When his two challengers snared a combined 31 percent of the vote in Mayor Byron W. Brown's home turf in the Masten District on primary day, it reflected a long-simmering perception by some that big chunks of the East Side – away from downtown and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus – have been neglected in the city's revitalization push.
Both city Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder and County Legislator Betty Jean Grant hammered that theme throughout the campaign.
Nevertheless, Brown cruised to victory with 51 percent of the vote, compared to Schroeder's 35 percent and Grant's 13 percent.
And despite the perception that some have that Brown has neglected large swaths of the East Side, city spending data over the past 11 years indicates that money for streets, sidewalks, parks and the like has generally been allocated fairly evenly in Buffalo's four neighborhood quadrants based on population. In fact, the East Side, these figures show, got a bigger share than the other sections for community buildings, including ones providing city government services. And when it comes to housing, the East Side gets considerably more money from the city.
“That is absolutely not accurate,” Brown said of the perception that big chunks of the East Side have been neglected in the city's revitalization push. “Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the East Side. But when you look at 30, 40 and in some cases 50 years of disinvestment, it's hard to make up for that in a very short period of time. "
Still, as Brown awaits the formality of November general election that will deliver him a fourth term, residents in the neighborhoods targeted by the challengers now want the mayor to focus even more on them, particularly those who live in some of the poorest sections of the East Side that require more to catch up.
Though the political campaign essentially ended on primary night, some of Brown's East Side constituents have a message for him if he wants to be remembered as the mayor of the entire city: We are part of Buffalo, too.
Fancy lofts and vacant lots
Zachary Mangrum has been a Willert Park homeowner for the past 30 years, but now that he’s getting closer to retirement, he’s looking to downsize into smaller digs – whether for seniors or not.
The challenge is finding something in his price range. There are a lot of lofts being built throughout the city, but with rents ranging up to $2,000 a month, they’re too expensive for many.
“I’m looking for affordable housing in a few years,” Mangrum said.
The East Side needs better housing stock in general, he said. Mangrum pointed in particular to the Walden-Bailey avenues area, where “there are a lot of empty lots and poor houses that need to be torn down and rebuilt.”
A former church bus driver for Say Yes Buffalo's summer camp at Thankful Baptist Church, Mangrum said he saw first-hand some deplorable housing in which kids he picked up lived. In many cases, he said, it was sad.
"I didn't think people really lived like that," he said.
The Brown administration has been developing affordable housing, including Jefferson Avenue Apartments and Highland Park Apartments, which are in development stages. Last month, People Inc. broke ground on the new $24 million Jefferson Avenue Apartments at 1140 and 1166 Jefferson Ave.
There also is the Bellamy Commons, a $7.5 million project at 1490 Jefferson Ave. that transformed a 66,000-square-foot vacant building into 30 units of rental townhouses and commercial space.
Brown pointed to more than $50 million in public and private money being invested in Jefferson Avenue, $70 million in the Northland Corridor project on East Delavan Avenue and another $70 million in public and private dollars in the Highland Park housing complex being built in the Central Park Plaza neighborhood. Brown also pointed to his record of cutting property taxes, "which has a significant financial benefit for homeowners living in every neighborhood in our city."
The city also has demolished some 6,400 dilapidated properties during Brown's tenure.
While Mangrum thinks more could come down to “build up the neighborhoods and make them more livable,” Clarence Strong wishes the city would do more with the empty lots it already has created.
There’s a vacant lot next door to him and another across the street, said Strong, who lives on Lyth Avenue near Jefferson Avenue in the same Masten District as Brown. But that’s not all.
“There are four or five vacant lots on that street alone,” he said, including a particularly long one that almost spans an entire block.
“It’s been that way for a long time,” Strong said,
He credits city crews for cutting the grass but blames them for leaving behind trash and debris, including plastic bags "all shredded up" from their mowers.
Brown supporter Stewart Fonville – who thinks the mayor has "been doing a great job" – agreed it is good that the city has been taking down blighted, abandoned houses, but he doesn't want the tracts left bare.
“Take down vacant houses and not leave a vacant lot. Put something in it,” said Fonville, a lifelong East Side resident, echoing a long-standing criticism of Brown's demolition policy.
Linda Gray, another Brown supporter who lives on Winslow Avenue, pointed to new sidewalks and housing.
“No mayor has done more for this neighborhood than he has. That’s why I voted for him,” she said.
