Saving Buffalo From Extinction

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Soe Soe and Hla Ohn met in a Thai refugee camp. Both belonged to separate rebel forces battling Burma’s ruling military junta, which had killed or enslaved 30,000 people in the last 10 years. They spent seven years in the camp, where they fell in love, married and had their first child, Khin Hsint. In the spring of 2000, they moved into an apartment on 14th Street, in the West Side, one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of America’s most woebegone cities: Buffalo, New York.

The West Side is known for transvestite prostitution and other trades of the underground economy, conducted mostly after dark. But during fine-weather days like this one, the street buzzes with playing children–there’s a bottomless metal milk crate nailed to a telephone pole–and dueling stereos, an amalgam of Latino and African-American pop rhythms. The old houses here are well built: Soe Soe and Hla’s apartment is spacious, with high ceilings, hardwood floors, nice woodwork and relatively large rooms.

The refugee resettlement agency that found them the apartment, the International Institute, also helped Soe and Hla apply for social services and find work. One of their neighbors, Thein Lwin, who goes by his pen name of Thara, was another Burmese refugee who had been in Buffalo for more than five years and had recently landed a job with Radio Free America there. A writer and an intellectual with over 60 books to his credit, all banned in his homeland, Thera is an unofficial godfather to Buffalo’s small but expanding expatriate Burmese community. He speaks English, a language neither Soe nor Hla know, and was able to help them with both translation and transition. Soe would get a job; the kids would go to school. Hla was pregnant again. “We were happy,” says Soe, Thera translating. “We wanted to stay.”

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These are people who need a place, living in a place that needs people. At the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo was one of the largest cities in the world–a national icon of growth, prosperity and optimism. Buffalo’s own heyday had everything to do with the arrival of outsiders, mainly German, Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants, as well as a few African-Americans–for escaped slaves, Buffalo was the last stop before Canada on the Underground Railroad.

Today, the symbols of the city’s identity are snowstorms, chicken wings and an unrelenting economic deterioration. Buffalo entered a long, slow spiral of decline when traditional industries like steel and shipping began to erode. As its industrial base withered, the city’s population began to slip away, declining to just over half its 1950 high of 580,132. The lost tax revenue sunk the city’s economy even deeper into its already mortal regression. In 2000, the U.S. Census put Buffalo’s population under 300,000 people–292,648, to be precise–for the first time since 1890. As it thus drops in rank from a second-tier to a third-tier city, Buffalo stands to lose $2.8 million in federal block grants, and possibly one or two congressional seats as well. This past December, after being forced to lay off 433 public school teachers, the city’s government began to consider a drastic solution it had always rejected before: letting Erie County swallow it whole and dissolving its own city government, effectively committing civic suicide.

Yet Buffalo has one remarkable advantage, one that defies its status as a national weather joke: This flat, swampy, snowy, isolated city has world-class geography.

The city’s proximity to Canada–less than an hour away by car–along with that country’s more tolerant citizenship laws, makes Buffalo a natural way station for refugees. Since 1984, thousands of asylum-seekers have filtered through Buffalo, seeking refugee status in Canada. The wandering populations come from wherever the world’s latest atrocities crop up: Last October, four Afghans managed to find their way here, and in November, the number of Pakistanis spiked to 32. In the 1990s, the number crept up steadily; last year alone, at least five thousand exiles came to Buffalo to wait, making the city the crucial last stage of a journey that begins with escape from torture, starvation or death, and ends with a new life in a new country.

Roughly a thousand more refugees come to Buffalo each year to be integrated into American life by the city’s four resettlement agencies. The ones who seek status in Canada could conceivably do the same: Though they’re more likely to get refugee status in Canada than in the U.S., it’s not unheard of for refugees to be rejected in Canada and later apply to and be accepted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

But in Buffalo, almost as a rule, they don’t. Of the five thousand refugees who passed through Buffalo last year seeking Canadian citizenship, most are like Nasrat Mohamed: A Tanzanian who fled both political persecution and domestic abuse, she found Buffalo a desperate place. She felt sorry, she said, for people who must live there, expressing her pity to a local photographer for having grown up and lived in Buffalo all his life. She was on her way back to Canada; the idea of living in Buffalo horrified her. Of the refugees who pass through Buffalo, less than 1 percent of them try to stay.

