Published March 13, 2015
If you ever received an e-mail from Nate Neuman you know that the tag-line below his signature reads: “for God, country and Buffalo.”
That’s not everything you need to know about Nathan Neuman, Captain U.S. Army Reserve, Afghanistan and Iraq war veteran, Bronze Star winner, urbanist, Buffalo city planner and soon-to-be Buffalo School alumnus, but it’s a good place to start.
Neuman has become a distinguished member of a new generation of activists who are free of the negative self-talk that characterized Buffalo civic life for decades and are taking direct action to make the city better. Last June, he spearheaded the “NextGen” program at the Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual conference in Buffalo. At previous conferences, the CNU program included, at best, a couple of happy hours aimed at its younger members. With Neuman in charge, attendees enjoyed a non-stop series of tours, lectures, discussions, film-screenings, art exhibits, bike rides and morning runs as well as cocktail parties, beer tastings and pub crawls that introduced visitors to Buffalo and carried the new urbanist curriculum.
“It was the most prolific series of NextGen events in CNU history,” Neuman’s friend and colleague Chris Hawley said. “He really took the ball and ran with it.”
The project showcased Neuman’s major attributes: an ability to connect with people, great logistical and organizational skills and political savvy.
Early in life Neuman acquired a home-grown appreciation for urbanism. He grew up on Lovering Avenue off Hertel where a person could do all their shopping within walking distance: Johnny’s Meats, Uhl’s Bakery, Caruso’s Meats and Lee’s Grocery.
The sidewalks, shop windows and roof-lines of North Buffalo shaped his consciousness. He understood the treasures of the city, Olmsted’s Delaware Park nearby, Buffalo’s grand architecture and the feel of life on city streets. As a 10-year-old he rode his bike down Elmwood Avenue, not out to the suburbs.
He got into Hutchinson Technical High School to study architecture and learned to draft by hand, as well as by computer, using all the tools of the craft – straight-edge, T-square, triangle and protractor. “Right up through college I was convinced that I would become an architect.” Neuman recalls. “I spent my time thinking about how I could make something beautiful by designing beautiful buildings.”
But his application to the undergraduate architecture program at UB was rejected and he couldn’t imagine spending four years at the rural and small-town schools where he did get in. Neuman decided to stay in Buffalo and take the broader environmental design track. He quickly discovered he wasn’t an architect after all. He was a planner.
“It’s not what I chose to be,” Neuman said. “It’s what I am.”
He soaked up inspiration from planning faculty like Kathryn Foster (now President at the University of Maine at Farmington), fell in with young activists in the New Millennium Group and immersed himself in the issues of the day: Peace Bridge, historic preservation and zoning code reform.
But if Neuman was a planner, he was also a soldier. At UB he enrolled in ROTC and after graduation in 2005 deployed to Iraq as a civil affairs officer. “I had always imagined myself in the military,” Neuman recalls. “Our society respects and values that. Patriotism is sexy.”
Civil affairs was not so different from being a city planner – working with tribal elders and local politicians, organizing people to rebuild their cities and their nation. It was a little diplomacy, a little bit of logistics, a little problem solving.
On his second tour in Iraq, Neuman deployed to the northern city of Mosul. It straddles the Tigris River and is served by a strategic highway connection. The road is in perpetually bad shape and the priority is always to rebuild. But every time U.S. forces tried to organize a reconstruction local customs and conflicts got in the way.
U.S. strategy in Iraq was summed up in three words: “clear; hold; build.” It wasn’t so hard to clear and hold, Neuman observes, but it was another thing to “build,” especially when it was outsiders – not natives – taking the initiative. A good lesson for a community builder.
Back in Buffalo, Neuman got wind of a job in the city’s Office of Strategic Planning. The title was “Temporary Senior Typist,” but he was advised to take the job to get a foot in the door. His friend was hired at the same time. “We just wiggled our way in,” Hawley recalls, “and they found a niche for us.”
Much of Neuman’s work in City Hall has been to help create a new form-based zoning code that will update the rules on where and what kind of development is allowed in the city.
“The Green Code, first and foremost, is an economic development tool to make it easier to invest in Buffalo, to make it easier to create jobs in Buffalo,” Neuman said.
The idea is to more clearly define what the City wants to encourage and streamline the approval process for development that fits that vision, which, not by the way, was informed by an aggressive public outreach program Neuman helped implement. The Green Code also seeks to legalize the kind of city Neuman remembers from his childhood. “Urbanism in its most primary form was prohibited,” by the old zoning code, Neuman said.
It mandated a suburban pattern for the developed city with segregated uses, larger lot sizes and minimum parking requirements. Most homes in Buffalo could not have been built under the code adopted in 1951. And it made the elements of what Neuman calls “fine-grained urbanism” subject to political bargaining. “You needed Common Council approval to open up a yarn shop,” he said.
That’ll change when the Green Code is finally approved – hopefully sometime early next year – maybe around the time Neuman receives his MUP in May.