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Long Story Short: Re-creation


illustration by JP Thimot


“Marijuana—things are happening”

That’s what Governor Andrew Cuomo said when he called for a study into the plausibility of legalizing recreational cannabis in New York State (NYS). He has opposed legalization in the past. So why the open-mindedness now? Is it because the current laws are carried out with shocking racial bias? Or because a 2013 study found that enforcing cannabis possession laws cost New York $675 million in 2010? Is it perhaps because the war on this substance has failed to impact its availability or use? Nope, the reason is good old economic competition and a budget shortfall.


The details:

New Yorkers can boast that we’re number one; we’re the cannabis arrest champion of United States, with nearly double the doobie detentions of the national average. People of color are arrested or detained for this four and a half times more than whites. This, despite the fact that the state decriminalized possession of small amounts in 1977. Locally, people of color account for seventy-seven percent of marijuana arrests. But they only represent eighteen percent of the population. And they use the drug slightly less than white people. Go figure, right? The War on Drugs has resulted in hyper-policing of communities of color, another way law enforcement targets minorities.


This week, during the annual presentation of his executive budget, Cuomo requested a study to get the “facts” on legalization. The Governor was careful not to endorse the idea, but he called for the formation of an advisory group comprising the NYS Department of Health and state police, along with other agencies, to study how such a state-run program might operate.


So why the sudden willingness to consider permitting pot for recreational use? Partly because we are slowly being surrounded by states that are open for cannabis business. Massachusetts and Vermont already made it legal; New Jersey seems perched to take the plunge. And then there’s that big country to the north, that plans to legalize it by July. It won’t be long before there will be maple cannabis candy within a fifteen-minute drive for many Buffalonians.


Cuomo is also facing a massive budget deficit, and he must be eying the potential tax revenue regulated sales would generate for New York State’s economy. Minimally, he is aware of the potential revenue traveling out of NY to adjoining states and Canada, and the legal pot coming back over the boarder like fireworks do now.


The takeaway:

Cuomo sees the writing on the wall. Marijuana laws are unjust. Enforcement has failed. It’s a drain on the economy, and it disproportionally targets minorities. So why should Buffalo wait for Cuomo? We could get started now. Mayor Brown can make cannabis a “lowest level enforcement priority” for the Buffalo Police Department. Same way they overlook unofficial fireworks on the fourth of July. Local community activist India Walton has started a petition to get the mayor to do just that. You can sign it here.



Off with his head

It happens all over the world. Artists create works of public art that raise controversy and provoke outcry. Frank Stella’s Amabel shocked them in Seoul; Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was removed from its sight in New York. Anish Kapoor’s Orbit was turned into a giant slide to appease the public. Chicagoans disliked Untitled (Chicago Picasso) when it was first erected in Daley Plaza. House, by Rachel Whiteread was destroyed in East London.


Now, some people in Buffalo are unhappy with the memorial sculpture in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, and they say they want it replaced. But it’s not that simple.


The details:

Public art is seldom universally appreciated, and in a diverse society, trying to please everyone is a recipe for mediocrity. Good art challenges and generates a range of responses. It’s not uncommon for portions of the public to react negatively to art that isn’t literal and familiar.


Community activist Samuel A. Herbert is leading a petition drive to remove the eight-foot tall bronze head in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, and replace it with a statue that looks more like the civil rights leader. “That was a huge mistake,” says Herbert, “and for thirty-four years, this head has been sitting on this hill.” Then the activist adds, “Two and a half generations have grown up thinking that this image is Dr. King.” Which is true if the big bronze head is the only depiction of MLK you’ve seen in thirty-five years.


The work was created by the distinguished African-American sculptor John Woodrow Wilson. Another sculpture of MLK by the artist has been on display in the Capitol Rotunda since 1986. It doesn’t exactly look like MLK either, and that’s the idea. The Buffalo head is a symbol of African-American power and wisdom, not a literal depiction.


