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Gentrifying of Fruit Belt tastes sour

Nothing better symbolizes some residents’ fear of what could happen to their neighborhood – and to them – than clicking on an interactive Buffalo map: The East Side area long known as the Fruit Belt pops up with a new name: Medical Park.

The fear is that while new residents are welcome, they will come at the expense of existing ones. Those stakeholders will be priced out as speculators, developers – and the politicians they buy – drive up prices near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

That fear has grown to the point that one question emerged as the sole topic of a Fruit Belt meeting this week: Can there be gentrification with justice?

Experts immersed in development, such as Henry L. Taylor Jr., head of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies, and attorney Arthur Giacalone, have never seen it happen. PUSH Buffalo’s John Washington cited a 2014 Urban Affairs Review analysis that backs them up. It looked at 10 industrial cities, including Buffalo, trying to remake themselves and found that revitalization was concentrated in central business districts to the exclusion of other areas. The result was “growing economic and racial inequality within the city.”

“This is the subsidization of gentrification,” Washington said, citing public investments in HarborCenter and the Medical Campus that he said total well over $100,000 per job, not to mention government assistance for wealthy developers to build apartments and condos “that most of you guys will never be able to afford to live in.”

All of this in a city consistently ranked as among the most segregated and impoverished in the nation. Which raises a corollary question: What is the New Buffalo going to look like?

Common Council President Darius Pridgen, who convened a similar meeting last week, has pushed for a moratorium on the sale of city lots in the Fruit Belt to try to stymie speculators. He also has pushed for residential parking permits so commuters can’t monopolize the street parking.

PUSH Buffalo is seeking a “responsible banking ordinance” to attack redlining that creates a vicious cycle in which homeowners can’t get loans to fix up property, which then gets cited by the city, making it easy prey for flippers. Advocates also want a “community benefits agreement” with developers to make sure residents share in the jobs and have more say in what happens.

There are fewer voices already. Taylor said the Fruit Belt has shrunk from 11,000 residents a few decades ago to fewer than 2,000 today, so displacement already is underway. He warned that the same thing could happen to the Central Park Plaza area. But that also points to a strategy: partnering with other threatened neighborhoods.

Last week’s meeting drew nearly 100 people, and Tuesday night’s organized by the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force attracted almost as many. Compared with sparsely attended East Side meetings over the years, it is clear that this issue is resonating.

Most elected officials listen to the developers who fund their campaigns. Newton’s Law of Politics says that will continue until there’s an equal and opposite force: residents who organize, build coalitions, speak up and vote.

That’s what stopped big-box development at Canalside. It’s what needs to happen in the Fruit Belt and the rest of the East Side – before it’s too late.