“Urban Renewal” and The Kakistocracy


Adventures in Buffaloland – Episode 1 – Tim Tielman in Niagara Square, downtown Buffalo

Urban renewal was the lethal marriage of progressive urban engineering with what Tim [Tielman] calls the “kakistocracy“—thieves who justify their crimes against place in the canting and condescending language of efficiency and inevitability.

New York’s Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, while being driven through urban-renewal-decimated Auburn, New York, “In the 1950s, with a progressive government and newspaper, you got into urban renewal and destroyed everything of value in your town. If you’d had a reactionary newspaper and a grumpy mayor, you might still have it.” Try to imagine Chuck Schumer or Kirsten Gillibrand saying something one-ten-thousandth as perceptive. (Confirming Moynihan, the largest American city to reject urban renewal funding was Salt Lake City, whose voters, following the lead of their delightfully cranky libertarian Mayor J. Bracken Lee, rejected the federal bulldozer in 1965 by a vote of 29,119 to 4,900.)

Moynihan had a soft spot for Buffalo, probably because it was filled with the ethnic Catholics who claimed his heart, if not always his head. His support was critical in saving Louis Sullivan’s terra cotta-ornamented Guaranty Building (1896) from senseless demolition. (In a 1961 essay in Commentary, Moynihan called Buffalo “a big, ugly, turbulent city.” I once asked him if that description caused any problems in his campaigns. He looked at me incredulously. “How many people in Buffalo do you think read Commentary?”)

Tielman says, “Absent the federal and state money, none of this devastation occurs in Buffalo or Niagara Falls.” He elaborates: “Where did this free money go? To the existing power structure”—whose acts of destruction were facilitated, I regret to say, by urban Catholic mayors, who sacrificed significant portions of their cities to the Greatest Generation’s Greatest God: Progress.

. . .

[T]he Canal District [in Buffalo] is now threatened by every parent’s nightmare: a children’s museum, a $27 million project, jointly funded by a state development corporation and corporate donors, with the city offering a $1-a-year lease for forty years.

Tim is not enthusiastic. “Did you know Buffalo is the largest city in the country without a children’s museum?” he asks in mock outrage. “We can’t let that stand!” More seriously, he notes that “children’s museums attract fewer people than cemeteries,” and that this one “has nothing to do with the Canal District—it could be anywhere.” (It could be anywhere—what an apposite caption for so many of the edifices that deface our cities: This could be anywhere.)

. . .

Jane Jacobs occupies the catbird seat on Tim’s bookshelf. He rhapsodizes Jacobsian over pre-urban renewal Buffalo, which was “dense with buildings and crowded sidewalks, where one could wander block upon block, past shop after shop, restaurant after restaurant, office building after hotel, without apparent end. Buffalo was a beehive, where all of life’s necessities, pleasures, and luxuries could be had within the square mile of its core.”

Its demolition was not the work of some invisible hand or inscrutable force but rather, in Tielman’s phrase, “social engineers” who destroyed the essence of the city.

. . .

Next time you’re in Buffalo—and you really ought to visit; the Buffalos and Lowells and Pittsburghs are so much better for the soul than Orlando or Myrtle Beach—take one of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo‘s open-air bus tours.

The Real Buffalo Rises: How one American city lost, and then reclaimed its destiny.


Adventures in Buffaloland – Episode 2 – Tim Tielman visits two office buildings in Buffalo


Adventures in Buffaloland – Episode 4 – St. Paul’s Cathedral and Sullivan’s Guaranty Building<

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,