love-hate relationship with authority. Let's face it; the Big Company built Buffalo: steel, coal, railroads and grain. Huge companies brought in immigrants, our ancestors, from all over the world and gave them jobs. Big corporations gave people stability and purpose, often seeing a man through his whole working career, and helping support an entire family in the process. For years the relationship between a worker and the Big Company was symbiotic. As long as the company was there, the worker put food on the table, and the family ate. The Big Company provided health care, a pension, a way of life. A trust developed in many thousands of families that extended beyond the Big Companies, to institutions, the government and those in power.

Then one day, the Big Companies left town. The economy crumbled. Love Canal poisoned our children. The waterfront, once bustling proof that everything was going our way, sat idle and smelly. Our lake was dirty, our downtown deserted. We went from a prominent, respectable city to a national joke. Now, after years of denial and depression, our populace has regrouped and begun to repair itself.

Many -- two-fifths, in fact -- of that original population left town or died out. The Buffalo that remains is leaner, scrappier, more independent and more creative. It is also cynical about Big Companies, and that cynicism extends to institutions, the government and those in power.

The Little Test above illustrates how Western New Yorkers think things traditionally got done around here. The Powerful -- whatever the Little People thought of them -- made all the big decisions. The Public seemed content to ride the wave of their alternatively altruistic or self-interested intentions. It's a Big Myth because neither assumption, either all bad intentions or all good, is true. But we let the Powerful People make our biggest decisions for us, regardless of what we thought was behind their actions.

But no more. Or at least a lot less. There's an unprecedented interaction between the Powerful and the Little People. Perhaps it's been a combination of the right generation coming of age, the right individuals getting interested, the right projects being proposed and the right political climate existing for that to happen. Whatever the case, Buffalo and Western New York are growing up. The Public has decided to get involved, and the Powerful People are learning to listen and communicate.

Should We Care?

Imagine, if you will, the Buffalo we could have. Imagine a "hot" city for new businesses and relocating established ones, a well-kept secret where the living is cheap and easy. That's not going to happen because the Buffalo Niagara Partnership puts up billboards about who isBuffalo Niagara. It's going to happen if the people who make key business decisions come to the city and see life and participation.

Imagine a public transportation system that really works: one that can get you to the airport easily, or downtown for work or the theater, from any number of places and back quickly, simply and safely. Imagine one that's built without ridiculous overruns of money and time, one we can point to with pride, not cynicism and jest. Imagine one that is used by all classes, urbanites and suburbanites alike, and not simply for those without a car.

Imagine a downtown filled with great old buildings bustling with life, resplendent with renovated offices and apartments. Imagine a downtown with grocery stores and drugstores that cater to the people who live there, not just the nine-to-fivers. Imagine fewer parking lots in the city, not more, and intelligent parking solutions.

Imagine taking out-of-town guests for a tour of the city and having them shocked at the beauty and life found here, rather than the consistent, enormously unused potential.

Imagine being used to having good things happen, having public projects that are not only accepted, but cheered, having grassroots activists and concerned citizens getting answers from leadership before decisions are made.

Does it sound worthwhile yet? Worth getting involved and getting vocal?

That Buffalo can exist. And the Powerful People working with the Little People is the best way to get there. It may be the only way to get there. If this new dynamic takes root, it will mean a Buffalo less plagued by the familiar litany of Wrong Decisions (UB in Amherst, stadium in Orchard Park; all you survivors out there know the familiar list). It means the old Myth of the Powerful vs. the Trusting Public must be transformed into something more cooperative, interdependent and, indeed, mature.

Time to Grow Up

Interestingly, the Big Myth mirrors human development, according to Marcia E. Buhl, a local social worker and executive director of the Episcopal-run Church Mission of Help Counseling center. "First, as children, we trust our parents entirely and assume that whatever they say and do is in our best interests," Buhl says. "Then, as adolescents, we are often angry, rebellious and suspicious of an authority's restrictions and intentions. As we grow into adulthood, however, we learn self-reliance and how to move in the world. We take more responsibility for our life and our journey."

In a family situation, where grown children must learn to make their own decisions and take responsibility for the consequences thereof, parents must admit that they are no longer the only decision makers, Buhl says. They must be willing to explain their thinking and allow for discourse, disagreement and compromise. Recently in our local culture, the so-called Little People have learned to get involved and hold their public officials accountable. The so-called Powerful People have learned that they must appeal to the public until there's a general acceptance that the process has been open and democratic, or they won't get anything done.

