By Mary Everson Giles
Just after I retired in the late 1990s, I went to visit my former college roommate, who lived on Staten Island. What a spectacular commute, I thought, as we cruised past the Statue of Liberty free of charge on the Staten Island ferry, taking in New York Harbor.
But when we docked I was shocked to see how down-and-out the surrounding neighborhood was: laundry flapping from the fire escapes of crumbling low-rise tenement buildings, grubby little mom-and-pop grocery stores. The only newer construction in sight was a minor league baseball stadium (clearly an effort at urban renewal) and a giant police station.
“I don’t understand this,” I said as we looked back at the picture postcard view of lower Manhattan. “Shouldn’t this real estate be worth a million dollars a square inch?” I was equally stunned to hear that her three-story Victorian home, only 10 minutes’ walk from the ferry and which she was thinking of selling (as she planned to retire, too), was worth only $160,000. In New York City!
“It’s not about the view or the potential of the place,” the native explained. “There’s no investment here because of this borough’s brand. It’s Staten Island.”
Many times since, I have reflected on Buffalo’s brand. Look at our abundant, affordable housing stock, short commutes, amazing architecture, recreational amenities (water!) and cultural offerings. If you tried to see a different play every weekend, you couldn’t see them all.
I could go on about our world-class philharmonic, museums, colleges, medical facilities and sports teams. Why wouldn’t businesses now headquartered in crowded, expensive mega-cities want to relocate here, to reduce costs and allow their employees a higher quality of life?
Until recently, I’d say it was because of a poor self-image, which was picked up by the larger culture. Look no further than how Buffalo has been depicted in the movies over the years.
In 1994’s “The Last Seduction,” Hollywood filmmakers who obviously had never been here imagined Buffalo to be a backwater, our downtown a small cluster of structures around the fictitious “Erie County Municipal Building.”
I remember the local outrage when the makers of “Hide in Plain Sight” sprayed graffiti and dumped litter where they were filming – to make Buffalo look worse than it was, to create an image that matched outsiders’ negative expectations of what we were.
These anecdotes go to show that, regardless of the facts on the ground, the branding of a city is all-important. Above and beyond the immorality of letting our poorer neighborhoods languish, such neglect tarnishes the Western New York brand, which has repercussions for the whole region.
It’s good to see a number of new mixed-use development projects in the works on the East Side lately. May this continue – with care to aesthetic values as well as improving the quality of life for residents. Let’s preserve our magnificent churches and restore our Central Terminal. May the Queen City of the Great Lakes have a train station that fits the brand image we want to project – in a neighborhood that increasingly shows it’s getting back on its feet. The Broadway Market should be booming not just at Easter, but year-round.
Do we face challenges revitalizing Buffalo equitably, beyond Elmwood, Hertel and downtown? Of course. But it’s no challenge we can’t rise to. Wealth is relative, and we know we have more means than most of the world’s people. We must live up to our own high expectations if we want anyone outside of our community to agree that we’re as good as we say we are.