The post card included here is at Seneca and Main (other post card views included here show more detail of the buildings once located on these blocks) . It shows a densely built and wonderfully complex urban scene. The tall building near the center ( the original Marine Midland Bank headquarters) is the only building remaining today. Everything else has been torn down, mostly replaced with a sprawl style landscape. The buildings to the left have been removed to provide a parking lot. The domed building at the corner of Main now exists as piles of stones in a field on the East Side. It was supposed to be pieced back together but space for cars on this block has remained far more valuable than space for people. The buildings in the distance have been removed for a mixture of reasons including the baseball stadium, parking lots, highway off ramps and, empty fields. The buildings to the right were removed for the giant wind-swept and normally empty plaza around the HSBC tower.
This once infinitely complex and compelling few blocks has now been rendered as a hideously unattractive and unwelcoming place in the name of sprawl. 'Place' is not a good word to use because this place is placeless - "there is no there there". Walking through this area is uncomfortable at best and dangerous at its worst when the winds get blowing. Even with thousands of people working just steps away these streets are almost always empty. The placelessness of this block traps people inside the giant HSBC building. They go inside in the morning and rarely leave until they get back in their cars to go home in the evening. Can you blame them? Without vibrant blocks of shops and restaurants to entice them out they instead shun the city. The vibrant streets that once graced this part of the city were given up in payment for sprawl. The need for these densely packed buildings ended when we traded them in for a drastically spread out metro area. The result is that a young visitor to the city will make the comment that Buffalo is a "ghost town...worst city ever". Can you blame him for holding that view? The sad truth is that no one can honestly blame a visitor for having this opinion of the city's downtown and suburbs.
Buffalo is a very interesting city still full of treasures if you know where to find them. It has great potential to be one of the country's great cities but that can't happen while also paying the heavy price of sprawl. Buffalo (meaning WNY) has been on a 50 year quest to make itself into a placeless place- a place with no "there there". Year after year the unique and historical buildings and places are removed - one-two-three at a time. At first the change is not noticeable. An old empty building is gone and there are a few less shops on Main. People spread out and more buildings come vacant. Soon whole blocks are removed and people stop coming all together. The stores are gone, the buildings are gone and, the people are gone. Except that the people are not really gone. They have just spread out to such an extent that they can no longer support the dense vibrant places that made for great attractive places.
The problem with this scenario is that the center city is the public face of WNY. This is what people see when they see and think of when they think of BuffaloBuffalo . The face that Buffalo now chooses to present to the world is represented by a dead downtown. It is a downtown with empty streets, parking lots, and too many empty buildings. After posting a quick story about WNY's weak investment in tourism marketing last week I got into a bit of a debate with Chris Smith of WNYMedia. He contended that spending to entice people to WNY was meaningless if you brought them into a place that was not providing them with a fulfilling experience. Although I disagreed with with the defeatist nature of his position I did not disagree with the basic substance. You can't expect people, visitors, investors, media and, locals alike to embrace Buffalo if the product you offer is the bland and placeless place that downtown Buffalo has been transformed into. Everything that has been done to the block shown in this post card over the last half century has made the city a worse place to be. Does it make sense to make a place worse than what it was? Logic does not enter into the sprawl equation so Buffalo keeps paying with its most valuable resource-its heritage.
Today in Buffalo there are an increasing number of people who recognize the lunacy of selling the city's soul to pay the sprawl monster. But sprawl is a powerful force in America. The economics in modern America are fiercely in favor of sprawl, especially in an economically stagnant place like WNY. Few in local government are speaking up against sprawl and local media is silent too. Even fewer government officials (none?) are proposing any solutions in the form of public policy to address sprawl. The City of Buffalo is preparing a new zoning code which, if successful, will staunch the destructive effects of sprawl but not the sprawl itself. As a breath of fresh air highly respected downtown developer, Rocco Termini, wrote a brilliant opinion piece in the Buffalo News which was published on January 11 (read here). He described the urgent need to redevelop downtown and once again make it the center of Buffalo's commerce - to make it a place that can be used with pride as the face of the region. In the story he laid out a multitude of policies and incentives which could be employed to reverse the economics of sprawl in favor of downtown development. Is anyone listening? Will these ideas die on the pages of the News? Does anyone think that continued deterioration of downtown is a good idea? Can anyone honestly argue with the young hockey player and the opinion he got from seeing downtown Buffalo? Its time to do things differently! The same old same old should not be allowed to continue in WNY for another decade.
The post card views are taken from a wonderful postcard collection posted by Karl Josker.