Unnerving urban poverty

Jillian informed her mother that cars were expensive. A whole $110, she said. She told a passenger by her side that her sneakers were three weeks new.

Jillian was a little girl, seated beside me on the bus.

As I rode a city bus in downtown Buffalo Saturday morning and sat beside her and her quiet brother who said nothing, her mother re-sewed buttons on her peacoat and told her friend that she was done with men.

The boarded-up buildings blew past us, so skeletal they seemed as though they would fall over in the wind. The wind broke on the sides of the buildings and turned our faces red. Numbered plywood slabs acted as doors in the front of closed businesses. The bus was filled now, and the riders behind me made a Steve Urkel joke.

Jillian tapped her feet on the grated bus floor as her mother stuck the pin in the button and said, "No one cares about us."

I was traveling for the first time to downtown Buffalo for a class project, completely relying on public transportation to reach City Hall.

I began the journey with the idea, and maybe the narcissistic hope, that I would find something different from what I had been told. I also began this column with the idea that I would focus on public transportation, but first I think I need to start with the public.

It's likely nobody wants to believe the poverty levels, the number of vacant buildings, the troubling childhood poverty rates and incessant feeling of helplessness when it comes to solving the problems of this Rust Belt city. As a native of Rochester, I know what it means to have a bad rep when it comes to city prosperity or the lack thereof.

But I don't know as much when it comes to Buffalo.

The number of Buffalo residents who are below the poverty level is 30 percent - just eight percentage points below Detroit's - according to the Census Bureau. The unemployment rate for Buffalo-Niagara is 7.6 percent, according to a recent New York State Department of Labor report - one full percentage point above the national average.

Childhood poverty in Erie County is an astounding 21.8 percent, according to the New York State Poverty Report issued in March 2013. This number accounts for 42,655 residents, all under the age of 18.

Worst of all, 41 percent of single mothers live in impoverished conditions.

It's difficult to read those numbers. It's even more difficult to hear the words, "No one cares about us."

Jillian was having a hard time convincing her mother that a car cost $110, and for good reason.

But for me, on top of all that, it's the most difficult to relate.

I was extremely fortunate - I grew up in stable, middle class conditions. I felt awkward Saturday, and in some ways, like I should not have been there. Not for my own vanity, but for the fact that I was going downtown solely to visit a site for a class I took at a college that cost me close to twenty grand a year, all so that I can move to a different city and hopefully make double that.

I rode the bus for class observation, to serve as a learning tool, to understand the faults of public transportation and how I would improve it as a hopeful urban planner. I wasn't a real resident, I didn't fully understand the situation as much as I would have liked and I didn't live it day to day - all things I am sure I wear on my face whenever I go, despite my best intentions to not do so.

It's the same situation for many. It's a "how-they-live scenario," which often swallows us whole as a student body.

Relating often means living, being and breathing the situation with everything you have - something not often done.

But it might also mean picking out what you have in common so the differences aren't as stark - like the love for children, the love for a community and how almost every coat needs a new button once in a while.

We passed the Hyatt hotel, and walking out of it were people with suits and suitcases. They got in long black cars and didn't seem to take a second glance at the bus windows and the faces peering out of them. They didn't see the needle and thread or Jillian's sneakers.

But if they did, they would have seen themselves. Despite first impressions, they would have seen actions of a parent, the love for a television show and the fact that almost every child wants new rainbow-colored kicks.

That's how we will find a new, more prosperous Buffalo. We need to see what we have in common and go from there. In essence, the numbers mean a lot, but they don't mean everything. To do more, we need to begin to understand who Buffalo is as an entity.

To discover that, you might just need a bus pass.

email: madelaine.britt@spectrum.com