On a cultural level, as well as in families, this kind of paradigm shift takes leadership and a willingness to change. The seeds of that change can come, as they have for Buffalo, from anywhere and anyone. It can be someone with a passion for one project who hounds the press and the elected leadership until some attention is paid. It can be a peacemaker, someone who sees a better way to discuss all sides of an issue. It can be a handful of people who write thoughtful letters to the editor. It can be a block of homeowners willing to sport signs on their lawns. It can be one among the Powerful People willing to cajole and reason from the inside till a change comes.

The important thing to remember is it can happen. Looking for proof? It could be as close as your neighbor's back yard.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch--

In the last three years, signs have been popping up all over the lawns of Buffalo. First there were the "Improve, Don't Move" signs regarding the zoo. Then there were the Signature Bridge signs. The bumper stickers appeared: "Superspan," "I Don't Want No Ugly Bridge" and finally, "Build the Damn Bridge." Then came the "Save, Don't Pave" signs that had Sal the Mule trying to salvage what's left of the Erie Canal.

Rarely has this kind of citizen participation been seen in recent years. Andrew Rudnick, director of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, paraphrases Gertrude Stein, "A Project isn't a project isn't a project." Every Big Ticket project, despite some similarities, has very different elements, according to Rudnick. Different leaders, different funding, different objectives. He cites HSBC Arena as one project that had little public input. "People weren't very interested in it," explains Rudnick. "And no input was really necessary."

So how did the big projects -- the Peace Bridge, the zoo move and the Erie Canal 2001 -- come to the attention of activists?

"Timing," is Rudnick's theory. "Timing is everything."

Jeff Belt, president of the New Millennium Group, an organization of mostly young, professional people dedicated to improving our region culturally and economically, was one of the most vocal activists against the twin span project. How he got involved was a fluke. And the fact it was he who got involved was a lucky stroke for those wary of the agency that oversees the Peace Bridge, the Public Bridge Authority.

After working for General Motors for 15 years in such far-flung places as China, Switzerland and Tonawanda, Belt had taken time off to be an entrepreneur, to work on a business plan of his own. A friend had mentioned the nascent opposition to the new plan to build a modernized replica of the existing bridge. It was opposition that had yet to find a toehold in the public imagination and therefore the attention of elected officials. There seemed in fact, to be little to no dissent among the community's leadership. The city's Common Council had already granted the controversial easements it eventually withdrew to stop the twin span.

Belt, an engineer, looked at the issue as if it were a math problem. He wanted to learn more, and as is his habit, he gave himself a time limit of three weeks to research the topic. Without any endgame in mind, Belt went to City Hall in search of information.

"If I knew what I was getting into," he admits, "I wouldn't have done it."

He got traffic pattern and property value information for Elmwood Avenue and Niagara Street, and compared them. He thought it made sense for the city to develop the lower West Side. More traffic on Niagara Street would mean higher property values, and a bigger tax base for city coffers. To Belt, that seemed a no-brainer, and the twin span wasn't going to allow for that, though another crossing might.

So Belt, along with Bob Binesiewicz, Bill and Elissa Banas, and Mary Catherine Malley took the information to Mayor Masiello. Surprised and excited he would see them, Belt nevertheless had confidence in the numbers and comparisons he'd dug up. The mayor seemed interested, and thus began a journey that made Belt a local hero to some, and antihero to others.

"I thought the leadership would cleave to the side of objectivity," says Belt. Shocked, Belt found that, at least from where he sat, that seemed not to be the case.

Rousing the Rabble

Early public meetings about the conservative twin span plan were fairly calm. There were a few objections from young architects with visions of interesting bridges dancing in their heads, and local residents concerned about rats. Then word started getting out. Bruno Freschi, then dean of UB's School of Architecture who was also working for Cannon, a prominent local architectural firm, stepped in to support the opposition.

Freschi joined early proponents of the so-called Super Span, saying Buffalo could benefit from a better bridge, if those who built it had more vision. Bruce Jackson, a good friend of Freschi and a professor of American studies at UB, started writing anti-twin span articles in the local alternative press. The idea of yet another huge public project that would at best be mediocre and at worst be an eyesore struck a chord with thousands of citizens. Petitions and posters appeared at hip restaurants all over the city, and soon the issue was a cause celebre.

Lynn Williams, a New Millennium board member, thinks she knows why suddenly there was such clear outrage. "Ours is the first generation of kids who were catered to by our parents," she says. "We were college-educated on the backs of our union parents, and we expect our institutions, society, employers and government will respond to our needs."

