Cornell Chronicle: “Cornell, community partners help drive Buffalo’s revival”

Cornell Chronicle: “Cornell, community partners help drive Buffalo’s revival”

December 5, 2018

“Buffalo at the time was a powerhouse of transportation and industry and culture. … There have been many transformative periods when ILR didn’t just react, but helped create progressive change in the economy,” said PPG board chair Lou Jean Fleron, an ILR extension faculty member whose work in Buffalo spans more than four decades.
 

ILR’s extension work, including PPG, is intended “to strengthen institutions so that they can more effectively change the world and create an economy that works for everyone,” she said.

Working to effect lasting local change and to create policies advancing equity, sustainability and cultural vibrancy, PPG is an umbrella for community, social justice and nonprofit organizations in the Buffalo area. It leverages Cornell resources for its community partners, including research expertise and student interns.

 

 In 2005, Buffalo’s West Side was in rough shape. Aaron Bartley saw a need for action on community development, and set about building a base of support among the neighborhood’s residents.

“We were up at around 20 to 25 percent vacant housing,” said Bartley, a Buffalo native who co-founded PUSH Buffalo to address the problem. “Once you hit 30-35 percent, neighborhoods become very vacant very quickly. There’s a threshold point at which things just spiral.

“Everywhere you turn you have talented individuals and you also have this incredible built landscape of Victorian homes that have become vacant, and the nexus of those needs and interests and passions was the genesis of PUSH,” he said.

PUSH, which stands for People United for Sustainable Housing, has worked with Cornell in Buffalo and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) since 2007. Since then, the nonprofit group has improved 120 parcels of land on the West Side, rehabilitating derelict and abandoned properties into sustainable housing and creating community gardens and urban green spaces on vacant lots. The improvements, including developing 102 new units of rental housing and four commercial units on the West Side, are a source of pride for people living in the culturally diverse neighborhood.

 

Research supports redevelopment
After decades of economic downturn, Buffalo had been seen as a Rust Belt city in decline. But grassroots-level work by Cornell University with community partners on sustainable redevelopment and improving livability is changing that.

The Partnership for the Public Good (PPG), founded in 2007 at Cornell in Buffalo by the ILR School, works with a diverse network of stakeholders. Cornell and ILR have been embedded in the city since 1946, conducting outreach and research – work that has accompanied the city through economic boom times, recession and revitalization.

“Buffalo at the time was a powerhouse of transportation and industry and culture. … There have been many transformative periods when ILR didn’t just react, but helped create progressive change in the economy,” said PPG board chair Lou Jean Fleron, an ILR extension faculty member whose work in Buffalo spans more than four decades.

“We are a city that at one time was a model of middle class existence, from unionized jobs that paid a good wage and products that were exported all over the world. Deindustrialization came to define the poverty that was left there, the sense that our glory days were in the past.”- Lou Jean Fleron, Cornell in Buffalo

ILR’s extension work, including PPG, is intended “to strengthen institutions so that they can more effectively change the world and create an economy that works for everyone,” she said.

Working to effect lasting local change and to create policies advancing equity, sustainability and cultural vibrancy, PPG is an umbrella for community, social justice and nonprofit organizations in the Buffalo area. It leverages Cornell resources for its community partners, including research expertise and student interns.

PUSH was among the first 36 partners to sign on in 2007, and PPG now provides policy development, advocacy and research to more than 280 organizations in the Buffalo-Niagara region.

“For PUSH, it’s meant having access to best practices from around the country, written up on a monthly basis,” Bartley said.

Cornell in Buffalo and PPG also host Buffalo Commons, a digital library of research on western New York with tools to help community organizations and researchers connect, collaborate and share strategies for organizing, advocacy or creating green jobs, for example.

More than 170 researchers from Cornell, the University at Buffalo and other institutions have contributed to the resource, which also gives residents direct access to information on local policy and opportunities for civic engagement.

“We’re trying to make Buffalo a model of urban regeneration that really warrants the attention of researchers, even as we use higher education for innovative thinking and making it a better place,” Fleron said.

 

Green jobs and ‘a blue economy’
“PUSH is the organization we’ve worked the most with, on local and state policing, greening the region, New York state affordable housing programs, and pushing to get cities to emphasize sustainability more,” said Sam Magavern, PPG executive director.

Energy-efficient housing and sustainability efforts by PUSH have extended to providing jobs while protecting Great Lakes freshwater resources – the focus of PUSH Blue, a related initiative established in 2009 and dedicated to “building a blue economy” through sustainable landscaping projects and youth training programs.

“They figured out how to put disadvantaged workers to work on the storm water problem,” Magavern said.

PPG and PUSH produced a white paper in 2008 showing how “to improve water quality in a city like Buffalo that has really old sewer systems without digging those systems up, which is a billion-dollar project,” Bartley said.

“PUSH had been doing some of that work, digging rain gardens and bioswales to capture water runoff and make it seep into the ground rather than going into the sewer system. PPG took an interest in that and documented our work … to really systematize what we are doing,” he said.

The report was circulated outside of Buffalo, and soon Bartley was fielding calls from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, “wanting to learn specifics about green infrastructure and how communities can create jobs,” he said.

PUSH continues to attract foundation grants as well as grassroots support for its many projects. “The biggest amount of support comes from members of this community,” said Executive Director Rahwa Ghirmatzion, whose family emigrated from Eritrea to Buffalo. She has lived on the West Side for 26 years.

Now with a paid and volunteer staff of 50, PUSH has put families in homes for 12 years, renovated the long-neglected Massachusetts Avenue Park and established job-training houses for local youth learning the building trades. The former School 77, empty for a decade, was recently redeveloped into senior housing and community space. PUSH holds monthly meetings of community members and engages them in ongoing planning efforts to prioritize development.

After leading PUSH in generating more than $45 million in sustainable housing and commercial development, Bartley stepped down as executive director this year and is now an ILR visiting scholar. He is leading workshops this fall on Cornell’s Ithaca campus and teaching a course in the spring called Organizing and the Next City: Land, Labor Capital and Community in Post-Industrial Urban America.
Bartley’s civic engagement experience in Buffalo “will affect students who take his course,” Fleron said. “It will have an impact on the way the community organizations of the future work, because it expands our collective understanding of community change.”

Read the full article in the Cornell Chronicle here