A Legacy of Segregation: Buffalo, NY’s Fruit Belt (Pt:1)

There is no single factor that fully explains all instances of urban decline and its symptoms.[1] Redlining, white flight, urban renewal projects, and demolition as urban policy have contributed to distress, concentrated disadvantage, and decline in the Fruit Belt by reducing total population, housing stock, and housing quality.  There were 200 years of German heritage in the Fruit Belt which has given way to 70 plus years of African American community building in the face of injustice.[2] Once the population in the neighborhood was over 15,000 people, over 90 percent white. Today, the Fruit Belt population is around 2,600, of whom 83 percent are African American.[3] The neighborhood has seen a lot, from drastic population loss to mass demolition and the African American story of the Fruit Belt has long been ignored.

Defining Urban Decline

Decline is a relative concept, meaning it is not a static variable that can be measured or evaluated at a single point. It is an active phenomenon that must be detected over time. Distress and disadvantage, on the other hand, geographers argue to be more static. Distress can be interpreted as “the degree to which a community is vulnerable to detrimental changes” while disadvantage is “a quality or circumstance that makes achievement unusually difficult.” Thus, a place with a higher concentration of disadvantage and distress is more threatened by decline.[4]

Fruit Belt

Germans arrived in Buffalo throughout the 1830s and 1840s and primarily settled east of Main Street. Eventually, “the Great German East Side” was home to over 14,000 Germans, making them a majority population in the city.[5] The Orchard, later known as the Fruit Belt, was not the first German settlement in Buffalo but it did end up being the last enclave. The neighborhood takes its name from the once abundant orchards that the first residents cultivated. Holding true to their agrarian roots, the earliest residents planted fruit trees and vegetable gardens, the street names remaining testimony to the early nature of the neighborhood.[6] After World War I, the German immigrants who had settled on the East Side began leaving.

The World Wars were a major blow for the German community, resulting in anti-German sentiments throughout the country. The prejudice that permeated American culture led many to begin to hide their heritage, which had previously been fundamental to the East Side. With the German population moving out, other working-class groups started moving in. By the mid-1920s, the Fruit Belt was the last neighborhood with a majority German population. Like many Rust Belt cities, during this time Buffalo went from being separated largely by class to experiencing high rates of racial segregation.

Throughout the Great Migration, from the 1910s to 1970s, many African Americans moved to the North from the South in search of employment opportunities. As a major manufacturing city, Buffalo would become a prime destination for those in search of jobs after World War II.[7] Many factors spurred black relocation to the Fruit Belt and its transition to a predominantly African American neighborhood including a series of urban renewal projects and the construction of the Kensington Expressway.[8] The new arrivals started to settle in white, working-class neighborhoods like those of the East Side. 

[1] Jason R. Hackworth, Manufacturing decline : how racism and the conservative movement crush the American Rust Belt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

[2] “History of the Fruit Belt,” Fruit Belt Community Land Trust 2022, https://fruitbelt-clt.org/history-of-the-fruit-belt/.

[3] “History of the Fruit Belt.”

[4] Russell Weaver, Shrinking cities : understanding urban decline in the United States (London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017).

[5] Intensive Level Survey Of The Fruit Belt, Buffalo, New York, Preservation Studios (Buffalo, 2018), https://preservationbuffaloniagara.org/wp-content/uploads/Fruit-Belt-ils-report-final-1-4-2019.pdf#.

[6] The Fruit Belt: A Conservation District Proposal, University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning (Buffalo 2010).

[7] Anna Blatto, A City Divided: A Brief History of Segregation in Buffalo., Partnership For the Public Good (2018).

[8] Henry Louis Taylor, A Historical Overview Of Blacks In The Fruit Belt: The Continuing Struggle To Build A Vibrant Community, University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies, School of Architecture and Planning (Buffalo, 2009), https://ubwp.buffalo.edu/aps-cus/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2015/04/The-Rise-Fall-and-Rise-of-the-Fruit-Belt.pdf.


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