June 8th, 2010
on the road

Aaron Woolf, Director/Producer/Writer, Blueprint America: Beyond the Motor City

Before I even arrive in Buffalo on my multi-city journey across the US as part of the Blueprint America Screening Tour, I’m excited about the region’s infrastructural claim to fame: The Erie Canal.

As it did Detroit, the canal ushered Buffalo into the modern industrial era, connecting it to other urban centers and ports, and placing Buffalo on the map as a major transportation hub. Since early May, I have been traveling the country speaking about Beyond the Motor City, and hailing the forethought, audacity, and backbreaking labor that went into building this early example of American infrastructural ingenuity. A 360-mile “water highway” in a country that hadn’t previously built a canal more than thirty miles long, the Erie Canal was in 1825 what the Interstate Highway System was to my parents’ America in the mid-20th century: as much an impressive feat of engineering as a hallmark of our country’s ambition.

But here in Buffalo, as in my visit to Indianapolis, the city’s airport-to-downtown transit options illustrate the extent to which local transportation priorities have shifted since the 19th century. The Buffalo-Niagara International Airport is bright, easy to move through, and scaled for future growth, and the airport’s award-winning, multi-colored terrazzo floor is symbolic of both the city’s diversity and its historic commitment to welcoming newcomers and travelers from around the country and the world. (Buffalo was, after all, one of the most important stops on the Underground Railroad.) Nevertheless, despite this grand welcome, I soon find that my 10:22 am arrival has come at an inopportune moment, transit-wise. As a pre-highlighted bus schedule at the ground transit booth reveals, a full hour and a half will pass before the next downtown bus arrives. My only other option is the long row of taxis outside, and it is by hailing one of these that I learn just just how far Buffalo has come from the heydey of the Erie Canal.

My driver, a recent Bangladeshi immigrant to the United States, asks what brings me to the city, and I explain that I’m here to learn about the region’s transportation. “Like taxis?”, he asks. I explain that I was thinking more along the lines of the Erie Canal, and find that this new Buffalo citizen hasn’t been there yet himself. It’s possible he’s not even certain what I’m referring to. While I decline his offer of a $300 personal cab tour around the city, I ask to be dropped at the nearest car rental shop so I can make my way to the historic waterway on my own. While the carbon footprint I’ll leave behind worries me, it’s clear to me by now that if I want to get around Buffalo quickly, I’ll have to seek out private transport.

Once behind the wheel, I see signs that the city’s once-impressive industry and commerce have, in many neighborhoods, been replaced by the same urban challenges faced by Detroit. Abandonment and decay are evident on many blocks, and I can see urban prairie poking out of neglected lots and vacant buildings. This kind of blight is exactly what’s being targeted for improvement by the Northeast-Midwest Institute’s Revitalizing Older Cities Congressional Task Force, a co-sponsor of my visit here to Buffalo. With help from inaugural task force co-chair Congressman Brian Higgins, who will introduce Beyond the Motor City at his district’s screening, the task force seeks to corral legislators around the needs of aging city centers like Buffalo.

I eventually find my way to Erie Canal Harbor and the newly refurbished western terminus of the Erie Canal, known as the Commercial Slip. The Slip has undergone significant renovation in recent years, with parks, museums and the still-in-progress, $300 million Canal Side project nearby. Expected to be open to the public by Memorial Day 2011, the site will feature one million square feet commercial, cultural and residential space and will boast full pedestrian access, recreational attractions, and space for special events, making it a prime location for community engagement and cultural interaction. And with a focus on sustainability and visually stimulating design, this former industrial site will exemplify how the revitalization of public spaces can offer a fresh opportunity for community building and urban renewal. Though the canal itself is no longer a cutting-edge example of American design, it remains a proximate symbol of the huge investments the region is willing to make in urban planning in the modern era.

Of course, for Americans outside the region–or new arrivals to the city–the Erie Canal may be no more than an overlooked city waterway…or the stuff of old folk songs and quaint etchings. And judging from my taxi driver’s reaction, I may be among only a handful of visitors to Buffalo for whom this site is the highlight of my trip. Still, to this visitor at least, the canal still serves as a focal point of infrastructural progress and industry for the region. Local, federal, and citizen support for neighborhood renewal in Buffalo is both determined and formidable, and as recent New York Times Magazine reportage shows, such support comes from even the youngest, poorest, and least established of Buffalo’s residents. Here, as in so much of the country, citizens are working toward infrastructure in the present century that is as far-reaching and transformative as the Erie Canal was in its day.

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