News Editorial Board
In the Jefferson Avenue Tops, there was a moment of silence. Elsewhere on Buffalo’s East Side and throughout the city, the noise and momentum are building.
The noise comes from discussions about how to restore racial equity and social justice to a long-neglected part of Buffalo. It also comes from real-time affirmative action that has just started or has always worked under the radar. The impetus comes from substantial commitments in the form of state, federal, local and private funding to help make this restoration a reality.
Last Monday, November 14, Western New York marked the sixth anniversary of a the tragedy from which there is no complete healing. The families and friends of the 10 people whose lives were taken that day cannot be healed by any earthly means.
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Decades of racist redlining, neglectful landlords profiting from substandard housing, a shortage of jobs or skills training, and insufficient access to healthy food are some of the inequalities that have made this tragedy so horribly and inexcusably possible.
These inequalities must be confronted with honesty and fought with vigor. This work has begun.
Much of it, rightly, focuses on access to food – namely, creating more of it in communities where people have to drive miles (if they have cars) to find fresh food. This shortage of options should end within a few years if all the projects currently underway become reality. They include a store and farmers market on the High Street, a new food co-op on Carleton Street, an expanded urban farm and food-packing operation in Bailey-Green, a Delavan Avenue market and grow facility and more. What sets these projects apart is that they are built within the community – and most have already received substantial funding. Local entrepreneurs who envision residents running their own healthy food distribution systems aren’t begging for extra supermarkets to set up branches on the East Side – although, in this area, more is always welcome.
When it comes to healthy foods, there are never enough options. Many unequal health outcomes for black residents are caused or exacerbated by a corresponding lack of a balanced diet, with diabetes being a stark example of a diet-related disease.
Two recent conferences held in Buffalo, but with national attendance – US food stocks and food as medicine – underlined this reality. Here’s just one startling fact that emerged from October’s American Food Equity conference: Black residents of East Buffalo are 310% more likely to die from a preventable diet-related disease than their white counterparts. The conference did more than present facts; it connected potential fresh food entrepreneurs with backers who could support their projects.
Along with subsistence comes the issue of housing. Housing problems on the East Side go beyond substandard housing; residential neighborhoods are also plagued by multiple vacant lots and deteriorating streetscapes.
There’s a lot to overcome here, but funded projects are in place to – at least – get a head start. In a series of visits and announcements, Governor Kathy Hochul pledged $30 million in grants to homeowners for repairs and utility bills, $4.5 million in down payments for first-time buyers and $100 million dollars worth of repairs to major thoroughfares on the East Side. Additionally, over the past three years, millions of dollars have been allocated to affordable housing developments.
Where government leads, private investment often follows. It is encouraging that in 2022, East Side projects will account for 42% of all affordable and market-priced housing financed by the private sector, with developers such as Cedarland Development, Regan Development and Sinatra & Co.
There’s a dizzying amount of money being spent or pledged here, but the test will be how long it will take to see real results in the form of restored neighborhoods.
And finally, what about jobs? And – just as important – vocational training? A new $3.6 million workforce training program run by Goodwill of Western New York joined the Northland Workforce Training Center (which received $76 million in expansion funds); both are on a mission to prepare workers for manufacturing jobs, with Northland aiming for more advanced positions.
It remains to be seen whether the facilities, housing developments and start-ups listed here – and there are many more – will make it a point to first target community residents to help build them and to exploit them.
So many promises. So many projects. So much money. Will these resources deliver transformational benefits where they are needed most? And how long will it take?
It helps that much of New York State’s targeted funding — $225 million — was in the works long before the tragedy. The state’s emphasis on the East Side dates back to the days of Buffalo Billion, with the launch of Project Northland. Since then, as the reach has expanded, administration and guidance has been provided by Empire State Development, an arm of state government, and East Side Avenues, a group of local philanthropies and banks.
Careful stewardship and community collaborations are needed to ensure Buffalo’s much-vaunted renaissance is one that includes all of its citizens. A spotlight is shone on communities that have suffered in the dark for too long.
This light should allow everyone to watch progress – or the lack of it – with keen, critical eyes.
Ours will be among those watchful eyes – every step of the way.
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