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A few roads in America provide a spectacular introduction to its cities, but of those I have driven none is so boldly demanding as Buffalo’s Skyway. Imagine you are approaching downtown from the south. You motor along Route 5, past relics from the lost steel empire, past the wind turbines and the beaches and the Outer Harbor’s parkland. You follow the signs. Nothing indicates you are about to be swept 110 feet off the ground. You are hurtling in the flow of traffic now, high in the wind, and there is no escape. The slim road arcs. To one side is the built world: a vista of urban architecture and transport routes punctuated in concrete by the largest collection of grain elevators on earth. To the other side, Lake Erie. You notice all this only in flashes; you’re moving, hands gripping the steering wheel.
You might ask yourself, once you’ve been deposited at the foot of a street that leads to City Hall: Who built this unsettling beauty? The short answer: workers who lived in the place that had just dared you to look at it in awe. The longer answer is contained in histories of the industrial city—the saga of steel and the water-borne commerce that necessitated those granaries, what the critic Reyner Banham called “a concrete Atlantis.” The political answer lies where it always does, in decisions people made long before ground was broken, in every nod or no, every conflict contained invisibly in material reality. Struggle built the Skyway. As it built Buffalo. As it built the postindustrial waterfront, for whose further development powerful interests seek to demolish this extraordinary urban passageway.
Struggle built the current political moment in Buffalo, too. Not a passion for socialism. Not even the campaign that led the insurgent India Walton to thrash the incumbent Mayor Byron Brown in the June Democratic primary. Brown didn’t campaign; he couldn’t fathom a threat in an all-volunteer opposition. Walton is immensely talented, also gutsy. But her victory and, more important, her confidence that she can govern if she prevails over the write-in efforts of Brown and two other men on November 2 are best understood against the backdrop of wide-ranging activism that, for almost 20 years, has cultivated the practice of seeking alternatives.
“We have a mantra: If you can’t govern, you can’t win,” says Rahwa Ghirmatzion, the executive director of PUSH Buffalo. When PUSH (formally People United for Sustainable Housing) was founded, in 2005, Buffalo had already endured almost 30 years of deindustrialization. “People could see: Help is not coming, so we have to save the city.” Thousands of houses were abandoned; PUSH began reclaiming some on the West Side. The process developed skills; it developed leaders and members. One stage of action led to another. PUSH created a land bank, buying up vacant properties to hold for the development of low-income housing. It supported a community garden; made connections between economic health and public and environmental health; worked in citywide coalitions and national networks.
It sounds neater than it was. And PUSH is hardly alone. The city’s social action tradition is deep and varied. Objectives and political analyses differ. It involves people and projects, nonprofit and otherwise, too numerous to name. In parts of Buffalo—like the low-income, largely Black and Bangladeshi East Side neighborhood where I grew up and still spend time—one might not even know it exists. The vital point is that during the 16-year tenure of Mayor Brown (whose achievements might also go unnoticed in my neighborhood), a parallel people’s infrastructure of sorts has grown up.
Exhibit 1: From 2004 to 2006, a small group of radicals held a series of monthly educational events, films, and discussions at community centers. They went around the city asking people “What’s wrong?” and “What can be fixed?” To the first question, according to organizer Leslie Pickering, answers came quickly: corrupt government, police brutality, rotting infrastructure, no jobs. “When it came to how to fix it: no idea.” The discussions drew audiences, but there was no action to plug into. At about the same time, Prisoners Are People Too, a local organization that advocates for the incarcerated, began a monthly film and discussion series. After encountering numerous obstacles, including harassment by the FBI, Pickering and his group reassessed. In 2011, he, Theresa Baker, and Nate Buckley opened a store called Burning Books. Theirs is a radical resource project ideologically distant from electoral politics, but the store is a space where varied activist allies come together, focus on commonalities, and, as Pickering says, “stand up for each other.” In a generally brutal business environment, Burning Books is expanding.
Exhibit 2: In 2007, a program officer at the local Oishei Foundation (its fortune rooted in the windshield wiper and its maker, Trico Products, which by then had abandoned Buffalo for Brownsville, Tex., and Matamoros, Mexico) invited 20 young leaders from regional organizations to a retreat. There was no agenda—just food and drink and space to talk. People shared knowledge. They mapped power. They discussed how to quantify the information that was always coming from communities’ lived experience to help people imagine solutions to problems. Ghirmatzion, then heading Ujima Theater, says what solidified from this was Partnership for the Public Good, specializing in community-based participatory research. More projects followed. In 2015 came the Crossroads Coalition, which organized annual public summits, workshops on How We Fix the City, and policy goals developed and voted on communally. Like every nonprofit discussed here, the groups have kept separate from elections, but their work—those community policy planks, PPG’s policy research—is reflected in Walton’s platform.
In numerous settings, people were talking, practicing collective decision-making. Since 1995, community gardeners have been determining what food to grow on vacant land (now also at schools and a new land trust). In 1996, Voice Buffalo, a faith-based labor and community group, was founded to ensure that “People should have a say.” In 2005, when PUSH started and Brown became mayor, Walton was raising children and studying nursing. She’d go to various actions and attend meetings, but it wasn’t until after 2015, when she enrolled in the Emerging Leaders program run by Open Buffalo, that she started thinking of herself as an organizer. Two years later she founded the Fruit Belt Land Trust, an organization which itself grew out of anti-displacement actions prompted by the encroachment of new development on an East Side area where many Black homeowners lived.
