Buffalo, New York—which has been led exclusively by Democratic mayors for since 1966—is known for chicken wings and urban failure. But in an earlier era—during the first few decades of the twentieth century—the city and its surrounding environs were best known for their railroad commerce, steel industry, automobile manufacture, aircraft/aerospace design and production, Great Lakes shipping, and grain storage. As of 1950, Buffalo was not only America’s fifteenth-largest city, but also its largest inland port, second-largest rail center, sixth-largest steel producer, and eighth-largest manufacturer.
To be sure, Buffalo’s economy suffered some significant blows in the years that preceded the city’s Democratic era which began in 1966. For example, in the early 1900s rail transport became increasingly efficient and thus reduced the importance of the Erie Canal, which ran approximately 363 miles from Buffalo (at Lake Erie) to Albany (on the Hudson River), and had been built to establish a continuous navigable water route from New York City to the Great Lakes. From the 1910s onward, trucks likewise made it easier to deliver goods via land routes rather than by water. And 1959 saw the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway—a 2,342-mile system of canals, dams, and locks connecting the Great Lakes directly to the Atlantic Ocean and allowing grain shipments to bypass Buffalo entirely. But Buffalo’s response to these developments post-1960 only made things worse.
The first mayor of the Democrat era in Buffalo, Frank Sedita, took office in 1966. That year, under his watch, Buffalo’s Hamlin Park area participated in the federally funded “Model Cities” initiative—previously discussed in the Detroit profile—that President Lyndon Johnson was launching as part of his Great Society and War on Poverty programs. The 1966 Act that authorized the new undertaking defined a model city as “any municipality (city or county) selected to receive planning funds as the first step of a five-year program to improve physical, social, and economic conditions in a large blighted neighborhood.” Improvements were to include such things as “better education, improved health and medical services, increased opportunities for economic development, job training, and better physical surroundings.” At the time, The Buffalo Model Cities Bulletin stated confidently that the the program’s “accomplishments should serve as ‘models’ to be followed by other cities facing similar problems.” As in Detroit, however, the achievements of Model Cities in Buffalo were few and short-lived. Today the seven census tracts that once encompassed Buffalo’s Model Cities area have lost over 50% of their population and are now overwhelmingly poor, with poverty rates ranging from 25.5% to 44.7%.
Just as government largesse could not purchase for its intended Model Cities beneficiaries the skills and attitudes necessary for sustained self-sufficiency, neither could it quell the growing anger of black militants who were unmoved by the conciliatory gestures—however well-meaning—of white liberals in Buffalo’s political establishment. Rather, by demanding nothing of their intended beneficiaries, such gestures only served to heighten the righteous indignation of the city’s committed radicals, and in the summer of 1967 their rage reached a boiling point. From June 26 through July 1, violent riots rocked Buffalo’s East Side and virtually shut down the entire city. On one night in particular—June 28—more than 40 people were injured, including 14 with gunshot wounds.
Notwithstanding the Model Cities funds that so recently had poured into Buffalo, progressives depicted the riots as a logical reaction to the white power structure’s intransigent, malign neglect of those who were most in need. For example, a report by the Store Front Education Information Centers at the University of Buffalo attributed the violence to a “lack of sufficient employment”; degrading and abusive treatment by police; “long periods of frustration” experienced by people “disgruntled about [their] poor housing and [dead-end] jobs”; and black Buffaloans’ widespread “feeling that no one listens to them and that their requests are not met.” Too many young blacks “feel hopeless and that they have nothing to lose,” said the report, adding: “As far as the people are concerned, the only route out is to riot, even if it serves only to release pent up aggravation.”
It should be noted that Buffalo’s use of Model Cities funds was by no means the first instance of its reliance on federal money. In 1957, for example—also under a Democratic mayor—Buffalo had received more than $9 million (the equivalent of $75 million in today’s dollars) from the federal Urban Renewal Association to rebuild the Ellicott district in the city’s downtown area. According to Harvard University economics professor Edward Glaser:
“The Ellicott rehabilitation followed what became the classic urban renewal script—replacing slums with middle-income housing, commercial development, and more open space. The program removed 2,000 residents, the majority of them black, and relocated many to new public-housing projects. Yet just ten years later, officials were describing the program as a ‘dismal failure.’ Despite millions spent, living conditions for the poor seemed no better, and the city certainly wasn’t on the mend.”
