I use the term good fortune- a phrase not often associated with Buffalo. Buffalo suffers from what is called “The Second City Syndrome.” You know what that is. There is New York City, and then there is Buffalo. There is Boston, and then there is Worcester. There is Portland and then there is Augusta, Maine. You get the idea. I loved it though, for a lot of reasons.
For me, it was the right time, the right place. They were auspicious years in my life, in terms of change, and adulthood, and life, and love. 1974-1982.
Actually, let me frame those years differently.
I was in Buffalo from Love Canal until the closing of Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna. Two socio-cultural bookmarks that forever changed the environmental landscape of Western New York. And my world-view.
A man’s (or a woman’s) house is supposed to be their castle. Unless, of course, it is built over a toxic waste dump. Then it becomes the place where they, or their kids sicken, and maybe die; it becomes an albatross, impossible to sell, and impossible to live in. In the end, it becomes a nightmare, bought by a government who has no choice but to tear the house down to get at the toxins below the basement, which seeped into the basement. The government can’t price the dreams and memories that linger, like ghosts drifting through a tomb, long after the house is vacated.
For me, living less than 15 miles from Love Canal, the idea that an entire neighborhood, city blocks, dozens of houses- two schools, for G-d's sake- could suddenly become petrie dishes for a man-induced epidemic of toxin-caused diseases was inconceivable. From 15 miles away, I watched as one of the early heroes of environmental activism movement, Lois Gibbs, fought to focus attention on the issue. Her son, after attending a school built in the neighborhood, had developed epilepsy, asthma, a urinary tract infection. His white blood cell count was low. All of this occurred during the first four months he attended the school.
Although the history of the site, which had been a dump for Hooker Chemicals, was known by city leaders, the unusually high incidence of miscarriages, birth defects, and children born with mental retardation- an environmental condition now know as a “hot spot”- were played down as serious problems. Then Mayor O’Laughlin famously told the press “There is nothing wrong with Love Canal.”
Gibbs, while dealing with her chronically ill son, tried to organize the community. She fought for environmental justice, and caught more than a fair amount of blowback- even from neighbors, in denial, who wanted her to stop pointing out problems and making it difficult to sell, to stay.
In the end, she moved. And in the end, the government shut down Love Canal. It is now a fenced in open field. A monument to ignorance, to a lack of foresight and accountability. Those barrels were buried 20 feet down. What could happen?
I had grown up along the Hudson River, downstate. To me, environmental activism was the Clearwater, it was Pete Seeger and crew relentlessly sailing that dirty river until it slowly, almost magically came alive; as if their songs had turned the tide.
There was no magic at Love Canal. If Pete Seeger taught me the value of educating the community, Lois Gibbs taught me the importance of organizing it. Of speaking truth to power, because every minute allows more toxins to poison children.
The other environmental lesson I learned living in Buffalo was a bittersweet one.
Summers in Buffalo were glorious. Because of the proximity to Lake Erie, the sky seemed to stay lit for hours and hours after the sunset. If I wasn’t working, we would play softball, and then head to the Central Park Grill, or Mulligans. For beers and wings.
Or walk along the waterfront by Lake Erie, or along the Niagara River. Damn, the sunsets were gorgeous. They were big sky spectacular. Huge, pulsating swathes of orange and pink; swirling, smoldering like an Aurora Borealis that had been set on fire. Magnificent, unforgettable.
Thank you, Bethlehem Steel, perched just west of Buffalo, in the city of Lackawanna- birthplace of Dick Shawn, and Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith. Thank you for those sunsets.
Lackawanna was named for the steel company that first set up there in 1903. Lackawanna Steel was purchased by Bethlehem Steel in 1922, and since there already was a Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, the city kept the name. When I was living in Nickel City, it was still belching particulates into the air, which in turn, carried out over the lake, and made the western setting sun paint the sky luminous and glowing.
Why was this allowed? I suspect that there was some enforcement of environmental standards. Maybe not so vigorous, maybe not so consistent. The reason why became apparent in 1983, shortly after I left Buffalo for New England.
When efforts to keep the steel plant open failed, Bethlehem shut it down. The taxes paid by Bethlehem Steel to Lackawanna made up a substantial part of the city budget. I remember hearing that when they closed shop and left town, the school budget was cut by 60%. That is worth repeating. Taxes paid by Bethlehem Steel apparently funded 60% of the school budget. Imagine the impact of losing 60% of a school budget over the course of a year or two.
I learned another lesson as well.
Not every sunset is actually a gift from the Universe. Sometimes, corporations can’t resist adding a little something to the swath of colors. Because, in the service of greater profits, they can. Because, we let them. We, the citizens. And we, the politicians elected as our public servants.
And I learned one more very important thing.
The environmental movement cannot be seen as something apart from the fight for justice, for equity, and opportunity; and for the right to live, safely, as a community. In the community of our choice.
So I march in New York, on September 21st, for heroic Lois Gibbs and her son, for the families who could not imagine having to leave the home they had purchased with their life savings, and who hated her for her activism. I march for the kids of Lackawanna, who saw their schools stripped of resources, of effectiveness, of dignity.
And I walk for that naïve, over-educated twenty-something person I was, marveling at the beauty of a sunset, thinking it was a gift from the Universe, an omen of good things to come. And never quite realizing in the moment that it was a postcard from Corporate America, with postage due.
I march for all of us. Join me.
I’d love to paraphrase Graham Nash, that “we can change the world.”
But it’s already changing, rapidly.
That’s why we march.
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