How the New York State DOT is failing East Buffalo

Frederick Law Olmsted’s Humboldt Parkway in 1935, now the 33 Kensington Expressway

By Michael Mottern

On Saturday January 6th 2024, longtime social activist sister Betty Jean Grant, leader of Buffalo’s East Side community group “We are Women Warriors”, is leading a chant with her daughter at the head of a march protesting the 33 Expressway, yelling “This is what Democracy looks like!!” Behind her is their sound system, rolling on a grocery carriage with a flimsy wheel, and sister Grant gives the instructions to her daughter, telling her and the crowd to chant; “Grow East Side Grow!” and “No toxic tunnel!”

The rally comes on the heels of a decision made by New York State Senator Tim Kennedy of Buffalo, and with the help of Governor Kathy Hochul, to implement a project to restore the wrongs of an over 60-year-old project that destroyed an East side neighborhood, and divided a community racially.

As a Social Democrat and a lover of urban aesthetics and nostalgia, I enjoy a vibrant Main Street, with streetcars and park systems throughout the city. When I was a student at ECC, Erie Community College, and ‘nobody was active’ as Cornel West would say in the 1980s, it was the clergy, the pastors in particular, from the East side that used to chant at every rally, “bury the 33 Expressway!” So, that the State government of New York, with the help of the local people & DOT can line the area with trees once again!!

The 33 Expressway has long been protected by the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT). That is what I heard as a young community college, social science student. The ability to correct a wrong in the community especially the east side of Buffalo, that is a predominantly black neighborhood in Western New York. We forget how expressways really ruined a lot of communities!! The night before the March took place, I saw Betty’s post on my Facebook news feed so I phoned her immediately! One of the good things about progressive and socialist leaders especially ones that are running for president, is that you can always reach out to a woman like Betty on the telephone, to do what former Georgia congressman and Atlanta representative, John Lewis said when he emphasized the need for community work, or as he would put it “good trouble!!”

I informed sister Betty that I would be carrying my organizations “International flag,” the plain red flag with an embroidered “Rose” surrounded by a black circle and a white base.  Unfortunately living in Tonawanda, and not Buffalo I Ubered it to the place she instructed me to wait in front of the rally point, which was ironically called, Mandela market and gas station. Good name considering the ANC is our sister organization in the Socialist International and my flag was crimson red!

As we are marching down East Ferry Street across town to the expressway, cars and people on their porches were honking the horns and cheering us in solidarity. After all, we were marching through a residential neighborhood. As we arrived, we heard speeches from some of the communities leading environmental activists and transit extension activists. They formed a coalition of marchers, consisting of environmental and multiracial park enthusiasts, transit activists, suburban folks, local folks, and social activists, all merging on the 33 Expressway, letting the cars know we were there. In the long run, I believe that expressways are a thing of the past that cannot escape the racist motivations behind their origins.

Overall, the March was a huge success. The local media from news channels 2, 4, and 7 were all there. Spectrum News was there as well, and so was WBFO our PBS station; NPR radio in Buffalo was there as well. I was happy with the outcome and hope our chapter can work with this coalition more in the future!

Michael Mottern is the first vice chair of SDUSA.

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