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Buffalo is on the economic upswing, but not for everyone

Johnnie Mae Holt has seen the disparity. Retired after 37 years in banking, Holt now spends her days volunteering behind a stove at the Durham Memorial Central City Café on Eagle Street. She’s there every weekday cooking ravioli or spaghetti or chicken for dozens of hungry folks who stop in for a free lunch and some company.

Holt knows firsthand that despite all the talk of Buffalo’s emerging turnaround, there is still deep need in this city. She sees men without a place to stay, students who need a little extra help to get by, people who work but still run out of food by the end of the month.

Yet just up the street, a few blocks away, there are signs of the city’s rebirth. Drive one way, and you see vacant land, empty buildings and houses that need repair. Drive the other, and you see a big sign for one- and two-bedroom condos “from $215,000 to $365,000.”

“That lets you know they’re not advertising for the average person,” said Holt, who took a break from serving lunch Friday to talk about a new report that included Buffalo among the Top 10 “most distressed large cities.” Cleveland, Detroit and Newark headed the list. Buffalo is No. 8.

The analysis, by a think tank known as the Economic Innovation Group, sought to measure the economic well-being of communities across the United States by looking at seven factors, including people with no high school degree, people living in poverty and adults who don’t work.

The rankings also took into account the change in the number of jobs and businesses between 2010 and 2013 – two areas where Buffalo did see a positive uptick.

For people such as Holt who are working to help the poor, the result is predictable. Buffalo is still clearly a troubled city where 60 percent of the population lives in ZIP codes labeled as “distressed.”

It’s a fracture in the alluring narrative of a city on the upswing. There have been real signs of a comeback – boosted both by grass-roots neighborhood groups and high-profile economic-development efforts. But that comeback hasn’t reached everyone.

That’s the stark reality behind another statistic in the group’s report. The analysis ranked counties where the disparity between those living in highly distressed areas and those living in nearby prosperous areas was the greatest. From that perspective, Erie County lands among the 20 “most unequal counties with over 500,000 people.”

In other words, while Erie County has neighborhoods that rank among the most distressed in the country, it has other ZIP codes, including Wanakah, Orchard Park and East Amherst, that are among the least distressed.

That echoes a message that Sam Magavern and the Partnership for the Public Good have been working to get out. “The point we try to get across a lot to people is that the Buffalo region is not unusually poor; it’s just unusually unequal,” Magavern said. “We have a sharper divide between the city and the regions outside the city.”

That is especially troubling, he said, because concentrated poverty is at the root of many of the problems you see in Buffalo. “You’ve got to get to that if you really want to grapple with the issues in education and health and criminal justice,” he said.

Buffalo does have a real revival story in the works. But unless that comeback reaches all of our neighborhoods, the future may tear us further apart.