Learning from Buffalo

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Rima Yamazaki’s poetic documentary on the Buffalo architectural landscape reveals how labor maintains structures and labor’s loss brings rust.  I had the fortune to see Learning from Buffalo at Anthology on Thursday.  The film contains mostly comment free shots of acclaimed architectural works like the Martin House and the Guaranty Building but also abandoned grain elevators and housing projects.

The theme of Buffalo’s decline echoes that of Detroit and many other so called “rust belt” cities.  It is a story of institutional racism documented in Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, essential reading for understanding the contemporary state of U.S. cities.  First, jobs in well paying manufacturing industries went to blacks last, so when these industries started moving from the urban core, blacks were first to be fired and given the worst severance packages–if any.  Second, government subsidized suburban housing brought enormous wealth to whites but excluded blacks through both legal and illegal means.  Thus, as industries relocated to the suburbs, blacks lacked access to these jobs.

Partnership for the Public Good produced an excellent report on the history of this discrimination in Buffalo, written by Anna Blatto.  Both the report and the film also point to the devastating role urban highways played in displacing people of color while financing industry and white flight.  This of course is a central argument of my book, and many other scholars since.

Anthology Film Archives remains a unique NYC treasure by providing a venue for “avant garde”–let’s just say noncommercial–films like this.  (I don’t imagine Netflix will be picking it up soon).  Jonas Mekas, who co-founded Anthology in 1970, passed January 23.  Let’s hope his Anthology continues to thrive.

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