Share this article

print logo

Imported ambition; Immigrant business growth fueling a rebirth on Buffalo's West Side

Vincent Guercio was born above his family's green grocery business, and grew up in the long-standing store on Grant Street. In his 40 years of life, he's seen a once-thriving commercial district decline.

"Since the 90s, I've watched the area just go downhill – businesses closed and storefronts were just abandoned," he said. "But we along with other anchor businesses stayed and weathered the storm. There were many rough years, though." Now Guercio is watching a commercial renaissance on Grant Street, and the rebirth is being led by refugees and immigrants who have settled in the neighborhood in the past decade.

"I see potential. There are more people, new faces walking the streets, and activity is picking up again," said Guercio, who is now manager of his family's store.

In recent years, more than a dozen new businesses – from eateries to ethnic markets – have opened on Grant Street, and the majority of them were started by foreign-born entrepreneurs.

The once bustling Italian neighborhood and commercial strip are being revived by newcomers hailing from troubled spots in Asia and Africa.

Lin Asian Market is a Burmese-owned store that opened in 2010, across the street from Hatimy Market, a Somali grocery store, specializing in halal meats and products, that opened in 2005. Last year, Golden Burma Asia Foods and African International Marketplace opened their doors. This year alone, six new businesses opened on Grant including Global Villages, an African and Asian accessories and clothing store owned by Louise Sano, an immigrant from Rwanda.

"It amazes every time I go there, I see a new business; it's like a snowball effect," said Bonnie Smith, executive director of the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, which runs a micro-enterprise incubator on Grant Street that houses international vendors. "Walking the blocks has become an international experience, seeing people in their colorful, traditional garb.

"My prediction is they are going to be the resurgence of the West Side of Buffalo. they have ambition, drive and they are eager, Smith said. "If we and others continue to give them a leg up, they will soar."

Since 2000, the area has seen a 25 percent jump in its foreign-born population, according to 2010 census data. Also, according to the International Institute of Buffalo, more than 6,000 Burmese have settled here. Overall, in the past decade Buffalo's Asian population doubled to 8,300, due in part of refugees from Burma, Bhutan and Nepal.

The wave of refugees from West and East Africa in the early 2000s preceded the influx of Asians. The affordable and available housing on the city's West Side has attracted most of the Asian and African newcomers.

"The West Side has been the target for resettlement programs, and it's automatic that they'd establish businesses where their community is," Smith said.

That growing community creates opportunities for new businesses. Mainstream businesses are not providing the culturally unique goods and services that the immigrants want. Furthermore, immigrants often turn to entrepreneurship because their foreign credentials and work history are not recognized and they have limited employment opportunities.

Khin Soe, 43, arrived in Buffalo four years ago from Burma with experience in welding. But he couldn't get hired in that field and his only work options were menial jobs in restaurants. A resident of Ferry-Grant neighborhood, he saw the burgeoning Burmese community and the lack of markets that sold Burmese food items. So he borrowed money from his family members and opened his grocery store, Lin Asian Market.

"This was the best place for the store," he said, "A lot of my people stay around this area; and I live around Grant, too."

Along with the newcomers to Grant, there's also been renewed interest by existing and new mainstream businesses. Sweet_ness 7 Cafe opened in 2007. A year ago Kimberly Watkins, an American, opened her salon, Paiden International Styles, on Grant with the goal of serving the diverse international population.

"There are great things happening over here, and we wanted to be a part of it," Watkins said. "In this area we have a serious melting pot that can grow and be viewed as a serious part of the business community."

The Westminster Economic Development Initiative, or WEDI, believes in Grant Street, too. The program won a $100,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo and is expanding its West Side Bazaar on the street. On Tuesday it will move into a bigger facility and increase vendor space from 6 to 22, the vast majority of them foreign-born.

Sano, the first graduate of the program, was in the incubator for 14 months before moving into her own storefront in May.

"I felt the bazaar took my hand and showed me how to test the market, narrow down what to carry," she said. "It really helped me figure out what I wanted to do, it made it easier to not be afraid to open my own business."

When it was time to strike on her own, she decided to stay on Grant.

"They want to make Grant Street something really good; you see all these small businesses opening, it's inspirational," she said. "We are all immigrants from different cultures but we have one thing in common, and that's the dream to make something of ourselves, and with the opportunity, we can.

Guercio isn't sure Grant Street will bustle like it did in the 70s and 80s, but he sees promising signs, like the changing demographics, the growing population and new housing.

"I'm looking forward and hoping Grant Street returns to the way it was when I was a kid, where you could walk to different stores and restaurants and get all you needed," he said.