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Secretary Buttigieg Delivers Remarks on Reconnecting Communities in Buffalo, New York

Friday, March 17, 2023

Well thank you very much, Leader Schumer, for the kind words, and most importantly, for making sure that this would be the outset of America's infrastructure decade, by getting that extraordinary Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed. We would not be here—I just want to be sure everybody understands, because it’s been said, but it bears repeating: We would not be here without this legislation that leader Schumer saw through. That is here because Senator Gillibrand supported it. That is here because Representative Higgins and other members of your delegation supported it. And of course, that is here because President Biden and Vice President Harris insisted that this be a priority for America, because it has been a long time coming. And now it is here for us to make these improvements. [applause] 

I'm so appreciative to Governor Hochul and her New York DOT Commissioner—I just saw her, there you are—who are undertaking this extraordinary work; who understand the importance of infrastructure, and that there's a lot more to it than simply repeating the patterns that we inherited.  

I want to thank and recognize Mayor Brown. The job of Mayor is only become more demanding since I wore that title, and we are so thankful for your leadership.  

I feel very at home in Buffalo, even though this is my first time here. I'm the son of a midsized city—a lake effect city [laughter]—so to me, this is exactly how the weather in March ought to be. And I think this is the only place that celebrates Dyngus Day as enthusiastically as South Bend, Indiana.  

You’ve made me feel right at home. But I know this is also a community that's been through a lot. Things that came without warning, like the horrible, unthinkable, racist violence that struck this city at Tops Supermarket last year. And the extraordinary weather events that have caused so much damage in this region. And then there are the problems that played out not overnight, but in slow motion, like the effect of that Kensington Expressway that was put in without voice or view from the local community. That is why we're here.  

And so, it's fitting that we’re here with the members of the local community who actually made this all possible. I want to thank, certainly, Miss Stephanie and all of the leaders of the ROCC Coalition—the Restoring our Communities Coalition. And I know there were others who had this vision in mind for years, who can't be here—like Clarke Eaton, and Lumon Ross, and others, who worked for so long to get us to this point. And I know so many residents of Hamlin Park are seeing, at last, what it means when you are regarded by an Administration, and leadership at every level—state, local and federal—that understands the meaning of your work. You never gave up. You worked tirelessly to document the stories of this Community, to bring it together, to pull a vision together, and ultimately, to deliver this grant. And you have a lot to be proud of in this community today. [applause] 

You know, in the two years since I've been sworn in, in this job, I've seen, and we’ve supported, wonderful examples of how infrastructure can connect—can transform communities for the better. And our national transportation system—from the interstate highways to the rail networks—are a marvel; some of the greatest achievements in the history of this country. But we've also seen, and I've seen firsthand, how pieces of infrastructure that ought to be connecting, wind up doing the opposite.  

Hamlin Park in the 1950s looked very different from how it looks today. It was a prosperous, and much more diverse, active neighborhood. It was an actual park, lined with trees, covered with grass, connected by Humboldt Parkway to parks and neighborhoods across the city—part of the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted. And it is difficult—but for the community voices we've heard, it might be impossible—to even imagine that green oasis. But we have heard those voices of the community. One resident talked to us about what it was like seeing that neighborhood and all this greenery, walking to the science museum with her family. Another described walking past all of the thriving businesses on the streets, on her way to ice skating during the wintertime. And a lot shared memories of how different neighborhoods would come together for football games in that park, or going to schools—diverse schools—that were half Black, half white.  

Decades later, people here remember the beauty and the vibrancy and the joy of the old Hamlin Park—and the pain of what came next. When that expressway came in, it destroyed hundreds of homes and changed this neighborhood. Businesses shuttered—the ones that weren't already mowed down to make way for the project. Property values plummeted. Jobs disappeared. And that didn't just make the neighborhood worse off; it made the whole city worse off.  

Consciously or not, we all know that infrastructure can divide. It’s encoded into our language. The fact that American English has the phrase “wrong side of the tracks” tells you everything you need to know about our awareness, deep down, that infrastructure can divide just as sure as it can connect.  

