Air Date: Week of April 30, 1999
When an upscale shopping mall opened in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, the mall operators refused to let the city bus line from the predominately African American ghetto have a stop on mall grounds, even though other buses were permitted. Cynthia Wiggins, a black teenage girl, was killed on her way to a job at the mall after she got off the bus and attempted to cross a seven lane highway from the bus stop. A law suit alleging discrimination has been filed. Issues of race, sprawl and public transportation combine in this story from WXXI's Brenda Tremblay.
KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Public transportation is often touted by planners as a way to reduce sprawl and pollution. But most of the American public remains wedded to the automobile. Cars are certainly more convenient, and convenience and flexibility rank high in surveys on transportation matters. But there is another issue about public transportation: fairness. A car can help eliminate what some call discrimination against the poor and people of color. Today, much like the historic cases of Plessy vs. Ferguson and the Montgomery bus boycott, a lawsuit is being heard in a Buffalo, New York courtroom that shines a harsh light on the forces that link race and transportation. The case involves a suburban bus stop, and upscale mall, and the death of Cynthia Wiggins, a black teenager from the city. Brenda Tremblay of member station WXXI in Rochester prepared our story.
TREMBLAY: Buffalo's bus number 4 stops on Broadway Avenue in front of a stately marble bank. Only it's not a bank any more, it's a pawn shop. And nobody gets off here any more because there are no jobs in this part of town. If you want to make a living on Buffalo's East Side, you have to be pretty enterprising. Like Joe, a guy who's sitting on a big cement block selling hip-hop gear.
JOE: People come and they ride past. They see nice stuff. They like it, you know?
TREMBLAY: Joe points at the brightly colored sweatsuits flapping in the breeze behind him. He says that he makes good money sitting here selling this stuff. He lives close by so he doesn't have to commute. And best of all...
JOE: I come to work when I want to. Nobody tell me what to do. You know, I don't have nobody on my back, you know, sweatin' me, you know. I'm my own boss.
TREMBLAY: Very few people can get by this way in a neighborhood characterized by double-digit unemployment. Most people here are just scraping by. This is a story of how things got so bad, and how one person lost everything trying to make her life a little better.
(A phone rings)
WOMAN: Oh, I'll get it.
TREMBLAY: It starts around the corner, on Walts Avenue, where Cynthia Adams and her mother Florence are making sandwiches and getting ready to head out for work. Cynthia's sister watches her 3-year-old nephew Kilo play with a little plastic skeleton. Then she takes his hand and leads him into the kitchen.
SHALA: ... fruit. Come on.
TREMBLAY: Mrs. Adams eyes the clock. She and her mother have to catch the bus to get to work. A third of the families who live here on the East Side can't afford a car. Neither can this one. So Mrs. Adams walks past the junked cars and boarded-up houses lining her street to the bus stop at the corner, where she catches the bus to her job at a collection agency in the suburbs.
ADAMS: I do a lot of collections. That's where you call up the people on the phone and ask them about their car loan, when they're going to make their next payments. And I get some really bizarre stories sometimes (laughs).
TREMBLAY: Mrs. Adams has her own bizarre story to tell. She had 2 daughters, Cynthia and Shala. Four years ago her 17-year-old daughter Cynthia came to her and told her she wanted to apply for a job at a new mall in the suburbs.
ADAMS: She just wanted her own. She wanted her own money at the time. And like most teenagers, you know, they want the top of the line clothes, the fashionable shoes, and she liked the jewelry. And she just wanted to live independently. She wanted her own.
TREMBLAY: So, Mrs. Adams' daughter, Cynthia Wiggins, got a job running the cash register at Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips, a take-out restaurant in the food court at the Walden Galleria Mall in a suburb of Buffalo.
ADAMS: Like I told her, but if this is what you really want to do, you know, then so be it.
[Ambient sounds in a mall]
WOMAN 1: Hi, can I help you?
WOMAN 2: [inaudible] one's free?
TREMBLAY: From her post at the Arthur Treacher's counter, Cynthia Wiggins could see the whole length of the food court with its pink gleaming tile floor and white sparkling pillars. By the time she began her lunch time shift, sunlight was streaming into the court from overhead skylights. Cynthia's mother says her daughter liked working at the mall.
ADAMS: Well, she was a people person. She followed directions, but she also wanted to become a manger there at one time.
TREMBLAY: The only problem with Cynthia's job was getting there. Like her mother and her grandmother, Cynthia Wiggins had to catch the bus to work, and the bus didn't quite bring her far enough.
GALLOWAY: It was bad here. It was bad here. So it was just an accident bound to happen.
