I'm back from a long weekend in Baltimore attending a newspaper labor conference. While I spent way too much time in the hotel, I did manage to get out and see some of downtown (great baseball stadium) and its inner harbor. I came away with the same impression as when I visited Providence several years ago - that the city has made much better use of its federal aid and economic development resources than Buffalo has.
I'm sure some of the money has been used in ways I would object to - such as subsidies for companies creating low-wage jobs. But clearly a lot of money has been invested on infrastructure, on creating inviting public spaces, that has led to private-sector investment.
While walking Sunday along the brick sidewalks from my hotel, past the Baltimore convention center to the Inner Harbor, I compared what that walk in downtown Buffalo look likes.
Head down Main Street towards our waterfront from, say the Hyatt Regency, and the first thing you'll see is a block of vacant buildings. You stroll down a dated pedestrian mall and walk past numerous subway stops that are rusting and peeling paint. While a bit of an inner harbor is taking root at the foot of Main Street, the most striking thing visitors see - and hear - is the Skyway.
Another thing that has struck me in visiting numerous cities over the past decade is how they have managed to preserve the character of their neighborhoods, ethnic and otherwise. San Francisco is perhaps the most striking example of this, but far from the only.
Buffalo's neighborhoods, on the other hand, have lost much of their distinction.
Yes, we have the Elmwood Village, and Abbott Road has some Irish flavor to it. Some people have tried to brand Hertel Avenue as a "Little Italy," but I don't see it. A few Italian restaurants and an annual street carnival does not make a Little Italy.
Poverty has stripped many other neighborhoods of the people and commercial vitality that once gave them an identity. Unimaginative urban planning and economic development policies haven't helped. What's left are many neighborhoods with transitional populations and dollar stores, pizzerias and corner bars. Places you'd rather not visit, much less live.
That's not to say the Baltimores, Providences and San Franciscos of the world don't have their ugly underbellies, or that they haven't made mistakes with some of their money. But they sure have been better preserving their neighborhood identities and putting a better face on their downtowns and waterfronts than we have. And that's sad, considering the huge amounts of money, federal and otherwise, that have been poured into Buffalo over the past 30 years.