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In one West Side neighborhood's turnaround: optimism, uncertainty and $12 toast

The diverse and once-blighted neighborhood around Rhode Island and West Utica, now dubbed “Five Points,” has seen an influx of investment in the past 20 years, ranking it among the city’s most dramatic neighborhood comebacks. But some fear being displaced.

It’s a luminous mid-May morning and Remedy House regulars are scowling into their Macbook Airs, hands twiddling headphone cords or gripping mugs or shielding faces from the cool white window glare.

Swedish pop pulses through unseen speakers. Ceramic plates clatter behind the marble counter. "Sitting here, pulling out my laptop, I feel like I’m at home,” says Evan Ortolani, an advertising director who recently relocated to the West Side from New York. “And by home, I mean Brooklyn.”

But among some other residents in the neighborhood, Remedy House has another reputation: They call it “gentrification station” and “white people fishbowl” for the floor-to-ceiling windows installed in 2016 as part of an extensive renovation. The diverse and once-blighted neighborhood around Rhode Island and West Utica, now dubbed “Five Points,” has seen a massive influx of investment in the past 20 years, ranking it among the city’s most dramatic neighborhood comebacks.

Already anchored by the likes of Remedy House, Paradise Wine, Las Puertas and Five Points Bakery, the local business association expects to add at least four more storefronts – including a floral boutique and artisan chocolatier – by the end of the summer. Median home values have risen past $120,000 from $23,000 two decades ago, according to the real estate site Zillow. Some realtors rank Five Points’ desirability among young homebuyers on par with Elmwood and Hertel’s.

But the pace of recent development raises questions about the uncertain line between revitalization and gentrification, both delicate topics in a region starved for urban growth. And residents see both promise and peril in the new neighbors sipping pour-overs and dropping $250,000 on two-bedroom bungalows.

Some say they’ve already seen renters pushed out so houses could be flipped. Others gripe about the new cars parking on their streets, the noise from restaurant patios, and the tax bills they expect to see next year when the city completes property tax reassessments.

In many ways, the tensions unfurling in Five Points aren’t just the complexities of one neighborhood – they’re also the embodiment of far larger questions about who gets a place in the city’s revitalization, particularly as it accelerates beyond what early advocates imagined.

"Losing the diversity, losing the affordability – those are problems,” said Harvey Garrett, a neighborhood activist who led successful efforts to cut crime and vacancy rates in the early 2000s. “I helped create the mess. But I'm not sure how to address it now."

The Five Points neighborhood on the West Side of Buffalo, where Rhode Island Street intersects with West Utica Street. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

‘Everyone wants a piece of the action now’

Up the street from Remedy House, at the corner of 19th and Rhode Island, Joan Murray surveys the timber skeleton of what will soon be her new one-story house, with an attached garage and full basement.

There was a time when vacant lots on this street – “one of the worst crime streets on the West Side,” said Garrett – were left to grow weedy and fallow; some sold at city auction, often to nonprofit housing groups, for as little as $500.

But those days are fast receding. This short block echoes, on sunny days, with the hum of lawn mowers and power drills and garbage trucks hauling construction debris. Contractors have almost finished flipping 23, and 49 rents for hotel-room rates to tourists on Airbnb.

Across the street from Murray’s lot, Lycra-clad yogis squat and lunge through 90-minute classes in what was, until 2016, a collapsing warehouse. Sweaty students stream out after class on weekend mornings, off to brunch at Providence Social or $12 toast at Five Points Bakery or bottles of rosé at the natural wine shop.

“Everybody wants a piece of the action now,” said J-M Reed, a local realtor involved in early efforts to revive the neighborhood’s real estate market. “Everywhere you go,” he said, “there's somebody doing something here.”

Neighborhood activists and block clubs could only dream of change like this when they began their work in the '90s and early 2000s. Like much of Buffalo’s West Side, the neighborhoods west of Richmond Avenue – once the heart of the city’s Italian working class – suffered decades of postwar disinvestment at the hands of federal regulators, who restricted access to home loans on the basis of “old buildings and overcrowding” and the area’s “large foreign population.”

Later, in the 1970s and ‘80s, many residents moved to newer housing in the suburbs. As demand fell, home prices bottomed out – attracting a diverse community of low-income immigrants and other city residents who made the area one of the city's rare, racially integrated neighborhoods. But low prices also drew squatters and drug dealers. On 18th Street, crime grew so severe that residents paid an off-duty cop to patrol their block after dark for $15 an hour.

"The neighborhood back [then] was very seedy,” said James “Macky” Moberly, the owner of Essex Street Pub, who grew up just across the street on Lexington. “If our dog ran away and it ran down this way, we didn't cross Richmond."

But from his patio at Essex and Rhode Island – crowded once with “bohemians” and artists, and now increasingly with Elmwood residents and college students – Moberly has enjoyed a good view of the neighborhood’s transformation.

