The Long History of Residential Segregation in Buffalo

This post is part of our online roundtable on “Black Buffalo”

BUFFALO, NEW YORK – DEC 8, 2017: Downtown Buffalo, New York, looking down Franklin Street from West Huron Street during early winter snow. (Shutterstock)

Buffalo is one of the most segregated urban centers in the United States, and the high concentration of Black people on the East Side is what attracted a racist killer to the “City of Good Neighbors” on May 14, 2022. That day, 18-year-old white supremacist Payton S. Gendron, from a small rural town, 200 miles away in New York’s rural Southern Tier, entered a Tops supermarket to kill Black people. The young shooter knew that only one supermarket existed for East Side’s 68,000 Black residents—and that on a Saturday afternoon, that store would be filled with shoppers. It was his intention to kill as many as possible.

White racism fueled the shooter’s racial hatred. Yet ironically, white racism also created the marginalized, underdeveloped neighborhood conditions that drew him to Buffalo. Tops sit in an urban landscape that reflects the ugly reality of Buffalo’s structural racism. A sea of substandard rental housing, unkept vacant lots, neglected sidewalk, and streets, surround the store. Nearby, Route 33, the Kensington Expressway, cuts through the East Side; devalues owner-occupied housing; and spews tons of noise and air pollution into the environment. These underdeveloped neighborhood conditions produced harmful social determinants that curtail the quality of life of African Americans and produce adverse economic and health outcomes in the Black community. Consequently, most Black folks in Buffalo don’t live long and healthy lives. A 52% differential exists in the premature death rate between Black and white people. How did we get to this moment?

The culprit is a city-building process anchored by a long history of racial residential segregation. Black residents are highly segregated but have not always lived separately from white people. Before World War II, work, not race, determined where people lived in the industrial city. In this context, Blacks shared neighborhood space with white immigrant workers, including Italians, Russians, Germans, Polish, and Irish workers. Blacks and immigrant workers encountered each other on the streets and in places of vice and entertainment. In Strangers in the Land of Paradise, historian Lillian Williams notes that some Black people learned German to hang out with the Germans. Black and recently immigrant workers lived together on Michigan Avenue and other streets. In some instances, they even resided in the same boarding house. For example, Mitchell Solomon, a Pullman Porter, his wife, Mary, and several other Black residents, lived in a boarding house with other white residents on Jefferson Avenue.

The rise of mass homeownership ended the age of shared residential space among Black and white people. Before 1930, home buying was a risky business. It required a 50% downpayment, and the buyer had to pay off the loan in two to five years. During the Great Depression, the government believed the best way to jumpstart the economy was by developing mass homeownership. Implementing this required a radical change in the money mortgage system. Mortgage brokers needed guidelines to determine neighborhood stability as well as the present and future value of houses.

On a national scale, real estate appraiser Frederick Babcock developed a system in the 1930s to determine the value of housing and residential land, Babcock used whiteness and social class exclusivity to theorize that neighborhoods had life cycles. He also posited that the presence of Black people in a residential area triggered its rapid decline and eventual transformation into a slum. Furthermore, Babcock asserted that white immigrants had a negative but less harmful impact on neighborhood decline. Thus, Babcock’s system of housing and residential land valorization had a race and class component. The appraisal formula he developed was undeniably racist and classist. Housing values increased as the percentage of white people, and social class exclusivity grew in a community. Likewise, housing values declined as the percentage of Black residents, and social class inclusivity increased.

In this city-building method, housing value catalyzed neighborhood development and underdevelopment. Neighborhoods with the highest valued housing became the site of development investments and focused on maintaining the community as a great place to live, work, play, and raise a family. Concurrently, neighborhoods with the lowest valued housing experienced predatory investments and focused on hyper-extractive activities based on dispossession and maximizing profits with no regard for their social and environmental impact. In this racist approach to building cities, the tethering of race, profits, and housing spawned the underdevelopment of Black communities and the emergence of a new type of racial residential segregation.

