Corruption and Gentrification in Post-Industrial Buffalo

Photo Source Rich Mitchell | CC BY 2.0

I’m visiting Buffalo, New York, for the first time. Visiting rustbelt cities anywhere is very much the occasion for a jumble of experiences.

Detroit tries mightily, but with no support from national let alone global capital, all its efforts have to be local and extremely hard-won.

Pittsburgh is a much-publicized success story. With two internationally-renowned universities as the hinge, it turned the corner from moribund heavy industry to a focus on the medical sciences and high tech that has been successful, at any rate for their beneficiaries.

Cleveland has not yet had Pittsburgh’s success, but with a focus on the medical sciences and the performing arts (the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is located there, as well as a world famous symphony orchestra), its overall prospects are still reckoned by observers to be on the bright side.

The potential problem with all of this post-industrial rejuvenation is of course the well-being of all who live in these cities, and not just those with impressive qualifications attractive for whichever medical-industrial complex and high tech enterprise sprouting up in the city— the latter being those with enough cash to go to orchestral concerts and eat in a fancy restaurant in a gentrified neighbourhood fore-fronted by an avant-garde chef.

Modern industrial societies, especially those teetering into post-industrialism, face a significant and unavoidable conundrum.

We can’t pretend that there aren’t individuals born with talent and ability. These should be allowed to flourish.

At the same time, there are many who for whatever reason begin nearly every kind of race in life with a ball and chain tied to their ankles. A decent society will give them every opportunity to flourish as well.

The only way to achieve both of the above is an active societal arrangement that allows the talented to flourish, but which does not view their flourishing as a zero-sum game where the talented are allowed to succeed only by putting a boot on the neck of those who start life with a ball and chain round their ankles.

This is not a plea for a “responsible” capitalism, because every such attempt at an approximation to this has quickly been overtaken by its more savage alternatives.

Jimmy Carter yielded to Reagan (“unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders” said the venomous Gipper with his “aw shucks” smile); the “one nation” Tory leader Edward Heath was supplanted by the feral Thatcher; in the Republican party the complaisant country-club plutocrat Mitt Romney was displaced by the loutish troglodyte Trump; and so it goes.

So how does Buffalo fare in this regard?

Its major challenge is one faced by nearly all post-industrial cities, namely, significant population decline—Buffalo’s has fallen from 580,132 in 1950 to 269,000 today.

This represents a colossal diminution of the city’s tax-base, among several other things.

Industrial decline, with the accompanying loss of reasonably well-paid jobs, has typically been associated with high poverty levels, and in Buffalo’s case just under 30% of its residents now live below the poverty line (a level slightly below Detroit’s).

Things were different once upon a time–I was told that in 1900 Buffalo was the 4thwealthiest US city.

Industrial decline has spurred schemes for “urban regeneration” and “slum clearance”, including the disastrous demolition of some of Buffalo’s thriving working-class neighbourhoods.  Buffalo’s political class decided to put soon-to-be hopelessly unusable high-rise projects in their place, and these planning failures only magnified Buffalo’s growing social problems.

More recent schemes have followed the template that has been successful in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, that is, less emphasis on clearance, and more on “restoration”.

Hollowed-out downtown areas are being revitalized as old warehouses and factories are turned into condominiums, and chic boutiques and restaurants move in to cater to the renters and purchasers of these condominiums.

This is gentrification, to put it in the polite terms beloved by the mainstream media, and it remains to be seen if Buffalo’s poor will benefit from this gentrification, which of course prices low-income individuals and families out of these glitzy downtown developments.

Gentrification has been ruinous for the impoverished nearly everywhere else (take Durham, North Carolina, for instance).

Pots of gold are made available for such “renewal” schemes, and New York state being what it is, there are well-connected hands eager to dip into these pots, licitly or otherwise.

The largest of such pots in this region is the Buffalo Billion project led by Governor Andrew Cuomo, aiming to invest $1 billion in the Buffalo area economy.  This much-touted project uses a combination of state grants and tax breaks in an attempt to spur economic regeneration.

While Cuomo himself has so far steered clear of illegality, those around him connected with Buffalo Billion have had many legal tribulations.

Cuomo’s top aide, Joe Percoco, was convicted this year of bribery and wire fraud in connection with the project.

Another important figure involved in Buffalo Billion, Alain Kaloyeros, a Cuomo adviser and former president of SUNY Polytechnic University, was convicted in a corruption trial with other co-defendants in July 2018. Kaloyeros had rigged the bidding for construction projects on the SUNY Polytechnic campus.

A federal investigation has so far revealed bribery (the above-mentioned Percoco alone pocketed $315,000 in bribes) and bid-rigging on a massive scale. A former aide to Cuomo, Todd Howe, pleaded guilty to eight corruption charges.  Six contractors were also charged.

A major Cuomo donor, Louis P Ciminelli, CEO of Buffalo’s biggest building contractor, has been found guilty of bid-rigging.

The federal and state investigations are still ongoing.

Corruption in America however is equal-opportunity.

If the pots of gold are filled by Democrats, then their well-connected donors get first-go at dipping their paws into these pots (Chicago anyone?).

If filled by Republicans, then their supporters get first dibs at the pots (Chris Christie’s New Jersey anyone?).

For decades I’ve been telling my hosts on visits to other countries that America is a banana republic. Until the 2010s, I would see unconvinced looks on the faces of some of my interlocutors.

However, in the last few years these responses have tended to be more jaded: “yeah, we read about all that stuff in our newspapers and social media”.

Will the November mid-terms portend the possibility of a somewhat different state of affairs?

Several Democratic candidates, some of them in prominent, have after all made a point of not taking any PAC money (one of the major sources of American political corruption).

And—gasp!—some of these candidates are sufficiently non-right wing to be described by their Republican opponents as nut-cases who flirt with “socialism”.

I’m not optimistic, but at the same time I recall that Kafka said hope is only given to the hopeless.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.