Groups like Garrett’s West Side Community Collaborative began targeting this area in the early 2000s, betting they could revive housing demand on the streets nearest Elmwood once the dealers and overgrown lots were gone. Residents planted gardens and boarded up broken windows. The community group PUSH Buffalo rehabbed rundown buildings into affordable apartments. Garrett lobbied for changes in city housing policy that toughened penalties for bad landlords – then led skeptical realtors on tours past boarded cottages and bowed-porch doubles.

By the time the Urban Roots garden co-op opened at Five Points in 2007, and even more so when Five Points Bakery opened two years after that, home prices in the near West Side had skyrocketed – quadrupling between 2000 and 2010, according to a West Side Community Collaborative analysis. Prices have jumped yet higher since then as Five Points gained a reputation as a "hot" neighborhood, independent of its original boosters and activists.

"This, more than any other neighborhood in the city, was picked up by grassroots efforts,” said Chris Van Veghten, who bought her neat Victorian on Vermont and Brayton in 1984. That echoes the findings of a recent paper in the Fordham Urban Law Journal on the rebirth of Essex: "If decline is a tragedy of the commons,” the paper concludes, “it is potentially avertible by neighborhood collective action.”

Today, the Five Points neighborhood remains “a little rough around the edges,” to borrow a phrase many residents use. But the intersection is also the beating heart of a growing commercial district, populated by young creatives like Phylicia Dove, the 31-year-old fashion designer who won $50,000 from Facebook and 43North after teaching herself to sew on YouTube, and Victor Parra Gonzalez, the Mexican chef whose offbeat cooking has earned multiple James Beard Award nominations.

Designer Phylicia Dove, owner of Black Monarchy, holds up a swath of fabric to show a customer as she sews an original dress for a customer, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Later this month, they’ll be joined by Blue Table Chocolates and Petrichor Flora, both businesses founded by small entrepreneurs who relocated to Buffalo.

"I think that's really the core of why Five Points is successful and why Buffalo is successful – it is really nice," said Kevin Gardner, the owner of Five Points Bakery. "It's just that people haven't seen the value." Once people start appreciating their city or street for what it has, Gardner said, others do as well.

Gardner last month unveiled plans to open an artisan market on the corner. The gas station bodega across the street also upped its game, opening a hot food counter that sells sandwiches and subs.

"The neighborhood changed,” said Masen Ali, flipping chopped steak on the grill. “We had to change with it.”

‘It almost feels like punishment’

But just across the street, near the intersection of West Utica and Shields, change has looked different to Mikal Jackson, a 28-year-old construction worker. The neighborhood “looks nicer,” Jackson said, but many of the families he grew up with moved out when landlords sold their houses or jacked up their rents. The new neighbors are wealthier and keep to themselves; many moved to the West Side from places like Williamsville or Lockport, he said.

Most longtime residents can today name two or three flipped buildings where refugees, Section 8 tenants, or other low-income renters used to live: On Vermont, neighbors say, a sooty white double that sold for $1,000 eight years ago now rents for more than $1,000 per month per unit. Around the corner at Rhode Island and 15th, a four-story brick building once called “the squatter hotel” has been converted to the Lofts at Five Points – complete with sliding barn doors and stainless steel appliances. The building sat quiet on a recent Thursday afternoon, save for the lone woman heaving a can-loaded shopping cart past to the 14th Street redemption center. 

“Some people in the area are already getting priced out of buying non-distressed houses,” Garrett warned in an email to other activists in 2011. “And we are starting to see some shocking rental prices.”

According to Zillow, the median monthly rent in Five Points is now $900 – on par with the city overall, but up 20% from 2011.

Whether that has caused “displacement,” in the academic sense, has not been proven, in part because observers disagree on how far a person must move in order to qualify as “displaced.” Two recent national studies that included analyses of Buffalo, conducted by the University of Minnesota Law School and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, did not observe displacement of either low-income people or people of color out of the near West Side overall. But those findings do not reflect smaller, intra-neighborhood movements, and more granular data will not be available until after the 2020 census.

Meanwhile, federal mortgage records suggest preliminarily that new homeowners on the near West Side are getting richer and whiter. The median income for mortgage applicants in Five Points and surrounding neighborhoods, which include parts of the west Elmwood Village, increased from $54,000 in 2012 to $76,000 five years later. The percentage of white applicants jumped from 63% to 83% over the same period. Just 53% of residents in the same area are white, according to 2017 census estimates.

“It is increasingly difficult for the clients we serve to purchase homes,” said Jerome Nagy, the chief executive officer of West Side Neighborhood Housing Services. “The flip side of the city renaissance and everything doing better is that, you know, some folks are either pushed out or left behind by it.”

Nick Tribunella plants hostas in his front yard on West Utica Street in the Five Points neighborhood on the West Side, Wednesday, June 5, 2019. Tribunella grew up in this house before crime in the neighborhood became too much for his family to handle when he was a teen. He moved back to the same house 10 years ago and bought the house next door to fix up. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

There are other problems, as well: Rahwa Ghirmatzion, the executive director of PUSH, says her organization has observed an increase in ticketing and police activity in the neighborhood. Parking has grown more difficult near the new shops and restaurants, which many residents can't afford to frequent. And when the city completes property reassessments later this year, some homeowners expect their tax bills to jump.

