In April 2010 the “Build a Better Block” project was created in Texas, near Houston on an old streetcar corridor. The project was seeking to revitalize a single commercial block on a street lined with vacant commercial properties, wide streets and little to offer the people of the neighborhood. The goal was to create a walkable destination for persons of all ages that offered safe biking, café seating, trees, plants, pop-up businesses and lighting. The initial project was so successful that it has now been replicated at a grassroots level many, many times over in neighborhoods across the United States.
The plan works around these main principles:
Safety: Can you cross the street safely? Can you stand on the sidewalk safely? Do the businesses have bars on the windows or are they open and inviting one inside?
Shared Access: Can you walk, bike & drive on the main corridor? Is there access to the adjoining neighborhood? Are there signs? Is there space for lingering and conversation on the street? Is there seating and tables?
Staying Power: Are there food options? Weather permitting- can you eat outside? Are there maps, bulletin boards, games and amenities that encourage lingering? Is there a clear identity for the area (cultural, artistic ect)?
8-80 & Dogs: Does the area invite children and senior citizens alike? Does it attract a wide range of interests? Can you bring your dog? Can he have a drink on the street? Is there shade for him in the summer?
While these may seem like oversimplified concepts, consider them in comparison to the current status of Clinton Street in Kaisertown. Is it safe? Safety is a perception for many. While I may feel safe walking around Kaisertown alone, I have spoken to many residents who do not feel the same way. One way to encourage this is with the old Jane Jacobs adage of keeping “eyes on the street”. Where is a person more at risk?- on a dimly lit, empty street with businesses that are closed or a brightly lit, populated, open windowed, inviting streetscape? Many of the safety issues can be alleviated with people getting outside and walking. Consider the Snowvember storm in Kaisertown. Residents lost the option to drive and instead walked, sledded, skied and snow shoed around Clinton Street. No one was at risk. Why? Because people were everywhere. It’s the same principle, only with bikes instead of skis. Everyone is safer when businesses look inviting and neighborhood residents choose to walk.
Shared Access is another point where Clinton Street can use improvement. Are there lingering spaces? I’m sure the argument would be that lingering is too close to loitering. There is a difference though. Lingering means that people are engaged in the neighborhood because they are enjoying their surroundings. Loitering means they’re bored and have nothing to do but stand there. The difference maker may be as easy as engaging people with interesting signs, outdoor seating, tables, benches and allowing for multi-modal transportation within the same space.
I think we can agree that there are food options in Kaisertown, but that they can perhaps use some diversification. We have historically identified as a Polish, blue collar neighborhood and the food choices reflect that, but we could certainly use other options. A good quality Chinese takeout restaurant or a family style Mexican restaurant would go a long way, for starters. Outdoor dining can be tricky in a city like Buffalo, but not impossible. SC Lounge has managed to maintain outdoor seating during the summer months, which is a welcome addition. Kaisertown could use more outdoor café style eating, even if it was initially something as simple as a coffee shop. Outdoor games are something that could add detail to the streetscape. On a recent trip to Brooklyn, one of the things I noticed immediately was people setting up tables to play cards, checkers or chess on the sidewalks. It’s a nice way for older residents to interact with neighbors and get to spend some time outdoors. Kaisertown can also be helped by clarifying its identity. Yes, it has a Polish heritage but the neighborhood has slowly changed and could develop more of a “brand” in order to attract a younger demographic of home owner.
Finally, do we put our best foot forward to include residents age 8-80? We have a Senior Center and a community center and churches, but I don’t know that any of these do an excellent job of interacting with the retail corridor, instead existing as separate entities. What could we do to engage persons of all ages with the shops and restaurants on Clinton Street? What new types of businesses could foster growth and inclusiveness? Dogs are another way to engage residents with the community. People who are walking dogs should have a way to interact with other dog owners and pedestrians. This could occur with dog parks, benches, water bowls for dogs or dog friendly shops. Kaisertown could also use a pet shop as there isn’t a good option in the nearby vicinity- especially for those who don’t drive. This principle could be tested with a pop-up shop in one of the vacant storefronts. Pop-ups are a great way to draw attention to the retail strip and provide an avenue for business owners to test the market. Kaisertown certainly has the building stock to produce some intriguing pop-ups and it would be a nice way to display that stock along with the potential of Clinton Street.
This model has been successfully applied in communities larger and smaller than Kaisertown, and in areas more diverse and less diverse. The principles are simple and proven, and have been set up on shoestring budgets. It’s a little food for thought for all those wondering how to keep Kaisertown from meeting the same destiny of the rest of the East side of Buffalo, stuck in a cycle of blight and neglect. Small changes can make a big difference. If you want to read more about creating a Better Block you can visit BetterBlock.org to see information on the original project and the dozens of neighborhoods that have successfully followed in their footsteps.