The Power Of Peers

In 2012, a group of citizens in Oswego decided to do something about the disinvestment that was steadily eroding stable neighborhoods in that city of 18,000 on Lake Ontario. As they explored their options, they came across some information about Jamestown. They learned about efforts here to stimulate reinvestment on targeted blocks, to empower neighborhood leaders, and to find productive new uses for vacant lots.

Inspired, these Oswegans commissioned a neighborhood plan similar to the one Jamestown adopted in 2010. They formed the Oswego Renaissance Association to steer the plan’s implementation. And today, several projects are underway with support from a local foundation and the energy of excited residents, whose efforts were recently highlighted on a public radio documentary (wrvo.org/neighborhoods).

Upstate New York’s cities can learn a lot from each other, just as Oswego did from Jamestown, and as Jamestown did from Geneva, a city on Seneca Lake that pioneered many of the strategies now being deployed here. Talking with peers and sharing our stories is an efficient way to learn from our successes and failures, and to work together to identify ways forward.

For Jamestown and other upstate cities, this is an especially crucial time to communicate, now that a new equilibrium seems to have been reached after a long and painful transition to the post-industrial era. After seeing their collective populations decline by 8 percent in the 1990s, upstate’s 35 cities with populations between 10,000 and 70,000 experienced less than 1 percent population loss between 2000 and 2010. Of these cities, 19 actually grew, and many others declined at much slower rates than previous decades.

While population loss has slowed or reversed, these cities are very different places now than they were a generation ago. Their middle classes are smaller, they have gluts of obsolete housing, their tax bases are strained, and their struggle to discover of new sense of purpose – one different from their industrial past – continues.

Whatever differences there are between these cities, they have far more in common. Similar economic histories, population dynamics, and real estate markets present them with shared challenges and opportunities as they enter new and often unsettling territory.

This year, folks from Jamestown, Oswego and Geneva will compare notes on recent experiences with neighborhood revitalization and discuss ways to improve and accelerate these efforts. As the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation and its partners participate in this conversation, efforts to cultivate wider peer networks will continue.

For example, the JRC and the Chautauqua County Health Network’s Creating Healthy Places program have been meeting for the past three years with community garden coordinators in Buffalo and Niagara Falls to share best practices and promote a regional dialogue around green urban infrastructure. That will occur again this spring as regional experiments with community gardening move to a new level.

At a larger scale, the Chautauqua County Land Bank Corporation is now part of a statewide network of land banks, all of which are working to effectively address the problem of vacant and abandoned properties. At a meeting in Syracuse in November, representatives from Chautauqua County shared their experiences and learned from similar efforts underway in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Schenectady, and Binghamton.

And within Jamestown itself, the JRC is working with neighborhood organizations from across the city on a Jamestown Neighborhood Alliance, a platform for these groups to meet every few months to learn from each other and share valuable information.

All of these connections are a critical part of the process of working in real time to identify root causes, understand possible solutions, and observe how these solutions are being deployed at different scales and under unique circumstances. In the absence of an instruction manual on making places perfect, a solid group of motivated and innovative peers is the next best thing.

Renaissance Reflections is a biweekly feature with news from the front lines of Jamestown’s revitalization. Learn more at jamestownrenaissance.org.