Similarly, in the late Sixties Buffalo turned to Washington, DC for help in redeveloping its waterfront. In 1969, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development supported the construction of the 40-story Marine Midland Center. Twenty-seven years later, more than $50 million in public funds were used to build the nearby Marine Midland Arena to house the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres.
Buffalo likewise relied mainly on federal funds to bankroll the most expensive of its revitalization efforts, its $500 million metropolitan rail system which took six years to construct and opened in 1985. But it was not money well spent. As Prof. Edward Glaser noted in 2007, “Buffalo has lots of highways and abundant parking,” thus “the system’s ridership has been declining steadily for over a decade.” “Since the 1950s,” added Glaser, “the federal government has showered billions upon billions of dollars on Buffalo and other failing cities, seeking to revitalize them. The spending reflected a natural, humane impulse. But none of it worked, as Buffalo’s entrenched poverty and shrinking population testify.”
Since Mayor Sedita’s seven years in office ended in 1973, Buffalo has been led, successively, by the Democrat administrations of Stanley Makowski (1973-77), James Griffin (1978-94), Anthony Masielo (1994-2006), and Byron Brown (2006-present). And, as invariably occurs under Democrat administrations wherever they may be, Buffalo during these years cultivated a reputation for its high taxes. Today Buffalo imposes upon its residents and businesses one of the most oppressive metropolitan tax burdens of any American city—including property-tax rates that rank among the highest in the nation. According to a 2011 study by the Minnesota Taxpayers Association, Buffalo’s commercial property taxes were America’s sixth-highest at that time. A Wall Street Journal report a few years ago described Buffalo as “a property tax hell” that, like numerous other cities in upstate New York, had been “in an economic decline for decades, giving much of it a Depression-era feel.”
And, as so often is the case in heavily taxed, Democrat-run cities, Buffalo has been plagued by serious fiscal mismanagement for many years. Political leaders, for instance, have consistently promised lavish pension benefits to Buffalo’s public-sector retirees—and the city’s current tax revenues cannot even come close to covering those obligations. Indeed, unfunded pension liabilities in Buffalo now exceed $29,000 per household. The magnitude of this crisis is demonstrated by the fact that in Fiscal 2011, the city’s budget included a whopping $35 million for retired employee benefits—fully $5 million more than the amount earmarked for its active employees.
Buffalo’s financial disarray as a city is reflected also in the economic condition of its residents, whose per capita income of $20,245 is 28% below the national average, and whose median household income of $30,502 is 42% less than the national median. Among New York State’s 346 cities, Buffalo ranks 310th in per capita income and 338th in per-household income. The city’s poverty rate of approximately 30.1% is about twice the national average. And as of July 2013, unemployment in Buffalo was 10.2%—approximately one-third higher than the national figure at that time.
A major strain on Buffalo’s economy in recent times has been the bloated bureaucracy of the city’s public school system. With a budget exceeding $900 million per year, Buffalo spends, on average, an astounding $19,883 on the education of each of its pupils. But the city’s children and taxpayers alike get a meager return on this investment. In a 2013 test that was administered to all students in New York State, only 11.5% of Buffalo students in grades 3 through 8 met or exceeded the proficiency standards in English. In math, the corresponding figure was worse—9.6%.
Notwithstanding these dismal statistics, Buffalo has not instituted any type of voucher program that would enable low-income parents to remove their children from the city’s failing public schools and send them instead to private schools that could offer the youngsters a better—and less expensive—educational experience
Another major problem plaguing Buffalo is lawlessness. In 2012, Buffalo’s violent crime rate was 11th highest among America’s big cities. The city’s violent crime rate (per 100,000 residents) is 3.2 times the national average—including 3 times the national average for murder, 4 times the national average for robbery, 2.6 times the national average for assault, and 70% above the national average for rape.
While high crime and a substandard education system make Buffalo unattractive to people looking for a place to establish a business, entrepreneurs in the city are further repelled by New York State’s high corporate taxes, burdensome regulatory codes, workers’ compensation requirements, and pro-union laws that impose massive costs on business owners.
Due to its startling economic and social decline, Buffalo has seen its population shrink by more than half in recent decades, from 533,000 in 1960 to just 277,000 as of 2021. As of December 2008, approximately one-fourth of the city’s housing stock was vacant.
This piece was posted in May 2014.