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UB cleanup project seeks to connect with future Fruit Belt neighbors

The University at Buffalo has had to deal with plenty of town-gown issues – and even full-blown controversies – with its closest University District neighbors near the South Campus.

But now, as UB increases its city footprint at the new Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the university will be moving onto the back porches of another, even older neighborhood – the city’s Fruit Belt.

That’s why UB students were out in full force on a gorgeous but chilly Saturday morning, wielding rakes, shovels and paint brushes to spruce up the local neighborhood, an almost 200-year-old city community that took its name from the many orchards planted by the original German settlers. That neighborhood includes colorful street names such as Grape, Orange, Lemon and Peach.

It was all part of UB’s “Gettin’ Dirty” spring cleanup project, which sent hundreds of UB students into 16 locations near the university’s south and downtown campuses Saturday.

There were two ways to look at the university’s heightened presence in the Fruit Belt on a crisp blue-sky morning.

First, spring has sprung. Buffalo is crawling out of its winter hibernation, and many of the elderly residents in the Fruit Belt could use a hand.

“Someone has to push the button to start the spring cleanup,” said Zaid B. Islam, president of the Fruit Belt Homeowner and Tenant Council. “UB students are helping push that button, along with the Fruit Belt residents.”

But there’s more than just helping a random neighborhood.

For perhaps the first time, UB is making a concerted effort to forge a good relationship with its future Fruit Belt neighbors, in the shadows of the university’s planned new School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, set to be completed in 2016.

“It’s good public relations, because they’re building the new medical campus in the city,” Islam said of the university’s plans. “Now they can have a vested interest in the neighborhood that they’re building in.”

The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, abutting the Fruit Belt, also provides great challenges – and opportunities – for the neighborhood, which is old and has an aging population.

“The whole plan, between Ros- well Park, UB and Kaleida – it’s going to be a major change for our neighborhood and for the city as a whole,” Islam said, as he supervised a group of nine UB students making the rounds on Mulberry and Locust streets. “I see High Street as a business corridor, with boutiques and [apartments] above and homes on the back side of the corridor.”

That plan, he added, requires the input and participation of the nearby homeowners.

“UB can help the residents with that model,” he said.

But on Saturday morning, the far-off dreams for the Medical Campus and a renewed neighborhood took a back seat to the more mundane issues of an annual spring cleanup.

Lillian J. Morton, the 76-year-old owner of a Mulberry Street home where she has lived since 1959, when her grandparents lived there, bundled up against the cold, as she found chores for the UB students.

“It’s like it used to be in the old times,” she said. “Kids would come around to help seniors with any kind of chores they needed. That hasn’t happened since I was a little girl.”

Jordan Roberts, a 20-year-old UB junior from the Utica area, enjoyed the idea of helping older people who needed a hand.

“Being in college, you aren’t engaged in your community as much, unless you’re involved in community service,” he said. “It’s hands-on, so you get a little bit of a sense of accomplishment. It’s really a good community-service project.”

Josh Strzelec, a 21-year-old senior from Cheektowaga, said he had never been in the Fruit Belt.

“It’s a different experience,” he said. “It’s eye-opening. It’s only 15 or 20 minutes away, but it’s just a different lifestyle. You take for granted what you have. You’re out here raking up, and you see what other people are going through.”

Morton, the owner of the Mulberry Street home, found another benefit in the UB students’ work.

“It helps the rest of the kids in the neighborhood know how to act – to be responsible and respectful to people,” she said.

“That’s a good thing.”