Nearly 40 years ago, it was a great neighborhood. You know the one where everyone knows everyone, there are lots of families, the restaurant on the corner knew Dad’s order by heart, so when he got off work he could just go and pick it up. Shingle, stick and shotgun houses, built after the war to house the burgeoning population of the East Side who populated the factories located in the area. “You could look out your window and right into people’s houses.” Marva remembers, “Now you have all these empty lots. It’s just grass.”
Contact loneliness. As a city girl, the thought of the death of a neighborhood is depressing. Like the Great Barrier reef bleaching and dying because of global warming, you get the very real sense that there is something is very wrong about the destruction of community.
Marva, born and raised in the East Side, is circumspect, “People started getting older, dying off, people were selling and leaving.” I think Marva is being kind in her assessment. The East Side follows a pattern that is evident in neighborhoods across the nation. I got an earful of attitude from a guy at the Broadway Market one day who summed up what I suspect really happened. “All the Blacks moved in and the neighborhood just went down, my family moved out because we were afraid of being robbed.” I asked him if he knew of anyone who’d been robbed, why he thought the “Blacks” had brought the neighborhood down, no he didn’t know of anyone but in a conspiratorial tone, “You know what I mean…” I’m white, so I suspect I was supposed to be in his racist club and assume that anytime Black folks moved in, it was going to be bad for a neighborhood.
Black folks moved into the East Side and the white folks went to the suburbs. Rather than accept change, integrate, they chose to leave. I’m a suburban Buffalo white girl myself. I remember as a teenager being told horror stories of the East Side by older white people. My family never talked about that stuff, they weren’t from Buffalo and they didn’t buy into prejudice that was sold to them. They didn’t really know the demographic geography. But at the time, it seemed like all the adults in Kenmore were hell bent on keeping this white girl out of Black neighborhoods.
They failed miserably. On returning to Buffalo from living all over the country and around the world, I started exploring neighborhoods I’d been encouraged to stay out of. I fell in love with the East Side.
Like so many struggling neighborhoods around the U.S. that I’d lived in, it had started looking shabby over the years. Being lower middle class to poor, much of my adult life, I could never afford a house of my own. I often wondered how much it would cost to maintain a home. From where I stood, it seemed impossible. It didn’t surprise me at all, that these folks, if they were employed like I had been over the years, couldn’t keep up with basic repairs.
Marva is the president of the East Side Field of Dreams Block Club and runs it with her husband Michael Threat, Vice President: Donna Edwards and others in the neighborhood. She explains that for people on fixed or low incomes keeping a good roof, and a decent paint job is practically impossible. So many businesses have moved out of the East Side over the decades, that any decent job is at least two bus rides away, if you’re lucky enough to get one. First you have to get past racial screening.
A typical sight on the East Side
So, houses started going into disrepair and the city started knocking them down. “We wanted them to rebuild, they told us they were going to rebuild and then nothing happened. Now they want to put farms here, farms are good, but we want families, we want communities, we want houses!” Marva insists.
Then the slumlords came in. Then neighborhoods really started reeling out of control when people started doing the only work that was available, drug trafficking.
Marva and Mike were sitting on their stoop, talking with her uncle, contemplating the neighborhood and how it had gone off the rails, “All these people were moving in and moving out, you know, my uncle said we needed a voice. So, we said, let’s start a block club and see what happens.” A couple hundred fliers later they were overwhelmed by the response. “There were people there I’d never seen, “Who are these people coming!” Safety was on everyone’s minds. Strong numbers of people gave them confidence and a mandate to start turning the neighborhood around.
They’d call the police about drug houses, repeatedly, so many times in fact that one drug dealer acquiesced to Mike that he’d only be open certain hours to placate Marva. And he stuck to those hours.
In the absence of municipal attention, it was people like that who would step into fill the vacuum where the social safety net should’ve been in place. The very same drug dealer Marva badgered into strict hours of operation, turned out to be “employing” his elderly neighbor. This woman was struggling on a fixed income. But for cleaning up his house after parties the drug dealer would pay her utilities, make sure she was well fed. While he was in business, she was comfortable and taken care of. This is where the disconnect comes to the surface. White folks, when told stories like this, are inclined to ask why this elderly woman is in such a poor financial state why she isn’t in a home. I recall my grandparents living in their own home. I don’t recall them ever being truly worried about paying the bills to the point that they had to go out and get whatever kind of piece work they could find. But then they were white people in a time when white people generally had better paying jobs than Black folks. They could put money away. They could work until retirement instead of getting laid off at a relatively young working age. This makes a huge difference. Also, the actual neighborhoods they were in fed property taxes on a consistent basis, businesses never left. Even if you’re in a lower income white neighborhood, there is some basic consistency in the economic landscape that lends to a better economic outcome for residents.
