The Stake: A Westside Story

Saturday, April 19th, 2014 BUFFALOLOYALS.COM
By Gregory M. Gelz
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The stake I held in my hand wasn’t very valuable. It was wooden, weather-beaten and I had found it discarded onto a sidewalk street corner on Plymouth Avenue. I was volunteering to do just this task: pick up and clean up the Lower West Side neighborhoods as best as I could.

The weight of it slowed my progress. I had to work around it as I opened my garbage bag, bent down and placed hands on grass and earth in a search for offending scraps. Once my patch of Buffalo was reasonably clean and accounted for, I again hoisted the spike and repeated the same, a few feet down the line.

Heart of the City Neighborhoods is a nonprofit organization located on the corner of Virginia Avenue and 10th street and this is their event. Executive Director Stephanie Simeon, a woman with a big smile and infectious laugh, is clearly excited for the day’s events. Soon, she would lead a team of approximately 125 volunteers who will spill out onto the streets and sidewalks and into action. Each volunteer will help clean up the debris in an effort to make this area of the Lower West Side a place where residents can feel safe and proud.

The organization recently celebrated its 16th anniversary this month, which is also National Fair Housing Month. Simeon says that Heart of the City Neighborhoods (HOCN) is an enterprise where “housing is our medium” but people are the reason for its existence.

In the time that  the non-profit has been in the Lower West Side, the focus has been more about income-based and neighborhood-focused activities. After relocating from the downtown area, one newer program has aimed to help seniors “age in place” and stay “right in the neighborhoods they know.” In addition to helping those on fixed incomes afford to stay in their homes, HOCN helps with things like fall-prevention and energy-efficiency improvements.

“We wanted to make sure that if people wanted to stay in their homes or they want to own a home, whether they had the resources or not,” Simeon explained. “We wanted to make sure that we provided that opportunity for them.”

Simeon said the transformation has been steady but slow. She alludes to other, swifter projects with “cranes in the air” and says that HOCN’s method allows them to stop and take the pulse of the community, which has been positive.

She says that the recent energy coming out of the Lower West Side, owes a lot to the cultural diversity the area has. She also thinks that “young professionals, artists, and people with limited resources” come to stay due to the affordability of houses and raising families. With the area, much like Black Rock, aging out, the youth movement has done a lot to keep the area’s vibrancy going. With public resources from those like HOCN in addition to the private investments of residents, the buzz is being heard.

“ I think people have a pride to live here and they’re showing it more,” Simeon says ending with a chuckle. “Just a little bit more.”

To Simeon, the area’s most loyal are the seniors. These residents have seen on-and-off-again gang violence and “have been here for decades and they are not leaving.” She makes clear that the key to the community lies with them.

“Those are the stakeholders in the community. They know the history and they’re not afraid. And those are the folks that for me have been loyal” Simeon explains.

Simeon herself is not from Buffalo, but is from Brooklyn. After graduating from Univesity at Buffalo with a Master’s in Urban Planning, she stayed in the area. She said that in New York City “there are a million Stephanie Simeons” and that she took advantage of the opportunities she had here. With Western New York’s “brain-drain”, college graduates aren’t staying in the area. With the affordability of living, she was able to take lower-paying jobs in her field, doing what she loves.

Like many locals her favorite thing from Buffalo is the food, even if she says it can’t hold a candle to the smorgasbords of the Big Apple. Ultimately though, the people make the difference in the City of Good Neighbors.

Simeon recalls her first time driving in snow and getting stuck on Auburn Avenue. As a Brooklyn native she was unaccustomed to the challenge. After panicking, “two guys literally came out of nowhere” helped her and got the car righted. She tried to offer the men money in return, but instead they asked for drinks if she were to ever see them out and about town.

“It’s cozy,” Simeon says warmly. “Even though it’s the Queen City and you were built for a much larger footprint. It does feel, to me it feels like an extremely smaller city, so I like that feel of it. I know some people might say that it’s a downfall, but I like it.”

You can’t go long in Buffalo doing something worthwhile and not have someone approach you. Kneeling against a cold steel fence, I sorted cigarette butts from rocks and dirt as the first thank you came. She walked past me with a smile, and it felt good.

Even behind parked cars and bushes, they will find you. One gray-haired woman in a silver minivan could have held court to sing the praises of civic responsibility. She held some affiliation with nearby Kleinhan’s Music Hall and was happy to see young faces taking action. My ego would have let her continue, but there was more work to be done.

Coming back down Plymouth Avenue, I tried to pawn off the burdensome stake I had found on a man cleaning up a yard. He only worked there, and didn’t want it. A few house ahead, a group of five older adults sat on a porch enjoying the unseasonably warm weather for April.

And again, a thank you and friendly conversation. Sensing an opportunity as I looked at the nascent perennials peak through the earth, I asked if they would have any use for a perfectly good, albeit dirty piece of wood. Perking up, the lady shot off the steps and took the litter to repurpose it for her future tomato plant.

This transaction pleased me initially because now I had two hands to use for the task at hand. I held onto the thing for maybe 30 minutes but that was an unbearable cruelty for me to endure while volunteering.

It wasn’t until later that I connected the dots. I for a brief time held a stake in the Lower West Side, ultimately relinquishing it back to the rightful owners.

The whole scene makes me imagine myself as an interloper, as if I was violating some private space when I volunteered in a community that wasn’t mine. Perhaps it is the writer in me that turns me into a camera. Is it this that colors my thinking I don’t belong? Is it the Buffalo in me that tells me that I do?

At the end of the day and into tomorrow, one thing is clear.

I think that I’d like a bigger stake.

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