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Amid renewal in Fruit Belt, more interest by investors

Last of three parts

Longtime residents of Buffalo’s Fruit Belt talk of growing up in a community where neighbors, black and white, looked out for each other. Where crime wasn’t a problem. And where homes with hardwood floors and wainscoting – on streets with names such as Peach, Grape and Rose – were the envy of people in less affluent parts of the city.

It is a Fruit Belt long gone, after suffering the effects of white flight, crime and blight.

But now, after decades of both indifference and sporadic City Hall initiatives, the Fruit Belt is poised for revival. Just a stone’s throw from the growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the Fruit Belt has begun attracting investors interested in the many run-down houses just east of Michigan Avenue.

With the expected Fruit Belt resurgence, though, comes conflict. Already, some in the community have challenged a powerful clergyman trying to control the direction of their neighborhood. Community groups within the Fruit Belt battle each other for influence. Some homeowners scoff at renters. Others worry land speculation will lead to gentrification, forcing the elderly out of their homes and displacing lower-income African-Americans with higher-income whites.

Community leaders also question why planners didn’t do more at the outset to incorporate the Fruit Belt into the Medical Campus footprint.

“There is a campus and everything around it. It’s almost a gated community, and we are left with a trickle-down notion,” said Ricardo Herrera, executive director of Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers, a human services agency located in the Fruit Belt.

“It’s a very interesting time. What you can expect is the cost of housing to go up,” he said, adding: “What is needed is foresight and planning.”

Land speculation is creeping into the 36-block Fruit Belt neighborhood. Over the last two years, a Buffalo News analysis of five years of real estate transactions found, seven different investors spent a total of $259,000 buying 15 Fruit Belt houses.

Among them:

• A Rochester developer bought seven Fruit Belt houses and two nearby. The houses sold for as little as $2,100 and as much as $30,000, for a total of $81,000.

• A North Buffalo investor bought and fixed up one house on Grape, then bought another on East North, paying a total of $55,000 for the two.

• A Buffalo attorney known for buying and rehabilitating dozens of West Side houses recently bought four houses in the Fruit Belt, paying $57,500 for them all.

“I usually buy, fix up and resell,” said attorney Albert A. Burruano. “I bought these to hold on to. I bought them hoping the area becomes housing for the medical corridor. It’s going to happen. It’s a nice walk to the medical corridor.”

Other investors also have expressed interest, said realtor Rafael Toledo, of Nothnagle Realtors of Buffalo and Rochester.

“I am getting a ton of folks from out of town, at least one inquiry a day, that have asked about property on Masten, Michigan, and the Fruit Belt area,” Toledo said. “There’s not much there that’s for sale.”

‘A lot has changed’

Lois Smith, 67, is among those who remember the Fruit Belt of days gone by. When she moved to Grape Street in 1956, she said, hers was only the second African-American family in the predominately German-American Fruit Belt. Smith was 9 years old at the time. Her parents, she said, worried about sending her to the neighborhood school, unsure how an African-American would be treated by the white students.

It was fine. “Kids don’t see it.

My parents had more fear than I did,” she said.

When the family came to the Fruit Belt, Smith said, it was a thriving community, with a hardware store, ice cream parlor, donut shop and dry cleaner.

But over time, Smith and others recalled, the neighborhood changed. Race riots hit nearby Jefferson Avenue in the late 1960s, then youth gangs roamed the Fruit Belt streets in the 1970s.

White families with the financial means moved out. As years went on, the neighborhood became more poverty stricken. It also became viewed as a mecca for crime. Some current residents said the neighborhood was never as dangerous as its reputation made it out to be. Nonetheless, a community once known for its family atmosphere and beautiful trees became known for drugs and drive-by shootings.

“After the riots, around the ’60s, it went out of whack,” said Assey Banks, 77, who bought a house in the Fruit Belt in the late 1960s but moved his family out for a few years during the 1970s.

Today’s Fruit Belt is older and quieter. It’s in a Buffalo ZIP code where the population dropped to 8,691 in 2010 from 10,400 in 2000. Seventy-one percent of the population is 21 years or older. A majority – 55 percent – is female. Forty percent of families live below the poverty line. Sixty-nine percent of homes are rentals. Eighteen percent are vacant. About 82 percent of residents are minority.

“A lot has changed for the better,” Banks said. “You don’t have too many people hanging on corners like you used to.”

“We all know each other,” added Maple Street resident Michael Bronaugh, 62. “We watch out for each other.”

