India Walton likes to recall the summers she spent at her uncle’s house on Mulberry Street in the Fruit Belt neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, when family and neighbors would gather for block parties, barbecues, and picnics. When the 35-year-old mother of four was looking for a home to rent a few years ago, she wandered through streets with names like Grape and Peach, thinking how nice it would be to recapture that long-ago experience for her own children.
In 2015, Walton moved into a rented house on Lemon Street and into one of the most visible demonstrations of neighborhood gentrification underway in the city.
It had been unfolding for a decade, as Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus expanded on the western doorstep of the neighborhood, leaving developers and land speculators full of anticipation.
And it is taking the collective power of Fruit Belt residents-turned-activists like Walton and a broad coalition of neighborhood-based and region-wide organizations to attempt what communities from New York’s Harlem to Washington, D.C.’s, U Street Corridor couldn’t do: push back against development to stem the displacement of generations of residents.
In 2017, the neighbors established the city’s first community land trust, a nonprofit designed to give residents control over the land within the neighborhood boundaries and keep housing there affordable. The city of Buffalo, the largest land owner in the Fruit Belt, has placed a moratorium on the sale of the 200 lots it owns there until a strategic plan for the neighborhood can be developed. And in January, it announced it would dedicate 20 of those lots to the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, to get it going.
“It feels amazing to be part of something that is bigger than myself,” says Walton, who is vice president of the Fruit Belt Advisory Council and a member of Community First Alliance, all part of the coalition. “I’m doing legacy work that will be here long after I’m gone, providing opportunities for both the neighborhood and for my children and their children. That’s a big deal to me.”
A historically Black neighborhood of about 2,600 residents on Buffalo’s East Side, the Fruit Belt is bisected by streets that derived their names from orchards planted by early German immigrants in the 1800s. The area later fell into disrepair. In a city with some of the nation’s oldest housing stock, historic and well-tended homes share space with abandoned and vacant dwellings and urban prairies.
Developers saw opportunity with the continued expansion of the Medical Campus, which covers 120 acres and has 17,000 employees. While some longtime residents sold their homes and moved out, others were pushed out when their rents rose. More people has meant more traffic and a parking crunch. Fruit Belt residents have listed gentrification and fear of displacement as top concerns, Bishop said.
When she moved there three years ago, Walton, a registered nurse who works at Children’s Hospital on the medical campus, was shocked to find the rent she would pay was double what she expected. Even after she persuaded the landlord to lower the price because she was bringing her own appliances, rentals half the size of hers were going for even more, she said.
There was no doubt gentrification had taken hold.
Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen, whose district includes the Fruit Belt, has been a powerful advocate for the project. In his radio program, announcing the city’s commitment of the 20 lots, he said the lots are being put into the hands of low-income and working-class people. “Whatever … the community land trust builds there as far as housing,” Pridgen said, “for 99 years, it cannot be transferred to wealthy people, it can’t be sold to wealthy people.”
With more than 250 of them nationwide, community land trusts are not new to the gentrification fight. They were first used in the U.S to protect rural lands for Black farmers in Georgia in the late 1960s. In Buffalo, the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust will acquire and own land, building and rehabbing homes and selling them at an affordable rate. When a house is sold, a cap will be placed on the allowable profit so it remains affordable for the next buyer.
The trust is set to seat its full nine-member board in June—six neighborhood residents and three specialists in the areas of engineering, real estate law, and development. Meanwhile, it is negotiating with the city on the location of the 20 lots. Bishop said preference is for land along the commercial corridor—between the residential area and the medical campus—to better control and slow development.
To be sure, the idea of a land trust for the Fruit Belt hasn’t been fully embraced. Whether gentrification has even arrived is still an open debate, particularly within the city, which has started to rebrand the neighborhood as Medical Park. And even within the neighborhood itself, there’s opposition by those who worry a trust will limit the value of their property. Funding is also a concern: While the trust has raised just under $100,000, it will need at least three times that to get rolling.
Open Buffalo, a social and economic justice movement, has been working with the community in its fight against gentrification for three years. But Harper Bishop, the economic and climate justice coordinator with the nonprofit, said that ideally a land trust should have been put in place there a decade ago. Home ownership, he said, is key to generational wealth for many families and he doesn’t blame any homeowner who chooses to sell.
“It’s a mind shift we are trying to create,” Bishop said. “Our hope is we can continue to normalize the idea of a community land trust so people know that community wealth and community control is uttermost, and that we are all stronger together in this fight than we are individually.”
And there’s growing momentum. “Land trust, not land rush” has become a common refrain. It’s less about having a seat at the decision-making table, residents say, and more about community control of the decision-making.
Fruit Belt residents who support a land trust say they are not anti-growth. “What we want is smart development that is inclusive and that allows people who have been here to prosper right along with it,” Walton said.
“There’s a spirit of unity here; that’s the unique thing about the Fruit Belt. The message of the land trust is we are here to promote development without displacement and for the community to have control over the kind of development that takes place.”
She has been an outspoken neighborhood and land trust advocate and is among residents featured in a promotional marketing video. But she knows that as a renter she’s vulnerable and that her landlord can probably fetch more for her home.
“But the work we are trying to do depends on my connection to the neighborhood, especially when it comes to dealing with city officials,” she said. “So I’m going to hang on as long as is possible. And perhaps one day the land trust will make a way for me to have a home here for me and my children.”
Last year she and several community advocates traveled to Boston to visit one of the nation’s most successful urban community land trusts. Dudley Neighbors, in the Roxbury section of Boston, acquired 1,300 parcels of abandoned land in the 1980s and transformed a once-blighted neighborhood without displacing residents. Nearly 30 years later, the trust oversees 225 units of affordable housing, as well as a playground, a mini-orchard, and community garden.
Bishop believes a successful land trust is also possible in the Fruit Belt, particularly given the city’s ownership of so much land in the neighborhood. The Fruit Belt, he believes, could serve as a model for Buffalo. “There’s opportunity to go into other neighborhoods in the city and create … community wealth and generational wealth and community control.”