The Neighborhood

Diverse, Affordable, and Filled with Experienced Activists: The Perfect Place to Start a Movement

A history of diversity.

The West Side of Buffalo lies between Richmond Avenue and the Niagara River. Founded on land of the native Seneca people, the neighborhood was first surveyed in the early 19th century as part of the small villages of Buffalo and Black Rock. The last few miles of the Erie Canal traversed the western edge of the neighborhood, and during the late 19th century the Canal and Niagara Street became the site of a booming industrial district. People arrived from across Europe to work in the factories, most notably from Italy.

Most of the neighborhood’s modest homes were built between 1880 and 1920 by speculators eager to rent to this wave of immigrants.

In the mid-20th century, as the industrial zone began to wane, African Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean immigrants moved in, and created one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city.

In the last few decades, refugees and immigrants from across the world, notably from Somalia, Sudan and Burma (Myanmar), have come to call this growing neighborhood home. At Lafayette High School, for example, students speak more than 40 different languages.

People from all of the West Side’s ethnic and racial communities have been active as community leaders in PUSH campaigns and in the Green Development Zone’s community planning process. Their diversity is a great source of the Zone’s power and success.

Over the past 10 years, refugees from the repression in Burma (Myanmar) have moved to Buffalo’s West Side. Many bring with them extensive leadership experience from the struggles against their country’s military regime, and have become active in PUSH’s campaigns. Some also bring life-long experiences as farmers, and have made huge contributions to the Zone’s Community Gardens.

A local economy in crisis.

The neighborhood bears deep scars from the fall of Buffalo’s once-powerful commercial and industrial economy. Decades of neglect and exploitation by corporations and governments left a terrible toll on the West Side.

Its average annual income of about $9000 puts it among the lowest rung of urban neighborhoods in the United States. Vacant buildings and lots are a common sight and jobless rates are much higher than the national median. Poverty on Buffalo’s West Side contrasts sharply with the more affluent Elmwood Village neighborhood across Richmond Avenue to the east, even as a relatively slow pattern of gentrification has spread from Elmwood Avenue into the West Side.

A tradition of local activism.

Despite these deep problems, the neighborhood has a strong tradition of urban activism.

In 1992, the Massachusetts Avenue Project, PUSH partner and local non-profit, created an urban farm in the heart of the West Side to address the resident’s lack of access to locally grown food.

Then, in 2003, after assessing the area’s high, youth unemployment rate, MAP created their Growing Green program, a youth development initiative, designed to address the issues surrounding food politics, high unemployment and vacant land abuse.

A nucleus for a new green local economy.

The location of the Green Development Zone within the West Side is significant from an economic point of view. By focusing PUSH’s development efforts within a 25-block neighborhood, PUSH and community leaders hope to maximize the impact of our redevelopment investments.

(Take a closer look at the map.)

Preventing gentrification and slumlords: What community control can do.

Community planners discuss gentrification

The central stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, the heart of the Green Development Zone, is buffered from two potential economic threats that often plague neighborhood redevelopment efforts: large scale abandonment and land depreciation and gentrification.

Experience shows that redevelopment in areas with vacancy rates of 30 percent or more are prone to sudden catastrophic declines in value. Private home and land owners in such areas often “milk” their properties prior to abandoning them or sometimes burn them down for insurance money.

On the other hand, redevelopment too close to gentrifying areas risk sudden rises in property values and taxes. Such out-of-control appreciation often forces low-income residents to leave their neighborhood, thus making it impossible for them to benefit from all the hard work they put into rebuilding their community.

Not too hot, not too cold, just right!

To ensure residents maximum long-term control over local resources and investments, and to build a solid base from which future development can spread, PUSH located its Green Development Zone in an area of moderate vacancy near the edge of the West Side’s relatively slow-moving wave of gentrification. In turn, community control of housing and land in the neighborhood helps to protect the affordability of the area.

PUSH’s focus on rehabilitating existing housing in the Green Development Zone also avoids a common problem in a city with a declining population like Buffalo. Too often, highly-touted, large-scale developments of new housing have lured people away from older neighborhoods. In such cases, redevelopment actually accelerates the process of neighborhood abandonment elsewhere in the city, thus creating more of the problems it was meant to solve.

By concentrating and strategically locating its development efforts in the Green Development Zone, PUSH can transform vacant properties, usually seen as symbols of deterioration, into community assets. The low price of land and housing on Buffalo’s West Side means that redevelopment can be accomplished in a more affordable manner.

Abandoned and vacant lots allow opportunities for a new mix of uses that can further the Zone’s environmental vision. And, more generally, the high density of the GDZ neighborhood, which so strongly contrasts with most high-end suburban development.

The Green Development Zone and the City of Buffalo.

The Green Development Zone also occupies a significant location within the fabric of Buffalo as a whole. Massachusetts Avenue runs along the intersection of two of Buffalo’s master plans: the Ellicott Plan of 1804–which envisioned a fan of streets that radiated from downtown–and the Olmsted Plan of 1873–which envisioned an “emerald necklace” of parks and parkways surrounding the city’s historic core.

Massachusetts Avenue connects two points in Olmsted’s necklace, and crisscrosses a grid of streets connected to the westernmost parts of Ellicott’s fan. The northern boundary of the Zone, West Ferry Street, also marks the point where the diagonal survey of Buffalo met up with the north-south grid of the old village of Black Rock.

As result, the small streets in the area often meet at interesting angles that give the surrounding neighborhood a more intimate–even village-like—feel. This enhances both the sense of place and the social networks in the Green Development Zone and PUSH’s larger target area.