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Buffalo's West Side looking to loosen grip of Rust Belt

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Thousands of buildings remain vacant on Buffalo's West Side. But the low cost of land is luring more to rehab long-neglected properties.

Fifty years ago, Buffalo's West Side was thriving. Local stores were supported by a neighborhood full of people with good jobs at factories, mills, and shipping yards.

When the jobs left, so did the people. As the city's economy declined, so did its housing stock. But remnants of the old days are informing a growing movement to bring the West Side back.

Meet Brenda Miller

Brenda Miller lives next to a school on the West Side with her granddaughter Breera.  But Breera doesn't get to go to the playground often, even though it's less than a block away

"Basically what [it's being used for] right now is the boys [for drug dealing], the fast little girls that have nothing to do. Cause they need something. I'm seeing a lot of that more so now," Miller says.

Her street didn't used to be like this.

"It took years to get where we are today in terms of disinvestment and blight and poor neighborhoods," says David Rivera, Buffalo City Councilman.

Rivera has seen the West Side decline for decades. From the beginning of the 20th century, to the early 1970s, the neighborhood was supported by first- and second-generation Polish and Italian-Americans working good paying blue collar jobs. The streets were filled with large homes and bustling shops.

But Rivera says that all changed when the Steel Belt started turning into the Rust Belt.

"People decided to migrate. They picked up their roots and moved their businesses, [or] closed down their businesses, period. What we had were vacant storefronts and shops," Rivera says. "It's going to take awhile to get out of this."

In the void left by fleeing businesses and residents and shuttered congregations, more than a dozen community organizations have sprouted up. Some focus on economic development through microloans, others on the deteriorating housing stock.

Progress, with perspective

Aaron Bartley is like GPS for the West Side, and he relishes the role of tour guide, pointing out evidence of the neighborhood's heyday on almost every block. 

Bartley is 30-something Harvard Law grad who returned Buffalo to start a community revitalization group. His is one of several operating on the West Side, which he admits yields to sometimes scattered results. That's led to some skepticism about recognizing the progress made through the nonprofit approach to revitalizing the West Side.

"The factories began closing in 1960, [so] we're coming up [on] 51 years of economic struggles in this region. If people are skeptical, I think that means they're sensible," Bartley says.

But don't count Brenda Miller among the neighborhood's doubters. She's now active on the West Side, going door to door for promote various causes. That's something Miller says she never would have done if someone hadn't knocked on her front door one day.

"I feel ... better about my neighborhood because I see that things is [finally] get done with it ... I saw all this go within a couple of years," Miller says. "I'm not going anywhere. You got to blowtorch me off the West Side."

In the second part of this series, we'll visit homes that are being rehabbed on the West Side to see how community groups are teaching residents to reshape their own neighborhood - one house and one block at a time.

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