So this class of temporary citizens continues to pass through, getting by on whatever public money they can, but never becoming a permanent part of the city or its economy. “It’s kind of like they’re on a train, and we’re the final stop before they reach their destination,” says Chris Owens, who runs Vive la Casa, the shelter where refugees wait to get their tickets into Canada. “And there’s not much point in getting off here. But I wish they would.”

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He’s not the only one. Owens and a few other local visionaries are suggesting an innovative solution to Buffalo’s population problem: fill it up with refugees. “We need these people to move into our area, fill up some empty houses, fill up some jobs, bring some vitality,” urges Greg Olma, a local politician.

“Historically, immigrants have been a great source of energy for New York [City], as well as other places, and that’s a great thing to bring to upstate cities,” agrees Robert B. Ward, director of research for the Public Policy Institute, a business-backed Albany think tank that studies New York State’s economy. Last June, Ward wrote an op-ed in the Buffalo News suggesting the city replenish itself with refugees.

Urban growth and vitality in the U.S. has always depended on the resettlement of people from other places. The people who run cities know this, and in the past decade, those losing population have looked to refugees for salvation. Louisville, Kentucky, which created a new city office to coordinate translation and community support services, gained 20,000 immigrants and refugees in the 1990s. Boston created an Office of New Bostonians, and gained 32,000 Latino and Asian immigrants. Pittsburgh, as bereft an old steel town as Buffalo–like Buffalo, it lost about 10 percent of its population in the 1990s alone–is trying to attract refugees and other immigrants as well. Last April, a private foundation awarded four local nonprofits $800,000 to help lure immigrants with the promise of jobs. The hope is that they’ll settle in, help fill up a depleted labor market–especially those ubiquitous low-wage, unskilled labor positions–buy homes and use their various talents to rebuild communities.

In Buffalo, where good jobs are scarce but low-wage jobs go begging, Ward thinks refugees could help keep local businesses in town. “We have traditionally looked at the fact that every community needs employers. If you don’t have employers, people are certainly going to leave, and we certainly saw that all across western New York,” he says. “But the other side of the coin is that if people move away, then employers can’t make it either. You need to have workers.”

Other upstate cities have done it: Ward cites Utica, an even smaller, struggling upstate city, which manages to successfully resettle over 700 refugees a year. A study conducted at Hamilton College in upstate’s Mohawk Valley found that in the first years of resettlement, refugee households cost the local economy in resources–mainly education, public assistance and Medicaid. But once they stay a certain number of years–in the Mohawk Valley, it was 13–the net economic benefits to the workforce and to the tax base begin to accumulate, and add up for as long as they stay.

But in order for Buffalo to hit that point of increasing returns, it’s going to have to convince refugees to remain. These days, even some of the refugees who come expressly to Buffalo to start new lives there leave. Thara, the venerated elder of the Burmese expats, is looking to move somewhere else; Texas, he’s heard, is not bad.

Soe and Hla are also finding their lives in Buffalo supply more misery than other parts of America have to offer. Soe got a job working for a pallet company in Tonawanda, north of the city. But the job only pays minimum wage, and he has to leave daily at 11 for a two o’clock shift. Without a car, it’s a trip that includes three changeovers and a three-mile walk from the last bus stop. When I ask Soe why he would take a job that pays so little and is so far away, Thara, interpreting, explains that when the agency finds you a job, you are obliged to take it, or else you’re on your own.

What’s more, he says, the weather is unbearably frigid, and the big apartment is expensive to heat in the winter. They received heating cost assistance last year, but by the time they figured out all the paperwork and got it processed, it was already March. “The weather here is too cold,” says Thara, “even in the summer.”

Mostly, though, Soe wants to make more money. Living in a larger Burmese community may take some of the edge off the family’s loneliness as well. There’s a Burmese refugee community in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he tells me, where a worker can get a better wage. Since neither Soe nor Thara can afford to move just yet, for now they’re waiting it out. “They want to move someplace warmer, where they can make more money,” Thara explains. “They can get welfare anywhere.”

