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'Appalachia' epithet voiced a little late

James L. Jackson wonders where Eliot Spitzer has been.

Jackson doesn't have a problem with the state attorney general looking at upstate and seeing Appalachia. The problem is why it took Spitzer so long to notice. And Spitzer, who's running for governor, at least noticed -- that's more than Jackson can say for most politicians.

"Upstate isn't just getting to be like Appalachia," said Jackson, 71, a retired activist and counselor with a lion's mane of gray hair. "It has been that way a long time, and nobody has done anything about it."

It is a cool, blue-sky morning on Genesee Street, where blight stretches as far as the eye can see. It's not a holler in West Virginia or a Kentucky mining town, but the bottom line is the same: Vacant lots, empty buildings, boarded-up storefronts and jobless folks clustered on corners.

"When I first came here [in 1959], this street was lit up from downtown to Cheektowaga," Jackson recalled. "You had stores, barber shops, bars. Everybody was busy. Then in the '70s, it started to go away."

The smokestack industry that carried the good-wage, low-skill economy closed or cut back: Bethlehem Steel, Chevy, Ford, American Axle, Buffalo Pipe.

"Now you walk down [Genesee Street] from Michigan Avenue, and you can count 50 buildings closed up that used to flourish," Jackson said.

Spitzer raised a fuss last week by comparing parts of upstate to Appalachia. He wasn't talking about middle-class enclaves from Williamsville to Westchester. But from Niagara Falls to parts of Buffalo and beyond, Spitzer stated the obvious.

The East Side has some decent neighborhoods. But drive down Broadway, Sycamore, Genesee and their side streets, and you might as well be in Harlan County, Ky. When a free medical clinic opened on Genesee a few years ago, it was the only doctor's office within a mile in any direction.

Official unemployment rates of 7 percent or 8 percent are a joke. Count folks who have stopped looking for work, and the real number in some neighborhoods is five times that high, as noted in a University at Buffalo study some years back.

The other day, I asked nearly a dozen folks on the East Side about Spitzer's remark. Only one thought he exaggerated.

Laura Henderson recently moved to Sycamore Street from Kingston, Jamaica, to join her ill mother. Kingston's shantytowns are notorious, but at least folks plant crops behind their houses.

"There are no farms behind houses up here," said Henderson, 31, a hospital worker. "People do what they can to get by. There's more illegal [drug trade] up here."

Her aunt retired from General Motors, where her cousin was laid off. Henderson wants to take her mother and two kids and join her grandparents in Florida.

"I'm afraid to let my kids go outside," she said. "Every other house is a drug house."

Joe Gibbs retired from GM two years ago.

"The jobs are moving out, and nothing is moving in," he said. "If I was coming out of college now, I wouldn't stay. The younger people are going, leaving the older folks to pay the expenses."

Folks are moving back to downtown, and the waterfront is taking baby steps. But help is a long way away.

"That's about right, what [Spitzer] said," Gibbs said. "This neighborhood is real down from what it used to be."

His eyes took in vacant lots and an abandoned factory at the corner of Genesee and Jefferson.

"Most people here used to own their property," he said. "They took better care of the neighborhood. When they sold out, renters moved in, and it changed."

Jobs left, prosperity turned into poverty. Call it upstate or call it Appalachia, it still looks the same.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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