“Can Buffalo ever come back?” More lessons for Springfield and Holyoke

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Buffalo NYBecause UMass Amherst economist Nancy Folbre mentioned him in her NY Times blog post about The Springfield Institute and community-based economic development, I started looking into conservative Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and came upon his piece, “Can Buffalo ever come back?” (City Journal, Autumn 07).

Glaeser asks why other cities have been able to create post-industrial futures for themselves while Buffalo has not: “The other old, cold cities that staved off decline, like Boston and Minneapolis, similarly reinvented themselves, with the density that once served to move cargo onto ships now helping spread the latest ideas. The key ingredient: human capital. The cities that bounced back did so thanks to smart entrepreneurs, who figured out new ways for their cities to thrive.

But in places like Buffalo, “Scores of close to worthless urban projects have received government funding not because any cost-benefit analysis has justified them but because of hazy claims that they would make some once-great area thrive again.

Glaeser recommends “people-based policies that improve the economic futures of the children growing up there…. If the children of upstate cities were better educated, then they would earn more as adults—whether they stayed in their hometowns or moved to Las Vegas. And people-based policies may actually motivate states and cities to spend more wisely, in order to retain their newly educated and mobile residents.

But even then, Glaeser warns that fixing education and cultivating entrepreneurship “would not restore the boomtown of the early twentieth century; the economic trends working against such a prospect are simply too great. The best scenario would be for Buffalo to become a much smaller but more vibrant community—shrinking to greatness, in effect.

A few of my own reactions:

  • Glaeser alludes to a critical young adult demographic that Governor Patrick has recently named as a priority. And where retaining and attracting young people is a priority throughout the Commonwealth, it is particularly important in Springfield and Holyoke.
  • At this point, fixing education in Springfield and Holyoke is already a priority. But we’re not seeing results. How to transform this system is a formidable question in its own right.
  • Understanding Buffalo and the ideas of people like Edward Glaeser and Nancy Folbre is an important step toward breaking down the isolation that Springfield and Holyoke have suffered from, and inserting these cities into a national conversation about the future of metropolitan America.
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