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Unseen Buffalo: Helping the East Side catch up in a city on the rise

Residents in certain East side neighborhoods feel Buffalo's development is bittersweet.
Channel 2's Erica Brecher interviews Buffalo mayor Byron Brown at City Hall.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- On William Street in Buffalo, a small food pantry sees clients of every color and every age.

"We have people come in here that are homeless, we have people come in here whose children haven't eaten in days," says pantry coordinator Gloria Swain.

Gloria Swain has been running this food pantry for 14 years, in a neighborhood where she has seen it all. "We have people that come in here that have jobs and can't afford to buy food," she said.

Swain says those with jobs might be making just over the threshold to qualify for food stamps. That's when they end up at her pantry.

Perhaps it's not shocking: 14.9 percent of Erie County residents live in poverty. That's about 133,000 people, nearly 40 percent of whom DO have jobs. "I have went home crying because of people that come in here and...people that couldn't feed their children, people that just didn't have," Swain said.

That's in the heart of Buffalo's east side, which continues to face poverty issues that are statistically worse than elsewhere in the city.

But a mile west, Downtown and on the waterfront, things look like new again, and ongoing development has spawned a rebirth in Buffalo. "We have a tremendous disparity in the City of Buffalo and Western New York," said Charley Fischer, a long-time social advocate whose work is rooted in the East side.

Residents in his neck of the woods feel Buffalo's development is bittersweet. "You don't hate on the fact that somebody else is doing well; but you wish, you just wonder, when are they going to get to us?" he explained.

The statistics are evidence of the disparity Fischer talks of.

According to Buffalo Business First and a handout they provide to the Food Bank of Western New York, more than half of East side residents have an annual income level of less than $25,000.

For the rest of Buffalo, only 37 percent of people make $25,000 or less.

"That's where most of the money to develop buffalo...the community development block grant, or the federal government, comes based on those census tracks that are so impoverished...unfortunately, a lot of that doesn't go back," Fischer said.

Housing and Urban Development has given Buffalo less and less money each year for a decade now after a slew of problems including poor documentation of how community developments grants were spent.

Federal officials told us in 2014 they felt at least some money was misused.

Mayor Byron Brown, who has helped lead much of Buffalo's revitalization, defends the city's progress.

Brown says he helped leverage millions of dollars to build 1,200 new housing units for low income families on both the East and West sides, and he believes that public infrastructure upgrades will attract private sector business.

"I believe that we will see on the East side of Buffalo and other areas of Buffalo where there hasn't been that vibrant investment of money right now...that's going to move in that direction because the demand is so high right now," he said.

But it's not there yet, and the city's poorest are anxiously waiting while watching new buildings rise in the distance.

"To me, it's like they have money to put up new buildings and to try and make buffalo look good, but they're not hitting the heart of the problem. The problem starts at home," she said after helping a homeless woman pack a bag of goodies.

"The reality is what's happening Downtown, what's happening at the waterfront, what's happening at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, is for all of us. So HARBORCENTER for example: that's employing people from all over the city, including the east side, all over the region," Mayor Brown said.

Fischer isn't convinced.

"That trickle down doesn't always work," he said.

Brown says he convinced New York State to help Buffalo buy a large parcel of land called the Northland Project, which will eventually be used for industrial development.

Like Solar City, that would provide local employment opportunities, but this time, specifically in the East side.

Nearby, he's working on a comprehensive work force development training center

"It's a $44 million dollar facility that will be on Northland Avenue on Buffalo's East Side," he said. "This will be right there where those residents can very much take advantage of that."

That, he says, is slated to open in 2017.

"We're on a good path. What we need to do is accelerate what we're doing," Brown acknowledged.

He believes though, that acceleration and more growth is on the horizon.

"When I came into office, Buffalo had the highest percentage of vacant housing in the entire nation. That is no longer the case, and now, those areas are ripe for investment," he said of his tenure as Buffalo's mayor.

Charlie Fischer thinks more can be done.

He wants businesses on the east side to get the same tax break incentives that a lot of the waterfront projects got.

"Who would have thought that the waterfront and Canalside would be developed in 10 years like it has? That took careful planning, and vision, and pointing companies with interest to that," Fischer noted.

But he's okay starting small. He'd like to see a revitalization of the East side's storefronts.

"I continue to enjoy and be proud of Elmwood and Hertel, but I also want to be proud of Jefferson and Fillmore and Bailey," he said.

Gloria Swain's message to Mayor Brown is clear:

"I mean, help the ones that need it. Not the ones that don't need it. That's how I feel," she said.

"I would say to them [change] is happening in their neighborhoods. On Fillmore Avenue we did a $2.2 million streetscape project. We invested over $4 million in MLK Park, in the wading pool, in the picnic shelters," Brown said. "Strategic investments like that are being made all over the East side of Buffalo."

A strong connection to poverty is the education gap.

On the East side, 20 percent of people don't have a high school degree compared with just 15 percent in the rest of the city.

Societal change, Brown says, is critical to Buffalo's success as well, and in terms of helping the East side catch up, that may be the hardest challenge of all.

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