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Tools for change

UB alum starts Tool Library in the Heights

Managing Editor

Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012

Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11


Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum

Darren Cotton has come a long way from stealing his parents' tools to fix his Heights' home. The master's of urban planning graduate started the University Heights Tool Library in May 2011 to help empower other UB students to take initiative and fix their homes.

Four years, ago during his senior year, Darren Cotton moved into a house on Lisbon Avenue with a few friends. He thought his new home would be safe, secure and problem-free.

It wasn’t.

About four months after moving in, his house was broken into and his TV was stolen.

“When we originally moved in, [our landlord] was like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a security system so you don’t have to worry about that,’ except he never got it hooked up so our house got broken into,” Cotton said. “The first thing I did was call him and be like, ‘Hey, thanks a lot, asshole. Our house just got robbed.’”

His landlord wasn’t distant or out of state; he lived a few miles from the Heights in Cheektowaga. Still, problems that should have been fixed within a day or two would take months, so Cotton decided to take the matter into his own hands.

He would drive back home to his parents’ house in Colden, N.Y. – a town about 40 minutes south of his University Heights home – and he would steal their tools. He was determined to fix things himself, even though he wasn’t always quite sure what he was doing.

“I thought, ‘Holy sh*t, the last time I used a chop saw was eighth grade shop class,’” Cotton said. He used that chop saw, among many other tools, to fix his landscaping and issues within his home – most notably, the bathroom. It was in disrepair – peeling wallpaper, water-damaged baseboards and broken tile racks.

“It was pretty self-explanatory stuff, but it made a big difference,” he said. When he was finished with the work, he deducted the amount of money he spent on materials from his monthly rent.

Cotton graduated from UB’s master’s of urban planning program in May 2012 after receiving his undergraduate degree in international studies and linguistics in 2009.  He has come a long way from stealing his parents’ power tools; he’s helped make tools and other home improvement needs available to students in the University Heights through the University Tool Library. He wants to help empower students to take control of their homes when landlords aren’t responsive, just like he did as an undergrad at UB.  

Birth of the Tool Library

Cotton knew students who rent homes in the Heights can’t afford and simply don’t need a toolbox of their own, so he sought to bring the tools to them in a convenient and cost-effective way.

The idea? A tool library.

Cotton got the idea from sitting on meetings with activist groups, such as Buffalo ReUse and People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH). Buffalo ReUse and PUSH had started the Buffalo Tool Library, and Cotton wanted to bring their ideas to the Heights. The Buffalo Tool Library has since disbanded, but Cotton is working with the two groups to bring the system back to the city.

“It was really interesting because I pretty much had no idea what I was doing, Cotton said. “And it really was almost like starting a small business.”

Cotton started the University Heights Tool Library in May 2011, located on Main Street, with the help of Buffalo Councilmember Bonnie Russell. Cotton knew students, new homeowners and community renters could fix a lot of their homes’ problems by themselves, but most don’t have the means to do so. Russell was able to give Cotton $15,000 in start-up funding to get the Tool Library set up and running.

“Darren came to my office with the idea several years ago, and once he had it tightened a year later, he came back and I granted [the Tool Library] our discretionary funds,” Russell said. “[The Tool Library] is a great place where students and homeowners can get the tools they need for very cheap.”

Since opening in May 2011, the library has moved to 5 W. Northrup Place, next to Just Pizza, and is housed within the University Heights Collaborative (UHC), a community-based group within the Heights – comprised of individuals, block clubs, UB, elected officials and businesses – that is interested in enhancing the quality of life within the neighborhood.

How it works

The Tool Library on West Northrup is housed inside of an old movie theater – a historic building with drop-vaulted ceilings, an aluminum-plated roof and original, real hardwood floors. The space was previously used as computer repair store before Cotton and his crew acquired the space – the move from Main Street to West Northrup was mainly due to cheaper rent and a need for a more customizable space, according to Cotton.

Now, Cotton and library volunteers are working to restore the building to its original state by ripping out the carpets and reworking the different rooms into workshops. He has found improving the physical library building is one of the most rewarding experiences.

“A lot of the time, what I do here, I really enjoy so I don’t think of it as work,” he said. “Instead of going out to Chippewa and getting wasted, I can come here and rip up carpet and refinish a hardwood floor. It kind of gives me a distraction from the craziness of life.”

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