In the end, refugees flee this dying city for the same reasons natives do: poverty, hopelessness, poor housing, worse transportation. “Why are people leaving Buffalo like crazy?” asks one refugee from Vietnam who has stayed. “It’s simple. Look at Buffalo.”

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Vive La Casa is located off a small side street on the East Side, in an abandoned Catholic school with bars on the windows, in a neighbhorhood visitors are usually warned to stay away from. The refugees who stay here are cautioned not to drift too far from the grounds, but there are always a few who get mugged.

Inside, long, poorly lit corridors lead to classrooms turned into dormitories, one for men and one for women and children. People here are dressed in the clothing of their cultures: bright colored shirts and skirts, shawls, turbans, loose-fitting and light colored for warm-weather climates–whatever they showed up here with. (One African man walked the miles from the downtown Greyhound station in a blizzard, wearing nothing but his best dinner jacket and an elegant Ascot.) Some never remove their winter hats. Others, awkwardly outfitted in old suits from charity donations, look like they could be auditioning as extras for Casablanca. They are all waiting, coming or going to and from nowhere in particular, playing pool, talking in clusters according to language. In the basement cafeteria someone’s written Russia Rules in red marker on one of the walls. Underneath it, someone else wrote Russia Sucks.

Within the exile community, these are the lowest of the low. Even Soe and Hla’s helpful neighbor Thara, the Burmese political exile and novelist who wrote about “the common man,” refers to Vive’s residents as “dirty illegals” and “liars,” although he has never met one of them.

Five thousand people come through Vive every year, more than all the refugee resettlement agencies in Buffalo combined. All are searching for some place and possibility, but with the clerical distinction that they don’t have the proper documentation and are therefore considered illegal aliens. If they were not at Vive, they would be in an INS detention facility or on the streets.

Nearly all are seeking asylum in Canada because chances of acceptance are greater there (48 percent) than they are in the U.S. (23 percent, and that was before September 11). Besides providing food and shelter, Vive helps them with their residency applications, and provides those who have been denied on their first try in Canada–and therefore must leave the land of the maple leaf for 90 days before they can reapply–a place to sit it out and hope for better luck next time.

Owens would like to encourage more of them to stay, and he has reached out to both local foundations, hoping they would sponsor a Pittsburgh-style population effort, as well as to the city’s resettlement agencies. (He’s also seeking international funding, since Vive functions as a de facto nongovernmental intermediary between countries.) But it’s slow going: These are tough times for both Buffalo and refugees, and funding a grand international urban experiment is not high on anyone’s list of priorities. Only two schools in Buffalo have resources to serve children who don’t speak English, and they’re both filled to capacity. Buffalo’s budget crisis means there’s little hope that things will get better.

Vive also has its own problems to attend to. Since late September, the agency has been filled to double capacity with refugees desperately seeking to get into Canada before this June, when strict new immigration laws prompted by 9/11 take effect there. (Among them, asylum-seekers will now have just a single opportunity to apply for Canadian citizenship before they must go back home or into the limbo of detention.) And in 1996, federal welfare reform removed New York State’s obligation to fund certain services for legal immigrants. The result, for Vive, was a $400,000 budget cut. Vive would have gone out of business entirely had Erie County not decided to channel funds from other sources to the organization.

“Refugees are the largest and most silent homeless population in Buffalo,” says Alex Priebe, Vive’s former development officer. “When you apply for asylum in the United States, you cannot work, you cannot receive benefits. You are dependent on the kindness of anyone who will give it to you. Unless you come with money in your pocket–a lot of these people come with only the clothes on their backs–you are an orphan in a system not set up to be kind.”

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On a run-down section of Broadway Street, among liquor stores, bars, tattoo shops and abandoned houses, you’ll find the low-slung office of the last politician who set out to make Buffalo a refugee haven. Until he lost at the polls this November, burly maverick Greg Olma was a Democratic county legislator.

The walls of Olma’s office are bare, with two exceptions. On one there are the police mug shots of the actor Hugh Grant and Divine Brown, the prostitute he was picked up with a few years back. On the other is a life-size, smiling cardboard cutout of Buffalo’s Common Council President, James Pitts, the powerful Democrat and political leader of Buffalo’s black East Side. He’s also a well-known Olma nemesis. Next to the cutout a carefully positioned cartoon balloon reads, in neat block letters: GREG OLMA IS A VERY SMART MAN!

