Resurrecting Buffalo

Can Buffalo Ever Come Back? Probably not – and government should stop bribing people to stay here.

That title, in an article by Harvard professor Ed Glaeser in the New York publication City Journal (and repeated in the New York Sun), riled a lot of Western New Yorkers. In Dr. Glaeser’s defense, the subtitle (in italics above) was added by the Journal – nothing like a downstate magazine twisting the knife, eh? Rather than piss and moan about it, Kate Foster and her staff from UB’s Regional Institute invited Glaeser to come to Buffalo to discuss and possibly defend his position. He agreed, and spent most of this past Friday here under sunny skies.

The forum drew 350 people to WNED studios on a day when most of us would have probably preferred to soak up the warmth and brilliant sunshine. Yet there we were. I had the privilege of being on the discussion panel and also had a semi-private audience with Dr. Glaeser for several hours prior to the presentation. That’s where it got interesting, as that discussion covered many more issues than did the public forum.

But all in all, Glaeser really had two points to make:

  • Good schools correlate to good urban health.
  • Buffalo and other depressed cities should shrink to success.

Urban success should be measured not by population growth but by quality of life. Glaeser pointed out several times that some of the most successful cities in the U.S.: Chicago, Minneapolis and Boston – to name a few of the cold weather cities – have all suffered substantial population loss since 1970 yet they thrive as urban centers. Glaeser claims that they reinvented themselves to become centers of information flow and today manufacture ideas, not just goods. It stands to reason that a more educated society is advantageous to the creation of an urban environment that nurtures information flow; hence the stress on better schools and better education in general.

My only argument with Dr. Glaeser is the role that job opportunities play. Surprisingly, Glaeser didn’t mention this and, in fact, implied that cities in the South have become consumer cities where people move simply because it’s cheap to do so. All things being equal, I claim that most people would not move from wherever they’ve established roots if they sensed that they had job opportunities where they already live. But for many years now, Buffalo has been slow to create those opportunities, so off we go to find new opportunities elsewhere.

Other things of interest:

  • Glaeser basically implied “Don’t look to government largesse to bail you out of this. Buffalo’s success depends on the business sector and the community. Government generally does a bad job, believing that big projects (read: “shiny new buildings”) are needed to solve big problems. They generally don’t work well. Glaeser was against Boston’s Big Dig for this reason. He said to me “The people in Kansas City should not have had to pay for transportation in Boston”.
  • Dr. James Williams appeared to sleep through much of Dr. Glaeser’s presentation. Maybe he was just thinking really hard. With his eyes closed.
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