(Artvoice  22 June 2000)
Muggers & Leaders
by Bruce Jackson


You know why construction hasn’t started on the twin span or the new convention center? Because Buffalo suffers a lack of leadership and an overabundance of obstructionists. That’s the current buzz being circulated by the people who want to build a steel twin span now, a new convention center now, move Children’s Hospital now, and bury the Commercial Slip forever now.

Those two themes turned up again and again in the series of pro-steel-twin-span letters organized by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority’s flacks and published in the Buffalo News over the past two months. It’s become the buzz on the street among people whose experience of these issues is headlines and sound-bites.

A PhD psychologist at a party in one of the southtowns said, “All these good things could be happening in Buffalo if it weren’t for the small special interest groups obstructing progress and if there were some decent leadership.” Someone asked her, “What good stuff, exactly?” “Moving Children’s Hospital to High Street, increasing capacity of the Peace Bridge, getting a better convention center.”

If there were some leadership, she said, then the obstructionists wouldn’t be able to obstruct and Buffalo would move forward. Half the people at the table said “Yeah, right,” or some variation thereupon. The other half looked at one another, silent, not wanting to spoil the otherwise pleasant lunch, all of them probably thinking what I was thinking: “This is an intelligent and thoughtful professional person. She’s bought the partyline. Where do you start with someone like this?”


Consider these selections from a recent Business First article by James Fink, “Decisions Paralysis: Big projects slip away as debates rage on”:

Western New York's leadership can't make a decision.

Want proof?

Look at the raging debates concerning the Peace Bridge and the proposed downtown convention center. Throw in questions and concerns about the Buffalo Zoo and the Inner Harbor project....

In each instance, a proposal was presented and championed only to have the respective projects bogged down in a series of debates that sometimes bordered on a war of words where personal attacks take precedence over the big picture: moving Western New York forward....

"To me, I don't care who gets the credit for projects like the Peace Bridge, convention center or Inner Harbor," said Robert Bennett, president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County. "I think people forget to look at the big picture. Once a commitment is made to something, I would hope everyone would jump on the train and support it, instead of worrying about who gets the credit."...

The decision paralysis frustration is peaking right now, largely due to the community's prolonged haggling about the Peace Bridge. Arguments about the bridge's design and environmental impact have gone from public hearings to court....

Meanwhile, Canadian interests who actively endorse the twin span proposal are perplexed over Buffalo's battles.

"The most important issue should be how we create jobs and job opportunities for today and tomorrow in both the Niagara Region and Western New York," said Tim Hudak, a member of Ontario Provincial Parliament whose district includes Fort Erie. "Sometimes I'm not sure people in Buffalo really understand the long-term negative ramifications they're causing by these delays and indecision."

The unstated underlying assumption of Fink’s entire article is that every one of those projects was worth doing as they were designed and public interrogation of those designs was interference with—with, well, what? Making money quickly? It surely was bad, bad, bad.

The “big picture” he writes about is nothing other than the proposal itself. People ask about six years of truck traffic through Delaware Park because of the PBA’s plan? That’s screwing with the big picture. They mention the huge difference in childhood lung disease around the Peace Bridge Plaza and the rest of the city? That’s screwing with the big picture. They point out that a six-lane concrete bridge will go up faster, cost less to build, cost less to maintain, and will free up Front Park? That’s screwing with the big picture. They point out that a six-lane concrete bridge will bring a huge number of jobs to this area and a three-lane steel bridge will bring almost none? That’s screwing with the big picture.

He quotes United Way’s Robert Bennett saying that “once a commitment is made to something, I would hope everyone would jump on the train and support it...” But whose commitment and whose train are we talking about? In the case of the Peace Bridge, it’s five Americans and five Canadians in a closed room, most of whom have no interest at all in the fate of Buffalo. Are those of us who live here bound to jump on whatever train they care to cannonball through our town? That’s madness.