On the East Side, history is marked by one economic or social earthquake after another.
Mike and Marva are retired, they worked hard their whole lives, raised smart responsible children and in their retirement, they decided their work was not done. Despite the manifold difficulties they faced in their own lives, they often remark that they are blessed and want to share that blessing with the community around them.
So, they got in touch with the C District police. They made community needs known. They filed the paperwork necessary to be an official block club for the city, attended the meetings, had their own meetings and clean-ups. Slowly, things started to change. Then, like a desert after a rain storm, the block club exploded in a flurry of activity and pride.
Mike built trust by making the rounds, socializing with everyone, including drug dealers. “This ain’t no career.” He’d tell them emphatically, “I’d get to know them, their situation better.” He was building a bridge from one human being to another. It let them know that someone cared about them and their welfare, their future.
Other people might see their defiance as brave or crazy, Marva is philosophical, “We’re not afraid of people or that somebody would hurt our family. There’s only so many of him. We have people all over this neighborhood.” They kept it realistic, “We’re going to rebuild this neighborhood!” Marva and Mike are truly a force to be reckoned with. Their block club used to encompass three streets and now people from as far as a mile away are demanding to have their block included in the coalition. They are taking over the East Side.
After they get to know someone in the neighborhood, they reach out, sometimes delicately, sometimes more bluntly. “Hey girl,” Mike says sweetly “I want her to know I know she’s somebody’s baby,” he’ll then broach the difficult stuff, “I know no mother gives birth to a baby and says, Oh, thank God I birthed a nice little healthy drug dealer!” Marva approaches the young mothers sometimes too proud to ask for help, “Hey, it’s cold out here, you know I have all these extra mittens, maybe you could come by after we get the kids on the bus and you could come and pick some out for your kids.” Mike often talks to the young boys on the corner, “You need to get off this corner, you need a job.” They see him as a father figure, “I try to exact change in the neighborhood.” Mike says proudly.
They are changing the neighborhood, one person at a time, the analog way, face to face, heart to heart. “I tell them, if you’re not going to be part of the solution, try not to be part of the problem,” Mike tells the kids on the corner. It distresses both of them that kids will drop out of school, opt out of a high school diploma to sell drugs. They are working in a “job,” that ends up being only slightly better than minimum wage. “Sometimes it’s the parents, telling these kids to go out and bring home the rent. “Parents are supposed to do that, that’s their job.” Marva remarks. “I know these are some of the smartest men and women and I say, you know all this time you could count of the top o’ your head how to do this math problem, what you getting paid…you know you could make a career out of that.”
Marva and Mike present alternatives that the schools won’t. In their own educational experience guidance counselors counseled them, and their kids not to bother going to college. Marva who ended up studying law, wasn’t about to have anyone tell her what her, or her children what their potential was. Now that her kids are grown, she feels obliged to fill the imaginations of the kids in the neighborhood. They need confidence to be the people they want to be, not the people the system expects them to be. “That is somebody’s child, you gotta have that compassion.” Remembering my school experience, miserable as it was, my guidance counselors assumed I wanted to go to college, and in 12 years of school, I had one single Black teacher.
Compassion. With no funds, no support from the city and reluctant support from the police, Mike and Marva have arrested the free-fall of a neighborhood amd turned it into a desirable, happy, community-centric place to live. I want to live there. When I visit, people watch me curiously, but they are kind. Hugs are given out generously, Mike and Marva poke fun at me and my idiosyncrasies, but they also have their way of showing me that they approve of me. It’s the kind of community I never felt in Kenmore, where I grew up. On the East Side we want each other to succeed and prosper. Being in that warm bubble, even though none of us have much, is a wonderful place to be.
“His mom used to put together a trip for all the neighborhood kids to go to Fantasy Island in the summer,” Marva informs me. Who does that anymore? Using your own money to take a bunch of kids to do something fun, just to give them something to look forward to. Marva and Mike work every day to keep that legacy alive, and just moving towards that idea somehow has lifted the spirit of everyone in the neighborhood. You belong, and we care.
They’d call on drug houses, repeatedly, so many times in fact that one drug dealer acquiesced to Mike that he’d only be open certain hours to placate Marva. And he stuck to those hours.
. But then they were white people in a time when white people generally had better paid jobs than Black folks. They could put money away. They could work until retirement instead of getting laid off at a relatively young working age. This makes a huge difference. Also, the actual neighborhoods they were in fed property taxes on a consistent basis, businesses never left. Even if you’re in a lower income white neighborhood, there is some basic consistency in the economic landscape that lends to a better economic outcome for residents.
ir welfare, their future.