Buffalo, New York, was once a booming industrial town fueled by cheap power from Niagara Falls, a center of commerce and trade, the first city in the US to have electric light. But over a century, Buffalo’s wealth concentrated at the top and mostly moved out, leaving a largely de-industrialized city and a slump. Now, with new investment promised by New York’s Governor Cuomo, and cooler, northern cities attracting “climate refugees” from the US south, development is once again underway, but on whose terms? This time, will the wealth be more equitably shared, and who will get to decide? In this episode, Laura visits with grassroots activists who are not just hoping or lobbying for a change – they’re considering very seriously running for office.
In This Episode
- Rahwa Ghirmatizion, Executive Director, PUSH Buffalo
- John Washington, Organizer and political educator, People’s Action
- Asim Johnson, Organizer, Coalition for Economic Justice
- Harper Bishop, Deputy director, PUSH Buffalo
- Luz Velez, Housing and environmental justice activist
- Geovaira Hernandez, Climate Justice Organizer
- India Walton, Executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust
- Vanessa Glushefski, Former Acting Comptroller of the City of Buffalo
- Kathryn Franco, Non-profit activist, 2019 candidate for Buffalo Common Council
- Larry Scott, Member of the Buffalo Board of Education
- Rachel Dominguez, Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization Exec. Ctee Member
- Whitney Crispell, Community Activist & Larry Scott’s Campaign Manager
Where to Watch
You can watch this episode on your local WORLD channel at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, October 11, or on your local PBS station.
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Click here to watch online on YouTube. The episode will be made available at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, October 18.
Kathryn: Buffalo used to be really affordable, and we’re just seeing development happen. We’re hearing this renaissance and it’s pushing prices higher and higher.
Woman: There is no savior for us that’s coming from City Hall.
India: Dismantling and rebuilding something new. That’s what we need to begin to work on.
Kathryn: This vision of a better Buffalo and a more inclusive Buffalo is shared with so many people. Just like me they’re tired, they’re frustrated and they want something different, they want something more.
Laura: It’s all coming up on the Laura Flanders Show, a place where the people who say “It can’t be done,” took a backseat to the people who are doing it. Buffalo, New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo says this once booming and later busted city “is a national model of recovery.” But is this Rust Belt renaissance complete with a multi-billion dollar economic development package, delivering for the core of the city’s residents or threatening to displace them? To find out, I went to the lakefront city of Buffalo in the run up to local elections to hear from a cross-class multiracial group of mostly low-income residents who are figuring out how to play a role in determining the direction their city takes. And they’ve been scoring victories, but there are more to win.
Announcer: Buffalo on the shores of Lake Erie, began the rapid growth which has made it the state’s second city of nearly a million inhabitants.
Laura: In the last century, this was a booming industrial town fueled by a falls and people from all over the planet. But most of the wealth concentrated at the top, and in the end, it mostly moved out. It looks as if people and investment may be coming back, but will the wealth be more equitably shared? Will it be healthily invested with a view to the long-term? Grassroots activists are determined that this time the future will be different. And they’re not just hoping or lobbying for a change, they are looking very closely at government.
Kathryn: Buffalo used to be really affordable, and we’re just seeing development happen. We’re hearing this renaissance and it’s pushing prices higher and higher.
Woman: We know already that there is no savior for us that’s coming from City Hall.
Rahwa: If we cannot have our people that have our interests at heart running for elected office, then we’re not going to get very far.
Governor Cuomo: Buffalo, as you know, has had an extraordinary recovery, but it’s not just a New York recovery story, it is literally a national model of recovery. I spent many years in the federal government, as you know, with Department of Housing and Urban Development. And the whole question was, “Could you take these older industrial cities “and turn them around?” And frankly, we didn’t have a lot of success doing that. Buffalo is the shining example in opposition where a city that many believe did not have a future but only a past, has actually turned around.
Laura: New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo has promised $1 billion to the city through his embattled Buffalo Billion initiative. It would invest in solar startups and a new medical campus. But will Buffalo’s renaissance, if it comes, revive or remove the people who are already here? India Walton is a single mom of four, who worked hard to put herself through nursing school only to find that the very medical campus she worked in was threatening to price her and her people in the neighboring community out.
