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Then and Now: Proof of Life After Death

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32 St John’s Place, built in the late 1800’s served as a grand residence for many years. After gradual decline to status as a rooming house it had finally sunk to a devastating low point following an arson fire in 1998 followed by owner abandonment. The house sat open to the weather blighting this very picturesque urban street on the western edge of the Allentown neighborhood. Even though it was structurally sound and was part of the Allentown Historic Preservation District (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) it was in grave danger of being torn down. The overly common first reaction to situations like this is to call for demolition. This knee jerk action may solve a problem in the short run but eliminates so many potential benefits in the future. This way of thinking would have you believe the building is not repairable and that the neighborhood does not justify the expenditure of money needed to make it habitable again. Fortunately for Buffalo a new way of thinking about the city is emerging and gaining strength led by dedicated neighborhood groups who cherish the irreplaceable city fabric that makes Buffalo’s streets so extraordinary.

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After the city of Buffalo took possession of the house for non-payment of taxes in 2000 (to my knowledge no other penalty was leveled against the owner) citizen activist groups (Allentown Association, the Kleinhans Community Association Block Club, and Preservation Coalition of Erie County) joined forces to save the building. They actively marketed the building and made efforts to seal it against further damage. The local neighborhood group, Kleinhans Community Association Block Club, posted regular updates on their web site and made sure that city officials knew that area neighbors were fully in support of saving this valuable piece of urban fabric. Without this kind of grass roots effort by regular citizens this building (and neighborhood) would most surely have been lost.

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Because of active involvement in their surroundings the people of Buffalo are starting to take back the city. They no longer wait for someone else to step in and do something. These kinds of activities, more than anything, show that the Buffalo of today is a very different place than in the recent past. This house and its street were saved due to this kind of activism. It has a new owner who is currently performing a first class renovation including new high quality historically accurate windows, a new porch and new cedar siding. The interior will be completely new as well. It will include a small apartment with a majority of the space dedicated to the owners home. They are reportedly spending over $200,000 on the project. This in a neighborhood where prices for a house can be as low as $10,000. In the past a major investment of this kind would have been unthinkable in an edgy neighborhood such as this. Now houses are commonly selling in the 6 figure range. There is much work to be done in this and many other Buffalo neighborhoods and the old “tear it down mentality” is still very strong. But, stunning examples of renewal like 32 St. John’s will gradually shine a light on the path Buffalo needs to follow to its rebirth. Welcome to the world again 32 St. John’s!

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Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( www.blurb.com ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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