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Donn Esmonde Looks at things Backwards

Donn Esmonde is an Ass” is the name of the series, and he seldom, if ever disappoints. In Friday’s column, he devoted about 550 words to talking about how lame Byron Brown is and how Bernie Tolbert sure is swell for trying.

Bernie Tolbert doesn’t need or want my sympathy. But I can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Taking on Byron Brown is like trying to grab a puff of smoke or lasso a shadow. Nothing sticks to the Teflon Mayor.

On Brown’s two-term watch, Buffalo lost another 20,000 people. Schools went deeper into the dumpster, while he watched the charter school revolution from the sidelines. His anti-poverty “plan” for America’s third-poorest city was a lame, idea-absent rehash. Buffalo is basically a ward of the state, which covers a third of its budget and the bulk of its school costs.

The “charter school revolution” is city people suburbanizing city schools. Pull kids and money out of the traditional public schools, so your kids can have a Williamsville experience without moving to Williamsville. Esmonde has an especial hard-on for suburban schools, and has spent three or four columns advocating for the decimation of what had until recently been one of the best districts in the region. Esmonde’s concern-trolling about schools is utter nonsense, given his complete transformation into a tea party Sith lord.

Brown backed a proposed Bass Pro store that would have smothered the downtown waterfront, and a Seneca casino that experts say does us more harm than good. But mostly, he is mum – even on obvious causes such as expanding ECC’s downtown campus. Nearly two-thirds of respondents rated him no better than average in a Buffalo News leadership survey. He is vision-lite, cliche-heavy and largely uninspiring.

You would think that the man would be fighting for his political life. Instead, the mayor is livin’ easy.

2/3 of respondents in a poll rated Brown as “average”. The Siena Poll that the Buffalo News and Channel 2 commissioned, the cross-tabs for which have never been released.

Polls show him far ahead of Tolbert, who is barely known and fights a 6-to-1 dollar disadvantage. The Democratic primary in September decides the race, as city Republicans are an endangered species. My wish to see a progressive, idea-driven mayor in this lifetime may never be granted (in lieu of that, I’d settle for a Super Bowl). Pollster Steven Greenberg can’t explain Brown’s cushy lead, given abysmal marks on schools and job creation.

Esmonde uses the word “progressive”. It is to laugh. But while city Republicans may be an “endangered species”, you’d think that the underdog candidate, Sergio Rodriguez, might merit a mention. I mean, the guy has ideas, he’s saying a lot of what Esmonde is saying in this piece, and he has a name!

Which brings us to Brown’s political genius – he has mastered the art of low expectations. By keeping his head in the foxhole, by not championing big ideas and sweeping reforms, he has conditioned people not to expect much. So he can take credit for anything good that happens – even when, like the waterfront or downtown revival, it doesn’t have much to do with him – while avoiding blame for problems. It helps that Brown was preceded by three-term Mayor Tony Masiello, who, if possible, set an even lower bar.

At least Jimmy Griffin had an executive temperament, along with a temper.

A bolder, tougher, more visionary mayor would lobby for a regional planning board, to slow sprawl and funnel new business into the city. He would protect one of the city’s few resources – its stock of great old buildings – by data-basing historic properties and hammering negligent owners. He would push for mixed-income housing in the suburbs, to lighten the city’s heavy poverty load. He would embrace the choice of charter schools, while demanding accountability from traditional ones. And on and on.

How exactly does the mayor of the City of Buffalo “push for mixed-income housing in the suburbs”? Does he ask nicely, or is there some interjurisdictional power he has that I’m not aware of?

But Esmonde is partially right – to have Byron Brown record ads touting Geico, which is hiring way the fuck up in North Amherst somewhere, is an obscenity of the highest order. The city of Buffalo is precisely the place that Geico should have located its sprawling call center, but instead it went to North Bumfuck because it got a swell deal from whatever IDAs had handouts at the ready. It is the people who live in the city of Buffalo who are in desperate need of $30,000 entry-level white-collar cubicle jobs like the ones at Geico, because the manufacturing jobs are gone and working at McDonalds frankly sucks.

