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Latest estimate shows 1,700 more families living in poverty in Erie County

The poverty rate for families in the Fruit Belt has fallen by half.

But that may not be reason to celebrate, because the East Side neighborhood near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus has also lost one-third of its population, including those priced out of their homes as the growing Medical Campus drives up property values.

“It takes a village to raise a child, and we used to be a very strong village,” said Maurice Jones, a deacon at Promiseland Missionary Baptist Church, whose own relatives moved to Atlanta about six years ago.

[OPINION: Fruit belt residents need protection as rents rise]

As the neighborhood’s population shrunk, its percentage of families in poverty dropped from 46 percent to 23 percent, according to census estimates collected since 2006. That’s the biggest drop in poverty among 230 Erie County census tracts, a Buffalo News analysis found.

At the other extreme, a Lackawanna neighborhood bordering Blasdell recorded the biggest increase in families living in poverty, from about 4 percent to 29 percent between 2006 and 2014.
Bonnie Cordes, 72, grew up in the Lackawanna neighborhood and still lives there in a decades-old “Detroiter” trailer.

“When I was a kid I loved it here,” Cordes said. “But I’m not a kid anymore.”

Poverty compare revised

The News’ review of poverty data found:

• Poverty rates for families significantly declined in 21 census tracts, although for many, their rates remain high compared to other areas. Ten areas saw dramatic decreases, including the Perry, Columbus, Willert Park and Front Park neighborhoods in Buffalo, as well as Sheridan-Parkside in Tonawanda and neighborhoods near the Thruway west of the Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga.

• Fifty tracts grew significantly poorer. Half of the tracts are in Buffalo, including the Lovejoy, Babcock, MLK Park, Kensington and Masten Park neighborhoods. The other poorer tracts are spread across nine towns, including six areas in Cheektowaga, like the area around Villa Maria College.

• Poverty rates for the remaining 159 tracts stayed relatively the same.

Overall, an estimated 25,000 families live in poverty in Erie County – 1,700 more than the 2010 estimate. About one family in nine lives below the poverty line.

As a group, the tracts where poverty significantly worsened – by 5 percentage points or more – had one of every three families living in poverty.

“They’re not alone,” said Elizabeth C. Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They’re not an outlier.”

Neighborhoods are in transition everywhere, Kneebone said.

“It can play out differently depending on the place,” Kneebone said. “The housing market makes a difference. The economy, the local economy, makes a difference.”

[PHOTO GALLERY: Poverty changing neighborhoods in Erie County]

Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski, on a recent tour of his city, pointed out businesses that have closed and homes that have become rental properties in varying conditions.

“This one’s been a headache,” Szymanski said of a rental property on Milnor Avenue.

But what happened in the Fruit Belt – the drop in poverty and population as hundreds of millions of dollars poured in for projects on the Medical Campus – is not common for most neighborhoods.

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Life long fruit-belt resident Harry Greer loves his neighborhood and all of his neighbors. He was at a community picnic in a lot owned by a church on Mulberry St. in Buffalo on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Lifelong Fruit Belt resident Harry Greer loves his neighborhood and all of his neighbors. He was at a community picnic in a lot owned by a church on Mulberry Street in Buffalo on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

‘Disgraceful thing’

Walk along Peach, Lemon, Orange and Grape streets, among others, and a sense of optimism becomes clear among those who remain in the Fruit Belt.

Harry Greer lives in a house on Orange that his parents bought in 1965 for $5,000. The home is worth far more now, Greer said. And the neighborhood is getting better, said the former American Axle worker.

“I’m not scared to walk my dog at night,” Greer said.

India Walton, 34, a mother of four sons, moved to Lemon Street last year.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “My children have friends.”

Walton, a registered nurse at Women & Children’s Hospital, said the neighborhood has a spirit and sense of community.

Others call the drain of residents a travesty.

This is not where people’s lot in life improved, said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo.

The improved poverty statistics may make it seem like people in the Fruit Belt pulled themselves out of poverty through jobs and better opportunities, Taylor said.

“But that’s not what happened. They got put out. They were displaced,” he said, calling it “a disgraceful thing.”

One part of the problem is the effect of the Medical Campus expansion, Taylor said.

“The other side of the coin is the failure of the city to stop the displacement,” Taylor said. “People are being pushed out of their neighborhoods.”

The Fruit Belt census tract had shrunk to 1,728 people in the most recent census estimate – down from 2,721 in the 2010 estimate.

Jones, the church deacon, grew up in the Fruit Belt and remembers when everyone attended Public School 37, went to church and “everyone looked out for each other.”

But over the years, people moved downtown or to the West Side – or out of the area altogether.

“We lost a lot of people,” Jones said.

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Longtime Fruit Belt resident and clergyman Pastor C.H. Walker II, from Back to Basics Outreach Ministries was on hand for fellowship during a community picnic in a lot owned by a church on Mulberry Street in Buffalo on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Longtime Fruit Belt resident and clergyman Pastor C.H. Walker II, from Back to Basics Outreach Ministries was on hand for fellowship during a community picnic in a lot owned by a church on Mulberry Street in Buffalo on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

‘Lots of opportunities’

Relations between the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and surrounding neighborhoods are moving in a good direction, said Matthew K. Enstice, chief executive officer and president of the 120-acre Medical Campus. The Medical Campus has not displaced residents, he said.

