Originally Posted: Wednesday, December 18, 2002
BUFFALO’S POPULATION DROPS BELOW 300,000 - SUBURBS LOSING PEOPLE, TOO.
We’ve read the headlines and we’ve even dubbed ourselves the "Incredible
Shrinking City”. And we fret, we worry, and we wonder what we can do. Why are we
such failures and how come the other cities have it all figured out?
It seems that, over and over, we look to Baltimore, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh as our role models. We so envy their accomplishments. If we could only do what they’ve done, we too could be on the road to growth and plenty -- and, oh yeah, our children could stay home. But I've yet to see where anyone has analyzed the results of what these towns have done in terms of their growth.
Let's take a look, shall we?
As we’re constantly reminded, Baltimore redeveloped its waterfront while we didn’t: the Inner Harbor they call it (so would we). But don’t think it happened overnight and don’t think it brought the Renaissance. Harborplace, approved way back in 1963, wasn’t completed until 1980 after 17 years of wrangling, disruption, corruption, and general bureaucratic ineptness.
It is, however, nice; it attracts tourists and it has spurred downtown development. Nonetheless, Baltimore’s population plunged 11.5% in the nineties; that’s a bigger fall than Buffalo’s (10.8%). And that drop was double the decrease of the previous decade. Obviously, The Inner Harbor couldn’t overcome whatever other problems Baltimore may have.
Cleveland, we’re told, has totally remade itself. Once upon a time, it was the only city more reviled than our dear old Buffalo. Now it’s become the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Flats, a new downtown football stadium, and Drew Carey.
That’s all trendy (and again, I'm not denying that I'd like to see it here), but the population of the City of Cleveland fell anyway -- by 5.4% during the nineties, alone. In 1950, it was approaching one million inhabitants; today it counts about 480,000. Maybe there’s more at play here than we thought. One clue: Cleveland's schools are so bad that it developed a school voucher program to allow kids to get out of them and which eventually led to the Supreme Court's declaring such plans constitutional.
Finally, Pittsburgh of the spectacular skyline, home to seven Fortune 500 companies, and the city that has renewed failing neighborhoods while we supposedly haven’t. Even with all its corporate wealth and, oh yeah, a downtown stadium, Pittsburgh’s population dropped by 9.6% in the ten years prior to the 2000 census.
OK, you say, but Pittsburgh’s overall metropolitan area continued to grow, didn’t it? No, it didn’t. Over 36,000 Metro Pittsburghians left between 1990 and 2000. And while, today, Buffalo makes up 25% of our metro’s population, the City of Pittsburgh accounts for only 14% of theirs.
We Buffalonians still suffer badly from “silver bullet syndrome”. We kick ourselves for not agreeing on a bridge design, or a waterfront development plan, or a convention center (remember that?), and we assume that the cities that did create something grand are reaping all the benefits we’re missing out on.
But, while big, expensive projects like the Inner Harbor or Cleveland Stadium can help a city’s image, they sure don’t make people flock to live there. By fixating on our failures, we shrug off our successes – successes that don’t make the national news, but slowly (repeat after me, "slowly") are putting the pieces into place for our future.
We’ve begun a one billion dollar program to fix our city schools – not only the buildings, but the leadership. We’ve cut city and county property taxes after decades of increase. We’re coming to grips with bringing the city government into line with our size. And while the debate’s been ugly, we’re finally down to arguing over how much and not if -- that's big.
And we’ve accomplished the renovations of Kleinhan’s and Shea’s, begun reclaiming the Olmsted Parks, and started rebuilding the Martin House complex – all with little fanfare and no controversy. After a half-century of begging businesses from outside to move here, we’re shifting our focus to growing local business – encouraging local entrepreneurs. That’s how Buffalo first grew 100 years ago – before Bethlehem Steel came to town, we grew ourselves.
While Baltimore, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh are better than we at highlighting their successes, don’t neglect to look behind the tourist brochures. If you dig a little, you’ll find that we’re not really so far behind the curve as we think.