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Opening Doorways to Neighborhood Revitalization

Attending a community planning session on Buffalo’s West Side is seeing the mission of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo) coming to life: development rooted in grassroots community organizing.

Not your typical town hall where the highlight is a presentation of renderings for some upcoming project, PUSH’s style is an interactive, communal process where organizers bring the neighborhood to the table to create blueprints. The planning sessions give birth to grassroots campaigns for neighborhood revitalization guided by the very people who will witness it unfolding from their front porches.

Those same front porches are where it all began.

“It’s been about 13 years since I came back to Buffalo,” PUSH Founder Aaron Bartley recalls as he sits in the middle of the brightly painted Grant Street Community Center, a former library transformed into the epicenter for PUSH’s organizing efforts. “Even before I went away, I became interested in Buffalo as a place where a lot of different trends were happening, particularly the loss of industrial jobs and what that did to the communities. People leaving the city for the suburbs and what that did to the space of regions, the poverty demographics, and race relations.”

Bartley’s interest in social justice work flourished as he pursued his degree at Harvard and began working in the labor movement – co-founding the Harvard Living Wage Campaign and the Boston Justice for Janitors Strike. “That was where I started learning about organizing and some of the things we still talk about over in that corner,” he said as he glances toward a group of desks where a handful of PUSH’s organizers are in the midst of discussion. “Things like building one-to-one relationships, community mobilization, community action, some of those things they were doing right in the labor movement.”

Shortly after returning to Buffalo, Bartley met a like-minded social justice advocate named Eric Walker who shared his vision. Together, with grant assistance from the Echoing Green Foundation and LISC, the pair founded PUSH with the mission of developing affordable housing and cultivating grassroots advocacy to ensure that the neighborhood had a say in future development.

With a handful of members drawn from local groups already active in West Buffalo, they took to the streets.  “We did a pretty basic survey and knocked on hundreds of doors,” Bartley said. “That survey identified vacant housing, lack of local ownership and slumlord ownership, as well as lack of good jobs and youth opportunities as key issues. We set to work on tracks that PUSH has been on ever since – doing physical development work around affordable housing and community organizing.”

Their first development project, a house at 456 Massachusetts Avenue, was where Bartley and Walker dove headfirst into a realm they knew little about at the time. It was then that a long-term relationship with Buffalo LISC executive director Mike Clarke and PUSH began to evolve – through funding commitments and shared knowledge.

“Some of my clearest memories of that project were from Mike visiting us and encouraging us,” Bartley said. “I remember him teaching us some basic construction and pointing at things that were off. He did it in a supportive way and we learned some hard lessons. He had a lot of healthy skepticism, but he also had some faith,” he laughed.

PUSH simultaneously launched their first direct action campaign, the Block by Block Program, which laid the groundwork for establishing the 25-block target area known as the Green Development Zone. A New York State housing agency had liens for hundreds of vacant homes wrapped up in a deal with investment firm Bear Stearns, making it impossible to transfer or develop the properties. “It was a huge nuisance to all the neighborhoods,” Bartley said. “So we pasted the governor’s face on 400 houses. We tried to mobilize people and we did some actions and press work.”

Their efforts worked. The state relinquished control of nearly 1,500 homes and made funding available for rehabilitation. By partnering with non-profit developer HomeFront Buffalo, PUSH secured $1.3 million of that funding to continue housing rehabilitation work on the West Side.

Expansion of PUSH’s development work went hand-in-hand with their organizing momentum. Members rallied for programs to address the high utility bills in the neighborhood.  PUSH also focused on providing living-wage “green” jobs for residents to do the weatherization work in their own neighborhoods. During the past 12 years, PUSH has brought affordable housing, park space, community gardens, a green house, community centers and commercial space to the streets of the Green Development Zone. Soon they’ll be rehabbing a vacant public school building to create more affordable housing and community space.

Bartley spends his Thursday afternoons canvassing the streets with his newer organizers. As the looming specter of gentrification and rising rents creeps into the West Side, organizers are confronted by some of the very same opponents they met when PUSH boots first hit the ground. “It’s caused another group of slumlords to milk their properties even more, and some of them are spiraling downward into really uninhabitable situations,” he said. “The demand for housing is going up, too, so people will rent them anyway. In a lot of ways the work never ends.”

As it was in the beginning for PUSH, LISC has been a supporter almost every step of the way. To date, LISC’s total commitments to PUSH are approaching $1 million in operating, planning, pre-development grants and after-school program funding. Combined with operating support that was given to Massachusetts Avenue Project and Homefront Buffalo – members of the original West Side planning collaborative, LISC’s investment in the West Side is nearing $3.5 million.

“I’ve always been impressed and thankful that LISC understands the need for community mobilization and community action,” Bartley said. “It was important that we knew we weren’t going to get pushback as long as we were doing productive things.”

The methodology behind PUSH’s continued success is finding leaders within the neighborhoods they seek to rebuild. It’s rare for one to visit the West Side and not cross paths with someone wearing a shirt embellished with PUSH’s bright orange logo.

“I didn’t have a professional background in organizing; I didn’t even really know what it was to be a community organizer,” said Lonnie Barlow, longtime PUSH member and current Director of Communications. “But I always had a social justice bone in my body and cared about my community.”

Born and raised in the house his grandfather bought in the Cold Springs neighborhood on Buffalo’s East Side, Barlow relocated to the West Side 15 years ago. “I met Eric Walker at a monthly meeting. I had seen him canvassing the neighborhood and I had heard about PUSH, but I never knew that there was a whole movement and essentially a science to organizing your community the right way,” Barlow said.

Over the next year, Barlow’s skill rose to the surface. “PUSH saw in me an ability to build community, to help the organization and to learn at the same time. That was a model of employment and embracement that was new to me.”

“Lonnie always had a social and political awareness,” Bartley said. “That underlying consciousness and ability to analyze power and city and culture has always been an asset that he brings to the table.”

Lonnie Barlow’s perspective is a metaphor for PUSH’s work – the changing neighborhood seen through the eyes of a resident turned organizer. Someone who not only witnessed the physical transformation, but participated in its design and implementation. Now Barlow watches new life enter the organization as the ethnic demographics of the neighborhood shift. “There’s been a big influx of New Americans, which is great. We’re talking about all types of people.”

“You’ve got this guy right here,” Barlow says as he nods in the direction of Aweso Salim, a young man sitting behind the desk at the community center. “He’s a refugee from West Africa.” Barlow was a teaching artist running a workshop at Lafayette High School when he first met Salim, who was a student then. Now Salim is the manager at PUSH’s Grant Street Community Center, working as a mentor and role model for youth in the community.

It’s 2:30 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon and Salim is unlocking the front door of the center as a couple of young boys are racing up the steps toward him. He’s smiling as he ushers them inside.

“We used to talk about doorways,” Barlow said. “The community has different doorways, and everybody has a different road when you’re building community. PUSH has always been a good reflection of that and it all goes back to our philosophy, what it was founded on and where we hope it could go.”