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Thread: The Decline of Western New York.

  1. #1
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    The Decline of Western New York.

    So there was a thread on skyscraper city in the Toronto section discussing the decline of Western New York (specifically Niagra Falls and Buffalo) that peaked my interest. I don't take much stock in what is written on SSC, especially by Toronto forumers, but they seemed to know what they were talking about. I remember going to Niagra Falls a long time ago as a kid, and I remember the Canadian side being way more impressive than the American side.

    I know there are a few people here from that area (Dan specifically), so I'm wondering if anyone here can point me to a book or even website that describes the how the decline occured. I'd like it to focus on the economics, but even a survey of the recent history of the region would be nice.

  2. #2
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Check out High Hopes - The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York by Mark Goldman. I've got a copy that I would let you borrow, but it's packed away now.

    Why did the Buffalo area fall into such a deep decline? Some reasons, IMHO:

    1) Buffalo has never had any major corporate headquarters, so there is no tradition of corporate stewardship in the community. Buffalo has been a back-office city since the turn of the last century. It's easy for a company to lay off workers from a plant in Buffalo, because they're emotionally disconnected from the site.

    2) There was no attempt made to diversify the economy after World War II, when growth in heavy industry began to level off, and avation, aerospace and electronics began to boom. Buffalo has a flegling aerospace industry in the 1950s, but most companies relocated to regions where there was a greater agglomeration of such industries, suh as Wichita and Southern California.

    3) Buffalo's political culture is reminiscient of Chicago, circa 1960. Partonage jobs aren't seen as unusual, and old-fashioned political machines that care more about self-survival rather than the best interests of the region are a part of the landscape to this day.

    4) Buffalo's VERY dominant ethnic, blue-collar culture is the antithesis of the "creative class" found in prosperous cities. Young, educated professionals leave the area soon after college graduation both because there are few job opportunities in the area, and because they're fish out of water. An educated Gen Xer or Yer can't relate to the dominant old-school bowling/VFD/sports fanatic/bingo/lowbrow cultural norms of the area; they're not among peers if they stay in Buffalo. The fact that Buffalo has a few bohemian neighborhoods like Elmwood Village and Allentown can't make up for the region as a whole.

    5) Local economic development agencies compete not with other regions, but with each other. Thus, businesses get tax incentives to relocate from Buffalo to Amherst, or Cheektowaga to Lancaster. There is no net gain; in fact, there's a loss in overall tax revenue. Tax incentives are often offered to low-end commercial uses, such as fast food restaurants and chain drugstores.

    6) Land use and long range planning is nearly nonexistent. The planning staff in the City of Buffalo is in the single digits. Many large local municipalities, such as Tonawanda, Cheektowaga, and West Seneca don't have planning egencies. The bulk of planning-related work tends to be in community development (free paint programs, low income mortgage programs, etc) and economic development.

    7) The Buffalo area faces the highest income and property tax burden of any region in the United States. My parents pay $5,500 a year in property taxes on a $135,000 house.

    8) Many manufacturing firms are reluctant to locate in Buffalo because it is one of three cities in the United States that cannot be reached on the Interstate highway system without paying a toll. (The other cities are Tulsa and New York.) The cost of shipping goods to and from Buffalo is higher than in an equivalent US city that is not located behind toll gates. There is also no direct north/south Interstate from Buffalo; it's only easy to ship north, east and west via truck.

    9) Since the 1950s, there have been an assortment of poor planning decisions. Some cities have expressways thoughtlessly places on the waterfront, or new university campuses placed in the suburbs. However, every bad example of post-WWII planning can be found in Buffalo, and unlike other cities there are no plans to correct them now.

    10) A disproportionately large amount of land in the Buffalo region is owned by the State, the Catholic Church, and other non-profit agencies. There isn't much land in the City itself that is actually on the tax rolls.

    The burdens that Buffalo has are not unique to the region. Minneapolis and Chicago have brutal winters. Taxes for businesses are high in California, and real estate taxes are high in Wisconsin. Atlanta and Houston are poorly planned cities. Detroit and St. Louis have racial tension. However, the few burdens that other regions have ... well, imagine collecting them from throughout the country, and dumping them ALL on Buffalo.