India: So I had a baby when I was 14, I dropped out to raise my son. I wound up getting my GED and then when I was 19, I had a set of twins who were extremely premature and they spent a long time in the hospital. And as a result of that experience, I really wanted to be a nurse. I went to nursing school, got my degree, and I went back and worked in the same NICU where my children were born.
Laura: So where did you end up living once you got this degree and what was your hope having gotten that far through medical school?
India: I knew of the Fruit Belt from growing up. I knew that it was a place where housing was relatively affordable. I knew it was a place where there would still be a yard for my children to play in and I wanted to be close to work. So we started to look for homes in the neighborhood and there wasn’t a lot available.
Laura: And why were the prices jacking up so quickly and so high?
India: Well, because the medical campus, right? It’s great. They’re bringing in 12,000 employees a day, they had this great image, there’s been all of this investment that’s happening there, improvements in infrastructure. So like, there’s really a lot of speculation about what this neighborhood is going to be five, 10, 15 years from now.
Laura: So just to reiterate, the very place that’s employing you is threatening to make you homeless?
India: Yes. And that is where I was and a lot of our narrative in that moment was against the medical campus, and not against their existence or the healthcare they provide, but just knowing that these huge well-resourced institutions have something that they can give back to community.
Laura: When Kathryn Franco, a longtime activist with decades of non-profit experience was priced out of the neighborhood where she grew up and moved to the University District, she found the prices were going up there too, and renters had no protection. In 2019, she decided to do something about it and run to be a candidate for Buffalo’s Common Council, the city’s government.
Kathryn: This is my home, headquarters for our campaign right now. So many people have come already. Neighbors come and knock on doors and say, “Can I have a sign, can I have a sign? I’m really excited because I just heard that the people really feel rallied and that they feel like they want to come behind this campaign, in part because what happens in districts doesn’t happen just in districts. It’s like we, as these elected seats, are supposed to be a voice for the folks there and representing them, but we also make decisions and policy for the whole of our city. Buffalo is a very poor, very segregated city and so when I was growing up there, it was predominantly Puerto Rican, where I was living, and it was quite a poor area. And I remember I had an apartment there in my mid-20s and I was paying half my monthly income to that rent. And it was just undoable, I couldn’t manage. I was getting late in other bills, not just my rent, and so I thought, “Okay, let me try to go buy a house.” And so when I was looking around in that neighborhood, I was absolutely priced out of the market, and so I ended up finding a home here in the University District, which has been wonderful. I have great community here, but it’s five years later and we’re still not seeing protections for folks in our city. So we’re still not seeing renter’s protections, we’re still not seeing even protections for homeowners. We’re having a new tax assessment come up, and so we’re seeing our city grow, but who is it growing for and how is it growing?
Laura: We hear about a renaissance, we hear about a green plan an energy plan, what’s your problem with any of that?
Kathryn: So I think the problem is not necessarily in theory, but it’s really been in practice. So looking at the Buffalo Billion, wondering where a lot of that money has gone, looking at the projects that have been invested in and not seeing real outcomes for people, not seeing outcomes that are impacting people’s lives. We can either see a continuation of disinvestment into our East side, which is primarily communities of color, primarily Black folks, or we can see a real connection and a real investment where we are saying, “You know what? “We see you, we value you and it’s time for us to do better.” I’ve said this time and time again but kind of this vision of a better Buffalo and a more inclusive Buffalo, it’s not my vision, it’s a vision that is shared with so many people that I’ve talked to because just like me, they’re tired, they’re frustrated and they want something different, they want something more.
Laura: Larry Scott was one of several community-backed candidates who ran for his local school board after residents scored a victory ousting a powerful incumbent.
Whitney: Two or three years ago, in Buffalo, we had a racist board member Carl Paladino–
Rachel: Paladino has a long and sordid history of making, not just racist, but also homophobic and transphobic comments. He’s a real estate developer and so he has money, quite a lot of it, and he has been using that money to exert political influence for a very long time in Buffalo.