Recalling a pastor’s words

Over the last 2½ years, The News found, the median home sale price – meaning half the sales are higher and half are lower – of 25 houses on six Fruit Belt streets was $12,000. Also dotting the Fruit Belt landscape are hundreds of vacant lots, about 500, all that remains after demolition of run-down houses on the sites. The city owns about half of the vacant lots.

But those sales are only a part of the picture. The median, as low as it is, was below $4,000 from 2009 through the end of 2011.

What’s more, interspersed among the elderly and the poor are long-time residents offering economic strength and commitment to the neighborhood’s future.

Cleolius Calloway, 70, lived in the Fruit Belt much of her life. In 1994, she spent more than $150,000 to build her dream house, a 3,400-square foot home on Locust Street with a two-sided fireplace and first-floor laundry room. She has continued investing in the home over the years, she said.

“I was raised in the Fruit Belt," said Calloway, who worked as a nurse and nuclear medicine technician at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Buffalo General Medical Center. “I could walk to work.”

Another almost lifelong Fruit Belt resident in 2004 built a $177,000 house on Lemon Street.

“I wanted to stay in the Fruit Belt because I knew there were not a lot of role models for these kids. I wanted them to see people who did it the right way – get an education, get a job, get married – and didn’t leave and move to the suburbs,” said Schuyler Banks, 48, son of Assey Banks.

Schuyler Banks recalled his former pastor, the late Rev. Bennett W. Smith, encouraging parishioners to buy Fruit Belt property three decades ago.

“Buy as much property in the Fruit Belt as you can,” Banks recalled Smith saying, “because the medical corridor is going to change Buffalo. He said that in 1985, and I remembered.”

An issue of stability

The question many are asking now is how to best rebuild the Fruit Belt.

In recent years, the city backed away from building more single-family Fruit Belt homes. The market couldn’t support the cost of new homes, some neighborhood representatives and housing experts said.

Instead, the city worked with the Rev. Michael Chapman, the present pastor of St. John Baptist Church, on a low-income rental housing plan. With city support, Chapman’s church-sponsored development group received $22 million in federal funds to build 77 low- and moderate-income rental townhouses that are scattered around the Fruit Belt.

Residents in the past generally supported Chapman’s housing efforts, but recently the pastor encountered opposition.

“We’re not against renters, but homeowners provide neighborhood stability,” said Harvill Hill, a Mulberry Street resident, echoing the comments of other homeowners who oppose Chapman’s Fruit Belt plans. The city should provide fix-up grants to existing homeowners and encourage new single-family houses to attract new homeowners, he said.

Others want more of the low-income rental units that Chapman has built. If private individuals or developers want to build market-rate single-family homes in the Fruit Belt, said Benjamin A. Cashaw, president of Fruit Belt Coalition, there are enough vacant lots in the Fruit Belt to accommodate them.

‘We have to make a move’

The elephant in the room during the discussion on Fruit Belt development is the fear of gentrification. If property values increase, will existing residents be forced out of their homes by rising rents or taxes?

“Look at Harlem,” said former Common Council President George K. Arthur, referring to the New York City neighborhood that some have cited as an example of neighborhood revival they believe can occur in the Fruit Belt. “That was always the capital of the black community. But now, a lot of white businesses come in and gentrification has taken over, and there’s a lot of concern that a lot of old-timers who struggled through the bad times to get to the good times are being pushed out. That’s not what we want to happen in the Fruit Belt.”

David Lewis, 59, who bought his High Street house 20 years ago, doesn’t worry. He said Fruit Belt houses are small and older. Taxes aren’t likely to go up much, he said. The Fruit Belt, he noted, has been racially mixed before, and it will be fine if different races live there together again. “Times are changing,” he said.

In City Hall, officials are looking into what can be done to prevent long-time residents from being unable to stay in their homes. “We have to make a move before it is too late,” said Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen, who represents the Fruit Belt and introduced legislation that prompted the city to start researching the issue.

Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Corp., the organization coordinating the campus development, wants to be a good neighbor, said Matthew K. Enstice, president of the organization. The Medical Campus group is encouraging neighborhood development, he said, but is not going to develop neighborhoods. That’s for the communities to do, he said.

“The neighborhoods are critical to what we are doing,” Enstice said. “We want people living in the neighborhoods. We are focused on a holistic community. But we don’t want to be the one developing the housing; that is what the neighborhoods do. They are here to make the choices. We are here to help them.”