Friday, June 08, 2012

Running past empty

It's a rather common belief that the slower you go, the more you'll see. In other words, when you take a walk, you'll notice more than if you drive through the same area in a car.

And since I'm not exactly the fastest runner in Western New York, I have plenty of time to notice the neighborhoods when I'm hitting the streets.

In the past few weeks, I've had the chance to visit a couple of areas in Buffalo that aren't on my usual list of destinations, thanks to running in races. In the first, we started at Roswell Park, went up to Main St., down Dodge, around on Jefferson and past the site of the late War Memorial Stadium, back down Best, and over to the hospital. In the second race, we ran a long rectangle from William and Emslie. It went down Emslie to Clinton, all the way down around the library and back down William to the starting point.

For those unfamiliar, let's say these are not the neighborhoods that Mario Williams saw when the Bills were recruiting him as a free agent. Poverty is depressing to witness at close range.

On Emslie, an abandoned church watched over us within the first half-mile of the race. It looked beautiful, once upon a time. I talked with someone who went to a wedding as an usher there once upon a time. He said it was a elaborate facility; he still has the pictures from the ceremony. Now, it's boarded up, except upstairs where the old windows are mostly in pieces or are missing altogether.

On both race routes, there were two constants -- vacant houses and empty lots. I'm not sure which is worse -- the idea that someone is living in a rundown home, or not living in it so that it can become a drug house and drag the cycle of poverty in the area to greater depths. Meanwhile, you may have heard about the "urban prairie" that's developing in such places. We're a few demolition projects from turning blocks of city into something that would resemble Western Nebraska. Youngstown, Ohio, answered the situation by simply kicking everyone out of certain blocks and turning off city services. There are a few pockets of better situations in Buffalo, thanks to government- or church-built housing, but there aren't enough of them for anyone's tastes. And they sure aren't on the side streets for the most part.

Poverty obviously has existed forever. Still, what comes to mind when running through such situations? Sadness and helplessness. In other words, I have absolutely no idea what can be done about these areas.

I don't know if anyone else can do anything about it, either. But I sure don't hear anyone talking about it on the campaign trail these days because -- perhaps, to be cynical -- that there aren't many votes to be gained there. Then again, part of the Republican base seemingly would be much happier if we cut away the safety net from the poor with the sharpest knife possible. Meanwhile, the Democrats don't seem to be bursting with new ideas on the subject either.

And that's what we need -- fresh ideas. We really need to turn small urban areas into laboratories, find out what works, and spread the word. I'm sure Jack Kemp's "enterprise zones" wasn't the last such idea on the subject, although it seems like it.

Talking about it would be a good start, though. Then we could look for answers -- one step at a time.

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