As those who were vocal got more so, the politicians started worrying. After all, this emerging, young, active, professional constituency, signified by the New Millennium Group and the Twentieth Century Club, were very attractive politically. Local elected officials reversed their positions; even U.S. senators from New York got involved. Two groups that had long been quiet on the subject finally spoke up. The Episcopal Home and the Olmsted Conservancy sued the the Public Bridge Authority to stop plans for the uninspired twin span.

"There were times when we got really lucky," says Belt. "In fact, there was a joke around the New Millennium Group: God must want a signature bridge." Two trucks carrying steel coils turned over, one at the foot of the bridge, and the other on the Scajaquada, emphasizing the increased truck traffic in the city.

A court-ordered public review process ended in a stalemate. The two sides were entirely alienated and distrustful.

"Nobody could move to the middle, it seemed, without abandoning their original position," says Barbra Kavanaugh, Public Bridge Authority board member and director of the state attorney general's Buffalo office. Kavanaugh compares the process at that point to the Salem witch trials depicted in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." "If you weren't actively against the authority, the reaction was like, 'I saw Goody So-and-So dancing in the woods with the PBA.'

"There was an honest debate to be had," says Kavanaugh, "and no one was having it."

Eventually, the project was stopped. State Supreme Court Justice Eugene M. Fahey Judge ruled that the project couldn't be split in two, bridge and plaza, in order to do separate environmental impact studies. This made the PBA start the whole process over from the beginning.

Along the way however, the Public Bridge Authority was demonized, accused of having made nefarious inside deals, of being controlled by the Canadians, of having no right to do what they did.

Along the way, too, the anti-twin span activists were called dilettantes and obstructionists, anti-Canadian, anti-growth and anti-economy.

"As teenagers," Marcia Buhl says, "we try new things and we can make mistakes, or we can succeed. Opposition is appropriate, unless we oppose for the same of opposition."

Growing up can be painful, and noisy. The new paradigm of the Powerful People working with the Little People means everyone acts like an adult. A well-adjusted one, anyway.

And there are signs that's where the discussion of Buffalo's new bridge may be headed. Plans for that bridge are yet to be laid. All sides have reached an uneasy peace, pledged cooperation and are meeting to find a solution for our nearest and most important border crossing.

Not unlike a teenager who's won a hard-fought battle for more responsibility and privilege, the activists have a small air of triumph and expectation about them. It's almost, though not quite a gloat, laced with a bit of surprise at having made the mountain move. Conversely the authority's attitude is a resigned acceptance and slightly condescending patience, not unlike a parent tired of fighting, certain that in time the kids will come to the same conclusions they did in their infinite wisdom and experience.

There's Got to Be a Better Way

Recently, an amazing thing happened on the way to developing Buffalo's Inner Harbor. Two sides of the same public project issue came to an agreement.

Preservationists, led by the Preservation Coalition's Tim Tielman, had lobbied for years to stop the state's Inner Harbor development because it didn't take into consideration the original street patterns, the buried cobblestone streets and building foundations, and most importantly, whatever was left of the western terminus of the Erie Canal. Empire State Development, the state corporation in charge of the project, had taken years to put together a plan and get it funded.

Something good, however, happened with the Canal issue that didn't happen in the Bridge debate, and maybe that was due to timing too.

In many ways, the debate started out similarly, with all the mythical roles falling into place. Earnest preservationists, the Little People, were up against the Powerful, whom they saw as a corrupt, monolithic authority. Or one could say crazy obstructionists were nitpicking a plan years in the making and jeopardizing $26 million earmarked for the city.

This time, in a few short months, the issue turned around, perhaps because the Peace Bridge debate had been so acrimonious.

In October 1999, the Preservation Coalition sued to stop the bulldozers that had already begun to dig. Like wildfire, it seemed, Sal the Mule signs were all over Buffalo's West Side. Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde had already taken up the issue, months before the Preservation Coalition issued its lawsuit. Last June, Esmonde and News reporter Kevin Collison exposed discrepancies in expert testimony that said the canal rocks couldn't take exposure to the air and water if the slip were dug out and rewatered.

Kevin Gaughan, a local attorney with a passion and talent for holding large public forums, decided to get involved. As he has in the past for regionalism and education, Gaughan invited experts from all over the country to Buffalo to talk about canals, tourism and specifically the potential of the Commercial Slip, as the western terminus of the canal is known. He called it, unthreateningly, a Canal Conversation, and was thrilled by the turnout. Many more came than expected.