TREMBLAY: Warren Galloway is the president of Buffalo's Operation Push. He points to the stop where every weekday morning Cynthia Wiggins got off Buffalo's bus number 6. It doesn't look like much of a bus stop to me. It's basically a metal pole stuck in the mud next to a 2-foot-wide cement slab. Hundreds of cars, buses, and semis thunder past as we talk.
(Much traffic in the background)
GALLOWAY: Well, at the time there wasn't a crosswalk. And everybody, you know, they came off the bus, you got to understand there was snow all the way up here. So you took the biggest span, you went straight across the street.
TREMBLAY: Straight across the street meant that Cynthia had to dash across 7 lanes of traffic to reach the mall parking lot. Then she had to make her way through a sea of parked vehicles, past all the minivans, sport utility vehicles, and station wagons, in order to reach the mall entrance.
TREMBLAY: On December 14, 1995, Cynthia Wiggins stepped off the bus here. The bus stop on the curb was covered by a snow drift. She could see the mall across the highway. The lines of traffic in front of her were stopped at an intersection 20 yards away. There was no pedestrian crosswalk, so Cynthia just went for it. She pulled the hood of her parka over her head and began to thread her way across the highway. She made it across 3 lanes. She was walking alongside a 10-ton dump truck when the light turned green. Cynthia slipped under the wheels and the driver never even noticed. Cynthia's mother was out at the time, and when she got home her husband broke the news.
ADAMS: He said, he called up on the phone and told me, "You better get to the hospital." He said, "There's been an accident." But they didn't exactly tell me that she was already gone, she was already dead.
TREMBLAY: At first, Cynthia Wiggins' death seemed like just another sad statistic. Insurance Institute of Highway Safety Records show that about 6,000 pedestrians die in accidents every year in the United States. But in the days that followed Cynthia's death, local reporters began to discover evidence that mall officials and the local bus company in Buffalo had made decisions that created a dangerous situation for passengers.
GALLOWAY: They were discriminating against poor black folks from the inner city.
TREMBLAY: Warren Galloway was angry when he heard that mall officials had denied permission for one bus, bus number 6 from the ghetto, that's Cynthia Wiggins' bus, to drive onto mall property. The mall welcomed buses from the suburbs. It even welcomed buses from Canada. But not bus number 6. After Cynthia's death, the bus company released documents showing that for 8 years it had tried to get the mall owners, the Pyramid Companies, to allow bus number 6 onto mall property.
GALLOWAY: To not allow that was a decision based on race. Not economics, just strictly on race.
TREMBLAY: And so, the Wiggins family has filed a lawsuit against 4 defendants, including the bus company that dropped Cynthia off at the side of the highway and the mall's owners who refused to grant passage to bus number 6. Albert DeQuino is a lawyer representing the mall's owners. He says that the decision to refuse bus number 6 was made before the Walden Galleria Mall was even open.
DE QUINO: There had been a disturbance at a mall one mile down the road, and that disturbance was so extensive that multiple police agencies responded. And it was reported in the press widely. The person from the mall who met with the NFTA at the time read the paper like other people in Buffalo and knew about this, and in the course of that very preliminary discussion a year before the mall opened, he said, "We're interested in bus service. One thing we're probably not interested in is whatever bus was involved a mile down the road at this other mall."
TREMBLAY: Mr. DeQuino says that the racial make-up of bus number 6's riders was never brought up by either party. Furthermore, he argues, Cynthia Wiggins had a choice. She took a risk and she paid for her recklessness with her life.
DE QUINO: Had she wanted to, she could have taken the mall shuttle bus tot he Galleria Mall at the mall bus stop on Galleria Drive, like a lot of other people in her position who worked at the mall did every day.
TREMBLAY: But instead Cynthia Wiggins wanted to avoid the hassle and save time.
(On board bus)
TREMBLAY: I was curious. I wanted to see what her options were like, so I stayed on bus number 6 to make the transfer Mr. DeQuino described. After waiting in the cold rain for 20 minutes, in this desolate transfer station, I could understand why Cynthia got off the bus when she did despite the danger. And I could understand why some people say that...
TAYLOR: Cynthia Wiggins lost her life because of quiet, sanitized racism.
TREMBLAY: That's Henry Louis Taylor, a professor at the University of Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. He says that every one who lives in the suburbs of Buffalo is to blame for Cynthia Wiggins' death.
TAYLOR: They knew the transportation system didn't operate and didn't function. They knew that blacks had trouble getting all over the place. And they thought that was okay. So they were responsible.
TREMBLAY: Dr. Taylor says that Cynthia Wiggins was caught up in bigger forces, historical and economic forces that have changed Buffalo and have created the circumstances, like poor bus service, that people like her have to face every day. And those changes began long before Cynthia Wiggins was even born.