“It’s just not something we’re doing,” he said. “What is in place now are lots of opportunities.”

“Our focus is on the redevelopment of the Medical Campus, and supporting all our surrounding communities when appropriate,” Enstice said.

Enstice said there are connections and chances for communication between the Fruit Belt and the Medical Campus, including at meetings and dinners he holds with neighborhood residents.

“I think our focus is that we want to see a positive effect on all our surrounding communities,” he said. “That’s what we’re working toward, with people that live in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

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‘Community that cares’

Darius G. Pridgen, president of the Common Council, sees the change in the Fruit Belt.

“A decade ago, you saw a community that had really at times lost hope that there was ever going to be a revitalization in their area,” Pridgen said.

The crime rate soared. Wages were low. Optimism could be hard to find.

“There is a shift in what the Fruit Belt is known for now,” Pridgen said.

“They are becoming known as a community that cares about its community, that wants a revitalization of its community,” he said.

Deborah Scott, whose family has lived on Lemon Street for five generations, has fond memories of the what the Fruit Belt neighborhood was once like.

“I could just walk right home,” she said of when she worked as a monitor tech at Buffalo General Medical Center.

What would she like to see now?

“Jobs for my grandchildren,” Scott said. “Jobs for my friends, my families. We have so much talent.”

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Audrey Dreczka, right, who raised all of her children across the street from the church, uses an ink stamp bottle to mark her cards on Wednesday night BINGO event at the Queen of Angels Parish Community Center on Electric Avenue near Warsaw Street. The community center, which is ground zero for this poverty census study has been a gathering place for decades. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Audrey Dreczka, right, who raised all of her children across the street from the church, uses an ink stamp bottle to mark her cards on Wednesday night BINGO event at the Queen of Angels Parish Community Center on Electric Avenue near Warsaw Street. The community center, which is ground zero for this poverty census study has been a gathering place for decades. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

‘Rundown houses’

The population of the Lackawanna neighborhood – unlike the Fruit Belt – has remained the same in recent years.

But Audrey Dreczka, who lives in the city’s Second Ward, can count five houses near her Electric Avenue home now on the market or recently sold.

“That brown house is empty,” Dreczka said on a recent weekday evening. “They went to Florida.”

Not long ago, Dreczka put a new roof on the home she has owned with her husband, a former Bethlehem Steel worker, since 1957.

“There’s a lot of rundown houses here,” she said.

The streets with the higher poverty rates are on both sides of Electric Avenue, north to Kirby Avenue, south to Blasdell and east to South Park Avenue. The neighborhood, down the street from Our Lady of Victory Basilica, includes houses, a playground, ballfields, and mobile home parks.

Among the 450 families in the neighborhood, an estimated 132 live in poverty. That’s up from just 17 when the census released its 2010 estimate.

Not everyone here is poor, of course. Many houses are well-kept and tidy.

Beverly Bociek, a 29-year resident of Warsaw Street, has a neat house and manicured gardens. On her front porch on a recent sunny day, polka music was playing.

“It’s my home,” Bociek said. “I love it.”

Bociek likes the city-provided services she gets and said there’s no crime to speak of.

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With a watchful eye from her mom, right, Mackenzi McMullen, 7, cools off in an above ground pool her single-mom Amber Watroba provided for her from extra money she set aside from her nursing home aid paycheck. Her mom claims she doesn't need the millions of dollars a lucky lottery ticket would provide, but "a couple thousand would be nice" to "fix things" in her rented apartment on Linden Street in Lackawanna. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

With a watchful eye from her mom, right, Mackenzi McMullen, 7, cools off in an above ground pool her single-mom Amber Watroba provided for her from extra money she set aside from her nursing home aid paycheck. Her mom claims she doesn't need the millions of dollars a lucky lottery ticket would provide, but "a couple thousand would be nice" to "fix things" in her rented apartment on Linden Street in Lackawanna. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

On the front porch

Yet some houses are problems.

Szymanski, the city’s mayor, said the city deals with properties that have fallen into disrepair for various reasons.

Still, he sees signs of renewal.

There are more children around now, the mayor said.

“I’m starting to see more and more people sitting on the front porch, instead of the back porch,” Szymanski said.

That shows people are invested in their neighborhood and keeping an eye out for it, he said.

The number of families in this part of Lackawanna with children – 190 – has increased, census data shows.

Amber Watroba, 29, who lives in the neighborhood with her daughter, Makenzi, 7, said this section of Lackawanna would improve with better jobs.

“I work,” said Watroba, a lifelong Lackawanna resident. “I don’t make that much money.”

Transportation can be a struggle.

“People around here – not a lot of them have cars,” Watroba said.

Other properties in this part of the city are less cared for.

Cordes, who lives in the decades-old “Detroiter” trailer, doesn’t see much hope in her neighborhood.

In the mobile home park on Electric Avenue where Cordes has lived for more than 15 years, there are feral cats – “there’s got to be at least 25” – and mobile homes surrounded by junk.
“It’s the only place I could afford to go,” Cordes said.

News Staff Reporter Jillian Deutsch contributed to this report.

email: cvogel@buffnews.com

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