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January 11, 2007

Buffalo, Shuffling Off

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Let me think... Yes, it was just about 50 years ago when...

Splat!!! [City hits wall]

When I was young, Buffalo, New York was Important. Not "major league" in the narrow sense of having a major baseball franchise, mind you, but Important nevertheless. It was the country's most populous state's second largest city -- a major manufacturing and transportation center.

I first visited the Buffalo area in June, 1956. We bounced off the suburbs on our way from Detroit (via Canada) to Syracuse and points east, but I had no doubt that the place was large. And prosperous.

Part of that prosperity had to do with construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. When it was completed, the Seaway killed Buffalo.

Let's look at some numbers.

Because political boundaries of cities usually bear little relationship to the "economic" or "organic" city -- defined as the labor market area or the "built-up" area, I'll use Erie and Niagara counties (the Niagara Frontier region) to approximate Buffalo as an entity.

The table below shows Niagara Frontier census populations (in thousands) from 1920 through 2000 plus a 2005 estimate taken from a state government Web page. Also included is the Niagara Frontier's share of the U.S. population (from 1960 on, the national population includes Alaska and Hawaii). Population share change is a simple, yet fairly reliable measure of how well an area is doing economically.

Year Population % USA
1920 753.4 0.71
1930 911.7 0.74
1940 958.5 0.73
1950 1,089.2 0.72
1960 1,307.0 0.73
1970 1,349.2 0.66
1980 1,242.9 0.55
1990 1,189.3 0.48
2000 1,170.2 0.42
2005 1,147.7 0.39

As you can see, population peaked at a point near 1970 and has fallen (on a decade basis) ever since.

But population share fell considerably during the 1960s -- right after the Seaway opened in 1959. Before then, the Buffalo region's population share was fairly stable, in the low seven tenths of a percent range.

The Seaway took away Buffalo's rôle as a transportation center. Formerly, Great Lakes shipping on its way to the Atlantic terminated at Buffalo for trans-shipment to railroads or the state barge canal (originally the Erie Canal). I recall looking at the Buffalo harbor area in the mid-70s and seeing only a few pilings rising out of the lake where docks used to stand. Post-1959, shipping reached the Atlantic via the Seaway and the St. Lawrence River.

And Buffalo's industrial heritage? During most of the first third of the 20th century it hosted Pierce-Arrow, maker of luxury automobiles along with Brunn, the custom-body builder. From around the time of the Great War until the 60s, Buffalo was an important aviation industry center; at various times Consolidated, Bell and Curtiss-Wright were based there.

Nowadays -- and for the last several decades -- Buffalo has become a branch-plant town.

And that's its fundamental problem.

Companies headquartered in an area will tend to take good care of that area. Contrast the Niagara Frontier with the nearby Rochester area. By the early 70s Buffalo had lost every major corporation aside from some banks (since merged out of existence) whereas Rochester had Kodak, Bausch & Lomb and the (then) booming Xerox (which later decamped). And Rochester prospered throughout the 60s and early 70s, though it hasn't done as well since.

Will the Niagara Frontier turn around? I saw some items in the press a few years back claiming that the worst was over, but the recent population estimate suggests population share decline is still steady.

I need to confess that I haven't been in Buffalo since the early 1980s. So if any readers can provide recent information, that would be greatly appreciated.



posted by Donald at January 11, 2007


I have family in Niagara Falls and have generally been to the area at least once, usually more, every year since the late 1970s, and I can tell you that things are pretty much the same. Buffalo still has a crust of old-WASP families and some businesses, but the life is out of the larger region. Niagara Falls- where practically everyone is within walking distance of one of the nation's great wonders - is a disaster. Some life in the suburbs (Tonawanda, Lewiston), relying on some of the colleges still in the area, but that's about it. The factories are gone, and Love Canal (a toxic spill) drove a lot of people away. There is a new casino on the river, meant to attract tourists, but in my experience tourism has not worked for the American side (the Canadian side of the Falls has had more success here; when we go these days, thatis where we stay).

Posted by: Gerald on January 11, 2007 8:25 PM


You'd probably have to find a Blowhard habitue who lives there for the real scuttlebut, but here's an interesting website called Buffalo Rising. Indications seem positive from this.


Posted by: Fenster Moop on January 11, 2007 9:35 PM

Buffalo's woes also stem from the fact that it's in Upstate New York. With a few exceptions such as Albany and Ithaca, almost every Upstate city is in a long period of decline, thanks to a host of factors including being utterly neglected by the state government. And keep in mind that "Upstate" starts about 20 miles north of Interstate 84 - in other words, it encompasses about 85% to 90% of the state's land area.

As for Gerald's comment about Niagara Falls, if I'm not mistaken the view of the Falls is much better from the Canadian side, so much of the tourism-oriented growth has occurred on that side.

Posted by: Peter on January 12, 2007 9:02 AM

Poor old lovely upstate/western New York ... Once it was a zany and dynamic region. These days it's kind of tired and lost.