Whitney: Both Rachel and I were really involved in the campaign to see him removed, and we were both leaders in that movement. And when we were finally successful after about eight or nine months of hard work, I sort of made a promise to myself that we did all this work getting a bad board member out, the next election cycle, I was going to work to get good members in. And then Larry, who I have known for several years and then really got to know more through that work and then got to see how much he just had his finger on the pulse on all kinds of district issues, his values, it just was a no brainer when he told me he was running and asked to help, it was just, I had to do it.
Laura: Tell us who you are and where we are.
Larry: So Larry Scott, Buffalo public school parent. I have two boys that attend school 81 here in Buffalo. I’ve been co-chair of the Buffalo parent teacher organization and co-founder for over five years, which I’m now stepping away from as a result of being elected to the Buffalo school board at large.
Laura: Buffalo says “It’s doing what it can, “and it has limited budgets.” What’s missing?
Larry: Over the past 14 years, there’s only been an increase of $500,000 towards education. For the police budget, it’s increased every year in those 14 years significantly. And I believe it’s grown 60 million more than where it was 14 years ago. And so my argument has been, I think our kids in their education deserve at least an equal increase to what the police are getting.
Laura: But it’s not easy to penetrate the power structure. Vanessa Glushefski served as deputy controller for the city of Buffalo and got a behind the scenes look at how the power structure operates when she sought to be appointed to the post. First off, tell us where we are? What’s the significance of this place to this city and to you?
Vanessa: We are in Martin Luther King park, and it’s a significant landmark in the city, we have this huge statue behind us. It has caused some controversy in the past but it’s still great. There’s a huge jazz festival that’s significant to the African American community that happens, the Juneteenth parade happens, which was just this past weekend.
Laura: If anything, the history of Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us that making change is not easy.
Laura: The power establishment does not shift magically of its own accord, you had that experience yourself.
Vanessa: I did.
Laura: Talk about it.
Vanessa: So recently I was a candidate for the city comptroller position. It was vacant after Mark Schroeder went on to become the commissioner of the DMV. And so I was already in City Hall because he had named me as deputy controller before he left. So once he left, I took over as acting controller and was working full-time and running a campaign and simultaneously fighting City Hall really because I was not the chosen one to run for the seat. As someone who was not endorsed by the party, it was extremely difficult, but you know, we really, we gave it our all and I’m happy to say that like over 40 people volunteered to carry my petition and we got over 2,000 signatures, which had, we were meeting a benchmark of 1,500. So we did the best we could but at the end of the day, you know, to fight City Hall, we really just needed more than that.
Laura: Today’s progressive candidates aren’t running in a vacuum, a progressive coalition calling itself Our City came together across issue groups recently to draw up a nine point platform for inclusive development. Now they’re calling on all of Buffalo’s politicians to commit to it. John Washington, Asim Johnson and Harper Bishop were there at the birth. So wait, this was a train terminal?
John: We are at the Central Terminal in the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood. This is a neighborhood that has experienced a lot of divestment over the years since the terminal has been out of use. You know, this is one of the places where we really started thinking about building a coalition, an intersectional coalition, to build political power to, you know, shift the dynamics that we were dealing with in our organizing in Buffalo. This neighborhood is not gonna be the same once a developer is found for this terminal.
Harper: One way that it can go is a concentration of power and wealth and that outside developers come in and they continue to horde that wealth. Or it’s a place where community control and community wealth is going to be built.
Asim: I was very passionate about creating a holistic narrative for the city of Buffalo in regards to gentrification, understanding that gentrification for one is a problem, it’s not an issue. The issues underlining gentrification are things like lack of access to quality housing, quality education, jobs, the environment and working to really be in coalition with organizations who have a focus on those particular issues and how can we together create this holistic narrative.
Laura: What were you doing before this?
Asim: So before this, I was actually with the Coalition for Economic Justice, that’s how the three of us all actually met. At the time Harper was with Open Buffalo, John with PUSH, and Open Buffalo actually convened a table called the high road economic development table. And in so many ways, I guess you could say, Our City kind of was birthed from that, you know, because we were all at the table anyway, it was just more so I’m like, “We gotta take this a step further.”