    The miracle ... Buffalo's central city hasn't experienced the massive decline of Detroit. Buffalo still has an urban middle class and elite, although they are now in the minority, a downtown that is considered safe, a relatively intact urban fabric outside the East Side, and a relatively decent urban nightlife. Unlike Detroit, though, the suburbs are now going through the same malaise as the city.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  3. #3
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    A followup - it's hard to find a Web site that might document or explain Buffalo's decline. Buffalo-related bulletin boards tend to be emotionally charged. I've seen messages on one that claims perceived post-WWII attitudes regarding German-Americans was the primary reason for the downfall of the city. There's a lot of ranting, but very little historical analysis.

    Pretty much, it comes down to this ... everything wrong that could happen did happen to Buffalo. Many of the elements that contributed to the decline of Buffalo weren't uncontrollable forces from outside the region, but rather were self-inflicted wounds.

    To be politically incorrect (WARNING!), Buffalo is the obese girl of American cities. She tries to see herself as a "big beautiful woman," continues to eat to excess, and again stays home on Saturday night, wondering why men don't just like her for the way she is. She's told all the time to exercise, lose weight, and get a new wardrobe, but she won't. She doesn't have the willpower. Folks say "She has such a pretty face ... it's too bad she weighs 400 pounds."
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  4. #4
    interesting comments Dan, as a native Upstate NY'er -- born in Rochester & raised in Syracuse -- this area has a place dear and true ot my heart.

    Have you seen the Brookings Institute article about growth issues in Upstate NY called Upstate New York's Population Plateau: The Third-Slowest Growing 'State' If not you can check it out here

    CHEERS!

    Kathie

  5. #5

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    Originally posted by Dan
    Why did the Buffalo area fall into such a deep decline? Some reasons, IMHO:

    1) Buffalo has never had any major corporate headquarters, so there is no tradition of corporate stewardship in the community.

    2) There was no attempt made to diversify the economy after World War II...

    3) Buffalo's political culture is reminiscient of Chicago, circa 1960.

    4) Buffalo's VERY dominant ethnic, blue-collar culture is the antithesis of the "creative class" found in prosperous cities.

    5) Local economic development agencies compete not with other regions, but with each other.

    6) Land use and long range planning is nearly nonexistent.

    7) The Buffalo area faces the highest income and property tax burden of any region in the United States. My parents pay $5,500 a year in property taxes on a $135,000 house.

    8) Many manufacturing firms are reluctant to locate in Buffalo because it is one of three cities in the United States that cannot be reached on the Interstate highway system without paying a toll.

    9) Since the 1950s, there have been an assortment of poor planning decisions.

    10) A disproportionately large amount of land in the Buffalo region is owned by the State, the Catholic Church, and other non-profit agencies.
    Dan, I think some combination of all of the above afflicts all the cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, that have declined over the last 40-50 years. For example, while Detroit has corporate headquarters, there has been little corporate leadership beyond Ford. There was no attempt to diversify the economy after WWII, a blue-collar culture predominates, agencies and municipalities compete with each other, planning is non-existent, and the planning decisions that were made were awful. Granted, the racial component is worse there than in other places.

    Getting a little O/T:

    The problem is, a similar set of issues already exists that will lead to the eventual decline of the Charlottes, Houstons, Dallases, Atlantas, Phoenixes and Las Vegases of the nation. For example, there's a lack of economic diversity, with an overreliance on FIRE industries (finance, insurance, real estate) and other service sector businesses; poor planning decisions that led to more of the dreaded "sprawl"; a relatively transient population that doesn't feel necessarily connected to the community, and that includes the vaunted "creative class"; rising local taxes (or local refusal to increase taxes) to pay for growth; and, particularly in the West, the availability of water.

    I believe the 1990s were the zenith for Sunbelt cities, just like the 1950s were the high point for Northeast and Midwest cities. The seeds of the decline of Sunbelt cities are already in place, and, at the risk of sounding a little like Kunstler, it's already happening.

  6. #6
    Buffalo has lost almost half it's population since 1950:

    1950 Population: 580,100
    1960 Population: 532,800
    1970 Population: 462,800
    1980 Population: 357,900
    1990 Population: 328,100
    2000 Population: 292,600

    I suspect the 2002 population to be a couple thousand less than what it was in 2000. If the population drops below 290,000, Buffalo will have indeed lost halp its population.

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