UB report details current state of Buffalo’s Black community

Henry Louis Taylor Jr. (center) leads UB medical and architecture and planning students on a recent walking tour of Buffalo's East Side, where they talked with residents about issues in the community.

Henry Louis Taylor Jr. (center) leads UB medical and architecture and planning students on a recent walking tour of Buffalo's East Side, where they talked with residents about issues in the community. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

by David J. Hill

Published October 26, 2021

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“Chilling.” That’s the word a prominent Buffalo pastor used to describe the findings of a new report by researchers from UB’s Center for Urban Studies on the state of the Black community in Buffalo.

The report — “The Harder We Run: The State of Black Buffalo in 1990 and the Present” — is a follow-up to a study prepared 31 years ago that aimed to determine how the city’s emerging knowledge-based economy impacted the African American community. The 1990 study sought to determine which way the Black socioeconomic trajectory was trending.

Both studies were led by Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies and a professor of urban and regional planning in the School of Architecture and Planning. He is also an associate director of UB’s Community Health Equity Research Institute. Co-authors on the new study include Jin-Kyu Jung, associate professor of geography at the University of Washington Bothell, and Evan Dash, a second-year master of urban planning student at UB.

The 1990 study, which was known as the Black Buffalo Project and sponsored by the Buffalo Urban League and the Buffalo Common Council, identified numerous core problems facing Buffalo’s Black community. Importantly, it also outlined a guide for tackling those issues.

However, “When we looked back, the city leaders never addressed the core problems facing the African American community,” Taylor says.

There has been change since 1990, he says, pointing out development along the waterfront, downtown and Main Street, among other parts of the city, but progress is almost nonexistent in many of Buffalo’s predominately Black communities.

‘Locked in the economic basement’

“When we took a look at Black Buffalo 31 years ago, we felt the community was on a downward trend; we were increasingly locked in the economic basement,” Taylor says.

“When we looked at these trend lines some 31 years later, we see no reversal,” he adds. “We see us not getting closer to any of the goals and objectives that we outlined. We see that with some of the critical metrics — the poverty rate, household income, homeownership, employment — not only is there no progress, there’s no change. When we say there’s literally no change, we’re saying that in a lot of ways the situation is more entrenched, more solidified. And that implies that breaking the downward cycle is going to be even more difficult and complex than it was before.”

In compiling the new, 85-page study, researchers pored over statistical census data, analyzed many of the studies involving the Black community in Buffalo, and examined city planning documents, policies and State of the City addresses going back several mayors. They used the Black Buffalo Project as a reference point to determine if African Americans have made progress over the past three decades.

“The findings are chilling,” says George F. Nicholas, pastor of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church and convener of the African American Health Equity Task Force. “What Taylor’s report clearly shows is these issues have not been addressed sufficiently, and no one’s been held accountable.”

The progress in other parts of the city has not made its way to the city’s Black community, Nicholas says. “These inferences we’re making are not rhetorical. It’s what it is, and we need to get serious about it,” he says.

Toward that end, a panel of UB and community experts will discuss the report and its findings during a presentation at 6 p.m. Oct. 28 in Hayes Hall, South Campus.

Due to COVID-19, a small group of invited guests will be able to attend in person, but the presentation will also be streamed on Zoom. Advance registration is required.

In addition to Nicholas and Taylor, panelists include:

  • Heather Abraham, associate professor and director of the Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic in the School of Law.
  • Athena Mutua, professor and Floyd H. & Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar in the law school.
  • Robert Silverman, professor of urban and regional planning, School of Architecture and Planning.
  • Ron Stuart, chair and professor of sociology, SUNY Buffalo State College.

The report calls for nine short- and three long-term goals. Short-term recommendations include dividing the East Side into neighborhood planning and development districts, creating a vacant lot development strategy, significantly improving the quality of rental housing units, improving sidewalks and creating green infrastructure.

Long-term goals include dismantling racial residential segregation, developing neighborhood commercial corridors and urging local colleges and universities to forge a more aggressive retention strategy among Black college students so that more of them obtain a degree.

“We are calling for immediate action from community leaders to once and for all tackle these issues of the great disparities we have in this community based on race,” says Nicholas.

Demolition without planning

Among the most destructive measures the city has taken, dating back to the 1950s, is the prioritization on bulldozing abandoned properties, primarily on the city’s East Side once residents there began moving out to the suburbs.

For decades, city leaders conceptualized the challenge on the East Side as a problem of housing abandonment, according to Taylor. It was a problem, but it wasn’t the central problem. That, says Taylor, was the inadequate, substandard housing in which people were living.

Henry Louis Taylor Jr. (on porch steps) talks to an East Side resident during a recent walking tour of the neighborhood he led for medical and architecture and planning students.

Henry Louis Taylor Jr. (on porch steps) talks to an East Side resident during a recent walking tour of the neighborhood he led for medical and architecture and planning students. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“They took a symptom and turned it into the cause,” he says. “If you’ve got a high fever, the high fever is a symptom. But if I believe your high fever is the cause and I started doing everything to treat your high fever, I might do harm. And that’s exactly what they did. They tore down thousands of housing units and never coupled demolition with careful planning and neighborhood development.”

The failure to address inadequate, substandard housing was coupled with the creation of vacant lots that were land banked, a practice of assembling numerous abandoned or foreclosed properties and vacant lots with the intention of selling them for a profit for future development. Land banking was a strategy used by several previous city mayors.

“What this does is it takes large acreages out of circulation until you can sell them. And the city has an official policy that says they can only get rid of lots at market rates,” Taylor says.

That makes it difficult for community organizations, with limited funds, to make a meaningful impact on development in their neighborhoods, Taylor said.

Given the large concentration of Black residents on the East Side, and the strong community voices there, the city did not simply ignore the problem. Instead, city leaders have over the years resorted to a series of what Taylor calls symbolic projects meant to represent hope and the possibilities of change, but which had little impact.

“It makes me think of Macbeth’s great soliloquy, paraphrased: ‘East Side projects are a tale filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing,’” he says.

Taylor is quick to point out that the study is not a criticism of any particular mayoral administration in Buffalo, because for decades city leaders have employed the same priorities and practices, as have mayors in cities across America.

An urgency for action

The hope, however, is that this new study spurs the kind of change that’s been needed for Buffalo’s Black community for many years.

As action steps, Nicholas hopes to see the creation of a high-level task force whose charge will be to look closely at the report and present a path forward. He also wants to see investment from the city, and a sense of urgency to act.

“The urgency isn’t just to do anything. It’s an urgency to prepare to do the right thing,” says Nicholas. “We haven’t done that, and the results show.” As action steps, he hopes to see the creation of a high-level task force whose charge will be to look closely at the report and present a path forward. He also wants to see investment from the city, and a sense of urgency to act.

The hope, however, is that this new study spurs the kind of change that’s been needed for Buffalo’s Black community for many years.

“The urgency isn’t just to do anything. It’s an urgency to prepare to do the right thing,” says Nicholas. “We haven’t done that, and the results show.”

Taylor emphasizes there has been a lot of good happening on the ground, thanks to people organizing all over the city and doing what they can to improve their neighborhoods.

“The larger picture is, despite all of these heroic efforts, we have not changed the trajectory and the huge and significant problems that we face are still there,” he says.

“Our hope is that organizations, groups and the city itself, whomever is mayor, will use the findings to create an agenda that will address these issues. Because at the end of the day, it’s a matter of life and death. These neighborhoods and the houses that people are living in are killing people.”