Like Belt, he was the right person at the right time, with the right issue. A private citizen, he jumped into this debate for a reason. While studying regionalism, effective local government and tourism, Gaughan found the experts tout one golden rule: Emphasize everything unique about our city. The canal is a regional and national treasure.

As a proponent of regionalism, Gaughan also believes that preserving the core of the city is imperative to keeping the region healthy. "If you talk to people in the suburbs, many will say their family is from the Old First Ward, or the West Side, or Kaisertown," Gaughan says. "There are many suburbanites with working-class ancestors, many of whom worked on the Erie Canal, and they have a stake in the city. I felt there was a great part of our story here."

Indeed, so did many others.

Politics as Usual

Some say the rapid turnaround in the state's position on the Inner Harbor this fall was due to politics. Gov. Pataki is, after all, running for governor again, and the Democrats, Hillary Clinton in particular, did extremely well in Erie County in the last election. The governor depends on the more conservative upstate power base for re-election, and has watched the Peace Bridge morass carefully. Two Democratic senators, after all, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles E. Schumer have weighed in heavily on the Peace Bridge issue and seemed to have used it their political advantage.

Republican County Executive Joel Giambra has taken a lead on many of these issues. In 1999, he was the first to come out against moving the zoo, in the midst of his campaign against incumbent Dennis Gorski. Giambra campaigned on making the region a place young people would not have to leave to have a good life, an idea naturally appealing to the New Millennium constituency. And while Gorski championed the new convention center, Giambra had a clearer sense of the growing unpopularity and suspicion the public held for big public projects, and promised to rethink that one as well.

Those strategies worked for Giambra -- he won -- and he took the lead again in the canal debate by immediately commissioning an engineering and construction study. Bruce Fisher, Giambra's chief of staff, insists that the Inner Harbor project worked, not because of politics, but because of a clear plan.

"The Erie Canal/commercial slip terminus (project) ... has a large public constituency," says Fisher. "It has a compelling economic argument, because, heritage tourism is a real economic engine. It has a careful engineering and construction plan, based on a publicly and privately commissioned study. It has major public support, including support from newspaper columnists, newspaper cartoonists, musicians, schoolchildren, the governor, the county executive, the mayor and many legislators. And it was pushed for hard against much bureaucratic opposition."

A Whole New Ball Game

While some call the recent delays unfortunate, there are many within the grassroots groups who are cheering. State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who early on supported the Signature Bridge, sees the campaign to move Children's Hospital as his next cause. Citizens are starting to question authority, rather than blindly accept what those Powerful People have supposedly already decided, and that can only help the community, Hoyt says.

"This is the most positive development this community as seen in decades," Hoyt says. "The public can and should hold their elected officials accountable, and challenge the so-called experts. Greater public input will insist that consultants' recommendations also reflect the will of the people."

Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, says it's too early to tell whether what happened with the Peace Bridge has been good or bad for the community. But he admits the game has significantly changed for the time being. "In the immediate future," believes Rudnick, "proponents of a project are going to have to be more politically astute."

Belt attributes this new attitude to a fund-raising issue. It all boils down to the money, he says. "The Peace Bridge, the Convention Center and the Erie Canal projects demonstrate that large projects can be stopped halfway to completion if the public does not support them. Large projects that are begun prior to creating public consensus will become 'risky' projects, and they will not be eligible for low-cost financing."

At What Cost?

As with any revolution, there are casualties. And in this local cultural revolution, the price we pay for change may be more or less costly. If we're lucky, only a few feelings will be bruised. If not, time delays and dead projects will negatively impact our local economy.

Interestingly enough, it is the powers that be who seem almost miffed, surprised at the passion and anger demonstrated by those who became their opponents. For them, the past few years have resembled living with a bunch of rebellious, ungrateful teenagers. Perhaps that's the price of engagement, of getting genuine public input.

"I wish people around here would be less polite," says Belt, "and I wish they would expect less politeness."

Some of the damage mentioned by the Public and the Powerful is in battered egos, hurt feelings and exhaustion at the process. Rudnick, who took frequent hits in the media, especially the alternative press, understands the human toll.

"There's an old political approach that tries to personify a position," he says. "I happen to think that's a terrible thing, because it distorts what the real issues are. The trick is to vilify, and to some degree from my position vilifying comes with the turf. But I know others who saw what they did as community service, and they won't get involved again."

Victor Martucci, head of the Public Bridge Authority, is widely credited with ushering in a new spirit of cooperation from a very tense board of directors. Even Bruce Jackson, perhaps the authority's most stinging critic, praises Martucci for helping to bring about a changed approach from the board, calling him "practical and astute and tactful."

