Friday, October 26, 2007

What you talkin' 'bout, Willis???

This past preseason, the Nobel laureate precursor McGahee said:
Going to Buffalo, it was like hitting a brick wall. Like, ‘Damn!’ Can’t go out, can’t do nothing. There’s an Applebee’s, a TGI Friday’s, and they just got a Dave & Busters. They got that, and I’m like, ‘What the?’ And, you know, the women …

“You see, when I was in college that’s what I used to thrive off of,” the 25-year-old says. “The better you do, the more fame you get. So you know, it was like, I was used to that. And then you get to Buffalo and no matter how you do, it’s the same. It’s no big city. You know what I did every day? I came home and played video games.”

Now, Ed Glaeser confirms the Ravens RB theory of urban economics (via Greg Mankiw):
At the onset of the Great Depression, Buffalo had 573,000 inhabitants, making it the 13th-largest city in America. In the 75 years that followed, this once-mighty metropolis lost 55 percent of its population, a decline most dramatic in its blighted inner city but also apparent in its broader metropolitan area, one of the 20 most quickly deteriorating such regions in the nation. Twenty-seven percent of Buffalo’s residents are poor, more than twice the national average. The median family income is just $33,000, less than 60 percent of the nationwide figure of $55,000.

The history of Buffalo helps us understand why it continues to lose people and why it will be hard to reverse the trend. Historians often overstate the importance of the Erie Canal to New York City’s expansion: Gotham grew just as quickly before the canal was dug.

A major culprit in Buffalo’s collapse was a shift in transportation technology, reducing the importance of the Erie Canal and of the cities that arose to take advantage of it.

Other trends compounded Buffalo’s woes. Improvements in electricity transmission made companies’ proximity to Niagara Falls increasingly irrelevant. Mechanization meant that the industry that did remain in the city needed fewer bodies. The appeal of the automobile induced many to leave the older center cities for the suburbs, where property was plentiful and cheaper, or to abandon the area altogether for cities like Los Angeles, built around the car. And Buffalo’s dismal weather didn’t help. January temperatures are one of the best predictors of urban success over the last half-century, with colder climes losing out—and Buffalo isn’t just cold during the winter: blizzards regularly shut the city down completely. The invention of air conditioners and certain public health advances made warmer states even more alluring.

In general, when cities shrink, poverty isn’t far behind, for two reasons—one obvious, the other subtler. The obvious reason: urban populations fall because of relocation of industry and drop in labor demand; as jobs vanish, people living in a city get poorer. The subtler reason: declining areas also become magnets for poor people, attracted by cheap housing.

State and local government did little to improve Buffalo’s chances—in fact, they worsened things considerably. First, New York’s high taxes, burdensome regulations, and pro-union laws made Buffalo less attractive to employers than its more successful southern competitors.

Buffalo also suffered from lousy local politics. During the 1960s, the city government failed to deliver either safety or good schools. Race riots shook the area, and crime rose steadily. Fiscal crises became epidemic. Buffalo had difficulty recruiting police because of low wages and the dangers of the street. Leadership was especially dismal during the late sixties and early seventies, the city’s worst years. Mayor Frank Sedita, who faced ceaseless fiscal problems and surging violence from 1966 to 1973, was a traditional urban politician, better at playing to the city’s various ethnicities than at confronting its ongoing crisis.

Buffalo wasn’t a particularly skilled city in 1970, and it isn’t one now. Fewer than 19 percent of the city’s adults boast a college degree; the number in Manhattan is 57.5 percent. Whereas New York always had some industries, such as finance, that required brainpower, Buffalo’s industries were invariably brawn-based. Buffalo wasn’t a university town like Boston, and it didn’t have Minneapolis’s Scandinavian passion for good lower education. It had the right skill mix for making steel or flour, not for flourishing in the information age.
OK, stop blaming him now. And just think, Baltimore is the standard by which Buffalo fails.

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