Getting together with the neighbors: a common cause (continued)
According to Taylor, what UB can do is study the neighborhood in order to develop insights into neighborhood problems, and from this work articulate broad planning principles for the community and then help to create new organizations that can work toward sustainable development. There is in this no dramatic formula to produce overnight change; no magic bullet from the planning studio.
"This is not a project where UB will step in and do, but rather step in and assist," Taylor says.
Taylor and his colleagues at UB's Center for Urban Studies began their work more than two years ago by looking systematically at the neighborhoods surrounding the South Campus, not just in Buffalo but in the Towns of Amherst and Tonawanda, as well. They drew a map (see map opposite) of what they came to call the University Community without regard to political boundaries because they wanted the planning area to reflect how people actually use the space.
With funding of $100,000 a year from UB, they have assessed the planning area's past and present demographic conditions, made field observations of the area's commercial health, conducted focus groups with residents of six districts within the planning area, and surveyed a larger population by mail.
In speaking generally about the University Community Initiative, Taylor starts with two fundamental observations: The neighborhoods that make up the planning area have experienced dramatic social transformation in the past twenty years, and quality of life in the area has declined.
What was in 1970 a 96 percent white and largely middle-class community is now more integrated, with a population that is 57 percent white and 37 percent African-American, and in which there is a growing Asian presence. The proportion of differing age groups in the community has changed, too, with the eighteen- to thirty-four-year-old age group now the largest (a result, in part, of college students replacing older residents). Although income in the area is still relatively high, both poverty and unemployment are increasing.
According to Taylor, this is not a disturbing picture. "We celebrate this transformation," he says. "The community is now racially diverse. It has a cross-section of classes‹it's a true melting pot."
But he adds this caution: "Unless decline is stopped, the middle-class element will leave and only students and poor people will remain.
"Where people choose to live is the result of a competitive struggle between neighborhoods," Taylor says in his Allen Hall office on UB's South Campus. "We're a portal to the suburbs, an entrance to and exit from the city. What we have to do is to build on our natural competitive advantage as a neighborhood of convenience."
Across Main Street from where Taylor sits, workers are completing a Walgreens Drug Store in a new mini-plaza adjacent to University Plaza. University Plaza itself, well-known to generations of UB students and now perceptibly dilapidated, is slated for redevelopment beginning this year.
Farther down Main Street, the commercial strip caters primarily to students; Taylor regards this as a weakness in the community.
"Students will always be a presence," he says, "but what we want to see happen is for the community to become less dependent on them, both as renters and as retail consumers. We need to complement the student-oriented character of commercial strips, especially on Main Street, with shops and stores that appeal to a broader population of middle-class residents and commuters."
A 1996 University Community Initiative report on roundtable discussions with bankers and real estate dealers conducted by the Center for Urban Studies and UB's Department of Planning makes the same point.
"The consensus was that, although purchase prices [of houses] have slipped as the market in general has slowed, price is not the primary reason that buyers are not attracted here [the University Community]. In comparing the University Community to other city neighborhoods, it was noted that commercial thoroughfares, such as Elmwood and Hertel Avenues, add vitality to the neighborhoods that surround them. The implication was that, while there may be nice houses around UB, there is not much else to attract residents."
This suggests that whatever stability students give the neighborhoods immediately around the UB South Campus is really a dead end: It is an area that only appears stable‹because it is going nowhere. And Taylor would be quick to point out that the neighborhood is not just going nowhere‹it's moving to the suburbs.
But there is another irony in the suspicion that some University Heights residents feel toward the suggestion that students cannot sustain the community.
According to Danis Gehl, what Dave Mercer and residents like him may not realize is that students are starting to think twice about living in his neighborhood because they don't feel secure there.
Jennifer Felber, a UB senior who rents a house in University Heights with three roommates, says that after two years in UB dorms she likes the privacy she gets in a house of her own. She likes having a kitchen and a living room, likes the independence and responsibility she has as a renter, but she hates the sense of insecurity she feels when she walks on and near Main Street at night.
"When I'm at home on Long Island, I can walk ten blocks and never look over my shoulder," she says. "Here I'm always worried. I carry mace. I carry my keys sticking out between my fingers."
In the first of a series of articles on University Heights in February 1997, the Spectrum, UB's general-interest student newspaper, characterizes the current state of the neighborhood: "Today, the Heights is an area usually noted for its crime and deteriorating residences."
But according to UB's Ed Brodka, who coordinates the Division of Student Life off-campus safety awareness program, the students' sense of neighborhood security is more a matter of perception than fact.
"Student concerns rise after high-profile incidents," Brodka says, referring to the wounding of a student two years ago in an armed robbery near Main Street. "But as far as police presence goes, it's better now than it was two years ago. This is still one of the safest neighborhoods in Buffalo."
Erik Haik, a management major in his junior year and also a Long Island native, rented a house in University Heights this past fall with five roommates. He says that friends on campus warned him that the neighborhood was bad, but that hasn't been his experience. "Any neighborhood has problems," he says, "but it's not as bad here as people think."