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Community charts its own new course

Stop whatever you are doing and pat yourself on the back. Yes, you. You are leading the community. You are shaping the present and the future. Not the politicians or the power brokers. You.

OK, maybe not you personally. For all I know, you have not left the house in this century. By "you," I mean informed, community-committed citizens. Power to the people.

Look at the major events of this summer: The birthing of a people-friendly downtown waterfront. The annual explosion of the Garden Walk. The revitalizing West Side. None of them were part of a grand political plan or a big-subsidy project. Indeed, all of those "magic bullets" have misfired.

After 20 years of plans, a new Peace Bridge will remain unbuilt -- pragmatically, I think, in light of declining traffic and questionable economic boost. Another endlessly simmering project, the Bass Pro waterfront mega store, collapsed last year -- to the relief of those who regarded the plopping of a big-box retailer on the downtown waterfront as civic insanity. Add to the list the downsizing of the UB 2 0/2 0 plan -- which was propped up by billions of public dollars that, as Andrew Cuomo mockingly noted, were never going to appear.

These grandiose projects got people needlessly jacked up, only to let them down. That cycle merely fuels cynicism. I hope that the string of big-project failures and smaller successes adjusts the mind-set of politicians and power brokers. I would rather we hit a bunch of singles than keep swinging for the fences and missing. Recent events underline how enlightened citizens can set a sensible communal course:

* A decade of spadework by activists and community groups -- rehabbing houses, running off slumlords, building businesses -- is transforming Buffalo's West Side.

Streets are being reclaimed house-by-house. Each small victory lifts the 'hood and attracts working-class homeowners. It is a rare reversal of blight in Buffalo. And it happened from the ground up, not as part of any city program or bigger bureaucracy.

* Garden Walk Buffalo last weekend drew some 50,000 visitors, one in every four from out-of-town. The outsiders had their image of Buffalo adjusted, while dropping an estimated $3.4 million in hotels, bars, restaurants and shops.

The 1995 brainstorm of Marvin Lunenfeld and Gail McCarthy is a tribute to the communal spirit of folks in a city with a four-month growing season. It has blossomed (heh heh) into an image-enhancing event that -- unlike pro sports or cultural attractions -- actually brings suburbanites into city neighborhoods. The first-hand look cannot help but dissolve crime-and-grime stereotypes of the city. Some things you cannot put a price on.

* Tens of thousands of people have flocked this summer to the reborn Erie Canal Harbor. A riverside sandwich stand, colorful chairs and a faux beach showed how cheap and simple creating a buzz and a destination can be.

The "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" philosophy of New York City-based Partnership for Public Spaces was brought here by community activist Mark Goldman. It formalized the smaller-scale development that progressives had preached for years. The state-agency Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., absent of ideas after its futile pursuit of Bass Pro, took its marching orders from the community and signed on. The Canal Harbor board's mind-set has presumably -- I am not totally convinced -- shifted from giant leaps to smaller steps.

Various initiatives spawned by enlightened citizens are making Buffalo a better place. This is how the civic course should be set. Everybody: Give yourselves -- and each other -- a hand.


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