Saturday, June 05, 2010

Rust Belt Geographic Arbitrage: Buffalo

Migration patterns are slow to change. The Rust Belt is on the comeback trail, but few notice. Decades old headlines are recycled. Geographic stereotypes are reinforced. Buffalo turns a corner:

Many Americans, it can safely be said, would recoil at the thought of moving to Buffalo, New York State. Apart from Buffalo wings – chicken pieces slathered in a peppery sauce concocted at the Anchor Bar on Main Street – the gritty city on the south-eastern shore of Lake Erie seems to have few reasons for celebration. It has long been a poster-child for the decaying rust belt and all that entails – a dwindling population, boarded-up buildings and rampant crime. To make matters worse, its winters are among the harshest in the lower 48 states.

Yet Lura Hess Bechtel and her husband, Mitch, have no regrets about moving to Buffalo from New York City five years ago. “Everything is financially and geographically more accessible,” Bechtel says. In her job as an employment practices lawyer, she adds: “Everything in Buffalo functions with a higher degree of trust and respectfulness than in New York.”

Her husband has gone from working as a freelance software developer out of the couple’s Brooklyn apartment to owning a business with its own building and a dozen employees. “If you’re an entrepreneurial type of person, you can afford to get started here,” Bechtel says.

The couple paid just $123,000 for a Victorian workers’ cottage with an adjoining two-bedroom carriage house in Allentown, less than a mile north of downtown. As Bechtel’s friends in New York keep reminding her, their monthly condominium maintenance fees are higher than her mortgage payments.

The journey of the Betchels is a novel trend of gentrification. Instead of seeking cheap digs of a neglected neighborhood in the big city, talent is scouring the Rust Belt for geographic arbitrage opportunities. It's an entrepreneurial act and the risk averse need not apply. America's urban frontier isn't for just anyone.

Eager to give back to his newfound home, de la Cretaz is working on a series of videos "on things that are unique to Pittsburgh that people should know about." It's his attempt to rectify the many misconceptions about the city.

"Lots of people still see Pittsburgh as a steel city, and we still call ourselves the Steel City even though we've reinvented ourselves. When I go back to New Jersey, I swear people expect me to return with soot on my face! And my college friends still ask me 'how I like Philly' even though I'm living in Pittsburgh – they're not making the distinction. Nobody seems to talk about Pittsburgh outside of Pittsburgh, and we need to reach out to young people with that exploratory mentality who are willing to take a look at it."

Next steps for de la Cretaz, who currently shares a home in Lawrenceville with a friend, include finding an old brick house to restore. "Old city charm meets new city mentality in Pittsburgh," he says. "I love being here for Pittsburgh's renaissance and can't wait to see what it looks like in ten years. Pittsburgh is a cool place. You've just got to let it happen."

Rust Belt cities such as Buffalo and Pittsburgh are undervalued because of the megaregional reputation. The urban recycling is ubiquitous and is beginning to attract talent in growing numbers. If anything, journalists are late to the party.

The problems haven't disappeared and core vibrancy is still the exception, not the rule. You can't save all the neighborhoods. Economic triage is a result of limited resources. We could do a better job of linking entrepreneurship with urban redevelopment. Perhaps such an incubator already exists, but I haven't discovered it. There are more Betchels out there if your city is interested.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was raised in Pittsburgh and currently live in Buffalo. I don't really think one can compare the two cities. Pittsburgh has reinvented itself into a modern city with new industries and thriving cultural scenes. Buffalo has not. Has not made an effort. It is a depressed city wallowing in its depression. Politicians in Pittsburgh might not be the best, but they are far from the corruption in Buffalo politics. Being Cheaper Than NYC (or many other cities) is probably Buffalo's only selling point, but how is that a selling point when you basically get what you pay for? No city pride (you can tell I'm from Pittsburgh!), huge and volatile class divides, a struggling cultural scene, horrendous urban sprawl (basically the entire population of Buffalo has relocated to the suburb of Amherst) and little community involvement.

Despite this, I like Buffalo. The people have that no nonsense friendliness that is pervasive in Rust Belt cities. There are groups working towards making it a better city. I just feel that there needs to be civic pride in order for their efforts to work and all I see around me is apathy. It would be easy for Buffalo to go the way of Pittsburgh, but just as easy to go the way of Detroit. While Pittsburgh still has a ways to go, there's no question what direction the 'burgh is headed. We've been at the crossroads and found a path ahead that helped the city grow. Buffalo is now at a crossroads and seems to be dithering about which path to take.