And then he says that the decision paralysis results from the community’s questioning the Public Bridge Authority’s decision. That’s the cause of the paralysis: we challenged, we’re bad. Not a moment’s thought to any possible defects in their plan, any possible harm their plan might have cause the city, any possible right to partake in the process for anyone other than the people who stand to make money from it. Wow!

What Indecision?

All this talk about “indecision” is smoke and mirrors. There is no indecision, none at all, and there never was. It was just people trying to force things on other people who decided to ask, “What are you doing to us, and why?”

In the case of the twin span, the PBA decided that they wanted to erect a steel companion bridge. They held public discussions and a design charette–but those events were just for show, they were phoney, the decision had already been made and at the end of the process the PBA arrived where they started. People looked at their decision, said it stank, it served only a few steel builders and maintainers and would cost us far more in the long run than a whole range of rational alternatives, and they began to take action.

The New Millennium Group wasn’t indecisive. Its highly educated and highly motivated members knew exactly what was wrong with the PBA’s plan, and said so at length and in depth.

Neither did the Episcopal Church Home and the Olmsted Conservancy suffer indecision. They looked at the plan and saw the further harm it would do the community. They tried talking to the PBA and got nowhere, so they went to court, along with the City of Buffalo. That was a specific and decisive act.

Judge Eugene Fahey wasn’t indecisive. Indeed, the instrument he delivered is called and is in fact a decision. He said the problem wasn’t with the people asking questions. The problem was that the PBA hadn’t obeyed the law.

The Commercial Slip? Unless there’s some further surprise, it turns out that the Preservation Coalition was right on the money about that one. We’ve got a real historical site there that is perfectly capable of being made accessible and the Empire State Development Corporation and whoever joined them in wanting to bury it were wrong.

Move Children’s to High Street? There are strong arguments on both sides, and both can’t be right. Once the proposal to move Children’s was made, it would have been irresponsible to just go along with that proposal without considering the questions by the people on the firing line—the doctors who take care of those children—and the effects on the two neighborhoods involved. How could that NOT be worth extensive discussion and consideration?

Build a new convention center in the Electric District? Do we need a new convention center at all? If we do, is that the right place to put it? Little surprise that the developers squawled when newly-elected County Executive Joel Giambra put that on hold until he saw the results of an environmental impact study.

Do the various community groups affected by those decisions have a right to have their voices heard in the decision-making process? If, as Business First would have it, none of those constituencies deserves to be heard in any of those key decisions, then who would really own Buffalo and what would that mean for the rest of us?

The Real Problem

Times have changed and James Fink and other people frustrated by community involvement in project design haven’t a clue how or why. People are demanding a different way of doing public business. People are tired of having some committee or corporate executive announce what and how something is going to be done and then the community gets stuck with the cost of the error.

Ordinary people are more connected than they were because communication is easier and faster than anyone could have imagined a few years ago. Anyone can set up a listserv, web site, hit “reply to all” and send a note to everyone on the bulk email that just came in. Concerned citizens are no longer impotent against the corporations’ and authorities’ teams of press agents, legions of clerks and limitless budgets. Information access is no longer controlled by a powerful few.

People say, “You don’t own the city, the county, the region; we ALL do. The days when you announce and we obey are over. The way it works now is, you suggest and then all of us consider alternatives and try to find among them the option that does the most good and the least harm.”

Our problem isn’t the community’s resistance to projects that seem to make no sense or to promise real harm. The problem is the inability or the continuing refusal of the people who want to do those megaprojects to talk with and listen to the rest of us from the very beginning. The problem is them forcing the rest of us to put up all these damned signs, go to court, circulate and sign petitions, set up those web sites, have meetings. We’d rather be doing something else too, we’d rather have nothing on our lawns but grass.

Muggers and Muggees

Why didn’t you complain about our plan five years ago? the Peace Bridge staff says. Why are those awful people interrupting things now? Business First says.

