Walking Across Buffalo- A Journey Down Main Street

Last fall, I returned to Buffalo, and I went for walk. A very long walk. It traversed the length of Buffalo, via Main Street (with many detours), and through the heart of Buffalo. Main street bisects Buffalo in two, and I wanted to take in as much of the city as I could the day I was there. And I  did. A graduate of UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, I hadn’t been back to Buffalo in a number of years. Here’s the journey:

 

Hayes Hall and The University

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On a picture perfect fall morning, I took off, appropriately from the top of Main Street, at the foot of Hayes Hall, and the UB School of Architecture and Planning. How often I clambered up that diagonal sidewalk, hoping the glue would dry on my latest efforts at Bauhaus inspired form giving.

Hayes Hall is being restored and updated, with a grand re-opening this fall. A new life for the building. It is worth noting that its original life was  as an insane asylum. I would think of that occasionally whilst working in the wee hours of the morning, shuffling down the corridor, going for coffee. But I digress.

It is a classic collegiate setting, complete with a gentle upsloping lawn that provides a bucolic anchor for this end of Main Street. The lawn a place of gathering, I remember it fondly on that first nice spring-like day, when all work was dropped to be outside, us often landing on this very lawn. Hayes Hall’s clock tower, a beacon, glowed on this day.

 

Living In The City-  University Heights

For freshman, at least back then, the first year at UB was required to be in a dorm, and for us it was at the suburban Amherst campus. Main Street was where we all wanted to hang out, but the romantic brutalism of the Elliott Complex was home for that year. It seemed so very far away from everything, a jumble of towers in the woods. I often had this image in my mind when heading home. By sophomore year, I was able to move into a house near Main.

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Heading south from the campus, one is in the heart of the University Heights neighborhood. Perhaps a bit scruffier than the more polished Elmwood at Buffalo State’s doorstep,  this was still a marvelous introduction to the pleasure of living in a city, with everything you needed or wanted at your doorstep; be it books, beers, wings, or , well, candy. It was  community we found there, and my love of urban life formed here, framed on Main Street with its modest 2 story mixed use buildings. Hanging out at Amy’s Place with classmates, beers at the Third Base, books at Talking Leaves.

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Many of the  long time shops still there. I stopped in Parkside Candies for some souvenirs, stepping back into the 40s in the process. I would find out later on this almost hot day the choice of chocolate as a souvenir was not a wise one.

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Industrial Buffalo- Daylight and the Belt Line

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I carried on under the tracks and into a quieter zone of Main Street, and amidst some larger apartment buildings, Buffalo’s industrial past began to appear, with reaffirming evidence of the re-birth of old buildings. The original Buffalo Meter Company begat Bethune Hall, the original home to the UB School of Architecture, later the Art Department (I took a drawing class there). This building was one of the foci of UB historian extraordinaire Reyner Banham’s treatise on Industrial Architecture, “Concrete Atlantis”. A prime example of the “daylight factory”, a simple concrete grid with glass infill, though its flourishes apparently rendered it , per Banham, a  part of the “late decadent” period of this style. Banham was a purist after all. After being vacant for years, it has found another  new life- apartments.

I soldiered on and came to another daylight factory , the massive Trico plant.

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This was designed by the great industrial architect Albert Khan for the Ford Motor Company. By the early  80s , it was  part of the Trico Company, a maker of wiper blades, and in school, one  could rub elbows with just off shift workers at the nearby Central Park Grill, a much-loved haunt. But soon thereafter, Trico moved its facilities to Mexico, and the plant closed. One more Buffalo factory gone. But this massive building has seen a new life, as the Tri-Main development, now populated with artists, small businesses, and non-profits.

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I was always in awe of this massive structure, and equally intrigued by this strangely quiet rail line nearby,the Belt-Line. An industrial rail line that doubled for a period as rail transit for the populace. It  allowed then for the suburbanization of Buffalo industry. Now, could it , like these buildings, find a new life – adding to Buffalo’s modest commuter rail infrastructure? A quiet reminder of it as a passenger line sits nearby, the lone remaining station.

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Photo courtesy of Buffaloah.com

 

Parks and Parkways- Wright and Olmsted

Living in Buffalo, I quickly discovered the second pleasure of living in a city, and that is what the city as a whole has to offer.  Jewett Parkway pulled at me, so I went on a detour off Main, through Buffalo’s  parks and parkways.

Back in the day, it was pretty extraordinary that I could walk to one of the great iconic residential buildings in the United States,  the Martin House by Frank Lloyd Wright:

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Like much in Buffalo in the early 80s, and upstate New York in general,it was in the process of a slow renovation after years of decline. I recall you could only see part of the house then. Today , fully restored, and it is now joined by a visitors center.

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These  delightful streets, like Jewett Parkway, radiate from one of the centers of civic life in Buffalo,  Frederick Law Olmstead’s great Buffalo Parks and Parkway system, with Delaware Park at its center.