Byron Brown and Warren Buffett and the Buffalo News all think locating Geico up near Quebec was a swell idea.

A decent wage, a decent job, and some semblance of an opportunity are the very foundation on which you build a better future for young, underserved and underprivileged city residents. Not your “stock of great old buildings”.

Esmonde and his preservation-first cohorts have it backwards. Fixing up great old buildings doesn’t turn around the local economy, but turning around the local economy will help spur more fixing up of great old buildings. The focus on Buffalo’s hardware is well-managed by exquisitely touchy people who think that attracting “cultural tourists” to see the Darwin Martin house and other buildings is the antidote to a half-century of decline. Our town is replete with ultra-wealthy foundations sporting the names of the founders of businesses that long ago abandoned Buffalo, all of which seem to think that their deep pockets provide an avenue for them to tell everyone how they’re doing it wrong. Meanwhile, the best thing anything with the name “Oshei” in it could do is open a Goddamn windshield wiper factory in Buffalo.

Regular people will rehab your pretty old buildings when it makes economic sense to do so. People will do it when you don’t have to retain a preservation activist to help navigate your way to tax credits, and around demonstrations and litigation. People will preserve our “great old buildings” when they have money to do it. And how do you create wealth in a shit economy? You make sure you have a decent educational system, and that there are available jobs to help lift a generation out of poverty and into the economic mainstream.

Instead, we applaud the fact that Geico brings thousands of jobs to the sticks – just a few bus transfers and a commute that would make Long Islanders cringe! It’s appalling. It’s sickening. It’s a disgrace.

His city is on life support, yet Brown shows little passion and champions few causes. What, me worry?

Granted, the mayor has strengths. He is likable, projects concern and looks good – all political pluses. The streets get plowed, and the garbage is picked up. And his timing is good. He is in office while the waterfront is shaping up and downtown is repopulating. Albany and Washington dollars, not city money, stoke the waterfront, and downtown revival is traceable mainly to market forces and momentum. Still, the rising tide lifts his boat. As numerous insiders have told me, Brown stays out of the way and shows up for the ribbon-cuttings.

Brown stays out of the way? The stories of institutional, tolerated bribery and corruption within City Hall are legion.

In Buffalo, the city of low expectations, it goes a long way. A lot further, I think, than it should.

An irony here is that Esmonde does so much to keep those expectations low and stupid.


  • rhmaccallum

    I agree Buffalo should have gone after the Geico center but for this author to call Amherst “North Bumfuck” is a little disingenuous coming from a guy who lives in the outer suburb of Clarence. After all, Buffalo’s biggest problem is abandonment by those like Bedenko to the suburbs where they can safely isolate themselves economically. That sprawl-style movement is, after all the new, the real segregation.

    Bedenko asks us to believe that if all the high paying jobs come back (which they won’t) then ”
    preservation will take care of itself. It won’t. All the good jobs in the world and the developers will still tear down to build new, uninspired structures. Look what preservation has done for Quebec city for instance. Then again, in Canada they didn’t have the hurdles that we have to jump. Canadians in general never let the best of their architecture deteriorate in the first place. How much easier to maintain with good, long term maintenance plans than to go back after years and years of neglect.

    So here we sit on the battleline of preservation. For years and years the splendid H.H. Richardson Complex, sitting on the very edge of Buffalo State was allowed to decay…all the while we were funding new buildings and dormatories, one after the other at Buff State. And none of those buildings hold a candle artistically or architecturally to the Richardson Complex. Now those cheaply designed and constructed buildings require much rehab and expense themselves.
    How much better off might we be if we did proper maintenance and preserved the gems we have? How much money would we have saved, over the long term, by doing this? How high the cost to continue bulding new and cheap, neglecting maintenance, rebuilding even cheaper…all for the profits of developers and the whims of those like Bedenko who simply can’t see the light?

    • http://www.buffalopundit.com/ Alan Bedenko

      I agree Buffalo should have gone after the Geico center but for this author to call Amherst “North Bumfuck” is a little disingenuous coming from a guy who lives in the outer suburb of Clarence.