(Man playing banjo and singing: "If you want to go to heaven, on the other shore...")
TREMBLAY: At the turn of the century 90% of black people lived in the rural South. Most were extremely poor. They began to hear about these good jobs available in northern cities: in the automobile plants of Detroit, in the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Dr. Taylor says that in-between 1940 and 1970, 80,000 southern Blacks moved to the city of Buffalo.
TAYLOR: They came to Buffalo in search of jobs and opportunities, hoping to fulfill their dreams.
TREMBLAY: Buffalo was a hoppin' place back then, offering lots of well-paying industrial jobs. It was like the Seattle of today, with huge defense contracts to manufacture military planes. That was the good news.
TAYLOR: The bad news was that automation and cybernation were eliminating those industries as major sources of employment. And so, the jobs that they came searching for were disappearing almost as quickly as they got them.
TREMBLAY: At the same time, white residents were leaving the city of Buffalo in droves, and they could afford cars and new houses in the fast-growing suburbs. So the poor blacks coming to Buffalo in search of a better life inherited the oldest parts of the city. The whites who stayed there found their property was losing value as the population shifted.
TAYLOR: That period, in which there was an enormous amount of struggle over the living place, really created a culture of fear among whites in relationship to black neighbors, that I think carries with us to this day, where whites try to distance themselves from African-Americans.
TREMBLAY: And so the old neighborhoods of Buffalo are chopped up by elevated highways that rain garbage and exhaust on people that can't even afford cars to drive on them. The robbery rate here is 10 times higher than it is in the closest suburb. Most of the jobs have moved to the suburbs, so Dr. Taylor says it's just harder for blacks to get to work than it is for whites. One study shows that in Chicago, for example, black commuters have to drive an extra 20 minutes to get to work when compared to whites. Even here in Buffalo, a new light rail system that starts downtown stops short of the city's largest suburb, Amherst, home to one of the area's biggest employers. Dr. Taylor calls it racism, but not everyone thinks the issue is so simple.
KUNTSLER: I think that racism and the difficulty of different races getting together is a part of the picture, but it certainly doesn't explain the whole picture.
TREMBLAY: James H. Kuntsler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Manmade Landscape. Mr. Kuntsler says that the consequences of urban sprawl affect everybody. That highways and parking lots of suburbia, he says, are dangerous and awful for everyone, not just those who are trying to get there from the inner city. Furthermore, he says, people in the city commit more crimes. And people in the suburbs hear about it. So Americans are stuck in this vicious cycle, because...
KUNTSLER: The underclass left in the city does have behavior problems, but the official response to that, to cutting off bus service, is deplorable. And there end up being victims of this self-reinforcing negative feedback loop that exists in the whole culture.
TREMBLAY: And Cynthia Wiggins, he says, was a victim in that loop of violence, fear, and distrust.
(On the bus)
DRIVER: Need a transfer?
WOMAN: Uh, no.
TREMBLAY: I catch bus number 6 at the mall and we head back toward Buffalo's East Side. The bus is about half full and most of the passengers are black. I step over little pools of mud and find a seat next to a man named Luis, who says he's finished his shift as a janitor at the Walden Galleria Mall. As our bus crosses the highway and heads into the ghetto, Luis smiles and shows me a lottery card.
LUIS: I play the lottery every day (laughs), see if I can get some money to buy a car. I'd rather have a car so I won't have to, you know, go, you know, being in a crowd and stuff. And some days the buses don't smell too good, either.
TREMBLAY: In the very back of the bus, a tall white woman named Ronnie sits staring out at the rain. She's wearing jeans and a blue windbreaker with an L.L. Bean logo on it. Her red hair is pulled back from her face into a bun. Ronnie tells me that she sits at the back of the bus for a reason.
RONNIE: I don't like people too close to me. I'm afraid of germs. Some of them don't look too clean.
TREMBLAY: And as we pass by Cynthia Wiggins' street, Ronnie leans forward and hands me a bus token. She advises me to dress down the next time I take the bus.
RONNIE: See, I usually look much nicer than this. But I dress very, very plain when I'm on the bus, no jewelry, no nothing, so I'll just blend right in. Don't want to be mugged.
TREMBLAY: Ronnie says sometimes she feels outnumbered. And when I ask her what she means, she just purses her lips and looks out the window.
(The bus stops to discharge passengers)
TREMBLAY: After bus number 6 discharges its passengers, it will loop back to the Walden Galleria Mall in the suburbs. And it will pull right up to the mall's entrance. The mall owners have changed their policy, and now they allow this inner-city bus on their property. But it's too late for Cynthia Wiggins. She took her last bus ride on December 14, 1995. In Buffalo, New York, I'm Brenda Tremblay.
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