Harper: We were advised by so many people to actually pick one issue and to focus in on it. So many people told us that and as John said, we live intersectional lives. And so there’s so many people that come into spaces, including all of us that live a very intersectional life. And I was really inspired by, while mulling that over, I went to Washington DC. It was a kickoff of the Poor People’s Campaign, and I heard Rev. Dr. Barber speak and he said, “So do the powers that be, do developers, “do corporations ask for one thing?” “No, they don’t ask for one thing, “they ask for as much as they can, whenever they want, “for as long as they want.” And we need to start having the same audacity to say that we are no longer gonna just say one thing and feel like we have to beg for that one thing that actually we deserve and our communities deserve all of these things and they’re are human rights.
John: We have a very like white male-led culture and non-profits that says like, let’s just go in the neighborhood and tell everybody what the solution is, instead of like, let’s get real about the connections of the problems. Because everybody is talking about individual problems. And even if people are not working with us, they’re working in their silos. It’s clear that gentrification is the root cause and so like, that’s something I’m proud of these people who, I don’t really like and don’t want to work with, but they’re clear that the root cause is gentrification.
Harper: The way that we look and the reflection of folks, I think is like, as John said, is going to be incredibly diverse. I, as a trans man, have a very different experience and to have queer and trans voices at the table in decision making is actually extraordinary in a town like Buffalo, and so that adds to it. We’ve had women and gender non-conforming, queer trans people, multi-generational, multi-cultural. And so it has been incredibly diverse and we’re extremely proud of that.
Laura: What if our cities put people not profits first. In Buffalo, almost a thousand residents took part in a six-month community planning process that came up with a nine point vision. Their city, they said, is a city where investing in the future means investing in quality public education first. Where immigrants are not only welcome, but protected and cherished and safe. Where everyone has access to health and affordable housing, and the most in need are helped the first, where demographics don’t determine life outcomes. And the local economy is developed by, with, and for local people. A city where the arts and cultural institutions are prized and thrive, where police protect and serve, and public safety is a function of public well-being. Where public transportation works for everyone, and the money the city spends on food helps create healthy, happy lives. “It’s our city”, they say, “We have a right to it.” But to make it real, our city needs our government. So from education and housing to frontline arts and food equity, do you see this as a list or more of a system?
Rahwa: It’s a system. What we see here is that every single thing is interconnected. We can’t be everything to everyone, but if we have a comprehensive agenda that is addressing as many of the needs that the residents tell us that they need, then we can have real success that is really forging a path forward far into the future.
Laura: Rahwa Ghirmatzion is the executive director of PUSH Buffalo, a grassroots organization that grew out of a housing rights struggle. Now it’s part housing developer, part workforce development agency, arts hub, green energy firm and political organizer. We met Rahwa in her brand new office in renovated Public School 77. So talk a bit about what makes PUSH Buffalo different.
Rahwa: Our approach is really trying to get to, how can we be in right relationship with mother Earth? How can we be in right relationship with our community? And how can we be in right relationship with ourselves? We basically started our work by organizing, meaning we’re gonna get down to the grassroots and we’re gonna talk to everyday people and not make assumptions about what they need and what they want. It was intentional government policies that created what we see today. As you know, most American cities experienced white flight in the ’70s where Buffalo lost half of its population. We currently have, if you go to the East side of Buffalo, which is a concentration, 85% of that population is African American. That is also some of the highest concentration of poverty that we see in the city. That intentional map of why the concentration of poverty exists was called redlining. We are still feeling the impacts of redlining in our communities. What’s exasperating it even more right now is this desire for everyone to move back to the cities from the suburbs. The reality of where we are now because of gentrification is that we are under immediate threat of being displaced. And so, as a result of that, you know, we’re gonna fight obviously, and that’s why we do what we do, and we also believe in an idea called economic development without displacement, and I think that those are intentional policies that we are trying to win.
Laura: With the election of a Democratic majority in Albany in 2018, Progressives were able to win some victories at the state level in New York. Now they want to see change like that come to Buffalo. Two residents, Luz Velez, a survivor of environmental poisoning and Geovaira Hernandez were part of this coalition that developed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a landmark piece of environmental justice legislation.