Olma has a reputation for being outspoken and controversial, which, along with allegations of corruption (he denies them), probably contributed to his election defeat. Breaking from the fulsome provincialism and sophistry standard among the city’s elected officials, he may be the only local politician who’ll speak candidly about the city’s pattern of spiraling decline and realistically about its prospects for revival. As county legislator, he was certainly the only one considering immigrant and refugee recruitment as part of any redevelopment plan.

“Buffalo’s a sad case. It’s not as bad as Youngstown, Ohio, or Gary, Indiana, or Newark, but it’s pretty damn close to that,” he said in an interview conducted before his defeat. “Our only hope would be to encourage immigration of people from countries that will work and maintain a partisan and ethnic enclave.”

But Olma’s attempt to revive the glory years of the urban immigrant political machine ran into some hitches. For one thing, Buffalo’s refugee agencies are not well coordinated: They operate independently and sometimes competitively, spending their limited resources on services–like English language classes and job placement programs–that often duplicate one another.

Olma’s vision, for which he got some local support but ultimately too little funding, was to combine their efforts into one comprehensive community development initiative, making it easier for refugees to buy houses right away and begin building their new lives. “Essentially, what you got to have are people from poor countries without anything,” says Olma. “There’s a lot of those out there, and Buffalo’s a good place to bring them, because they will help build us up again.”

Olma’s no stranger to the power of refugees in community revitalization. In the 1980s, the city built a low-rent housing project in the Broadway-Fillmore district, the Walentynowicz Apartments, designed for post-Solidarity refugees from Krakow. Noted for its strong ethnic ties, the district became a bustling Polish neighborhood, the symbol and center of which remains the Broadway Market–a large indoor bazaar with small kiosks selling everything from ethnic food to televisions. (Regularly mired in patronage scandals, Broadway Market also became a symbol of Buffalo’s tradition of graft.)

But Broadway-Fillmore’s comeback faded quickly when the immigrants headed for the suburbs. The way Olma sees it, that was because the refugees weren’t poor enough or desperate enough. “What you have to have to build a community–to build an ethnic community in the inner city–you’ve got to have lower-income immigrants who come from a certain kind of poverty situation,” he explains. “The problem with European immigrants, Eastern European, is that they watched Western TV. They think this country’s like Dynasty. And so, you get good workers and stuff; it’s good for the community; it’s good for your restaurant selection–if you get enough immigrants you’ll get some interesting food and things like that, parties to go to. But you don’t get a real community from that kind of situation.

“A lot of it has got to do with education,” he continues, oblivious that he’s getting into sensitive territory. “A lot of these people from Poland had some college education, or they’re more Westernized, so to speak.”

There are, believe it or not, things Olma doesn’t say. One of them is that one reason so many Polish residents were moving out was because African-Americans were moving in. At the same time, Broadway-Fillmore, like many other parts of the city, became run down with unemployment, declining property values and hard poverty. The tiny white enclave that remains is called the Iron Triangle, as much a reference to its siege mentality as its East European flavor. “I think that’s the same thing that’s going to happen with the Bosnians. There’s some Bosnians moving in,” says Olma. “But generally speaking, they’re climbers and they’re going to climb right out.”

For Olma, a desire to settle, stay and build a life is what distinguishes the Vietnamese from some of the other immigrating populations. “Since the Polish dried up we’ve had a lot of Somalians, Bosnians, Vietnamese,” he says. “And the Vietnamese,” he declares, “were the ones that were the most durable.”

It’s this “Vietnamese-type of immigrant” that serves as the model for Olma’s visions of refugee-fueled revival. He describes them as being “like the old immigrants,” which is to say that they buy houses in his district and tend to bring over their extended families, which means more votes–preferably for him. “They’re Catholics, most of them, which is good for the Catholic parishes,” he points out. “They’re savers, they’re frugal, and they’re not glory-seekers.”