In hockey or football or boxing, if you’re not out there when the game starts you default: the other guy wins and  you don’t get to say later, “But I’m better” or “They should have waited for me” or “I thought it was the next night.”  What you are or why you weren’t there doesn’t matter in games if you’re not there in the beginning.

In real life, it’s when you find out what’s going on that determines what you’re going to do next. If the “you weren’t there at the beginning” rule applied in real life, then every sneaky hidden backstabbing opening gambit would determine everything. Some people might like it that way, but fortunately they don’t always get what they want.

Blaming the rest of us for being slow to learn what hard questions we should ask about huge construction projects that will change the character of our community is like saying you shouldn’t seek treatment for cancer because it provided no symptoms for a long time or you shouldn’t fend off a mugger because you didn’t see him lurking in the shadows. You deal with disease and evil in the personal or social sphere when you become aware of it. You can’t deal with it before you know it’s there; it’s irresponsible not to deal with it once you do know it’s there.


Leadership isn’t doing any old thing; it’s doing the right thing. Leadership isn’t forcing people to do what some committee that meets and makes deals in secret wants done; it’s finding ways to get done what needs to be done, and doing it the right way.

In each of these current imbroglios I find real leadership: the New Millennium Group, the Episcopal Church Home, the Olmstead Conservancy and the City in challenging the PBA about the steel companion bridge; the Physician’s Coalition in asking for specificity in the proposed move of Children’s Hospital; the Preservation Coalition in asking what the truth was about the viability of those aged rocks at the terminus of the Erie Canal; everybody who asked questions about the proposed convention center that weren’t asked last time and resulted in that dog on Franklin street.

The leadership problem here isn’t a lack of people willing to get things done; it’s an overabundance of people anxious to do things in a hurry, people anxious to do things so they will get their way and make their money without having to consider the needs of everyone else.

Sometimes what needs to be done is stopping someone else from doing something that shouldn’t be done. Was it leadership when some morons decided to cut the city off from its waterfront with the Thruway or to destroy Frederick Law Olmsted’s Front Park so there could be more space for trucks to idle their engines and pour noxious fumes into Buffalo’s West Side? Was it leadership when city officials decided it was okay to plop a huge bank building across the foot of Main Street and a profoundly ugly convention center across one of Joseph Ellicott’s radials? Was it leadership when state officials and local real estate developers put UB on an Amherst swamp rather than in downtown Buffalo, or when they ran a four-lane highway through Delaware Park or built Route 33 so it would be easy for people who worked in the city to live in Amherst? How would life on the Niagara Frontier be different now if the kinds of opposition to questionable public works projects that so upsets Business First had been possible back then?

At a conference on leadership at USC a few weeks ago, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis, and a dozen other theorists on leadership and bigshots from industry and public life talked about leadership in this new age of rapid communication, development, and transportation. The thing that impressed me most was, the smartest people there weren’t talking about leadership in terms of herding cattle–getting them where you want them to go, which is what Jim Fink’s Business First article was about –but rather in finding the right thing to do and helping your firm or community do it or get there.

A few days ago, Bennis said to me, “What leadership is really about is simple: having willing and inspired followers.” Which is to say, having people who care about what is going on and who care about being part of it. That doesn’t come from ukases delivered from on high; it comes from honest exchange of ideas and needs and options; honest examination of causes, costs, benefits and risks; honest respect for one another’s needs and information and legitimacy. And an honest willingness to let ideas endure the glare of uncorrupted examination.

That’s what all those groups have been trying to do. Everyone one of them has shared a key line in their list of wants: “Let’s talk honestly.” Is that obstructionist? Is that outrageous? Is that wrong?

No, of course not. The only wrong is what’s always been wrong in these affairs: being silent, advocating silence, endorsing victimage. We have plenty of real leaders in Buffalo these days. They’re not the people saying “Shut up and let us do what we want.” They’re the people who are saying, “Let’s talk.”

copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson

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