Thursday 12 September 2013

Buffalo: Boulevard of Broken Dreams

City of Buffalo steel engraving circa 1873 courtesy 

In the 1800's, Buffalo had the unique distinction of being a city close to both the Erie Canal and Niagara Falls, two factors which made the community grow rapidly.  By 1900, Buffalo held the distinction of being the world's leading grain port, shipping 2 million bushels per year along its waterways.  By 1929, its population soared to 573,000 people making it the fifth largest city in the United States.  Today, at under 300,000, Buffalo is a shadow of its former self.  What happened to the great metropolis?

Buffalo circa 1911, courtesy

New immigrants flocked to Buffalo in the 1800's to take up jobs in its factories and on its docks.  Before the building of the Erie Canal, Buffalo was a town of only 2500 people; but, with the canal's opening, the town grew to 8600, and by 1840, 18,000.

Map courtesy 

In the age before the railroad, travelling by water was an inexpensive venture.  Companies like the Union Carbide & Aluminum Company of America relocated there to benefit from the proximity of the lake.  The Lackawanna Steel  Iron Company sprang up as did other large factories.

The other factor that benefitted Buffalo so much was Niagara Falls.  Buffalo drew on its power for electricity, earning it the nickname "City of Light".  By the turn of the last century, Buffalo was the city that everyone wanted to be.

President McKinley at Pan-Am Expo circa 1901 courtesy 

That is why officials chose it as the location for the Pan-American Exposition in 1901.  Even President McKinley could not be deterred:  he had to see the Expo despite his sickly wife's protests.  The First Couple arrived in the City of Light in September of that year, their train greeted by fanfare and cannon fire that rattled Mrs. McKineley's nerves.  The President had his heart set on seeing the Electric Tower, which he thoroughly enjoyed.  Later, the couple toured Niagara Falls.  Tragically, it was on his last day at the Pan-Am Expo that President McKinley was assassinated.

The Electric Tower, the crowning feature of the Pan-Am Expo courtesy

Buffalo continued to prosper in the 1910's and 1920's.  The Buffalo skyline started to form, filled with "wedding cake" style buildings, named for their unique shape.  The Twenties were the last significant growth period, however, for the city.

Buffalo, NY - Buffalo City Hall – 1931 – John J. Wade & George J. Dietel

Buffalo's City Hall, indicative of the wedding cake style architecture of the time period, courtesy

The Thirties saw the Great Depression, which hit many American cities hard.  The Forties saw many men leave to fight int he Second World War.  And in the Fifties, Buffalo's population peaked at 580,000.


A trademark Buffalo snowstorm courtesy 

But changes slowly shrunk the metropolis.  In the 75 years since the city's peak, it lost 55% of its population.  According to Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor, five changes led to the Buffalo's demise:  rail became cheap, making water no longer the way to transport goods; the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in Canada, making the Erie Canal/Hudson River not the sole link to the Atlantic Ocean; transmission of electricity became easier, lessening the importance of Niagara Falls; automobiles brought Buffalonians to the suburbs; and Buffalo's blizzards, which often paralyzed the city, made some citizens trade the "Rust Belt" for the "Sun Belt".  

Interior halls of Bethelehem Steel courtesy

The city's race riots did little to promote its appeal either.  By the 1970's, crime skyrocketed.  The city had trouble recruiting police officers due to its dangerous streets and low wages.

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Buffalo's Psychiatric Center, abandonned, courtesy

In a city where only 19% of its residents held a college degree, many had low paying jobs (or no jobs).  The average yearly salary was a meager $33,000.  The manufacturing industry became a shadow of its former self as factories either shut down or left town.  While public expenses increased, the tax base decreased. With few jobs in Buffalo, no one wanted to move there, and real estate prices plummeted, the average home selling for only $61,000.

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Abandonned house courtesy

Professor Glaeser says that quick fix solutions to Buffalo's economic woes have come to naught:  2000 residents were relocated to public housing in the late 1950's; an elaborate metropolitan rail service, built in 1985, has hardly any passengers; restoring the waterfront, including building an arena for the Buffalo Sabres in 1996, may have attracted sports fans, but not permanent residents.

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Abandonned church courtesy


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