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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Buffalo, New York, sits right along the shore of Lake Erie. But the rusting relics of the city'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. Daniel Robison has more.

DANIEL ROBISON, BYLINE: The Miss Buffalo motors toward her namesake city. Passengers on the excursion boat see miles of waterfront covered with no-trespassing signs, fenced-in factories and empty grain elevators.

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ROBISON: These ruins are a reminder of when Buffalo boasted one of the country's busiest ports a century ago.

JILL JEDLICKA: Materials would come in off Erie Canal. They'd be loaded onto large lake freighters, here along...

ROBISON: Jill Jedlicka narrates this ride. As head of nonprofit Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, she has fought to clean up waterfront land still polluted from industry. Jedlicka says safety hazards kept the public away for too long.

JEDLICKA: If you talk to some of the last few generations, people will tell you: I've been hearing about - you know - there's a revitalization of Buffalo's riverfront and waterfront, for years. It's never going to happen.

ROBISON: The Miss Buffalo docks downtown near a new, 60-acre patch of green space known as Canalside. Here, retiree Wayne Minear sits in an Adirondack chair, reading a book. Just two years ago, Minear says this was all dirt, broken concrete and twisted metal.

WAYNE MINEAR: Aw, disgusting. You'd drive by it. You didn't even look. It was just nothing. And look what we've done.

ROBISON: 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. Dee says years were wasted chasing grand redevelopment plans but now, the strategy is more homegrown.

TOM DEE: We'll have people out there, sitting in areas where people haven't sat in 50 years. And they'll see views of the lake, and views back into the city, that just haven't been seen in, in - their lifetime.

ROBISON: But Dee admits Buffalo still has a long way to go. For instance, Buffalo has no sand beaches. Sewer runoff often prevents swimming and discourages fishing. Plus, only a small fraction of the city's six miles of waterfront can be cleaned up quickly, or cheaply.

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ROBISON: 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.

MARTY DOSTER: Those are the constraints that we work with. And we'll do the best we can, to try to give back a little bit of what's been lost over the last two centuries.

ROBISON: Already, wildlife has started returning, Doster says. Migratory birds are nesting here, and birders are not far behind. But restoring the waterfront is not just about luring back wildlife and tourists. Back on the Miss Buffalo, Jill Jedlicka points to new development - like hotels, office space and docks.

JEDLICKA: Water connects all the interests whether it's recreation, habitat, economic development, public access; you name it. We all come together, when it comes to the water.

ROBISON: Even in the winters, which are infamous in Buffalo for frigid temperatures and snowstorms. But when the water freezes in the harbor, there's talk of setting aside space for ice skating.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Robison in Buffalo, New York.

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RAZ: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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