Give us the business
Michael Miller pointed to a vacant Metro PCS store at the corner of Fillmore Avenue and Box Street.
“It’s been vacant for almost six months," said Miller, who's lived on Glenwood Avenue the past four years and loves the neighborhood.
The one improvement he'd like to see is more businesses – a laundromat and more restaurants, in particular.
“All we got is Mattie’s,” said Miller, referring to Mattie’s Restaurant on Fillmore Avenue, a longtime staple in the community. He said there is room for a lot more variety.
“Maybe a Little Caesar’s Pizza, Just Pizza or even a Tim Hortons,” said Miller, who works at Jawani Market on Fillmore Avenue and who thought Betty Jean Grant was the better candidate.
“We need a change,” Miller said.
Still, he acknowledged some improvements under Brown, including new sidewalks that are almost completed on Roeder Street and Winslow Avenue, and the fact that Glenwood Avenue was paved last summer.
But there are business initiatives, even if some residents don't mention them.
The Northland Corridor project is supposed to create a light industrial economic development hub for business and include a state workforce training center in the Delavan-Grider neighborhood. The project is part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion, but it was Brown who pitched the business park concept.
The Brown administration also opened the Beverly A. Gray Business Exchange Center last year in the former North Jefferson Library branch at 332 E. Utica St. to provides one-stop technical assistance, resources and support to small businesses owned by minorities, women and service-disabled veterans in the city.
And the Jefferson Avenue Apartments will have six to eight commercial spaces in the buildings as well as a museum, Brown said.
Alternatives for kids
Pastor Anthony Brown admits that in his younger days, he was something of a hellion. When he was a member of the Goodyear Crew – which was one of the city’s most notorious gangs – he sold drugs, “transported women” and was involved in illegal gambling.
Brown did time for his crimes, and these days he can be found helping to transform an old building at Genesee Street and Bissell Avenue into a community-focused church that will be a resource for the neighborhood.
The community could benefit from a paid training program “not just for construction, but for economic development," he said.
"So many people get tax credits – $5 million or $6 million in tax credits – while others don’t get none of that,” he said.
There also is a need for more community centers, Brown said.
When it was pointed out that the CRUCIAL center is nearby on Moselle Street, Brown was not impressed.
“CRUCIAL looks horrible,” he said. “We need more activities in community centers where there are some, and more community centers in areas where there are none."
He would also like to see more after-school programs for youngsters.
“They don’t need to be at home playing video games all day or on cellphones instead of working on school books,” Brown said.
“They need to be able to learn something different,” such as chess, Brown said.
“With chess, you become a thinker from the shoulders up. You use your head for something instead of just a hat rack,” Brown said.
The mayor countered that the city has invested millions in its community centers – including more than $325,000 in the CRUCIAL building – and soon will launch a mentoring program that will recruit adults to get involved with young people. He also noted that the city funds anti-violence groups, as well as Say Yes to Education and summer jobs programs.
Still, Pastor Brown says that young black men, in particular, tell him they feel trapped.
“We don’t have anything to do,” the young men tell him. “In some communities you have volleyball, soccer, little league, while our children have nothing.”
Shots in the dark
Musician and singer Perry Steward lives in an apartment building near the Broadway Market.
He’s a Brown supporter, and he does not agree with those who say the mayor has not paid attention to this neighborhood. But he could always do more.
“More police presence, that’s what I’d like to see,” said Steward, especially near the apartment building where he lives. Many seniors live there, and it gets scary sometimes.
“People are there cussing, shooting guns all times of the night," said Perry, who was visiting the Broadway Market.
“Right here at the bank, if I want to go to the bank.. I can’t walk up here” at night, he said, pointing to the M&T Bank branch located in the market. “People get robbed right here. It’s not a pleasant thing."
A Broadway Market police substation should be completed by the end of the year in vacant space on the second-floor, according to the mayor and a commercial kitchen to support the market's food service businesses is being installed. The mini police station will operate around the clock, 365 days a year, and it will be staffed with a minimum of 30 officers working out of the building, he said.
In the meantime, he noted, the city already provides armed security at the market. That will remain, while the police officers focus on the entire neighborhood, including the market, as part of the city's long-term commitment to the Broadway-Fillmore area.
Steward was not aware of plans for the police substation. When told about it, his fears were not entirely allayed.
“If you want some money at night, they might not be able to help you,” he said. “Somebody's gotta have some fear of the police, because I don’t want to get shot by mistake.”