I recently watched a TV docu about Buffalo ... Travel Channel? History Channel? ... Anyway, it was really interesting. If I remember right, circa 1900 Buffalo was a Very Important City, maybe one of the half-dozen most important cities in the whole country. Dynamic, growing, respect, a real powerhouse. But it was based on hard and heavy industry, and as that lost its steam so did Buffalo. The '50s thru '70s seem to have been terribly hard on the city, and it has never bounced back since, though interviewee after interviewee reported that it's a great place to raise a family provided you can stand the winters. I hear it's got some great old buildings, and the arts & crafts movement in the area was strong. (See here.) Interesting place that I never got to know, despite growing up not all that far away ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2007 11:31 AM

Thanks, Donald, for the interesting post. I'm not personally familiar with Buffalo, but from what I've read, the problem seems to be, as you seem to imply, a case of a city not being able to reinvent itself, to stay competitive, during a new era.

- - - - - - -

Regarding tourism to Niagra Falls:

When I worked in the tourism industry in the late 1980s, I was surprised to learn how big (and shallow) Niagra Falls is as a tourist attraction.

One of the companies I worked for specialized in "day trips" by plane to Niagra Falls from New York City. The company had a special deal with an airline (U.S. Airways?) and would provide tourists who were visiting New York City with transportation to and from Newark Airport from their hotel, a roundtrip seat on a scheduled airline flight to/from Newark, transportation to/from Niagra Falls from the airport, a guide, and lunch at one of those observation towers.

I don't remember the price, but it was pretty reasonable -- and these side-trips attracted a broad economic spectrum of NYC tourists, although most were, understandably, visiting NYC from overseas (e.g., Japan, Italy, Germany, etc.). The company did great business, especially during the summer, but it even did some business in the dead of winter! And, there was so much business that they even had a major competitor! (Plus, the owner of the company was constantly worried about people breaking away from her firm to start a third company in the field -- as the manager of her operation did in fact try to do once.)

- - - - - -

Looking up Buffalo on a Google map, I was reminded that Buffalo is not all that far from Toronto, 60 (?) miles to the north. Of course, I've heard about the "Lake Erie effect" being responsible for Buffalo (on the eastern shore of Lake Erie) getting all the snow that it gets, but I wonder, does Toronto (on the northern shore of Lake Ontario) also get pretty much the same amount of snow, or less?

- - - - - -

An idea for a new Buffalo-based business / industry:

I'm kind of surprised that no one has invented runways (and roadways and sidewalks) that melt snow and prevent ice (and thereby save money on clean-ups and prevent economic loss by avoiding disruptions to busineses, etc.). Maybe some enterprising engineer from Buffalo can come up with a practical and economic system for doing this? (By the way, supposedly Bill Cosby, Mayor Bloomberg and others already have "small-scale" versions of such systems in place for their town houses.)

As a kid in the early 1960s, I think I once saw a construction magazine article where someone tried this -- but I guess, given the technology of the time, it didn't work well enough in heavy duty situations (like runways). I'm thinking, however, that new technology and materials might make it more feasible today. For instance, maybe the runways could collect the heat in the summer (storing the heat, via heat pumps, in underground reservoirs) and then release it again during threatening weather. (My guess is that you'd only have to heat the runway a little above freezing in order to prevent accumulations of snow and ice.) Also, I think I've read about a special kind of natural stone that they use in new high-tech wood burning stoves that has an unusual ability to retain and/or conduct heat. Maybe it would work just as well as one of the constituents of concrete used in runways?

Anyway, this (or something like it) might be one way for Buffalo to turn lemon into lemonade.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 12, 2007 2:56 PM

Benjamin -- Helsinki, Finland has a system of heated streets in its small-ish downtown area. They have to first tear up the streets and then lay pipes that circulate hot water (probably -- the pipes looked to be an inch or so in diameter at one construction project I saw in 2005). You should probably do some Googling for more details.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 12, 2007 4:58 PM

Here's an interesting article about Buffalo, and its status as #2 in NY State.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2007 11:54 PM

I don't know how I missed this post. I live in Buffalo (well, one of the suburbs), and while the city is definitely still struggling, there is more sense of optimism now than there has been in quite some time. The real struggle for Buffalo's eventual fate, though, will probably be determined by how things fare in Albany, with the new state government forming. New York's state government is the poster child for calcified, dysfunctional, bureaucracy-laden governments, and the entire state is overtaxed to a degree undeniable even by a liberal like me.

What's happening right now in Buffalo is that a new mindset is settling in, that what this city most needs isn't more state money but more entrepreneurship from the youth of the region.

I second the mention upthread of the Buffalo Rising site; there's another group of blogs under the umbrella that are strong Buffalo activists. A commenter notes that Buffalo hasn't been able to "reinvent" itself. Well, that's in progress, with a special focus on finally developing the city's long-abandoned waterfront. There is a lot of great stuff going on here. Will it be enough? Who knows? But at least we're not just sitting here anymore, waiting for Albany to wake up. That's gotta mean something!

(By the way, Buffalo's snowbound reputation isn't very accurate. Most years, we're not even the snowiest city in New York -- Syracuse usually beats us out in that regard.)

(Oh, and our Philharmonic kicks ass. Had to get that in there! And go Sabres!)

Posted by: Jaquandor on January 13, 2007 9:48 PM

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