      Have I ever suggested that Clarence wasn’t also north bumfuck? More accurately, east bumfuck? So, unless I had done that, there’s nothing disingenuous whatsoever about what I wrote or how I characterized the business park at the intersection of North French and Millersport.

      After all, Buffalo’s biggest problem is abandonment by those like Bedenko to the suburbs where they can safely isolate themselves economically. That sprawl-style movement is, after all the new, the real segregation.

      I never lived in Buffalo, so I never “abandoned” anything.

      Bedenko asks us to believe that if all the high paying jobs come back (which they won’t) then “preservation will take care of itself. It won’t. All the good jobs in the world and the developers will still tear down to build new, uninspired structures. Look what preservation has done for Quebec city for instance. Then again, in Canada they didn’t have the hurdles that we have to jump. Canadians in general never let the best of their architecture deteriorate in the first place. How much easier to maintain with good, long term maintenance plans than to go back after years and years of neglect.

      No one knows what you’re talking about. No one pays attention to preservation issues in Quebec City. But I do know that Quebec City happens to be the only remaining walled city north of Mexico, and the Provincial capital, so it’s in somewhat of a unique position – completely different from Buffalo in every way.

      So here we sit on the battleline of preservation. For years and years the splendid H.H. Richardson Complex, sitting on the very edge of Buffalo State was allowed to decay…all the while we were funding new buildings and dormatories, one after the other at Buff State. And none of those buildings hold a candle artistically or architecturally to the Richardson Complex. Now those cheaply designed and constructed buildings require much rehab and expense themselves.
      How much better off might we be if we did proper maintenance and preserved the gems we have? How much money would we have saved, over the long term, by doing this? How high the cost to continue bulding new and cheap, neglecting maintenance, rebuilding even cheaper…all for the profits of developers and the whims of those like Bedenko who simply can’t see the light?

      Yes, why couldn’t the state have used public money in order to utilize a massive, decaying set of structures to warehouse students?

      Thanks for proving my point. Buff State is a public college. You suggest spending public money to rehabilitate it, when I’m suggesting that it’s more important to focus on the software – people – than the hardware – buildings. Why is it such a horrible idea to wait for the economic situation to improve so that something like the Richardson complex is a smart and economically feasible renovation project? No, no – we have to rely on private foundations funded by fortunes earned long ago, and on public money and tax breaks to renovate a former psych ward to warehouse students!

      The Richardson complex site indicates that $76.5 million in public funds are being spent to create a mixed-use development there. Thank God every other civic and social problem in dire need of tens of millions of dollars has been solved and funded so that we can now turn our attention to not a preservation – but rehabilitation project.

      • rhmaccallum

        Focus on the software? So…a public policy of holding on high the developer somehow saved money by allowing Richardson to deteriorate in the first place while we paid and paid for all those new, brick Borg-like cube buildings year after year? I think not.
        Also, if Buffalo is to have a chance it won’t be following like sheep, doing the same things every other city in the country is doing to try to salvage itself. Buffalo has to be Buffalo, not Cleveland, not Baltimore, not Tampa. And maybe it is time for Buffalo to realize that planning for a smaller city instead of forever trying to regain “the glory days” will be more realistic.
        And again I must disagree with you. Sloan is the official East Bumfuk. Live with it, love it. Celebrate it! I believe National Geographic defines Clarence as East Puckerbrush, no?

      • Bill Altreuter

        It should also be mentioned that the Richardson complex is utterly unsuited for student housing.

      • rhmaccallum

        How so? Been a while since you were in a dorm room? The current project is re-making it into shops, offices, apartments. But dorm rooms? college facilities? Now that really lacks imagination.

  • rhmaccallum

    Hmmm. I see one guest vote, one up vote from Bedenko and one down vote (from Bedenko?).
    Seems no one is interested in a Carl Paladino style hit series even though Alan told us it was hugely popular.
    Maybe it’s time to loose the venom Alan. Artvoice is sinking. Be relevant, respectful and insightful. That might help.