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Amid national buzz, Guardian story takes hard look at Buffalo’s East Side

Two days after Katie Couric swept through Buffalo last week, touting the city’s revitalization and posing with Shark Girl, and in the same week that CNN listed Buffalo in its16 intriguing things to see and do in the U.S. in 2016,” some less-flattering news coverage about the City of Good Neighbors appeared on the website of The Guardian, a United Kingdom newspaper.

With the headline: “In east Buffalo, drug addiction’s grip is tightened by decades-long cycle,” the article presented a very different side of Buffalo than has been in the national press lately.

There was no mention of the Buffalo Billion, ice bikes or even chicken wings – as in other recent articles that have appeared in the national media to the delight of Buffalo residents, who are used to being singled out for harsh winters, sports teams’ troubles and the city’s poverty ranking.

The Guardian story by American freelance reporter Chris Arnade is an unflinching glimpse into the drug problem on the city’s East Side, focusing on the neighborhood around Bailey Avenue and Genesee Street.

“In this part of Buffalo, residents see dealers on the corner, see folks living on the streets shooting up in empty lots, have to navigate a scrum of users looking for money to get into the McDonald’s,” Arnade wrote. “They hear shots at night, and then have to walk past homemade memorials of candles and liquor bottles for neighbors killed. They themselves have an almost even chance of having an aunt or uncle or stepdad or brother in jail, or in rehab, or in addiction or battling addiction.”

It’s not the kind of national or international publicity Buffalo’s leaders are looking for.

Mayor Byron W. Brown wasn’t impressed.

“What is the Guardian?” he asked at the start of a phone interview Saturday about the article, which he said ignored the many positive developments in the city, including those on the East Side. “I read it. I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t think it was in any way groundbreaking. The reporter himself said that you could go to any town in the U.S. and you could see similar circumstances.”

Darius G. Pridgen, the pastor of the True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street and who represents part of the East Side as Buffalo Common Council president, said he was “not thrilled about the article, but I’m not afraid of the article.” He said it’s always important to see what outsiders notice.

“I think it’s an opportunity to add a perspective from outside of Buffalo to the conversation and the solutions.”

The article

In his article, Arnade makes clear that most people on the East Side aren’t abusing drugs and that poverty and drugs can be found across America.

“This isn’t a statement about the character of the people who live there, but about the character of the neighborhood they live in: the lack of opportunities it offers, how aggressively and unfairly it is policed, and the failure of institutions within them,” he wrote. “As a result illegal drugs, and the violence around them, have sadly become a ‘normal’ part of the community.”

The article includes profiles and portraits of several people he met on the East Side, among them current and former drug abusers, as well as a mother whose son was killed and another who is trying to shield her six children from the crime, drugs and violence in the neighborhood. In some cases, their names have been changed but they agreed to be photographed by Arnade.

“Most who still live here are good, own their own home, but most of the homes are gone,” the woman who lost her son and is identified as Sheri, 54, told Arnade. “This street used to be filled with kids playing. Then the homes fell vacant, and the only people who moved in here are like those two, drug dealers or kids who use drugs.”

The mayor said in reading the article, it felt like the writer came to Buffalo with a set premise in mind and didn’t allow himself to see what else was going on. “He was looking for those who were drug-addicted. He didn’t tell any other story,” Brown said.

He would have found a different story had he checked out Harmac Medical Products, a manufacturing company specializing in single-use medical devices located on Bailey Avenue, just cross the street from the McDonald’s lot where Arnade said he was approached by drug addicts asking him for money.

Harmac employs “a couple hundred people,” Brown said. “They hire heavily from that neighborhood. The city has worked with them.”

Brown also said he wished the writer had looked into the city’s plans for an industrial corridor centered on Northland Avenue on the East Side which includes a $44 million job training center.

The mayor acknowledged there’s still poverty in Buffalo, but he pointed out the progress the city has made in the decade he’s been in office. Buffalo’s crime rate has decreased substantially since 2005, he said. Violent crime is down 27 percent and overall crime is down 35 percent. The city has spent $100 million to demolish more than 6,000 vacant buildings. The Say Yes to Education program now offers college scholarships to public school and charter school students in the city. He said $6 billion is being spent in the city for economic development and 12,000 jobs are being created, Brown said. “Those will be physically located in the City of Buffalo,” he said.

Pridgen predicted many people in Buffalo won’t like the article.

“I think that people will be defensive,” he said. “I think suburbanites will say: ‘We told you so.’ ”

But Pridgen thinks coverage like this, particularly from the non-local media, is needed. He says he knows all too well the realities of the poverty, drugs and violence that plague the East Side.

“I buried many of the people who were talked about in the article,” said Pridgen, whose church holds many of the funerals for the city’s homicide victims.

Pridgen praised Arnade for making clear that the issues on the East Side are the same as those in poor neighborhoods across America. He said all such neighborhoods need more help – and not just more money.

“We need total concentration that goes beyond dollars, that goes into total systemic change,” he said. “You can bring $10 billion to the East Side but it doesn’t mean change for people who don’t have hope.”

The author

In a phone interview from Alabama, Arnade told The Buffalo News that he is working on a series of articles about poverty in the United States, particularly in post-industrial cities, and that Buffalo was his first stop.

Arnade, who currently lives near Albany, spent five weekends over the fall in Buffalo to report his story, starting in September. On his first weekend, he walked all around the city, starting on Niagara Street on the West Side, and wound his way through downtown, South Buffalo and eventually ending up on the East Side.

He said he was struck by how empty parts of the East Side were.

“I’m used to being in crack houses,” said Arnade, who has written and photographed many pieces related to drugs. “There are streets where nobody’s around. One half of the houses are boarded up.”

He said he also was surprised by what he called the “amount of open drug dealing,” which he called shocking.

In his reporting in Buffalo, he heard over and over from people on the East Side that what they needed more than anything was jobs. He said he also had the sense that the city was struggling in part because it was still operating as though it had a population of half a million, while it is now about half that size.

He recognizes that his article isn’t flattering.

“I’m fairly comfortable that what I wrote was a fair portrayal,” he said. “It may not be a fair portrayal of all of Buffalo Niagara.”

He sees it as an article about a problem that plagues many communities and that used Buffalo’s East Side as an example.

“It wasn’t intended to be a Buffalo story,” he said. “This is not unique to Buffalo by any stretch.”

He said he has dealt with criticism before that he focuses too much on drugs and violence and not on positive things, but said he won’t apologize for highlighting problems.

“There’s a certain level of boosterism that is denial,” he said. “I have never believed in cheerleaders in anything.”

Despite the grim tone of the article, Arnade said, he enjoyed his visit to Buffalo and plans to return.

“You have a little bit of everything without having too much of anything,” he said.

He said it’s a perfect place for a young, struggling artist.

“I’d say: Why are you trying to make it in New York? Why don’t you go to Buffalo?’ ”