By Lou Jean Fleron
What a sight! We the people gathered for a classic celebration of American Independence Day as a majestic fleet of vintage ships sailed into Buffalo Harbor. It was clearly front-page news.
The full story behind the revived waterfront is equally newsworthy because it is a collective achievement, a testament to determined public activism, and proof of the value of democracy in action. That’s a story harder to tell, yet necessary to comprehend in these challenging times.
We the people of greater Buffalo are re-creating the priceless public asset of our waterfront, making it accessible and valuable to the entire community. The struggles to accomplish that feat go back decades and stretch into a promising future. So let’s pause to properly acknowledge the role of citizen involvement in the progress we celebrate.
The people who lost their jobs on the waterfront when private capital abandoned the industries there, and the next generations of those families who stayed, get to go first. Many of our civic leaders share that legacy of struggle and solidarity. A good fortune of our history, these are people who are representative of the rich beauty of this community by ethnicity, race and national origin.
Here, at the grassroots of a region navigating economic distress, neighborhood associations, unions, historic preservationists, environmentalists, social justice advocacy organizations, socially minded entrepreneurs and civically engaged educators wove a survival network promoting social innovation, equitable opportunity and shared prosperity. It has proved a force to be reckoned with for waterfront development, and it is a source of strength for the future.
The Buffalo waterfront story is a compelling example of shared success, accomplished not by remote officials or private investors, but by the will, energy, pragmatism and collaboration among diverse stakeholders. All of this is led by the “ordinary people” who care deeply about the quality of our community — the very people Thomas Paine had in mind when he wrote in his revolutionary 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, “It is not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies.”
The future story of our waterfront is yet to be written. But when it is, the language of how we got to where we are as the tall ships sailed in on this patriotic holiday will include the democratic concepts that guided us in this time — community benefit agreements, high road economic development policies and practices, public goods, and the natural commons — small steppingstones toward our best national heritage, the ideals of liberty, equality and justice for all.
Lou Jean Fleron is director of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab and a co-founder of the Partnership for the Public Good.