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Non-profits rehab West Side with homegrown talent

Video by Nick Gunner.

Buffalo's West Side is symbolic of where the city's been in the last half-century. It's gone from a crown jewel in a thriving city, to one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest cities in the country.

But community organizers are trying to create a formula to jumpstart the area's economy.

Milton Rogovin used to say that he took his camera Buffalo's west side because the rich had their own photographers. Known and honored worldwide for his work in the neighborhood, Rogovin witnessed the west side's struggle to stop its own decline, as he recalled in a recent documentary.

"Whenever we go into the West Side, we see these people with great potential, all over. And we know that under the conditions that exist in our society, very little of this potential will come to fruition," Rogovin says.

Without outside investment, attention or jobs, Rogovin saw a neighborhood in need of homegrown solutions. Rogovin died late last year, but some projects suggest the West Side is starting to take his advice.

Making a dent in blight

Rodney Ramon Ranney gets to tear apart old buildings as a job. He's part of a team rehabbing a rundown apartment building into affordable housing.

"You finally get that chance to give something back to your neighborhood ... It's a blessing. You get to wake up and [feel] good about something you're doing," Ranney says.

But jobs like this are rare for 20-year old West Siders like Ranney. The neighborhood's economy doesn't have many opportunities for employment.

"You see many killings and many people get robbed, ... There's all types of drama on the West Side," Ranney says.

Using rehab projects to train and employ young West Side residents will address cyclical employment and lifestyle issues, says Aaron Bartley, founder of nonprofit PUSH Buffalo. His group has funded or found money for 14 projects like this. The idea isn't revolutionary or a silver bullet, Bartley says. Instead, it's something rather than nothing.

"There's no mystery why there's youth violence in this neighborhood, [it's] because people don't have a pathway to productive employment," Bartley says. "The neighborhood has the capacity, the will, the skills to rebuild itself."

Training for now, with hope for a job later

Most young West Side workers are trained on a site like this: the complete overhaul of an 1890s era home that will eventually house a low-income family.

Today, Troy Gilchrist is teaching young workers from the neighborhood on how to insulate a house.

Gilchrist's company, Acumen Insulation, is the city's only minority-owned insulation businesses. Without non-profits and mentors that have helped him get his foot in the door on projects like this, Gilchrist says he wouldn't be in the position he is now - able to train other young people to enter the workforce.

"I'm kind of like the first example. Everybody [is] watching me. It's gotta be right. One hand washes the other," Gilchrist says. "And it gives me an opportunity to train a lot of people from the neighborhood."

While these projects are improving homes on the West Side through local labor, there's still a sea of bad housing stock, and untrained and unemployed residents. Most of the rehabs are bankrolled through state grants, fundraising and other unpredictable streams of money.

But construction worker Rodney Ramon-Ranney says the West Side takes pride in this progress, however small.

"You see people walking by the sites and they ask, 'Oh, can I work here?' and I said, 'You can work anywhere.' You just gotta have a good mind. You just gotta follow through with what people say," Ranney says.

This story is part two of a three story series about the reinvention of Buffalo's West Side.  You can find the first story here.

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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