Buffalo, New York is the quintessential rust belt metropolis. With a population lower today than it was in 1900, Buffalo is the third poorest U.S. city of over 250,000 people (following Detroit and Cleveland), with more than a quarter of the city living below the poverty line. And, like Detroit and Cleveland, even as Buffalo’s job market hits rock bottom, its share of community gardens, neighborhood revitalization projects, and adventurous urban initiatives, is on the rise.
“The great thing about rust belt cities right now is, it’s easy to get a hold of properties and do some pretty creative things,” says Aaron Bartley, the Director of People United for Sustainable Housing, or PUSH.
Passing through Buffalo on book tour, I spent a few hours touring the West Side with Aaron, a quietly determined Harvard Law School grad helping to rebuild the city where he attended public school. What I saw impressed me.
“I don’t want to use clichés,” Aaron said, as we set out about the ‘hood in PUSH’s donated Subaru, “but this neighborhood is incredibly diverse.” With a history as a working class Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhood, since the 1980’s, three major national non-profits have used the West Side as a catch-all for refugees from conflict zones around the world. Indeed, Wikipedia calls the West Side “a traditional landing zone for immigrant populations; today the area has large Somalian, Sudanese, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Mexican and Central American, Puerto Rican, and Southeast Asian enclaves.”
Our first stop bore witness. At a Laundromat flanked by boarded-up houses, Aaron introduced me to the owner, Zaw Win, a slight, smiling Burmese man in a Che Guevara t-shirt. When I asked Zaw what his connection was to PUSH, he said in clipped English, “They knock on my door, and I saw an opportunity to help my people. A lot of my people cannot read, write, understand English. I help them to translate, make appointments.”
I noticed several posters around the laundromat celebrating democracy and denouncing Burma’s reigning military junta. “Were you active in the democracy movement in your country?” I asked.
Zaw smiled. “Four years in jail, political prisoner. After prison, I escaped through Thai-Burma border, and later got work on a ship.” After some time at sea, he discovered he wasn’t free to leave. “Indentured servitude,” he said. “Too much heat on the ship. Finally, I jump in the ocean. Want to die. But didn’t die. Later, I went to U.N., High Commission on Refugees. They send me to Buffalo.”
Leaving Zaw’s laundromat, Aaron took me to a demonstration house that PUSH is retrofitting, and ran down the list of amendments: “solar hot water, solar panels, weatherization, good windows, and radiant floor heat from geothermal.” A lot next door was lush with flowers and vegetables, in stark contrast to the decrepit houses around, many tagged with gang graffiti, others with windows broken or roofs caving in. As we drove off, he said, “We bought that house for $3000. The lot next door: $500.”
In front of the first garden, and in the several gardens we visited after, some with vegetables and several, Aaron explained, planted with flowers to attract pollinating bees, I saw signs that read, “Turn up the heat on National Fuel.” When I inquired, I learned that National Fuel is the regional gas company.
“We don’t just do neighborhood projects,” Aaron told me. “We run campaigns.” The company, he said, has a conservation program, to improve home fuel-efficiency; but it’s funded by a tax, and most of the benefits go to middle and upper income homeowners; essentially, the poor are subsidizing home heating for the rich. So PUSH is working to get the company to increase its share of the fund, and to create a clear path toward green jobs by training low-income residents in home efficiency.
As it turns out, National Fuel is also heavily involved in hydraulic fracturing, better known as hydro-fracking, one of the region’s emerging environmental catastrophes. The practice involves fracturing the gas-bearing layer of subsurface rock and forcing formation fluids into it to create permeability, so the gas can be drawn to the surface. Its recent application to a layer of Marcellus Shale that runs from Western New York down through West Virginia has already led to numerous reports of water contamination and illness, with one of the more dramatic signs being tapwater that burns as it comes out of the faucet.
Back at PUSH’s office – a former neighborhood library that the organization bought and reopened after the city let it close down – I asked if hydro-fracking was on PUSH’s radar.
“That’s the great thing about organizing,” Aaron said. “When we decided to launch a campaign against National Fuel, I’d never heard of hydro-fracking. Now we have the makings of a region-wide coalition.”
The organization gets it’s funding from what Aaron described as “the usual mix of foundation funding and individual donors, with some stimulus money thrown in.” I’d heard they host a big fundraiser in Manhattan every year, to get Buffalo’s own refugees – those who fled the city for greener pastures – to give something back. “Yeah, we’re gearing up for that right now,” Aaron said. “It’s a terrific event; but most of the giving from that focuses on ‘poor Buffalo,’ not on the justice piece.”
I asked him what he meant by “the justice piece.” His answer, typically soft-spoken, bore little stamp of radical ideology, and less still of the high-mindedess he must have confronted at Harvard Law School.
“In every part of life here, from education to job opportunities to health access to environmental health,” he said, “you can see your classic post-industrial whatever-happens-after-your-working-class-doesn’t-have-work-anymore syndrome. Like everywhere else, those hit hardest are those at the bottom of the totem pole. Where does capital go, and what happens after it disappears? It leads to what you see around the West Side.”
At a streetcorner in front of the office there were Teddy bears and plastic flowers tied to a signpost. “Someone died here?” I asked. Aaron told me he’d witnessed two shooting deaths on this corner, just within the last few months. The most recent, he told me, was a fifteen-year-old.
PUSH’s work, Aaron said, has always focused on creating opportunity, and specifically on creating housing and jobs as antidotes to the neighborhood’s problems. “Any campaign we run,” he said, “we try to show how it will produce jobs.”
But after spending little more than an hour with him, touring houses being gutted and then weatherized and retrofitted for solar, stopping by garden plots planted solely for the bees, and hearing him talk about epidemic asthma rates correlated to the diesel trucks idling on a neighborhood overpass, it was clear that there was not just a “justice piece,” but an environmental ethic at work here as well. So I took a leap.
“Everywhere we look,” I said, “social movements and grassroots groups are building an analysis based on the climate crisis, and the need for climate justice. You’re doing neighborhood improvement. What does all that have to do with the climate issue?”
Aaron smiled and said, “I have talking points, but I’ll give you the informal version instead. These houses were built before insulation. One family can pay as much as $350 a month for gas in the winter. After we green the building, they pay $60 a month. We have no doubt that National Fuel runs those numbers and doesn’t want this to happen, just as much as we do want it to.”
“One of the biggest contributors to CO2 emissions,” he continued, “is residential heating. We’re burning gas and producing carbon to heat the outdoors. Isn’t it obvious? Lack of insulation is both an environmental crisis, and an economic crisis.”
And so it is that, with a little push from PUSH, the West Side of Buffalo, like Richmond, California, Detroit, Michigan, and other low-income neighborhoods around the country, emerges as ground zero, not just for grassroots urban renewal, but for climate justice.