In the case of Buffalo, the mass homeownership movement exploded after World War II. Over 500,000 people lived there in 1950. Even so, the 1937 HOLC residential maps painted a grim picture of the city’s future residential development. HOLC agents classified more than half the city’s neighborhoods as “hazardous” or “definitely declining.”  Infiltration by “foreign populations,” “cheaply constructed houses,” and “apartments” threatened most of the “still desirable” neighborhoods, and only a few residential areas fell into the “best” category. This transpired on the eve of the Second Great Migration—when thousands of Black newcomers would soon enter the city. Only a mass demolition project could create enough building lots to support the homeownership movement. Thus, the suburbs rather than the central city became the homeownership zone, the region where buyers found the highest value homes and the most exclusive residential districts.

Population growth radically transformed the social geography of the Buffalo-Erie County between 1940 and 1980. Home values, whiteness, and social class exclusivity informed the new racial residential segregation.  During this period, thousands of Black people poured into the city as their numbers jumped from 18,000 to 94,000. The expanding Black population moved into the declining East Side industrial neighborhoods.  Simultaneously, thousands more white people rushed to the suburban homeownership zones.  Buffalo’s white population plummeted from 558,000 in 1940 to 249,000 in 1980, a 55% decline.  White suburbanites used zoning laws, subdivision regulations, intimidation, and other means to keep Black locals out of the suburbs and segregated on the East Side.  In so doing, they created a white line to keep Black people out of the suburban homeownership zones.

Residential segregation was not benign. High rents and low incomes created an invisible wall that confined most Black people to Buffalo’s East Side. They could move, but their new neighborhoods looked similar to the ones they left behind due to predatory investments and racist political decisions that underdeveloped their community. For example, the outmigration of thousands of white workers from the East Side to the suburban homeownership zones created an abandoned housing problem. Successive Buffalo mayors used mass demolition to solve this problem. Between 1965 and 1980, the city demolished thousands of vacant lots, creating an equally bad situation of unkept vacant lots.

Concurrently, during the sixties, urban leaders implemented their strategy of developing arterial connections for the new international airport in Cheektowaga by constructing the Scajaquada Freeway and the Kensington Expressway. The Kensington would replace the magnificent Humboldt Parkway, a section of Fredrick Law Olmsted’s park design that connected Parade Park (now MLK Park) to Delaware Park. Black folks did not know this. So, realtors and bankers lowered the redline and sold houses along the Parkway to unsuspecting Black people. When completed, the expressway slashed through the East Side, dividing the community, lowering housing values, and pumping noise and pollution into that community. Meanwhile, substandard housing and rent gouging became huge problems because the housing court and the city building code system failed to establish healthy home standards and enforce existing housing codes.

Currently, in 2022, Buffalo is the sixth most segregated city in the United States, and times are still tough. The old adage “the harder we run, the further we fall behind” amply describes the Black reality. A recent study by the University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies found that Black people had not made any progress over the past thirty years. Even so, Black Buffalo lived by the creed, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Against this backdrop, Black residents and their white allies almost elected a Black female socialist mayor, India Walton. Folks organized and vowed to abolish health inequities by transforming neighborhoods and communities. Black people discovered that high-paying working-class jobs did not disappear after the industrial age. White residents created racist barriers to exclude them. Black people are now organizing to fight for their rightful share of these high-paying working-class jobs.

Friday night, before the massacre, the Tops store sat quietly in a disfigured racist landscape created by a compliant city government, the real estate industry, financial institutions, and business firms. These structural racist institutions segregated Black people and built a city where a single supermarket for thousands of African Americans is the norm.

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Henry Louis Taylor Jr.

Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. is a Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Buffalo, SUNY. He is the founding director of the Center for Urban Studies, which seeks solutions to problems facing metropolitan regions and central cities (including shrinking cities). Dr. Taylor is a member of the Steering Committee of the Anchor Institutions Task Force, a national organization that develops and disseminates knowledge to help create and advance democratic, mutually beneficial anchor institution-community partnerships.

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