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At is heart, the bucolic splendor of the park and parkways serve as a front lawn for many civic icons. For me,  the great Albright-Knox Museum was a treasure trove. I became captivated by Art and Art History while at UB, with the nearby Albright-Knox a classroom filled with its exquisite modern art collection.

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Today, the vistas in the park were fresh to me, temples in the landscape, a Romantic civic notion brought to life in an industrial city in the heart of America. I eventually exited the park, and carried on along one of Olmsted’s magnificently leafy residential parkways that extend out from the park. I was dawdling here, understandably, but needed to meet back up with Main Street.

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I rejoined Main Street. And the  leafy bucolic Romanticism was gone.

Main Street- The Fault Line

In the 80s, Main Street was under assault . From end to end, the new subway , the answer to all of Buffalo ills we were told, was in progress. The street was in tatters, but it was still a vital artery for us students, and we trundled up and down Main Street, to get downtown, over the brain-rattling, pot-holed, detour filled street , via the trusty 8 Main. This was the scene up and down. Always…..”Coming Soon”.

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We would leave Buffalo before the subway was completed.

As an Architecture student, I was excited by big visions and grand plans, but I could never see anything. Growing up in Syracuse, and now Buffalo, everything  in those days was all torn up, under wraps. I remember seeing extraordinary models and plans showing the build out of the rail system, connecting to a massive Amherst campus, one born of 60s megastructural thinking that dwarfed its current incarnation. And along Main Street, each station a hub for new development, densification.

Today, this is the hub on Main Street at the Utica Station.

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Main Street is a fault line, where east meets west in Buffalo. The more affluent, generally whiter west, the less affluent, generally minority east side. Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that. But it is a fault line, and the contrasts can be jarring. And , with all that is happening around the country in 2016, this demarcation seemed even more pronounced.

Heading south, I don’t think I was in this neck of the woods very much at UB, I mean save for the occasional trip to Hyatt’s for art  supplies. There are a lot of gaps on this part of Main Street. The streetscape is chaotic , a  lovely terra-cotta clad commercial building followed by a suburban styled mini-mart. Old residential buildings , substantial and slightly quirky, followed by a weed infested parking lot and a deserted church.

And buildings like the Family Dollar above. They  fill a commercial need, but are thrown up, literally. One size fits all, perhaps an apt motto for the Family Dollar, itself looking very much , one would hope, like a temporary building.

Some Main Street views:

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Bridging The Fault Line- The Medical Campus

And then, in a burst, the street changed as  I came upon the burgeoning downtown medical campus, the rapidly expanding new home to’s UB’s Medical programs, adding on to the existing hospital and research campus, a new downtown campus for the school.  In an instant, I had a feeling that the whole of the city was shedding its skin. Before me, the new campus buildings under construction,  a huge old hotel converted into residential, and behind me , musty century old brick structures under renovation. So wonderful to see more of these elegant old structures renewed, that musty odor of decades old decay released on to the sidewalk, a hope-filled essence if there ever was one.

The next hub- Main Street at Allen Station, a new center for Buffalo.

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One one side, to the west, (seen above) the new campus anchors the end of Allen Street, as vibrant a mixed use inner city neighborhood as you will see anywhere. But what about on the east side? I crossed Main Street and passed through the campus. I decided I would take another detour off of Main, and headed into the Fruit Belt neighborhood and beyond.

The Fruit Belt  was so named by the German settlers who, well, planted fruit trees here. The legacy of that is in street names now. The German immigrants eventually departed for the suburbs in the 50s, replaced by African-Americans from the south in search of inexpensive places to live in the northern US. They found that here. And then the factories moved to Mexico. And people left.

I regarded the current seismic shift, at the corner of Carlton and Maple. One could see both the promise and the challenges- vacant lands, old homes and new, in the shadow of the rapidly expanding campus.

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Turning around, the old building stock of the Fruit Belt showed itself up close, an old Lutheran and now Baptist Church lorded over a checkerboard of homes , vacant lots, and overgrown sidewalks.

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As I walked through the neighborhood, the small old homes that were still here were slightly different than the west side. Closer together, and seemed to be in many cases single family homes. I imagined long time residents, many homes lovingly cared for, saw others in need of help.

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What did the future hold for this area? And how would potential new development be married to the existing neighborhood? I understood the neighborhood is struggling with some of the repercussions of the change- the change is huge. This fact remains this an area that makes sense for development , but hopefully done smartly and sensitively .

 

The Urban Prairie

After I crossed over Route 33, I ventured  east, way up along Broadway. And while Fruit Belt was a balance of empty lots and homes, it was dense compared to this area.

The amount of vacant land was stunning. In the distance, St. Stanislaus, the heart of the old Polish community in Buffalo, loomed over the urban prairie in the late day sun.

