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Commodore Perry neighborhood: looking up?

Blighted, but maybe not for long.

blog by Ben Kirst  • 

One of the eye-rollingest moments I’ve had in recent memory came when a shuttle van driver for a local auto dealership gave me a ride to The Buffalo News building (corner of Washington and Scott Streets!) while I had some work done on my car.  Realizing that The News is located a block north of the First Niagara Center, he told me a story that he thought was truly terrifying. 

“My daughter went to a concert at the arena,” he said (ed. note—this is summarized, not a direct quote), “and she got lost on the way back to (a suburb that shall remain nameless).  So she called me, and I asked where she was.  She told me she was near the corner of Louisiana and Perry Streets.

“I told her this—I said, lock your doors, roll up your windows.  Step on the gas and do not stop for anyone, even if there is someone in the road.  That’s how they get you—you slow down, and then they surround your car.  DO NOT STOP.  Drive as fast as you can until you are on the Thruway and get the hell out of there.” 

Alright, the Commodore Perry neighborhood is rough, there’s no doubt about it—but this seemed a little over the top.  Assaults on moving vehicles? Crafty car-jackings? A license to vehicularly maim anyone who steps in your path? And who exactly are “they?”

With the help of the University at Buffalo, this section of the city may soon transform from stereotype to model community for urban change and development.  The school announced Friday that The UB Center for Urban Studies, a research and community development unit in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, “...has joined itself to a massive effort: a proposal by the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority to restructure, redevelop and rehabilitate downtown Buffalo’s seriously declining Commodore Perry neighborhood and turn it into the vibrant, sustainable community it once was.”

Sounds good, right—but how will this go down?  For starters, funding begins with a $250,000 planning grant awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhood Initiative.  Dr. Henry Louis Taylor—director of the Center for Urban Studies—will use the cash to put together a strategic plan that will be submitted to HUD in an effort to secure an additional $30 million in grant funds to actually get the ball rolling.

“If the BMHA receives the implementation grant,” Taylor was quoted as saying in the UB press release, “the $30 million will be used to leverage $200 million or more from local businesses, foundations and other resources, with which to accomplish our aims.”

Once upon a time, the Perry neighborhood—bounded by South Park on the south, Smith Street to the east, Sycamore to the north and Michigan Avenue to the west—was a pretty sweet melting pot of African-Americans, Eastern European immigrants and (of course) South Buffalo Irish who worked the docks and grain mills along Lake Erie.  The world turned, however, and the jobs disappeared, leaving the area segregated, poor and—over time—in disrepair.

If the plan goes through, Dr. Taylor noted, over 400 moldering public housing will be destroyed and replaced.  But the work won’t stop there.

“We have to eradicate the decay,” he noted, “and build a cradle-to-college-and/or-career mini-educational pipeline that will feed students into associated schools. We also need to launch a LEED-based neighborhood development strategy that emphasizes smart growth, green housing and design, walkability, access to transportation and proximity to jobs and services, particularly to jobs (and training for jobs) in the multitude of manufacturing and health care institutions in the community. We are devising a plan to provide for all of this.”

Want to get Taylor mad?  Start tossing around stereotypical generalizations about the neighborhood, like my pal the shuttle driver did.

“These (residents) care deeply about their kids’ welfare, but many are living below the poverty line and most are grossly unsupported in their efforts to assist their kids’ educations. If there is no place—or room—at home in their tiny apartments in which their kids can study, no accessible libraries, no healthy sources of food, poor transportation, high levels of gang activity, a built environment that is grim and falling apart—what can we expect of these families or the children they are raising…They need jobs. They need decent housing, safe streets and libraries. They need their community back. It is a big, big job, but that is precisely our aim here.”

For more information, check out the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority Perry Choice Planning Initiative’s web site or the BMHA - HUD Perry Choice Planning Initiative Facebook page.

Photo from Facebook.com.

TAGGED: city of buffalo, henry louis taylor, university at buffalo

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