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LISTEN ON DEMAND: THIS AMERICAN LIFE tribute to the 10 killed in the Tops Market shootings.

East Buffalo? West Buffalo? Politicians, residents sound off

What’s in a name?

Or better yet — what’s in the changing of a name?

In recent weeks, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz have used the name East Buffalo when referring to the city’s east side. This follows the trend of other local officials using East Buffalo and West Buffalo instead of east and west side. Masten District Common Council member Ulysees Wingo has gone as far as proposing a formal name change that is now up for public comment.

What’s the reasoning behind this sudden public push?

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said talks have recently gained more traction, but it is a topic that has been discussed for years and that a name change could help remove certain stigmas long associated with the east side and west side names.

Byron Brown
Tom Dinki
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WBFO News
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown speaks at a graduation ceremony for Buffalo EMT trainees of American Medical Rescue July 26, 2021.

“I think when we describe certain parts of the city as sides that is kind of pejorative,” he said. “It is it has a negative connotation that is not used for North Buffalo, or South Buffalo.”

While not seeing eye-to-eye on many issues with the mayor, former Democratic Mayoral candidate and Fruit Belt native India Walton spelled it out a bit more explicitly.

“For my entire life, saying East Side has been sort of a dog whistle to say where Black people live," she said.

The conversation surrounding the name change has filtered through the hallways of high ranking political and business leaders, said City of Buffalo Deputy Mayor Chrystal Rodriguez-Dabney:

“There are many people who are having the conversation,” she said. “The city's had it. The Buffalo-Niagara Partnership has had it. The racial equity roundtable has had it. The majority leader for the Erie County Legislature, April Baskin, has had it. And we know that our other partners in government have been now being more intentional about saying East Buffalo, West Buffalo, as opposed to the east side and west side, which is more exclusionary.”

The One Buffalo mantra doesn’t make sense to Rodriguez-Dabney if different names are being used for different neighborhoods. She said renaming the neighborhoods is partly about inclusivity.

“And when we refer to them more inclusionary, as a part of the city, going toward this idea that this is all one city, and we have different parts that have different challenges,” she said.

Poet Laureate and East Side resident Jillian Hanesworth said the challenges facing Buffalo’s East and West sides that need to be addressed first before anyone gets into any rebranding efforts.

Jillian Hanesworth
Open Buffalo
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Jillian Hanesworth

“It's the art of deflection,” she said of the rebranding attempt. “I feel like historically, when we as a community say, 'Here's what we need to fix,' we want you to address this issue. The powers that be come along and they say, 'Well, how about we focus on this little thing?'”

Could this be a case of residents of a notoriously provincial city making much ado about nothing?

“So the people who live on the East and West sides of Buffalo, we're cool with being called the East side of Buffalo, the West side of Buffalo,” Hanesworth said.

Buffalo’s history of neighborhood segregation is well known, especially following May's racist mass shooting where the gunman targeted the Jefferson Avenue Tops Market specifically because it was located in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

Hanesworth believes local politicians have their priorities out of order.

“I've heard a few people say ‘oh you call it East Buffalo and West Buffalo just like it rebrands it so that it doesn't feel so segregated,’” she said. “So make it less segregated, like actually do the work. Don't be lazy, do the work and improve the communities.”

Brown pushed back on the idea that work isn’t being done solve community problems.

“Well people are always going to have their opinions,” he said of critics of local government. “I know as mayor of the City of Buffalo I'm addressing the issues of the community every single day and we'll continue to address the issues of the community every single day.”

Walton suggests breaking down the names even further. Considering the vastness of the east side, neighborhood identity is important.

“East Buffalo or Eastside,” she said. “Whatever you want to call it is comprised of a number of very unique neighborhoods with their own needs, own character, own charm, such as Masten Park, such as Hamlin Park, such as the Fruit Belt. I think we should just call it that. But more importantly, I want to see us make investments, real investments in infrastructure and affordable housing and jobs.”

India Walton
Tom Dinki
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WBFO News
Then-Buffalo mayoral Democratic nominee India Walton speaks outside the Tops Markets on Amherst Street in Buffalo Sept. 29, 2021.

Walton said she finds it interesting that talk of a name change comes when the city is going through a period of reapportionment and redistricting, which could tear neighborhoods apart and rearrange Black voting power in the city.

Gentrification is another topic that is adjacent to the conversation. Fear of residential displacement in favor of business interests remains a pressing issue to Walton.

“I think the point should not be to attract investors but to encourage investment,” she said. “We already have the resources these communities already have the tools and ideas they need we need investment we need help from our municipal state and federal government to right the wrongs.”

A recent Challenger article by former Common Council member and Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant calls Wingo’s resolution untimely, and a divisive distraction that smacks of gentrification.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.
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