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Here and there, some new homes had sprouted. But at times , the scenes looked like they could have been plucked from some midwestern farming community, instead of the heart of the city.

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I carried on, and came upon  this shuttered church. St. Ann’s was closed in 2012, due to its deteriorating condition and a declining congregation. The diocese recently announced that it would be torn down, but Buffalonians appealed to the Vatican, who intervened. It is saved……..as long as it remains a church. For now, it sits quietly.

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Here is the interior:

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Meanwhile,  another congregation crowds into a little house a few feet away.

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This area was breaking my heart. I came upon many extraordinary buildings , richly detailed , in need of a new life. And I wondered how a city half its former size could possibly find uses for all of them. There were only so many tenants for the likes of the Trico plant.

An old theater on Broadway. Please Donate:

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An old school nearby. For Sale::

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Buffalo, once a city of 580,000, now has 280,000 residents. Buffalo will never regain all the population it has lost. So what to do with all this land, not to mention maintaining infrastructure designed to support a city twice its size?

I had seen exciting things happening at the medical campus, and Larkinville, a repurposed industrial area not far away, that can and are radiating infill development. And it seemed to me that there were certain areas, such as this corridor along Broadway leading to the Broadway/Fillmore,that could be good candidates for focused infill, that could radiate more development. It seemed that some of these old structures held a key. Built to last, could they be lynchpins of a plan?

But what of these blocks that now have but a couple of homes, that are far from these areas? In Youngstown, Ohio, they are encouraging preservation of vacant homes in certain more stable areas, whereas in largely vacated blocks, demolition makes more sense to allow more flexibility of future use. But this is complicated. I noted some urban farms in my travels, but how many urban farms can a place support? What industry could relocate here? And what would it take to lure new residents into the neighborhoods. More complex questions, no easy answers.

I headed back to Main Street.

The Queen City Of The Lakes

Still lost in thoughts about the east side, I arrived back on Main. I again reflected on memories in the early 80s. Main Street, and the Theater District itself, was in upheaval, trying to remake itself. I found some old photos, courtesy of the Buffalo City Hall archives, of Buffalo from roughly this period.  Some images from the theater district back then:

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And this was how I remember it. But at about that time, this part of Buffalo was beginning to renew itself, thanks to a dedicated group, among them the dean of the UB School at the time, Harold Cohen, who advocated this area as a place of entertainment, a place to live, true urban pioneers.

To be sure, more challenging to breathe new life into an east side church or theater…perhaps, but a lot of what I was looking at now along Main Street seemed pretty far-fetched in 1980. A vibrant entertainment district filled with restaurants, bars, and people bear testament to those labors. The area looked great.

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I made my way to the bottom of Main  Street , detouring to Niagara Square, to my favorite Buffalo building. No building to me summed up the city better than this building. While the city had  more iconic architectural masterpieces, this epic 30s Art Deco tower, sitting dominant at the very center of Ellicott’s radial urban plan; muscular, aspirational, was so Buffalo. The monument at the center a spike in the heart of Joseph Ellicott’s radial plan: “this is the center”. This place always spoke to me, about the possibilities of this collective civic realm, an elegant blue-collar tribute to Buffalo, The Queen City Of The Lakes.

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The walk was nearly over. I took in some new buildings nearby, a new courthouse, the harborcenter, canal side. It was clear there was much happening in downtown Buffalo

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In the last analysis, living in any city affords one the chance to learn, to grow, to aspire. Stand at the base of the Guaranty Building, and look up. Buffalo continues to do that for me.

 

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A Concrete Atlantis

I  finished this long walk  at the Buffalo River. One of our first field trips at UB was here, to the legendary grain elevators. I wasn’t sure I understood the import of these structures then, but today, they all seemed part of the thread.

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Extraordinary civic, spiritual, and industrial structures, built to last , not going anywhere. The famous works of 20th century Buffalo celebrated the robust optimism of the time, and now in the 21st, it seemed these overlooked industrial and spiritual works could continue to be recovered- Trico, Larkinville, Canalside, maybe the  Belt Line and yes, maybe even St. Ann’s. These could form catalysts, at least for their immediate surroundings, and the recovery of these structures would seem to be  one lynchpin in Buffalo’s on-going evolution. I felt optimism in Buffalo on my visit. I felt momentum.

Appropriately, I would end at Riverworks, a new entertainment complex located amidst these grain elevators. Elevators that we studied and drew back at Hayes Hall, elevators that Banham wrote so eloquently about in “Concrete Atlantis”. Cathedrals of Industry.

I felt a sudden sharp gust off the lake. Ahh yes, remember those well.It was time to hobble back to the hotel.


 

The next day, I stopped back at the University, where I started, before heading to the airport. My legs hurt, I figured I walked about 13 miles. But it felt like I had traveled much further.Not unlike the last 30 years, for me and the city I suppose.

A journey to be continued.

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