Why fight for the Fruit Belt in Buffalo, New York? What drives people to fight for sustainability? The environmental definition of sustainability is the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, thereby supporting long-term ecological balance. Since the 1980’s this concept has merged with the realization that human development, as evidenced by climate change and increased gap between the rich and the poor, has become a more urgent issue.
In the coming weeks I will feature a “Profile in Sustainability,” to highlight that in the face of incredible odds, there are a lot of brave people in the fight for fairness and a shared humanity. They are trying to level the playing field for people they cannot ignore.
Steve Peraza: Policy Analyst at the Partnership for Public Good
Manhattan is a long way from Buffalo, literally & culturally. Steve’s Grandmother moved her family to the U.S. in 1967 as a young mother abandoned by the father of her child. Steve never felt “poor” growing up, probably because no one in his community was particularly affluent. Wealth came from community connection. He had his family, but being half-black, he felt a particular affinity to Black people in the neighborhood. Lessons he learned from his peers and mentors on the sidewalks of uptown Manhattan forged his commitment to community.
“I still feel a bit of survivor’s guilt knowing that I have friends and family that are still struggling from paycheck to paycheck.” Steve is a success story by any measure. He has built a respected professional reputation while creating a family that demonstrates his vision of shared struggle and shared ambition along with a need give back to the community. A graduate of St. Lawrence University, he could have easily taken advantage of the existing Fortune 500 feeder network and become an investment banker on Wall Street earning millions, living a fancy life. Instead, he chose to research and write for the voiceless.
A trip to Choloma, Honduras in his youth etched an impression on his soul. “I was wearing a knock off Gucci T-shirt, to them I looked like a million bucks, they were wearing these poor clothes walking to the Gap Factory down there, it really shocked me.” It wasn’t until he reached St. Lawrence University that he realized that he was actually poor. “Students called the dorms we were in, the “Projects,” I was offended by that. To me, the dorms at St. Lawrence were a real step up.” It highlighted the temporal chasm that separated him from many of his affluent classmates.
He sees that gap in understanding in the way development is carried out in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Corridor. When Open Buffalo asked him to do research on tools they could use to help the residents of the Fruit Belt, he couldn’t say no. “I grew up dark-skinned in a very light skinned Hispanic family, I was literally the black sheep, even though I speak Spanish, I identify as Black.” Steve has a visceral understanding about cultural disconnects. In pejorative usage of words like “ghetto” and “projects” belies an inherent lack of understanding and respect for the struggle people of those types of communities are living on a daily basis. As a policy analyst, he looks at this conundrum as a sociological pathway. In the challenge, there is an opportunity for learning, on all sides.
“The Fruit Belt deserves cohesion, not displacement,” Steve asserts. Coming from a community that showed him love growing up, a community that gave him the tools to survive in the wider world, he feels a debt of gratitude and doesn’t identify with a “Me-First” aura of development around Buffalo. When parking, traffic and pollution are afterthoughts of project planning, are why community groups like the Community First Alliance were created.
He spends his days looking for tools that have been implemented around the country like inclusionary zoning, restrictive deed covenants, land banking and Community Land Trusts. He finds the successful examples and takes direction from Fruit Belt community leaders to create plans that will work.
Steve sees the 200 city-owned properties as low-hanging fruit. There is also a funding precedent set by Governor Cuomo using big bank settlements after the 2008 housing crisi to help fund the Buffalo Billion. The City of Buffalo could transfer lot ownership to a Community Land Trust funded by L.P. Ciminelli.
Steve Peraza, though not a Buffalo native, is a powerful proponent of these initiatives. He sees the trend of economic sorting, a concept Richard Florida attributes with negative economic growth in inner-cities. Steve advocates for more economic integration as a bulwark for vulnerable communities. “Economic integration leads to stronger schools, safer communities and opportunities for people interact with different types of people. Segregation leads to a polarization of society that leads to all the “isms” that contribute to so many problems we have these days.”
His vision, is the residents of the Fruit Belt’s vision. In a perfect world, they get their Community Land Trust, High Street becomes a center of home-grown commerce, and infill takes the form of mixed market rate and affordable housing as well as a community center that provides wellness, childcare and legal needs for the community.
The downside? There is none. What will result is a more economically resilient neighborhood. Everyone wins in that situation.