Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Not as big as it once was

By Dick Hirsch

As you may have previously noticed, I’m old enough to remember when Buffalo was a big city.

Oh, not that old. No, I wasn’t around in 1901 when it was the eighth largest city in the US. That’s an amazing statistic, especially when contemplated from today’s position as the 70th largest city. However, I do remember when the census figures showed Buffalo at over 500,000. We kids used to have the total memorized; I can’t recall the exact numbers, but at times in school somebody would proudly recite them, 575,302 or whatever it was, maybe 532,525.

The city is less than half that size according to the latest 2009 figures and it will probably be smaller when the official 2010 census figures are released. Is anyone surprised or upset by that news?

I’m discouraged but not disheartened. I appreciate Buffalo more today than when it was larger and I was younger. Maybe it is because I’ve changed as much as the city, grown more observant, more aware of all the positive characteristics that make it a very livable place for people of all ages. I asked around and perhaps I’m spending time with the wrong crowd but nobody seemed to be at all concerned. The accepted position seems to be that we live in a well-located medium size city where the plusses far outnumber the minuses. The hope is that growth is in the future. Regarding how distant in the future that will be, all predictions are more subjective than factual, and thus are of little value.

Meanwhile, I am trying to decide what caused that dramatic slide. I’m not looking to blame anyone or anything, just wondering if there was some development which was primarily responsible for the change.

It’s easy to blame the weather, but weather is a matter of concern everywhere. Summer heat in places like Florida, the Carolinas, Texas and Arizona is just as much a problem---and maybe greater---than snow and cold in Buffalo. Our snowstorms don’t compare to the hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes that are part of life in other places. However, the omnipresent media has made Buffalo synonymous with winter, and the ease of 24/7 communication has been damaging.

Some people, especially business operators, blame the unions. This was once a true blue collar community, a strong union town, with thousands of members of the United Auto Workers and United Steel Workers in dominant positions, along with Teamsters, construction workers, electrical workers and countless others. They were constantly striving to gain higher wages and improved benefits for their members. They were successful and drove manufacturing costs higher, providing opportunities for non-union operators to grow in other locales. Unions had political influence and were uncompromising. The recent announcement of added production and employment at the GM Tonawanda Engine Plant was heralded as the result of labor-management cooperation. Terrific! We could have used some of that years ago.

The mobility so common in society today has also been detrimental to cities like Buffalo. People don’t feel tied to a community as they did generations ago. Relocating is often tempting. In Buffalo, we have watched many people at both ends of the spectrum packing their bags and moving elsewhere. The aged go to the sunbelt. The young head for fast-growing cities like Houston or Phoenix, each of which gained more citizens since the 2000 census than Buffalo’s total. You read that right: Buffalo’s 2009 total was 270,240. Both Houston and Phoenix each added more than that in the last 10 years.

There is plenty of blame to spread around. Sharing the top of this list are two other groups. The first are the local elected officials who have represented this area over the years. They have always been primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo, keeping their jobs, building their pensions and winning re-election. Had they been perceptive and honestly motivated, they would have done things differently, modernized and merged governments. They recognized that if the city shriveled the surrounding communities would become dreary, listless neighborhoods. Instead of confronting issues that mattered they spent time making a bad situation worse with rhetoric designed to widen the gap between city and suburbs. There have been few serious efforts at conciliation.

The last group? That would be all of us. We watched as the situation changed but we didn’t demand action designed to stem the erosion of our population. Now it’s our job to somehow nurture all the good qualities and await future growth.



Post a Comment

<< Home