Yes, fear of gentrification is real, and for good reason. That doesn’t mean that cities should resist gentrification – indeed, it’s just the opposite – but the transformation of stressed neighborhoods into vibrant ones does demand thoughtfulness, communication and a recognition that while its macro effects are overwhelmingly beneficial to the city, at ground level, it can upend the lives of residents with few options.
That reality is playing out in parts of Buffalo, but nowhere more publicly than in the Fruit Belt, a close and, to some residents, uncomfortable neighbor of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. There, gentrification is unfolding in a classic pattern: High-tech development is producing high-dollar jobs and raising demand for real estate. Inevitably, that pushes up prices, making surrounding land more valuable.
That’s a sword that cuts two ways. For residents who are ready to sell, it can produce a windfall as they reap the benefits of rising prices. But for others, it can push tax bills higher than they can afford and force them out of their homes. That’s the fact of it. It’s the job of government to limit the damage of the latter possibility without diminishing the possibilities of the former.
What it should not – cannot – do is to fall into the trap of viewing gentrification as an irredeemably destructive force because, in the end, it’s just another word for renewal. It’s part and parcel of the process of reviving a neighborhood – or a whole city – that has fallen on hard times. It produces ripple effects and some of them can surely be harsh. That’s what many Fruit Belt residents fear today.
They object to developer Timothy Leboeuf’s plan for a $25 million, 131-unit apartment building on Michigan Avenue between Carlton and High streets. That’s near the eastern edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the western border of the Fruit Belt. Where they meet is a place of friction.
Critics say the project is out of scale with the neighborhood of single-family homes dating back a century and, perhaps more to the point, out of reach of the neighborhood’s existing residents.
“It’s not being built for our community. It’s being built on our community, for the Medical Campus,” said Dennice Barr, president of the Fruit Belt Advisory Council. “We’re not going to be able to afford to live there.”
She may be right and, to that extent, it may count as a threat. Change often is. But is it a reason to oppose a development that could attract doctors, pharmacists, professors and others to a neighborhood that would, over the long term, benefit from their presence? We have doubts.
Some, including John Washington of PUSH Buffalo, worry that the change will inevitably shove African Americans out of the neighborhood. “This project is for white millennials,” he said. “I just want you all to think about this day, 30 years from now, and that neighborhood 30 years from now. Will you see a black face in it?”
It’s an impossible question to answer definitively, but the answer is probably yes, along with – one hopes – Hispanics, Asians, white millennials and others migrating to a vibrant neighborhood that attracts professionals. That’s the promise of gentrification.
Other objections are more practical and include the availability of parking and the capacity of water and gas lines to serve the project. Those are questions that need to be answered.
But if Fruit Belt residents are like many others who have been in the same position – and there’s no reason to think they’re not – their fundamental fear is of the effects of economic forces over which they have no control and that could upend their lives. That’s real and it deserves the attention of developers, government officials, activists and anyone with a beating heart.