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Historical Roots of the Urban Crisis: African Americans in the Industrial City, 1900-1950

Historical Roots of the Urban Crisis: African Americans in the Industrial City, 1900-1950 grew out of the quest to understand the relationship between the black experience in the  industrial city and the contemporary urban crisis.  We believed that the key to understanding the predicament of cities, formulating effective policies, and creating initiatives to solve current problems is knowing the historical roots of the urban crisis.  Conceptually, the book focused on the city building process and how the changing urban environment and economic shift combined with decisions, definition of problems and policy formation to affect the ability of blacks to find housing, build communities, get jobs and advance occupationally.

The book unearthed the importance of agency in the struggle of African Americans.  Three elements were extremely important in the community building efforts among blacks on the eve the Civil Rights Movement.  (1) There emerged a strong leadership composed of working- and middle-class leadership (2) blacks maintained solidarity despite class, gender and ideological differences and (3) Blacks built a strong institutional base to guide the activities of the group.

African Americans and the Rise of Buffalo’s Post-Industrial City, 1940 to the Present (1990)—a State of Black Buffalo Report

Inspired by W.E.B. Dubois’s Philadelphia Negro, this interdisciplinary study launched the UB Center for Urban Studies, then called the Center for Applied Public Affairs Studies.  The study was sponsored by the Buffalo Urban League in partnership with City of Buffalo Common Council.  The study was to be modeled after the Urban League “State of Black Buffalo” model, but given the dynamic changes that were taking place in the city in 1990, we want to produce a bolder and more visionary portrait of the black community than the typical Urban League reports.  This approach gave birth to African Americans and the Rise of Buffalo’s Post-Industrial City.  This is the most comprehensive study ever conducted of Buffalo’s black community.  It brought together scholars from the fields of history, sociology, education, economics, criminology, urban studies, and urban planning. The book grappled with the issues of work, education, housing, crime, and the organizational structure.  One of the most important findings was that an organizational mismatch existed.  We had a set of problems driven by economic hardship and blighted neighborhoods, but or organizations were set up only to deal with the symptoms of those problems.

There were two very unique dimensions to this study. The first is that we rooted the study with a chapter on the history of African Americans in Buffalo.  The second is that concluded the book with a detail set of policy recommendations. While the scholarly community conducted the research, a team of almost 30 practitioners poured over their findings and then developed a comprehensive set of recommendation to attack the problems facing Black Buffalo. The study called for the establishment of a Development Zone that would cover the entire East Side and the launching of a variety of initiatives to solve the problems facing blacks. The Black Buffalo study captured the imagination of a generation of practitioners, but its bold strategy was never implemented.  One reason is that the Urban League never embraced the strategy.  So, without a lead organization to drive the planning and implementation of the strategy, it was never implemented.

BMHA Perry Choice Neighborhood Planning Initiative

BMHA Perry Choice Neighborhood Planning Initiative

The BMHA Perry Choice Neighborhood (PCN) planning initiative was a collaborative led by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA) and the University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies, as planning coordinator. The two-year planning initiative, funded by a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Choice Neighborhood planning grant awarded to the BMHA in 2011, seeks to transform the BMHA’s Commodore Perry Homes and Extension, and Buffalo’s Perry Choice Neighborhood, into a vibrant community of opportunity, which functions as a platform that enables residents to earn a living wage and that helps children do well in school, graduate on time, and go on to college and/or obtain a job with a meaningful career ladder.

The planning grant provide the UB Center with an opportunity to forge a plan based on the interplay between the built environment and the neighborhood superstructure.  In the Choice plan, the three components—housing, neighborhoods and people—were actually surrogates for the built environment (housing and neighborhoods) and the superstructure (people).  The driving idea was to develop a plan that improved significantly the built environment, while simultaneously reimagining and strengthening the organizations and institutions, including schools, hospitals, and social service agencies, that provides services for people and helped them solve socioeconomic problems. Concurrently, the strategy viewed the household as institutions and sought to build a supportive infrastructure that would nurture residents.

Work on the development of the Perry Choice plan give us considerable insight into the neighborhood development challenge in black neighborhoods.  While the plan was strong on improving housing within the Commodore Perry Housing Development, it had no meaningful solution to dealing with housing in the surrounding neighborhood.  The new builds simply would not stimulate the low-income rental market in the surrounding area.  Also, the mixed-income, poverty reduction strategy was flawed.  HUD was critical of the goal of building institutions to blend together the old and new populations and did not seem to understand the conflict that would occur between high- and low-income renters.  So, while HUD sought to develop a project that would integrate public housing residents with the surrounding neighborhood and use public housing to trigger development throughout the community, its overall vision precluded that from happening.