Martucci says he can see the board's point of view. He vehemently denies any side deals or sinister motives. What he didn't like was "people questioning my motives or integrity because we have different ideas."

He rejects accusations of a closed-door process. "I read all the documentation," Martucci says. "There were all kinds of public reviews and architectural contests."

Because he came to the board later in the process, he says he had less stake in decisions the bridge authority made. "(But) I understand (the board's) frustration, because they've documented the public input. They followed the rules."

And yet they were prevented from finishing what they started. On the other hand, Martucci presents an interesting scenario.

"What would have happened if, in 1997, the authority came out and said 'We're going to tear down the existing bridge, build a new six-lane (Signature-like) cement bridge. We'll need to condemn 300 houses and 100 businesses, and not only that, but we'll need over 100 million of your tax dollars to do it'? And yet that's exactly what the Public Review Panel recommended."

Martucci's point is this: The Public Bridge Authority couldn't have won. They did what they thought was right, legal and reasonable, and yet were turned into some sort of monster in public opinion.

On the other hand, many agree the board could have handled the opposition with more grace and open-mindedness.

Onward and Upward

The Little People have become more willing to immerse themselves in the complex processes required for Big Decisions. But the roles of institutions and government have also changed.

From the beginning, the Public Bridge Authority board had one task -- to maintain a border crossing and take tolls to support that maintenance. As the bridge became too small to carry the ever-increasing truck traffic, the board's duty, according to Martucci, was to build a bridge that conformed with the numerous laws on both sides of the border, and to do it within its means. Kavanaugh says she thinks people thought the bridge authority was more than a toll-taker, that it had a duty to respond to public will. According to its charter, the authority is not accountable to the public. Board members are appointed, and many of them are captains of industry used to making decisions in a business environment rather than a political one. They felt toll-taking and bridge maintenance were indeed their only obligations.

As the role of the public changes from trusting child, to suspicious adolescent, to responsible adult, the roles of institutions and government could change as well. The so-called Powerful could evolve from the parental to almost grandparental. Instead of bearing total responsibility for everything, they should be gathering wisdom, sharing knowledge and perhaps passing the torch. Or as Gaughan puts it, the new government role should be in "empowering citizens, which translates to self-sufficiency, better politics and wiser policies."

Rudnick, who sounds more cynical about the motives of those who opposed these large-scale projects, has another point. "The goal of the activists was to stop a project," he says, "and now their role has to change to leadership and participation so that a project gets built."

So Where Are We Now?

Oddly enough, the biggest consensus among all the competing factions seems to be about where we are now. All sides learned surprising similar lessons about sound bytes and the release of information, about visual tools and not underestimating the battle or the opponent. Certainly all the parties involved are intelligent, passionate and committed, which bodes well for the future of Western New York. Whatever their goals, most came to remarkably familiar conclusions on the process.

Perhaps Bruce Fisher's list of elements necessary for success in this new era is the best summary:

A. Good, sound economic and engineering research.

B. Constituency-building by disinterested citizen volunteers aided by an elected leader.

C. Ample concentrated public education via the news media, conferences and meetings.

D. A process of media-accessible competition between competing plans.

E. Some demonstration of bang for the buck.

"What we have now is a board committed to hearing anyone with an opinion," says Martucci, speaking of the bridge authority's new attitude toward bridge plans. "The public can be assured they will have the opportunity to air their views -- though I know it doesn't make for good copy if we're committed to doing this right."

Many other big ticket projects are currently on the drawing board. The key for participants, big and small alike, is to learn something from all the drama and head-butting of the past few years. And like an emotional, headstrong youth who has aged gracefully, to change in a more responsible and effective way.

Perhaps the managers of the Children's Hospital move, the reopened discussion of a new convention center, the proposed expansion of the Metro Rail, to name only a few, have learned how to negotiate the choppy waters of public process in Buffalo today.

Hopefully we've all learned something about how to get what we collectively need done. We don't want to spend the next 50 years complaining about how Buffalo can't get anything right, as if we aren't all part of Buffalo. Looking back decades from now, we'll either say that was our chance to change and we didn't, or that was our chance to take our city into our own hands, and look at what we accomplished.

In the meantime, it's all been growing pains.

Natalie Green Tessier, former editor of Buffalo Beat, lives with her husband and five children in the Elmwood Village section of Buffalo.

There are no comments - be the first to comment