Tools for change

UB alum starts Tool Library in the Heights

On November 4, 2012

  • 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. Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum

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."

The Tool Library functions just as a normal library - students and Heights residents over the age of 18 complete a membership form, and for $10 a year, they receive a membership card that allows them to take out any tools they might need. Checkouts are put into the database, and members have a week to use and return the tools.

"You sort of have to think it through and think, 'Is this something I can do myself? Do I feel comfortable doing this? Is this something I should be doing myself?' and if the answer is yes, then you know you have this resource that you don't have to dole out money out of your own pocket to pay for things to fix up what needs to be fixed," Cotton said.

The tools come from many sources; many were donated by members of the community and part of the program's initial start-up funding went to purchase items that were less-used or more expensive, albeit important, such as chop saws, lawnmowers and staple guns. The library also carries basic tools; shovels, rakes, hammers, pliers, measuring tape, wrenches and extension cords are all available for rent and line the bright blue walls of the shop.

The library now has 163 members. Before the start of summer 2012, it only had about 80 members, and Cotton said the membership grows by two a week now that it has settled into a permanent location.

"I think the Tool Library is a great resource for people in the case of delinquent properties or derelict properties or delinquent landlords," said Cristina Delgado, a third-year master's in urban planning student and one of the starters of Urban Collective - a group of urban planning students who wish to do more planning work out in the community. "You can be somewhat empowered to fix things yourself and literally go get the tools and if there's a demand for a certain type of workshop - be it a lock changing workshop or whatever - the Tool Library will throw it. They're pretty responsive to residents' needs."

But the Tool Library doesn't only function as a place to rent tools; it serves as a community gathering spot and a place to bring ideas together, according to Matthew Chavez, the artistic director of the library.

Chavez was drawn to the Tool Library during his second year of graduate work. At the time, he was the president of the Graduate Student Planning Association, and he was looking for ways to connect the student group to the community. He found Cotton and the Tool Library and started a relationship between his group and the non-profit.

Chavez remembers the first time he walked into the library's new West Northrup space. He was instantly inspired to paint a map of Buffalo - because the library serves and inspires the city community - on the wall above the front display. He didn't tell anyone what he was doing - he just got the materials he needed and went to work - and assured them they could paint over his masterpiece if they chose.

Cotton didn't like the painting, but he liked the idea that community members could walk into the Tool Library and subsequently be motivated to start projects of their own.

"The Tool Library is a place that if you're inspired to do something like that, then go ahead,'" Chavez said. "That's the best thing about the Tool Library: it's more than just a place to go look at tools; it's a place that people who work behind the scenes there want to help individuals, non-profits, companies do work they want to do - do things they want to get done - that they don't have the tools to get done. So all we're doing is giving people the tools."

Community empowerment

On Oct. 12, the Tool Library received a $2,500 cash grant from Keep America Beautiful to fund a project to get rid of graffiti in the Heights.

The project is simple: a smartphone application will allow community members to take pictures of graffiti markings and upload them to a shared Google map. Then, library and community volunteers will print out the maps and go around removing the markings in neighborhood cleanups.

"Graffiti seems to be a pretty big issue, especially on the street that we're on," Cotton said. "The quicker you remove graffiti, the less people will return to graffiti something again."

The library has also been involved in the clean up of Linear Park - a park located within the Heights, less than a mile from Main Street. Over the summer, more than 300 volunteers helped clean up what Cotton calls an "underutilized" green space.

They built raised beds, picked up and recycled trash and began maintaining the community gardens block clubs and other groups start but rarely stick with. They've cleaned up the vacant lots around the park - ones that have burnt down or just fallen into extreme disrepair - in order to take eyesores and turn them into assets for the neighborhood, according to Cotton.

"They've already planted a bunch of trees there so in 10 years they'll have a big, shady tree grove there," Delgado said. "That's impact."

The Tool Library was also involved in UHC's recent movie premiere - a marketing video created by UHC members and students from Buffalo's Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts that will promote the Heights to potential home buyers and renters. The video was funded in part by a $2,500 grant for a community development project from Independent Health.

Cotton, along with other members of UHC and Urban Collective, also created a "Guide to the Heights" that helps UB students - most notably international students who don't own cars - realize the walkability of the Heights and what the neighborhood has to offer. The guide features doctors' offices, fitness centers, grocery stores and shops - all within walking distance of South Campus. Students don't necessarily need a car - just a willingness to explore.

"A lot of [students] live on North Campus and that's all they know for two years of the city," Cotton said. "I don't think that's a good representation of the region."

Commitment to the City of Light

Cotton was born and raised in Western New York. He didn't have many visits out of his rural, country-like suburb, but the few experiences he had - like going to Sabres hockey games or visiting the Albright-Knox Art Gallery - drew him to urban planning.

"Growing up, I took occasional trips into the city and it always seemed like it was so different, but there was so much going on," Cotton said. "The contrast between the two sort of attracted me to see what the city was all about. I can't imagine living out [in Colden] now; it's so weird. Our parents' generation just wanted to get away and have their own, little private worlds where they didn't have to run into other people. But I think our generation wants something different than that."

He started his undergraduate career at UB as an international studies and linguistics major. During his junior year, he chose to spend a summer studying abroad in Montpellier, France. European cities are radically different from American cities - not only in culture but also in infrastructure, transportation systems and development patterns, according to Cotton. These differences inspired him to try urban planning post-graduation.

"I couldn't believe there was this totally different way to imagine how the city and how a region would work," he said. "I just thought why can't we have this in Buffalo? Why can't we have this in the U.S.?"

He sees Buffalo as a city with potential, and he wants other students who may not be from the community to see it, too. Besides the Tool Library, Cotton has done extensive work throughout the Buffalo community as a whole.

Just this past summer, Cotton was involved in a preservationist movement to save Old North, the historic administrative headquarters of Lackawanna's Bethlehem Steel Corporation.

The 111-year-old Beaux Arts-style building was slated for demolition in May, and Cotton had just finished his thesis, which coincidentally featured the property. Preservationists and activists were able to use his research to push forward the process of listing it on the National Register of Historic Places.

"There are a lot of really beautiful buildings and architecture in Buffalo, and that's great, but I don't think it's necessarily just the buildings that matter," Cotton said. "It's the stories they tell and the eras they represent. Buffalo was a very different city 100 years ago. Once those buildings are gone, you sort of lose that legacy and those are the sort of things that define a city and give it uniqueness and give it a personality."

Cotton still lives in the Heights on Tyler Street, and he works as a project manager at the Urban Design Project, a center within the UB School of Architecture and Planning that is devoted to service, teaching and research in the urban design field. He hopes to someday create his own development company in the City of Buffalo, and he wants to make a career of rehabilitating vacant buildings to make an impact on the city's neighborhoods.

"I just think there's so much potential in Buffalo," Cotton said. "I just keep telling people Buffalo is the Portland of the East because it has that progressive bent and has that quirky, weird characteristic that cities need to stay unique. Buffalo is just doing its own thing, and I think people should respect that and enjoy it."

Cotton - when not biking or playing bocce and croquet around Buffalo in between trying to eat and sleep - can be found Saturdays and Sundays ripping up carpets and tearing down walls in the Tool Library on West Northrup.



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