Question: How many times has the sardonic phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” been invoked by those seeking to create positive change? Answer: On a regular basis. It’s so much easier to mind your own business and do nothing.
Community involvement is rewarding, but it can’t be expected to always go smoothly, no matter how well-intentioned and regardless of tangible, beneficial outcomes.
That’s why we understand and sympathize with the Men of the Fruit Belt and hope that the group will be able to continue to do good, in spite of a temporary City of Buffalo permitting hiccup. And we think it’s possible – with the city’s help – to find a solution that will make their work even more impactful.
On Halloween, the group found – through a posted notice – that they had unknowingly run afoul of city regulations by putting up a gazebo earlier this year at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Carleton Street, an empty lot where they had been holding neighborhood gatherings, charitable giveaways and other acts of fellowship for the past few years. This location is a few blocks away from the site of the May 14 mass shooting, and a memorial cookout and balloon release was held here to honor the victims.
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The cookouts and gatherings were fine – the private property is owned by a friend of the group – but erecting a structure was not. It flew under the radar for a while. In fact, it’s reported that Buffalo police officers in their cruisers drove by and waved when the group was active on the corner, as did Buffalo Fire Department personnel and Buffalo Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen.
City Hall is a big place, though, and it’s totally possible none of these powerful entities was aware that the gazebo, constructed on a commercial lot and unassociated with a larger dwelling – as such subsidiary structures need to be, per the city’s Department of Permit and Inspection Services – lacked a permit and was in clear violation of municipal ordinances.
It’s a good idea to peruse permitting guidelines before building anything, especially on a vacant lot, but people often don’t when they are using private property. Many assume private means “do what you want.” It doesn’t.
Nonetheless, many would say the activities of the Men of the Fruit Belt would come under “highest and best use” of this empty corner lot. Held in a prominent location, the cookouts and gatherings demonstrated to all who passed that these were people who cared about their neighborhood and each other. It’s a similar principle to the yearly National Night Out events held throughout Buffalo by block clubs and other groups: open outdoor gatherings that send signals to all that neighborhoods are alive and well. Crime hides in the shadows; the Men of the Fruit Belt invited others to join them in a prominent, well-lit space to celebrate community and defy those who would undermine it.
What better intentions could you have? This group should be encouraged to continue on its admirable mission and the city should work with them to help that happen. There are a number of options, including:
• Apply for a variance that would allow a structure on the property.
• Make the gazebo mobile. Trucks are used for all kinds of purposes now, including dining, book distribution, art exhibitions and more. They have become another kind of traveling storefront.
• Pair up with an area nonprofit organization and share resources and space or even, through these means, attain a dedicated space.
There are likely many alternatives that could be considered here; it’s not an insurmountable problem. But it’s also too common for well-intentioned groups like this one – where the institutional know-how of established nonprofit organizations may be lacking – to run into bureaucratic obstacles. Laws need to be followed. But a violation citation shouldn’t be the end of it.
Men of the Fruit Belt are doing something that should be cheered, encouraged and assisted – and the City of Buffalo should be first in line with that support.
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