Herbert is under a couple misconceptions. The first is that it’s possible to remove the current sculpture and have a new one in place by next year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He says he doesn’t know what the whole project will cost, but he wants to raise funds to commission a work, and he even knows how it should look. WBEN radio quotes Herbert as saying, "We're going to raise the dollars. We're going to save a tremendous amount of money (by recycling the material, the metal)...We're going to hire that oriental sculptor that did the work in Washington, D.C. on the Reverend Martin Luther King monument: The Stone of Hope. We're going to get him to do the work."


Whoa, “that oriental sculptor?” “Recycling the material?” First, the artist Herbert is referring to by a term considered so inappropriate that President Obama outlawed its use in federal documents is Chinese sculptor Lei Yikin. When it was first unveiled, his MLK monument— which is stone, not bronze—was deemed a "failure," by Edward Rothstein in the New York Times. Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post stated, "The memorial could be vastly improved by simply removing the statue." So, Herbert thinks he can avoid controversy with Lei?


Then there’s the big savings Herbert expects from “melting down” the current statue. How much would that really save? Especially after the lawsuit. Lawsuit? Yup, the Visual Artists Rights Act protects artwork—including public works owned by cities—from being destroyed for as long as the copyright lasts. That’s the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. Wilson died in 2015, so Herbert has another sixty-seven years to wait, which is about how long it will take to raise $100 million dollars—the cost of the Washington DC MLK sculpture by Lei Yikin. Oh, and it also took twenty-five years of planning.


The takeaway:

If they do get 10,000 signatures on their petition as they hope, it’s unlikely that Herbert and his fellow petitioners will have any luck replacing the current sculpture. Though, maybe a second sculpture could be located elsewhere in the park. Maybe he could get the Scary Lucy sculptor out of retirement. Meanwhile the petitioners’ time might be better spent taking an art appreciation course.



It’s shred time, bro

So many things are planned for Buffalo’s waterfront, including on the outer harbor, that it’s hard to keep track of them all. A children’s museum, antique carousel, conversion of the DL&W Terminal into a major waterfront destination, and recreation of Buffalo River’s historic Central Wharf, among others, are all at various stages of development. Now there’s news that will make bicycle enthusiasts cheer. But the public response is mystifying.  


The details:

Last week, Buffalo’s Panning Board approved the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation’s proposal for a Bicycle Park on the outer harbor. The Common Council must still give its approval, which is expected. After that, the plan is to begin building in June, and have the park completed by spring of 2019—less than a year!


This is a large parcel of land on the Outer Harbor that will be dedicated to recreational activities, especially biking and walking. Imagine that—no fees, just nature, designed and landscaped for human enjoyment and leisure. There are three separate biking trails, at least one of which will be challenging, and a tot track for kids. One (maybe more) will wind through wooded areas.  


There will also be an extension of the existing Greenway pedestrian trail that will loop around the same area, and include a scenic overlook. The plans include an activity area, with picnic tables and food truck service. The walkway will be landscaped and include public art. The plans incorporate parking for over forty cars, but it’s expected that many will likely arrive by bike.  


Seems like a new public park, with amenities, on the waterfront would be a slam dunk. Other cities have similar attractions. There are over 1000 recreational trails spread out over all fifty states, and numerous websites are dedicated to bike park enthusiasts.


But when Buffalo Rising reported on the proposed bike park, complete with illustrations and an exclamation point in the title, the reader comments were surprisingly negative. Many promoted private investment over public access. One person asks, “Can we get a consensus of people to speak out and just kill this proposal fast?”


The takeaway:

“Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.”
H.G. Wells

The greatest fear many people had when waterfront development was first being discussed was that developers would get the land for commercial purposes, and deny the public access to the shoreline. The Erie County Harbor Development Corporation has seen to it that the inner and outer harbors have been largely public places. This isn’t wasted opportunity for tax revenue; it’s part of what makes locating and living in a city attractive to investors and businesses. I want to ride my bicycle.



Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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