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Muslims moving against East Side blight

Their eyes got as much of a workout as their legs.

A legion of Slow Roll Buffalo bicyclists Monday took a left on Broadway and rolled up Goodyear Avenue, arguably the city’s bleakest street. It’s a startling canvas of waist-high weeds stretched across an urban prairie of vacant lots. The vista is occasionally broken by scattered homes stuck like random teeth in a gummy mouth, hardy apostles testifying to decades of disinvestment and demolition. Families waved from porches to the rolling paraders, the greeters a glimmer on a grim landscape.

Except at the corner of Goodyear and Empire. The three-story structure anchoring an otherwise blown-out hub stood like a beacon. It sports fresh vinyl siding, replacement windows, new porch steps and railings. Thursday morning, workmen under a restored tin ceiling in the front room laid laminate flooring and filled seams in drywall.

Investment ran screaming from this East Side neighborhood years ago. Rehabs are as rare here as jogger sightings and $5 cappuccinos. Yet amidst scrub brush and abandonment stands a sign of renewal.

Mohammed Lasker bought the long-abandoned building for $9,500 last October at the city auction. The rehab will create at least four apartments, likely for recent Bangladeshi immigrants. The flow of Muslims that Donald Trump wants to stop is, to Buffalo, a transfusion.

Lasker’s building is, happily, not an outlier. His rehab on Goodyear is an early glimmer – if nearby streets are any guide – of a coming revival.

A pipeline of Bangladeshis from New York City in recent years – Lasker among them – transformed a pocket neighborhood north of the Broadway Market. He told me the same flow is spreading to Goodyear and surrounding streets. They already have bought more than a dozen houses within walking distance of the new mosque, a block from his building.

“There are still people here selling the drugs and doing prostitution,” acknowledged Lasker, 51, a compact man with graying beard, searching eyes and a strong spine. “But I think it will be cleaned up soon.”

The recent reclamation by Muslim immigrants of bleak East Side streets is, to my mind, among the city’s happiest developments. A siren song of uber-cheap property lures immigrants and urban pioneers. Houses on threadbare blocks can be had for the price of a late-model used car.

Lasker said his brother pays $1800 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in New York. For the equivalent in mortgage payments, he could own multiple houses on these streets.

It’s why hundreds of immigrants – many of them Bangladeshi from New York – re-made bleak streets north of Broadway into a Muslim-populated Mayberry. Dozens of houses were bought and rehabbed, yards landscaped, stores opened. A revival that many feared would never come happened in a relative blink.

I coincidentally interviewed Lasker six years ago, for a column on anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I told you then I’d help to bring 300 Bangladeshi to Buffalo,” he recalled Thursday, standing outside his building. “Now it is closer to 5,000. There are still 100,000 Bangladeshi in New York City. But many have heard of Buffalo and will be coming.”

It is good news to Darnell Taylor. He lives in the house next to Lasker’s rehab. For decades, he has watched buildings being bulldozed.

“The house he’s fixing had been abandoned for years,” said Taylor, sitting on the porch with his two preschoolers. “He ran all new pipes and electric. It’s a wonderful thing. I’d much rather see houses built up than torn down.”

There may be a New Buffalo, but – as a slow roll down Goodyear confirmed – there are Two Buffalos. Downtown and the waterfront are blooming. The West Side is reviving. But vast stretches of the city are a dry sponge desperate for droplets. The flow of immigrants – whether Burmese and Somalis to the West Side, or Muslims from Bangladesh and elsewhere to the East Side – quench a deep thirst.

Although the Muslim makeover has come to relatively few East Side streets, the transformation is startling – and spreading.

It’s a classic American story, written across generations. The first arrival digs a toehold, then sends for a brother, a sister, a cousin, an aunt, an uncle. Many of the Bangladeshis drive cabs, work in restaurants and hotels, then – after planting stakes – start a business. A network of friends and family lends money to buy and fix houses and bring in the next wave.

Amy Betros of nearby St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, long a refuge for the poor, homeless and addicted, welcomes the newcomers.

“It’s like we’re starting over again, with all this available land,” she said. “The Polish and Irish and Germans back then built communities around churches. Now the Muslims build up around mosques.”

St. Luke’s for years has rehabbed nearby houses for its flock. Lasker and other Muslims are buying houses farther down the same streets.

“We’re both working to make the area better,” Betros told me Friday. “They see Buffalo as a place of opportunity.”

The Slow Rollers passing Lasker’s building Monday, myself among them, saw the tip of a growing iceberg. Lasker bought and converted the Free Spirit Missionary Baptist Church up the block into a mosque. He lives in the former pastor’s quarters. A concrete cross still adorns the building.

“It’s OK, it’s still used for praying,” he said with a shrug. “They prayed, now we pray.”

For many Muslims, the East Side has been a salvation. Happily, it works both ways.