For an institution where an emphasis is supposedly placed on a cooperative spirit of learning, college can be one of the most competitive environments one faces in life. From the struggle of some eager students for their professor's attention to the frantic senior-year search for post-grad jobs, it can seem as though everybody has something to prove.
What seems to be one of the most unique competitions at UB, and most upstate schools for that matter, is the game of "My Hometown's Much Worse." Students from across the state who come to Buffalo, not exactly a city brimming with optimists, find themselves hearing all kinds of stories beginning with, "Yeah, well, in my (town/city), there's so (much/little) (crime/traffic/to do) ."
Compared to most students' depictions of their former communities, you'd think an area like Buffalo, with more colleges than police precincts, more bars than one can count (open until 4 a.m.) and some of the cheapest real estate in New York would have solved its "brain drain" problem by now, with an influx of young, educated workers happy to escape their former communities.
As most of us know, this is far from true. What has occurred in place of an influx of new population is one of new dialogue in municipal offices, newspapers and conversation, one of reform, rebirth and rejuvenation. Some of it is encouraging, but for someone from a small suburb outside another formerly thriving upstate city, a lot of it seems both familiar and hollow.
Syracuse, the former "salt city" on the Erie Canal, is facing the same core problems as Buffalo: the drying up of an industrial core, suburbs rapidly expanding at the expense of city tax rolls, and an aging population lacking an influx of new young adults. My hometown of Baldwinsville, a town of about 7,000 to the northwest of Syracuse, mirrors many of Buffalo's northern suburbs, complete with an Erie Canal port, a slowly dying "downtown" area, and a youth population who live only to get out, for the most part.
Checking up on news from my hometown through occasional phone calls and online news reading, I encounter a case of d?(c)j?Ae vu with almost every headline I click.
A few investors want to shift the focus of downtown Baldwinsville around Lock 24, our canal port, building classier bars, restaurants and even an amphitheater in the water itself, hoping to draw a class of boating tourists with money to burn into town. Anyone familiar with the Tonawandas will recognize a similar plan taking shape, complete with the small concert venues and patiently waiting for Uncle Moneybags to sail into town on his yacht.
Syracuse itself looks strikingly similar to Buffalo: a downtown college district that some say is turning into an illicit playground for destructive, inebriated students; a municipal government too big and indecisive for its diminished constituency; first-ring suburbs that are facing "white flight" as ethnic populations move in; even the consolidation of the city's two traditional newspapers.
In the Syracuse paper's column space, one writer notes Buffalo's success this past summer with our first National Buffalo Wing Festival and muses on why Syracuse hasn't put out the word about its own national trademark. It's nothing you'd find at the city's 2-year-old Taste of Syracuse festival, another cue taken from Buffalo and other cities: it's the 24-second shot clock, a basketball fixture that was hatched in Syracuse nearly 50 years ago.
A columnist for the Syracuse paper suggested the city take advantage of that fixture by following advice from a former NBA Hall of Famer (not necessarily noted for their insight on urban renewal) and building a shot clock monument in a prominent downtown location.
The Buffalo News, in a Sunday magazine article entitled "The Incredible Shrinking City and What To Do About It," took to task many of the city's faults while offering long-term solutions, such as expanding the city's boundaries to encapsulate first-ring suburban areas such as Amherst, Cheektowaga and Tonawanda to downsizing what many feel is an oversized Common Council.
What is conspicuously missing from the news and press releases in both cities is an emphasis on bringing college students to, and keeping them in, the area. While doing so requires core attractions - namely job creation - that bring in young adults to any city, both cities could go a lot further in making their students feel at home.
Students need to be brought into the city and its surrounding areas, not kept inside large installations like the proposed Lee Road expansion and taverns. So what can be done to give students a real "Taste of Buffalo?" Here's just a few ideas:
- Expand the unfinished Metro Rail, connecting it to the Amherst campus and bringing it into non-Main Street sections of the city such as the Allen/Elmwood area, and students will soon have a wider area in which they can eat, shop and live.
Focus on creating new UB facilities downtown, taking the lead from the bio-informatics center, and students given research jobs in a suddenly busier area will feel a greater attachment to a living city than to industrial parks in far-flung suburbs.
Create alternatives to the usual assortment of bars, coffee shops and art galleries downtown, such as basketball courts, expanded computer facilities, and other facilities that give options to the in-between student. One of the most markedly crowded and successful UB additions for students isn't a shopping center or on-campus bar: it's the Hadley Village basketball court, constantly in use from spring until fall and into the wee hours of the morning.
The chances canal tourism and attractions that smack of the World's Largest Ball of Twine have of rejuvenating a diminished Syracuse are the same in Buffalo: slim to none. In the East, we're slowly learning that casinos, immense malls and historic tourism are not going to keep people in the area.
Buffalo has everything it needs to bring in and keep at least a portion of its large undergraduate population, if it works at it. Here's hoping that the higher-ups in Buffalo, and at UB, see the mutual gain in getting students off campus on a frequent basis.