November 11, 2019
With a critical meeting coming up this Wednesday, November 13, from 6 to 8 pm at the Buffalo Museum of Science, we talked to the Chair of ROCC, Stephanie Barber-Geter, about how she got her start in organizing, the Restore Our Community Coalition, and one road.
Mrs. Barber-Geter was born in Buffalo and raised by her grandma in the Ellicott Mall housing projects with lots of neighbor kids. Her grandma encouraged her involvement in the tenant council when she was about 12 to13 years old. On her grandma's behalf, she went to a meeting about the deteriorating conditions in public housing, and people at the meeting talked about a rent strike, which was not legal. They instead proposed a rent slowdown, with everyone agreeing to pay their rent in pennies as a sign of protest. Out of 1,300 families in that development, 20 tenants paid rent in pennies, which tied the rent office up for the first half of the month counting pennies; as a result, they made some changes.
"I saw that as so powerful a statement that you could have a voice," said Mrs. Barber-Geter.
As a teenager, she helped politicians make literature to share and understand issues. She participated in student council in high school and college, ran for public office ("thank God, I didn't win"), and later became president of the Hamlin Park Homeowners' Association.
"I said, 'Let's approach these problems differently,' and people were with that," said Mrs. Barber-Geter. "I was always motivated that you could and should have an impact on the place you live—it's your sanctuary and you can encourage other people to get involved; together we can do anything, whereas alone we can only do a little."
As Chair of ROCC, Mrs. Barber-Geter is leading the committee in the fight to restore Humboldt Parkway.
"Hamlin Park Taxpayers started as a result of [Kensington Expressway] getting built. People moved here, and it transformed overnight from all white to all black, and three years later the road started to be built, and people here were enraged. We entered the conversation as fighting for the road to come down, and 50 years later we’re still fighting," said Mrs. Barber-Geter in an interview with Slow Roll Buffalo.
We asked her about a phrase she uses often, One Road, to describe our urban highway system:
"One Road" means any roads that connect are the same—this road we're focused on actually starts from the 190 at the ballpark downtown, and for the people who actually live around it, it begins in the Fruit Belt at Cherry, Goodell, and Michigan, where children are playing, people are walking and living. Then it runs through to the water at the 190 again. In between, it has all the stuff in common—people live, work and play along it, the impact on people is at the same level. So, the vehicle emissions impact people on Humboldt as well as Nottingham—these are frontline people to what's going on in terms of air quality. People who live on the corner of Lemon and Cherry, Humboldt and Utica, or Nottingham and Delaware, are all inhaling that same stuff.
We also asked her about segregation in the City of Buffalo:
I used to feel some kinda way about it; I used to think it was deliberate but I've since found out from talking to lots of people, that this is how the city was settled. My grandfather came to Buffalo from South Carolina, came up on the train that went through the south to bring men to work in the plants, and as fast as the government could, they were building temporary housing like Willert Park and what's now Marine Drive towers to accommodate the explosion of the industry here, so my grandparents settled where those things were happening. For lots of other reasons, people settled where they knew people and felt comfortable, which grew into this explosion of, "that's your side, go there; this is my side, I'll stay here." I think that a way we deal with that is we come from a process that I think Dr. King led, is that you have the right to live where you want but the question of how do we do that is real. Without the clear value that we are all different—we're not the same, but we are all equal—allows us to see each other in a different way. So we don't get hung up on, "I don't wanna live next to you 'cause you're different;" if I can accept that we're equal, then we're better.
I think as a city, young people are beginning to help us get there. Young people of all cultures and backgrounds, they don't buy the notion that the stereotypical things like gender and race and culture should separate us —they don't even get what that's about, so they won't stand up for those kinda things. They do stand up for equality, equal treatment, fairness; you can't do fairness if you don't believe a person is equal. We can if we promote the notion that we are different, but we're equal.
Last, when Humboldt Parkway is finally restored to its original state, should we concerned about continued gentrification?
Well, gentrification is a fear term. We're all afraid of it because in the past it's meant so many negative things, and suggests that people who've held down this part of town would get driven out. Now, we know that there are good laws to protect that from happening—it's just a matter of political will to put the laws in place for certain parts of town, then you can remove the notion of that from the table. So now, what's left is this whole notion of, again, equality—are we equal? Do you deserve to live in a house next door to me that was held down for five decades by a black family, and you show up and reap the benefits of that, though you're not black? I believe if you're equal, than you're entitled to live where you want.
Martin Luther King said that we have the right to live wherever we want. In the south, they put in laws about bedroom communities; so, if you work in Maryland and live in Virginia, there's a tax associated with that. Buffalo hasn't figured that out, and people are mad because people run to the suburbs while still working in the city; well, if people paid a bedroom tax, as progressive communities now do, what's the problem? There's no problem. Our argument is that they take the revenue—well, ok, change the law. It's not something you gotta create because the law's on the books in other parts of the country.
So, if we take the fear issues out of gentrification, we can stick to just dealing with each other. I think that's what has to happen, is conversations in communities and families around the issues of fear. And putting good laws into place that protect people who've been here holding it down, is critical and essential.