And we can't ignore the reality that this highway left this community more segregated and more isolated from the social and economic life of the rest of the city. Some of the planners behind highways, here and elsewhere, built them directly through the heart of vibrant communities—sometimes to reinforce segregation, sometimes because it was the path of least resistance, almost always because Black neighborhoods and low-income neighborhoods did not have the power to resist or reshape those projects. 

Now, most of the people who made those decisions aren't around today. No one here today is responsible for creating that situation in the first place. But all of us are responsible for what we do in our time to repair it, and that is why we're here today. [applause] 

And the collection of that historical record, the consolidation of a community vision—what ROCC has achieved—is part of that incredibly important work of repairing what was broken. The other part of that is funding. And that is why we are so supportive of the state's efforts, and why we are proud to support this community vision, not just with heartfelt words of encouragement, but with 55 million dollars from our Reconnecting Communities Program. [applause] 

Alongside significant funding from the state, that's going to help fund an effort to cap the Kensington Expressway—effectively moving it underground—and build new crossings and park space on top of it, reconnecting Hamlin Park to the rest of East Buffalo. It’ll make it safer to cross the street, so kids and families can play outside. It’ll reduce pollution from the highway, so that fewer children in this area have the health effects of breathing that air. And it will reconnect this community to places that people count on every day: parts, churches, schools, and jobs—including, notably, Tops Supermarket, where ten people lost their lives, which will now be better connected to the rest of the community as well. 

Healing takes time. But it's work like yours that keeps us moving forward.  

And this is just one of 45 projects—well, I shouldn't say just one, because as leader Schumer noted, it is the biggest of the 45 grants we have to announce this year. But it's one of 45 projects we’re announcing around the country—some going to construction, others to planning.  

In Baltimore, Maryland, we’re helping the community plan to improve access by repurposing and removing what is called a “highway to nowhere” that divided several historically Black communities. 

In Iowa, we’re helping the Meskwaki Nation develop a plan to address a high-speed highway that runs right through that tribal community, making it harder and more dangerous for residents to get where they need to be.  

In Tampa, we’re removing an off ramp, and adding new biking and walking paths to eliminate the barrier between downtown and the riverfront, because stories like this happen everywhere in the country.  

Some of these grants are helping take a project from the drafting table to shovels in the ground, which is part of why we're so excited about Buffalo. Others are planning grants that can, in turn, make it easier for communities to access other sources of funding. And we've already been able to fund projects that have this effect in Detroit, Charleston, Louisville, and more places.  

No matter what form these projects take—and they're all different—they have certain things in common. 

One: we're working to make sure they create good-paying jobs so that workers get a fair wage, and build generational wealth in the course of that repair. And that is something we hope, and expect to see, here on this project in Buffalo. [applause]  

And yes, that means making sure that a fair share of those contracts go to workers and businesses who actually reflect the community where the projects are happening—[applause]—so that they benefit from the work, and not just the finished product.  

And maybe most importantly, we look for projects like this one, where the community has been leading the way. Because this is about empowering communities to define their own future. That's what we see here.  

And that's why I think a lot of these projects enjoy bipartisan support. We got letters from leaders on both sides of the aisle—people who aren't always on the same side of all the issues, but came together to try to get this funding.  

But I know we'll hear from a vocal few who would turn this common-sense project into yet another front in some kind of culture war. Who would call this “woke-ism.” I call this good transportation policy that gets people where they need to be. [applause] 

There's nothing divisive about healing what is broken. This is not an exercise in blame or guilt. It is about delivering solutions and fixing what must be fixed. Because these are highways, roads, and railways, they’re not rivers, or lakes, or mountains. They're not divinely ordained. They were put here by people. And the people of our time have a responsibility to make right what was broken. This is not divisive work; this is unifying work, in the truest sense of the term. [applause] 

I just want to end with a note of recognizing the young people who are here—students from the school nearby. Because I need you to understand that so much depends on your success. And this is about your success. This is making sure that the streets that you will walk on, and drive on, and open businesses on and commute on, and celebrate life on, will be better than the ones that you inherited.  

That is our purpose. It is our obligation. It is our hope. And it is why we can't wait to see this community put these dollars to work, and deliver solutions that will make this whole country proud. Thank you again, congratulations to this community. You’ve got a lot to be proud of.