Buffalo and the Future Suburban Poor...

I recently had the opportunity to attend CNU22 the annual conference for the Congress for the New Urbanism.  This year it was in Buffalo, NY.  The most common question when I told my friends that my geeky passion was taking me to Buffalo was something like ‘why Buffalo?’  Well, it has great bones and lots of warts.  It’s exactly the kind of fixer-upper New Urbanists love.

At the beginning of the 1900’s, Buffalo was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country.  Population peaked at around 580k in 1950 and has fallen by roughly 55% since as the industries that made it one of the richest cities in America died or moved away.  At this point, you may be wondering what Buffalo has to do with Roswell and North Fulton.  Well, it all comes back to a tour that I took while I was there.

Our second stop was at the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Emslie St.
The controversially named Tour de Neglect took about 75 wonky planners, architects and urbanism enthusiasts through the economically devastated East Side neighborhood to showcase what happens when once vibrant places become slums.  At one point, East Side was a thriving neighborhood with one of the largest Polish and German populations in the nation.  Since the 1950’s the combination of economic stagnation and white flight have reduced the population of what is Buffalo’s largest neighborhood geographically by almost 90% and the racial makeup has gone from almost 100% white to almost 100% African-American.  To say that 75 mostly white, relatively well-off out-of-towners riding bicycles through this neighborhood was awkward puts it lightly.  Thankfully, we had well connected and well known guides.


This is the type of place that people reading the CurrentHub would rarely end up.  If they did, it’s likely the result of a wrong turn or a volunteer project.  But, it made me wonder if the northern burbs of Atlanta face a similar fate?  

The fact is that suburban poverty is rising at a significantly faster rate than the city core.  According to the Brookings Institute study ‘Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,’ Atlanta had the 4th fastest increase in suburban poverty between 2000 and 2010.  In Cobb county, 6.5% of residents were poor in 2000 but by 2010, that number was 12.6%.  At the time of the study, 87% of metro Atlanta’s poor lived in suburbs and about 79% of the people receiving housing vouchers lived in the burbs.  This makes sense as 85% of the affordable housing in the metro area is located in the suburbs.  This arrangement imposes huge burdens on people living on little or no income which makes one wonder if it is truly ‘affordable.’

When looking at East Side, I see a neighborhood that actually could eventually recover.  It has good bones and great places and it’s easy to bike and walk.  However, The way Atlanta has built its suburbs around the car makes me less optimistic.  According to AAA, the annual cost of owning a single car is just over $9,000.  Even reducing that by driving a cheaper car, our poor, who are being forced to drive by our dispersed landscape, are being hit with a huge financial burden as a percentage of their income.  If you can’t afford a car, good luck because you’re not going to be near a frequent bus route and you’re definitely not going to be able to walk or bike to work!

Poverty is like a vicious cycle and a suburban landscape exasperates it.  Just the act of being poor creates the conditions that make it difficult to recover.  A 2013 Journal of Science article concluded that poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty.  It also estimated that the condition of poverty imposes a mental burden equivalent to a 13 point IQ drop.  Just like people and families, once a neighborhood starts down the path, it is hard to recover.  You can see this in small pockets all over our suburban landscape.  Subdivisions that were the nice places 30 or 40 years ago haven’t aged well.  They become more costly to maintain and many end up falling into disrepair.  

We’re lucky to live in a beautiful place but Buffalo is proof that it may not always be that way.  As cities continue to become more popular places, gentrification will drive the poor somewhere.. and that somewhere in metro Atlanta is where 85% of the ‘affordable’ housing is.  Aging and dying subdivisions will become the slums of the 21st century.  Our sprawl bombed landscape burns holes in our pockets and literally crushes those who can’t afford the amenities that motordom requires.  We need to rethink how we have built our cities and towns and make them work for everyone.  Not just those of us fortunate enough (for now) to drive with no concerns.

For more on the East Side neighborhood, go to fixbuffalo.blogspot.com

Here are some additional shots from the tour.

Inside the Sacred Heart CathedralThe revitalized area of Larkin Square. This is only 5 short blocks away from the Sacred Heart Cathedral.Approaching the 17 story Buffalo Central Terminal finished just before the stock market crash of 1929. It was active until 1979.The beautiful interior of the Buffalo Central Terminal. This place has incredible potential and it looks kinda like the Halls of Justice right?