Detroit's woes contrast with our progress

Posted on February 26, 2013

A broke city on the brink of bankruptcy. Parks slated to be closed. A state threat to take over finances.

Sound familiar? It was Buffalo a decade ago. Today, it’s down-on-its-luck Detroit, dogged by headlines of financial failure and imminent emergency.

“Detroit in Crisis: Can it be saved?” “Stuck in reverse, Detroit edges closer to bankruptcy” and “Bankrupt, Decaying and Nearly Dead”

And this, from Forbes and its never-ending quest to rank all things American: “Most miserable U.S. city.”

I felt a little sorry for Detroit last week as I watched national news outlets showing off the vacant land and boarded-up houses as a state takeover of the Motor City inched closer to reality.

It hurt because we’ve been there. If there’s something we understand in Buffalo, it’s the sting of watching your hometown sputtering to remain solvent after decades of watching the population shrink and the mindset take a nosedive. Ten years ago, we were in the dumps. We saw our parks in peril, budgets go bust, big dreams fizzle.

And we came out a stronger, more vibrant city. It has taken years, but people are finally waking up to the fact that Buffalo’s got a lot going on. We’re no longer caged in by our Rust Belt reputation, the jobs we’ve lost, the people who have moved away.

We’ve been through the dark days and emerged, not a perfect city, but one that’s learned a lesson or two from the brink of disaster.

• Promises don’t mean much until the shovel’s in the ground. Ten years ago, Buffalo was reeling from the realization that John Rigas was a crook. The Sabres were bankrupt, and Bass Pro was going to remake the waterfront.

But it wasn’t until people moved on from the idea that a cable office building or an oversized fishing store were the saviors of the city that things really got moving. We didn’t need them, and we’re a lot less starry-eyed now about grand ideas with flimsy assurances.

We let go of all that baggage, and the city moved forward. New parks have opened on the water. Old buildings have gotten new lives, and cranes are on the horizon.

• Bigger isn’t always better. Once we stopped hoping for that one big thing that would bring back Buffalo, a funny thing happened. We discovered it wasn’t some grand scheme that would make the city great after all.

It’s the volunteers who tend the city’s Olmsted parks. It’s the hip new cocktail bars and the gritty old dive bars. It’s the fresh farmers’ markets, funky gift shops and emerging restaurants.

Change comes a corner at a time, not necessarily in whole city blocks.

• There’s no such thing as utopia. No city’s perfect. Even cities like New York City and Chicago take criticism now and then. Like Detroit, both landed on that list of most miserable cities last week.

Buffalo’s on a revival, but that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. There’s too much poverty, too much unemployment. And a tough financial hit could turn public budgets back in the wrong direction.

But watching Detroit’s financial mess from afar last week brought home a message for Buffalo.

We’ve come a long, long way in just 10 years.

From a city that’s been there, done that: Chin up, Detroit. It might be just the start of a whole new era.

Denise Jewell Gee, The Buffalo News.