BUFFALO, NY —Buffalo resident Roger Puchalski, publisher of the English-language weekly Am-Pol Eagle, says it's important for the city to remember its Polish roots. Even as growing enclaves of Latino, Asian and other immigrants settle into once thriving Polish neighborhoods.
Like their European antecedents, these new communities are breathing life into this rust belt city and ethnic media are chronicling the change.
"The [Polish] community used to be centered on the east side of the city," said Puchalski, "in what is known as the Black Rock neighborhood." But by the 1980s Polish families had mostly moved out to the surrounding suburbs, replaced first by African American, and then Hispanic and Asian residents. "Black Rock now has more Latinos and Burmese [refugees] than it does Polish people," noted Puchalski.
He's not the only one to have noticed the change.
Maria Rivera hosts a new Spanish language public affairs show. She first settled along Buffalo's Niagara Street in the 1980s, after arriving from Puerto Rico. At the time, she says, almost all her neighbors were fellow Boricuas, or native Puerto Ricans. "Our neighborhood was named Avenida San Juan, in honor of the capital city of Puerto Rico."
But by then the neighborhood was already beginning to show signs of the decline then spreading across the country's rust belt. "There were almost no businesses," recalled Rivera, 47. "There were barely a handful of high-rise apartments."
The economic malaise Rivera describes has persisted in one form or another for over half a century. Located at the western end of the Eerie Canal, in the 19th century Buffalo served as a major terminus for pioneers heading west. Its location also drew in the steel and agricultural industries, which in turn attracted immigrants from Poland, Ireland and other parts of Europe.
Once known as the "City of Light," thanks to the hydroelectric power generated by nearby Niagara Falls, Buffalo's fortunes turned with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1957. Many of its white residents soon began to leave, and by 1967 race riots rocked much of the city.
Today the unemployment rate lingers at just above 10 percent, while census data from 2011 ranked the city fifth poorest among those with populations of more than 250,000. Rates of crime and childhood poverty are also high.
The issues are front and center in Buffalo's mayoral campaign, with incumbent Mayor Byron W. Brown, who is African American, in a tight three-way race against challengers Bernard Tolbert, who is also black, and Republican Sergio R. Rodriguez, who was born in the Dominican Republic. Safety and economic growth figure prominently in all three campaigns.
But Rivera and others in the community are already beginning to see things turn around, thanks in large part to the influx of new immigrants. Many come as refugees from countries as far apart as Bhutan, Burma and Iraq, as well as Somalia, Eritrea, Liberia and Cuba. According to the Buffalo-based Journey's End Refugee Services, there were some 1,600 refugees resettled in Buffalo last year, with another 2,000 expected this year.
The fastest growing demographic, however, hails from Latin America. According to the latest U.S. census data, between 2000 and 2010 the Latino population in Buffalo increased by almost 25 percent. Six percent of city residents today speak Spanish, and at least five news outlets in Buffalo cater to this diverse community.
One of those is La Voz de WNY, a Spanish-language public affairs talk show that airs on Time Warner channel 20. Rivera, who works full-time as the Diversity and Inclusion Program assistant for Roswell Park Cancer Institute in downtown Buffalo, launched the show in April.
"I know that it can unite, educate and inform our community. We are getting more and more diverse, but many of us don't know anything about our local issues," she said. "We watch shows on Telemundo or Univision, but they are from a different city and state."
Rivera added that thanks to growing public demand, the network decided to move her time slot from 2:00 p.m. to the primetime schedule at 6:30 p.m. every Thursday, with reruns on Saturday afternoon.
Community leaders, meanwhile, routinely volunteer to appear on her show. Rivera says her line-up is now "fully booked for the whole year."
The office of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Erie and Niagara Counties, who just endorsed incumbent Mayor Brown, affirmed the recent economic growth in Buffalo, including increased job opportunities and improvements along the city's waterfront.
Part of that is thanks to a $279 million settlement from the New York Power Authority, which Higgins and other supporters fought for. The funds were used to refurbish the city's inner and outer harbors, as well as attracting hotel developments and restaurants in the area. This year alone, a spokesperson said, about 800 events have already taken place at the waterfront, something that was unimaginable five years ago.
Will Jones is publisher and editor of Black WNY, a monthly magazine celebrating its second year this month.
Like the Polish community, Jones says that over the years Buffalo's black residents have been scattered across the city and into outlying areas. Census data shows that African Americans account for roughly ten percent of Buffalo's population. "We're spread out too much ... and like other cities in the country, whites are moving in and blacks are moving out."
It is, he continues, becoming more difficult to "define what a black neighborhood is" in Buffalo.
But it's a pattern he's hoping to reverse. "We always think that Buffalo is in decline … even before the economic depression hit the country," said Jones. "We can change that mentality. Now businesses in the area are growing and we see a lot of progress."
Jones says that like the immigrant communities, African Americans stand poised to make their mark on the city. And he is determined to deliver that message through his paper to the community.
For Puchalski, celebrating the past is as important as looking to the future.
He says his paper tries to highlight the contributions lesser-know Polish residents have already made. One recent story focused on a major thoroughfare in Buffalo named after Polish immigrant Peter Stadnicki, a partner in the Holland Land Company. The Dutch firm bought and developed vast tracts of land in much of upstate New York, including around Buffalo.
Puchalski says much of that history is forgotten today, though Polish traditions survive and are still celebrated. That same legacy is taking root in the city's burgeoning ethnic mix.
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