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New city life sprouts from grass roots

I got a kick out of Lauren Belfer's piece on the city's revival in the Spotlight section of Sunday's Buffalo News. The native daughter and author of my favorite Buffalo-centric novel, "City of Light," noted the city's transformation in the decades since her teenage self couldn't wait to get outta town.

I couldn't help but notice: Virtually every improvement the New York City transplant cited -- from neighborhood recoveries, to the volunteer-fueled revival of the Olmsted Parks, to preservation triumphs, to cultural resuscitation -- came not from a silver-bullet project or big-ticket proposal pushed by politicians and power brokers. The changes that largely made Buffalo a better place to live, work and play happened because enlightened citizens wanted it and worked for it.

Granted, we have landscapes of bleak neighborhoods and enough poverty to reduce Charles Dickens to tears. All of which provides a grim backdrop for any enhancements. But we do what we can. Despite its image as a backward burg, Buffalo at the grass-roots level has a community spirit and a progressive sensibility the equal of any city in America. From the neighborhood-beautifying Garden Walk, to the ongoing resettlement of downtown, to the uptick of Elmwood and Hertel avenues, to reversal of blight on the near West Side, the impetus and the engine of change is the same: engaged and enlightened citizens.

The excavation of history at Erie Canal Harbor and the reclamation of public waterfront at the Central Wharf happened because preservationists, progressives and community groups fought for it. They fought, not incidentally, against politicians and power brokers who tried to leave history buried and who wanted to obliterate the Central Wharf with a Bass Pro megastore.

Now, with the failure of top-down plans for a heavily subsidized retail "anchor," citizens are shaping a "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" development plan for our downtown waterfront.

We are resurrecting long-vacant downtown buildings as living space. Conventional wisdom -- led by such enlightened developers as Rocco Termini -- has come around to the preservationists' point of view: The character of grand old buildings enhances their market value. Meanwhile, city officials still have no policy to catalog and preserve Buffalo's historic structures. (See "Economics of Preservation" at video.buffalonews.com).

In fairness, corporate dollars fueled the restoration of such big-ticket items as Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin Complex and Louis Sullivan's iconic Guaranty Building. But the bulk of smaller efforts have been community-watered and -fed.

Our cleaner lakeshore and Buffalo River are partly traceable to citizen-environmentalists at Buffalo Riverkeeper. The local Underground Railroad network -- and a piece of heritage tourism -- was unearthed largely by Kevin Cottrell. Tim Tielman started the cottage industry of preservation and cultural tours that Belfer celebrates.

The beat goes on. Community groups such as the Elmwood Village Association protect the character -- and raise property values -- of a destination neighborhood. In a rare city instance of growth eating into blight, the west side of Richmond Avenue is blossoming under the nurturing of community coalitions. Local groups such as Buffalo Riverkeeper largely eliminated the disgust factor from local waterways.

Time after time, in ways that have made Buffalo better, it has been community groups, progressives, preservationists and environmentalists leading the way -- often with politicians and power brokers blocking the path or, at best, belatedly following in the wake.

Belfer, a celebrated Buffalo expatriate, has artfully chronicled the results. I'm happy to celebrate the cause.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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