Covid brought this parallel infrastructure into plain view. “Leadership wasn’t coming from City Hall,” said one Buffalo resident. “People had to turn to each other.” Numerous groups, including Buffalo Mutual Aid Network, Coalition for Economic Justice, Grassroots Gardens and Freedom Gardens, PPG, and many neighborhood activists mobilized to meet common needs. When protests over police brutality erupted in the summer of 2020, led by Free the People and others who had long been organizing on this front, everything came together. All the building energies, the converging issues of inequality—health disparities, poverty, racial and economic violence, selective city revitalization—led, as PPG’s Tanvier Peart put it, to one unvarnished conclusion: “Business as usual is killing us.”
“There’s a palpable sense that the lights are out in City Hall,” says a Buffalo resident I’ll call Marty who routinely has professional dealings there. “Even if Walton were to load the place up with Occupy Wall Streeters who had no experience at all—and she won’t—you’d at least have some people with light behind their eyes willing to do the work. There are plenty of good, long-serving public servants, but the level of inexpertise and poor performance I have witnessed from administrative and director levels is more akin to what you’d see in a rinky-dink town. This summer the pools were closed because there weren’t enough lifeguards. That is not an unsolvable problem: ‘Listen, the community needs a win. Let’s put a little energy into shaking loose some lifeguards.’ There’s just an inadequate view of what satisfies as public service. So, no, I’m not worried about Walton snuffing out the candle of good government.”
Brown’s route to City Hall came out of another organizing tradition: the post-civil-rights-movement track to elective office. He joined Grassroots, a club founded in 1986 by Black neighborhood leaders on the East Side and ambitious young people to work the Democratic Party machinery and break the lock on power by entrenched Black officials. The upstarts spoke of “giving people a voice” but quickly settled into king-making. When I first saw Brown, at a conference in New York City on Black politics shortly after he became mayor, he was hailed as part of the next generation of progressive leadership. He moved up in Democratic politics, allying with Andrew Cuomo, who as governor made Brown the state party chair from 2016 to 2019 and showered Buffalo with largesse (covering as much as 30 percent of the city budget).
His political success brought undeniable improvements to parts of the city, but not shared prosperity. Consider, at the most superficial level, the condition of major East Side streets, whose holes and hazards say, “You are nothing” to the people trying to negotiate them every day. Consider, at a policy level, moves by the Common Council, effectively the mayor’s tool, that have dragged out taking action on a community-backed measure for independent oversight of the police. Consider, at the most profound level, the persistent poverty. No one who watches television these days in Buffalo can escape the cruel irony of where Brown’s tradition of Democratic Party organizing has taken him: corralling public workers—mostly people of color and women in the police force—to appear in a lying political ad claiming that the Democratic standard-bearer wants to fire them and risk public safety.
Yet, unintentionally, Brown also abetted the growth of the people’s infrastructure that has rocked his world—and not only, or even mainly, because so many in Walton’s multi-color, cross-class, cross-neighborhood coalition of supporters loathe him. Again, struggle has shaped Buffalo.
Without struggle, one of Brown’s signature selling points, the transformation of the waterfront from an industrial sewer into a three-mile-long pleasure ground where multicultural Buffalo shows up, would be unrecognizable. The hodgepodge of Canalside—music venues abutting Erie Canal history abutting a play area abutting a carousel and so on, all facing the lake, with its kayakers and boat rides—would instead be dominated by the sporting goods behemoth Bass Pro. The Outer Harbor’s relatively untarnished beauty would likely have been under greater commercial pressure.
Brown inherited the idea of using public funds to lure Bass Pro to “save” the waterfront and then embraced it. He was thwarted by the Canalside Community Alliance: environmentalists, small businesses, researchers from the Public Accountability Initiative, and other local groups. Arguing for the equitable use of public land, they forced the idea of community benefits agreements into a public conversation that was already full of inchoate skepticism across the ideological spectrum. They used data, pressured the Common Council (which was more independent then), and finally won in 2010. Brown was livid. “It changed the trajectory of my life—and the city’s!” says Harper Bishop, who was part of that fight. He works with PUSH now and in 2020 cofounded Our City Action, a multiracial organization that aims to build power through electoral change.
According to Brown’s narrative, his leadership brought Buffalo its waterfront. Walton’s supporters could flip that script—and opponents’ scaremongering over “socialism.” The lakefront is not an amenity incidental to the fight for the city—especially as the developer class backing Brown is poised, fortified with public aid, to make a private cash cow out of the public asset that so many voters love.
“Enjoy it while you can,” says Dennice Barr, “because it’s going to be swallowed up.” Barr lives in the shadow of Brown’s other signature development, the sprawling hospital corridor and the expansion of the SUNY Buffalo Medical Campus. A veteran community advocate and head of the Fruit Belt Advisory Council, she also volunteers for Walton’s campaign. Barr talks plainly about the indifference of UB, as the university is called, to the community whose lives it is affecting: “They’re not a good neighbor, never have been, and they’re not doing too much to change that.” As for City Hall under Brown, “Its vision for my community is ‘It should have been gone.’”
In an hour’s conversation with Barr what emerged was not just the details of the Fruit Belt’s formidable organizing but the reason gentrification is an issue even for people who don’t yet feel its sting. There is the creep of homogenization, as village-like neighborhoods lose their character, as local businesses are priced out. There is, simultaneously, the divided city, where in some areas vast tracts of decay “send children the message ‘If you’re a poor person, if you’re a person of color, we don’t have anything for you.’” Ultimately, it is a question of the social compact, as the people as a whole have not been invited to imagine a city that is a healthy place for all its members, and what development to that end, without displacement, might look like.
At its best, the Walton campaign is that invitation. And Brown knows it. Win or lose, the ideas that were once marginalized, the talk about a just, fair, and equitable city—all the language that, as Bishop says, “was not in the vernacular 15 years ago: community benefits agreements, land trusts, solidarity economy—now they are. They’ve become the floor, not the ceiling.”
JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About: Sex and the Mess of Life, now in paperback from Verso.