"I am not an expert on urban affairs,” said Tom Holt, an artist and shop owner who recently sold his house on Rhode Island after a decade on the block, “but it overall felt like the area was no longer catering to the working class.”

"It almost feels like punishment,” said another homeowner, who has lived in Five Points for 27 years but asked that his name be withheld in order to avoid alienating his new neighbors. While happy that crime and home vacancies have decreased, he said rising property taxes may risk displacing low- and fixed-income homeowners. “The good neighbors who were here all along, spurring change – what reward do we get?”

He added: “There's no benefit until you go to sell the house."

Meanwhile, Jackson – a polite guy in long braids and construction boots – is confronting the “funny feeling” of becoming an outsider in his own neighborhood. He used to say “hi” to the new neighbors on the street, but gave up when he saw them scramble for their keys as he approached. Two family friends moved off the block just last year, one headed to West Seneca after his house was sold to flippers.

“You can tell when someone is looking at you like you’re not supposed to be there,” Jackson said. “But it’s weird, because I’ve lived there my whole life.”

Figuring out ‘the middle ground’

What this means for the future of Five Points, however, even its fiercest advocates cannot guess. Of the 32 people interviewed for this story, the overwhelming majority said the threat of displacement and rising costs concerned them.

That well-intentioned consensus does not surprise Ghirmatzion, who said PUSH – perhaps best-known for its vocal takedowns of prominent developers elsewhere – maintains good relationships with several of Five Points’ leading businesses. But even the small entrepreneurs and first-time homeowners moving in risk changing the culture and economics of the neighborhood in a way that hurts some longtime residents, she cautioned.

“Nobody wants to come in and be thought of as a gentrifier, or that I'm displacing people or whatever,” she said. “... But what is the plan for the unintended collateral damage?”

At PUSH, at least, the plan has involved snapping up dozens of homes, lots and commercial spaces before they can be flipped – and then leasing out the rehabbed units for between $350 and $625 per month. The group prioritizes commercial tenants that serve existing residents, like the halal food pantry that will soon open on nearby Massachusetts, or Black Monarchy, which both employs and sells to African immigrants. Dove, who recently expanded Black Monarchy to take over a second PUSH storefront next door, said she could not afford Five Points were it not for her nonprofit landlord.

"You can have development. You don't have to have displacement,” she said. “We have to figure out the middle ground on this.”

Melissa and Kevin Gardner opened Five Points Bakery on Brayton Street in 2009, expanding into their second floor last year. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Inspired in part by Dove, who has begun sourcing textiles from many of her customers’ home countries, other Five Points business owners have taken small steps to welcome longtime and low-income residents, immigrants and refugees.

Urban Roots’ Patti Jablonski-Dopkin stocks Asian poona kheera and suyo long cucumbers, which are popular among immigrants, for instance. Frits Abell, the entrepreneur and microdeveloper who owns the Remedy House building, has discussed the possibility of instituting a “pay-what-you-can” program at the cafe with owners Justin Smith and Andrew Trautman.

For now, the coffee shop offers a 20% discount to people who work in the neighborhood, which PUSH’s Ghirmatzion says she uses often. In an emailed statement, Trautman said he was “disappointed” to learn his business was sometimes linked with gentrification, and said he and Smith “are hyperaware of our community and the residents within” it.

Like several other business owners around Five Points, he said he was open to further conversations with the community about neighborhood change and the concerns about it.

“I think we can do [development] differently from what other cities have done,” said Abell, who owns six buildings in Five Points. “I would never wittingly want to participate in what I've seen happen in New York.”

And yet, without concrete policies to prioritize affordable housing or fair eviction rules, it’s unclear what’s to stop Five Points from trundling closer to what Abell calls “Elmwood lite.” Like many of the low-income residents it serves, PUSH increasingly cannot afford lots or houses in Five Points. The buckling, butter-yellow house at 18th and Rhode Island sold in March for $150,000, and the patchy blue auto shop across from Five Points Bakery recently listed for $1.2 million, according to two sources. Ortolani, the Brooklyn transplant and creative director, bought his narrow Brayton Street bungalow in May for $135,000.

Sitting at Remedy House on a recent Wednesday morning, Ortolani scrolls through the blueprints that will convert the building – once refugee housing, neighbors say – into a studio and high-end pencil shop. The Amherst native and Nichols grad, a member of the family that owns Ted’s Hot Dogs, had looked at warehouse space near the Niagara River before deciding Five Points was home to the sort of young creatives he wanted to run with.

Even early in the day, the cafe is crowded. An elderly couple make their way through lattes and The New York Times. Young women trade notes across a table.

“The city needs to come back to life,” Ortolani said. "... And when I come here I'm like, all right, something is happening again.”

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