Buffalo Cleans Up From Dirty Industrial Past

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City leaders are attempting to increase public access to Buffalo's waterways, long blocked by aging industrial ruins and polluted land. i i

City leaders are attempting to increase public access to Buffalo's waterways, long blocked by aging industrial ruins and polluted land. Daniel Robison for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Robison for NPR
City leaders are attempting to increase public access to Buffalo's waterways, long blocked by aging industrial ruins and polluted land.

City leaders are attempting to increase public access to Buffalo's waterways, long blocked by aging industrial ruins and polluted land.

Daniel Robison for NPR

Along the shore of Lake Erie, the rusting relics of Buffalo, N.Y.'s industrial days have long blocked access to the water and posed risks to residents. Now, after decades of inaction, the city is finally clearing a path for the public to return to the waterfront.

Buffalo's approach has been dubbed "lighter, faster, cheaper." Tom Dee has led this effort as president of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., a special state agency in charge of city waterfront property. He says years were wasted chasing grand redevelopment projects, but now the strategy is more homegrown.

A Long Time Coming

Seen from the deck of the excursion boat Miss Buffalo, miles of waterfront covered with "no trespassing" signs, fenced-in factories and empty grain elevators stand as reminders of a time when Buffalo boasted one of the country's busiest ports.

Jill Jedlicka narrates the boat's tour, pointing out how it used to look when Buffalo was bustling. As head of the nonprofit Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Jedlicka has fought to clean up waterfront land still polluted from industry, now long gone. She says safety hazards forced the public to stay away for too long.

Over the next three years, a clamshell will scrape the bottom of Buffalo's waterfront harbor, scooping out contaminants from the city's industrial days.

Over the next three years, a clamshell will scrape the bottom of Buffalo's waterfront harbor, scooping out contaminants from the city's industrial days. Daniel Robison for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Robison for NPR

"If you talk to some of the last few generations," Jedlicka says, "people will tell you, 'I've been hearing the revitalization of Buffalo's riverfront and waterfront for years; it's never going to happen.' "

Near a new patch of green space known as Canalside, not far from where the Miss Buffalo docks downtown, retiree Wayne Minear sits in an Adirondack chair reading a book. Just two years ago, Minear says, this was all a disgusting bramble of dirt, broken concrete and twisted metal.

Today, dog walkers stroll along a new boardwalk. Teenagers dive to catch Frisbees on fresh sod. Tourists watch a sunset from kayaks and water taxis.

"Just a few boards, and some grass and chairs, and look what happens. People are coming down here," Minear says. "There's people everywhere. This would have never happened before."

Breathing New Life In An Old City

Not far from Canalside, a large mechanical scoop plunges into the Buffalo harbor and pulls out contaminated sediment. Industrial waste containing PCBs, mercury and toxic metals was dumped here before modern environmental laws.

Marty Doster manages this three-year, $60 million cleanup for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. It only focuses on a small stretch of waterfront, but Doster says it will help restore a harbor once considered biologically dead.

"Those are the constraints that we work with and we'll do the best we can to try to give back what's been lost over the last two centuries," Doster says.

Wildlife has started returning, Doster says. Migratory birds are nesting here and birders are following close behind. But restoring the waterfront is not just about luring back wildlife and tourists.

Back on the Miss Buffalo, Jedlicka points to new development, like hotels, office space and docks.

"Water connects all of the interests whether its recreation, habitat, economic development, public access, you name it," Jedlicka says. "We all come together when it comes to the water."

Even in the winters, infamous in Buffalo for frigid temperatures and snowstorms, some Buffalonians are ready to come back to the waterfront: There's talk of setting aside space for ice skating when the water freezes in the harbor.

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