This is a point Olma stresses: that the earth’s truly wretched will be grateful to live in Buffalo. “To me, the best thing for refugees is not doctors and lawyers,” he says. “The best refugees are able-bodied workers who have some education but are not looking for the stylized American lifestyle. They just want to get ahead, you know…they don’t pull themselves out and live in [suburban] Amherst, like the doctors and lawyers do. They’re not that enculturated. I don’t know if this sounds bad or not, but it makes perfect sense to me: Not every immigrant is as good as the other one.”

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Minh Tran is Olma’s dream personified. He lives in a pleasant two-story house on the Lower West Side. On the corner directly opposite the house is his family’s store, a tiny building so overcrowded with products and advertising that stepping inside is enough to trigger a swarming disorientation.

Minh’s family arrived here in 1981 via South Vietnam, after a year in a Hong Kong refugee camp. Minh’s father, a former officer in the South Vietnamese army, died in the camp, leaving Minh, his mother, two sisters and a baby brother to carry on without him. “My mother never took social services; she refused,” says Minh, in a tone about as humble as a statement like that can be.

The family came over with some savings, but not enough to save Minh, who at 19 was the oldest son, from having to take a sewing job in Buffalo’s old garment district to help support them all while his younger sisters and brother went off to school and, later, college. When he wasn’t working, Minh was busy helping his mother run the store; to this day, he himself has never taken a college class. As a result his English, while not quite broken, is still thick with accent.

That kind of experience can cause bitterness, but there’s no sense of that in Minh. Confident and charismatic, he’s become a leader in Buffalo’s close-knit, small, yet relatively powerful Vietnamese community. He is also a case manager at the International Institute, the agency that helped resettle his family. He gets calls at all hours from his clients, refugees new to the area who get lost, don’t know how to call a taxi or need to find the nearest hospital.

Minh’s querencia, his place of strength, comes from a mixture of individual will and genuine compassion. His success and kindness make him a local legend, but he deflects individual credit. “A lot of people help me out,” he says, and specifically mentions Greg Olma.

More than once, Olma has driven across town to sit at Minh’s table and talk to the local Vietnamese leaders, asking them what services they need and checking to see how many of them have registered to vote.

It was Olma who helped arrange a deal with the city so they could purchase space for a Buddhist cultural center. For those who are Catholic, it was Olma who helped them find a priest for their church.

“Greg, he welcomes people. He wants to build community,” Minh says, struggling to fit a tile around a tricky corner. We are sitting on plywood that for the moment is passing as Minh’s dining room floor, drinking cans of beer, while Minh is carefully measuring and laying new floor tiles. Not liking the fit, he peels it up, frowning, and tosses it over his shoulder. “There goes 99 cents,” he says with a light laugh.

There are lots of pictures on the walls: family portraits, a painting of Jesus and other religious artifacts, including a large cross. I ask Minh if he’s Catholic. “Yeah,” he laughs, “but what is Catholic anyway, you know.”

Minh thinks the whole Buffalo population crisis is way overblown. “The Census got it wrong,” he insists. “Refugees weren’t counted, for one; they don’t know what those Census forms are or how to fill them out. And when the people come to the door to ask they come during business hours when the refugee is at work.”

I ask Minh if he’s concerned that Buffalo has trouble attracting immigrants and refugees who are willing to stay, and what that ultimately means for the community. “What problem?” he says. “In my mind, they all stay.”

Once Minh leaves to go pick up his son from day care, though, his younger brother, Thom, says he can see why people are leaving Buffalo. “I’m not complaining; Buffalo treated me well,” he adds quickly. Thom, which is not his real name but the only one he’s willing to provide, went to SUNY-Buffalo and got a business degree. Now, he works at the Walentynowicz Apartments, a job Olma got him. For $7.50 an hour, he cleans apartments and collects rents from less fortunate, more recently arrived refugees. “I know it’s hard for them. They only get the minimum wage jobs,” he says. “But what am I supposed to do? I have to do my job.”

Sitting on the porch, after a few beers, Thom begins talking about his life here, his childhood in Ho Chi Minh City, venal politicians. About trouble and the need, sometimes, for a new start. “I would like more, of course,” he says, “but people have to accept reality.”

David Blake is a writer who used to live in Buffalo. Brendan Bannon, who provided additional reporting for this story, has been photographing refugees in Buffalo for over two years.