Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rust Belt Chic: Buffalo

Most Rust Belt cities offer the same value proposition: Inexpensive housing, frontier-like opportunities, and a valuable historical legacy. However, not every shrinking city can turnaround its fortune. There will be winners and losers, probably more of the latter. Urban development strategies must settle in different niches, not compete for the same economic cluster. For some cities, such as Buffalo, a distinctive selling point is obvious:

Buffalo was founded on a rich tradition of architectural experimentation. The architects who worked here were among the first to break with European traditions to create an aesthetic of their own, rooted in American ideals about individualism, commerce and social mobility. And today its grass-roots preservation movement is driven not by Disney-inspired developers but by a vibrant coalition of part-time preservationists, amateur historians and third-generation residents who have made reclaiming the city’s history a deeply personal mission.

At a time when oil prices and oil dependence are forcing us to rethink the wisdom of suburban and exurban living, Buffalo could eventually offer a blueprint for repairing America’s other shrinking postindustrial cities.

Each economic corridor, such as the Tech Belt Initiative, needs an anchor city. I suppose Richard Florida would offer up Toronto, but no one knows how international mega-regional spillovers are supposed to work. Interstate regional collaboration is hard enough. I don't know what would be the economic engine of Western New York. Regardless, any revitalization should start with Defend Buffalo:

But how these projects will be forged into a cohesive vision for the city’s future is less certain. The best-intentioned preservationists, however determined, can accomplish only so much. Often developers co-opt the achievements of these trailblazing individuals and nonprofit groups by dolling up historic neighborhoods for private gain. The city’s rough edges are smoothed over to satisfy the hunger for more tourist dollars. Shiny new convention centers and generic boutiques follow. Yet schools, roads, bridges and electrical and power lines continue to crumble.

Buffalo is an ideal testing ground for rethinking that depressing model. Its architectural heritage embodies an America that thought boldly about the future, but believed deeply in the city as a democratic forum. What’s needed now is to revive that experimental tradition.

Again, I would ask residents and boosters of nearby cities such as Rochester, Syracuse, and Ithaca to take up Buffalo's cause. Defend Buffalo first and provide the economic corridor with the economic anchor it sorely needs.

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