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West Side housing story is uplifting

You cannot call them urban pioneers. The neighborhood is too far along. Homesteaders maybe. They are part of a figurative wagon train of settlers, of newcomers to a developing frontier. Cristina D'Angelo and Jane Marcotte, like others before them, are staking a claim.

A few years from now, the abandoned houses and fixer-uppers will be gone. The territory will be settled. Whatever was left of the wild West Side -- or, at least, this slab of it -- will have disappeared.

This is a good thing.

The streets west of Richmond Avenue -- long a boundary between the upscale Elmwood Village and a sketchy neighborhood -- are being transformed. Thousands of Garden Walk visitors saw last weekend for themselves: Rhode Island, Chenango, Essex, 19th, York, Connecticut, 16th. Block by block, the West Side is being resettled.

Singles, young couples, immigrants, investors -- real ones, not absentee landlords and out-of-state "flippers" -- are buying in. Granted, some streets remain works in progress. But the strength is spreading.

D'Angelo and Marcotte last year bought the circa-1870s, needs-TLC bungalow on Rhode Island a few doors from a firehouse. Monday found them in work pants and T-shirts, sanding and painting their way to a September move-in. For them, this is more than a rising-tide investment. As Marcotte, a massage therapist, told me, "It's about being a part of rehabbing a neighborhood."

They are not yuppies looking to gentrify. They are working-class folks eager to stabilize a multicultural neighborhood. The light of true believers is in their eyes. The energy and commitment are typical of the new-homeowner posse.

"We heard about what was going on," said D'Angelo, a teacher, "and wanted to get in on the ground floor."

Houses are being reclaimed and restored, instead of demolished. On the same streets that homeowners decades ago fled for the suburbs, a new generation is restaking a pride-in-ownership, sense-of-community claim. They share an adventurist mentality, an enthusiasm that feeds off itself and off each other. It is nice to see.

I have lived in Buffalo for 30 years. I have seen blight spread like a rolling fog into decent neighborhoods. It is gratifying to see the reverse. It shows that a strong neighborhood can expand instead of contract. It can push its boundaries, instead of hunkering down and playing defense. That is what the West Side story says to me.

J.M. Reed of MJ Peterson Realty witnessed the transformation. A decade ago, before becoming an associate broker, Reed was a paramedic working on the West Side.

"I'd get called over here for shootings and stabbings," he recalled. "Ten years ago, I would never have considered living here. It's night and day from that now."

The numbers don't lie: The near West Side is the hottest housing market in Western New York. The average sale price of houses in a 12-block swatch tripled from 2000 to 2010, to nearly $80,000. And rising.

Higher property values in the adjacent Elmwood Village priced out young couples and singles. It is no accident they looked across Richmond Avenue. The West Side Collaborative -- a stew pot of community groups -- and nonprofits had for years been reclaiming abandoned houses. With the help of then-Housing Court Judge Henry Nowak, they pressured derelict homeowners and slumlords into fixing or selling. It set the table for resettlement.

"The [community groups] and nonprofits needed new homeowners," Reed said, "and vice versa."

Enter D'Angelo, Marcotte and a horde of other urban settlers. Visitors last weekend saw the difference -- with a Garden Walk on the now not-so-wild West Side.