Luz: Well, Albany is our capital and obviously this is where the seed of policies are made. I go there, I learn a lot, but I also speak. I tell them my story but I protest, I laid down, I risk being arrested, never been arrested, but I’m willing to risk it and just do that and just let the word be out there that there’s a lot of us and that it’s important that people hear our voices and see our faces. Governor Cuomo, you need to pass this act and stop being a punk about the business that we need to have done for us. We voted you in, we can vote you out. We need real legislation for real people who are being affected. And to all our assemblymen who we’d backed up, you can be backed out.
Geovaira: We’re pushing for 40% of the energy funds that come in through the transition for renewable energy to be going into frontline communities to providing a racial, economic, political and environmental justice. This isn’t just environmental law, this is all of the above, which is so intersectional.
Laura: So are you a little bit excited?
Geovaira: I am excited. I’m also like holding onto a chair because we’ve come so close. I’ve been working on this campaign the last two years and it’s been in existence for about four, and this is the closest that we’ve ever gotten. And to be here and be in this moment and think like, yes, we have it. But then also realizing the harshness of this political structure that we have in New York state and all throughout the United States. Having that back thought of, are they gonna sign it into law? If they’re gonna sign it into law, how close is it going to be to the bill that we drafted? And we needed to be a strong bill, which is what we drafted. And so what’s different about us and what we’re doing here and around the state is that we’re shifting the narrative of what it is to do this work and who it is that does this work. Because we’re so close to the problem and not by choice, therefore, we’re so close to the solution. Our communities have been so resilient for so long and have been finding ways to survive. And so this movement is really to get to a point where we’re not only surviving, we’re thriving.
Laura: You advanced a bill through the state, in the last many months. You were part of a statewide coalition that did so. You scored a big victory we’ve been hearing about? It’s right there in the paper.
Rahwa: It is. Front page of the New York Times.
Laura: So why not leave it at that, isn’t that enough?
Rahwa: Absolutely not.
Laura: Why not?
Rahwa: Because when we walk around here and we do the amount of door knocking that we do and talk to our community members, there are just too many people that are hurting. We celebrate our victories, whether they’re small, whether they are big because it’s important to celebrate with each other, however, we do not sit on our laurels because every single day we’re being confronted with people that just have incredible amounts of needs and need a lot of help. Even during Buffalo’s decline where we lost half of our population, the people that stayed here found roots here. And I think that it is important for all of us to be engaged civically, to build real deep democracy, the aspiration that this country has always wanted to live up to. And so I think we all have our parts to do.
Laura: The Our City initiative is just getting started. Kathryn Franco didn’t win her primary this time around and the Governor’s Buffalo Billion money is still getting developers excited. But in 2017, India Walton and her neighbors did manage to establish the city’s first community land trust, a non-profit designed to give residents some control over that land. Now Walton’s considering her own run for office.
India: Being a person of color still puts you at disadvantage. I had some challenges, I made some mistakes, I recovered from them pretty gracefully in being a registered nurse but still I am the exception. When I go into a place of employment, I am one of very few registered nurses and why is that when the populations that we serve are people who look like me, right? So, you know, this is not a situation of, well, if you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work harder. It doesn’t happen that way. There are systems in place that keep people in place, and that is what we need to begin to work on. Dismantling and rebuilding something new. And that’s what makes me so excited about the land trust. These are the first four city owned lots that we were able as an organization to acquire. Next summer we’re going to break ground on two single family homes in partnership with habitat for humanity. So these are gonna be homes for qualied low to moderate income home buyers that are going to be 0% for 30 years, and they’re gonna be permanently affordable. I think that now is the time where we challenge who should be making policies. And it doesn’t always have to be a person with a degree in political science or lawyer. Moms know what we need, nurses know what we need. Everyday people who live these lives and face challenges and overcome challenges I believe are the ones who are best equipped to lead.
Laura: So could it be a NICU unit nurse?
India: It could definitely be a NICU nurse and probably should.
Kathryn: I think that the people here are amazing. They are so strong, they have fight. Buffalo really is my home. I stay because I believe in that and I believe in the people that live here.
Laura: For more on this episode and other forward-thinking content and to tune into our podcast, visit our website at “LauraFlanders.org” and follow us on social media at “@TheLFshow”
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