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Growing Up City #5: Exploration

After a bit of a hiatus, I thought I would get back into this series for the new year.  For those who would like to catch up, here are the first 4 installments:
Maybe the greatest asset to a kid growing up in the city is easy access to an amazing diversity of places and things, both in the city and the suburbs.  Soon after moving into Buffalo from Lackawanna, I began exploring.  At first I traced the streets of my neighborhood on foot and explored hidden nooks and crannies of nearby Delaware Avenue estates.  My friends and I also explored inside many of the large area buildings.  Two of the nearby apartment buildings had small convenience stores where we would buy candy.  These stores were very hidden and must have been there to serve the building tenants, because the average person would never have known they were there.  It is safe to say these stores are long gone.
I also climbed the rafters of the (now gone) Park Lane restaurant as it was being built.  Its disappearance is a bit bittersweet.  It was a horrible building that made a mockery of Gates Circle, but seeing images of its structure exposed again brought back memories of my early days.  As noted in a previous post, I also discovered the wonders of Buffalo State College and its massive library.  I spent uncountable hours in the bound periodical section. What a great gift to a curious kid.
As I grew, I was given full access to the city and suburbs via Metro Bus.  At one time I knew every route number and where it went. I traveled to the suburban malls, the Amherst campus of the University of Buffalo (by campus bus service), the East Side, South Buffalo, and more.  I traveled as far south as Wanaka and as far north as Niagara Falls.  I explored the Central Terminal in its final days as a train station and walked the streets of its neighborhood before decline had set in.  I became familiar with every street and building downtown and when Metro Bus could go no further, I pushed on.  I followed Cazenovia Creek on foot well into West Seneca and rode my bike over the Peace Bridge to Canada.  In Canada I found a historic stone fort, that I never knew existed and the elegant vacation homes lining beaches within view of downtown Buffalo.
All of this I did on my own without a car, or even a driver’s license (I actually went all the way through college without a driver’s license).  I did not count on my parents to bring me places, which taught me self-reliance and the ability to plan my own way.  I remember leaving the mall, seeing hoards of kids waiting to be picked up.  I just walked to the bus stop (which by the way was quite a long distance from the mall entry in those days).  Often times I would just walk and walk and walk.  Walking is the best way to learn about a place.  Walking gives you the time and flexibility to really study something.  The city has so much richness of form, that walking is the only way to truly appreciate how much of a treasure the people of Buffalo have.  I have no doubt that we would have a much higher quality built environment in America if we were a culture that embraced walking.  The city taught me that walking was about more that getting someplace.  The same holds true for life as well.
My urban explorations also provided me a darker lesson.  Every once in a while I would notice a car with a lone male driver cruising slowly by.  I noticed this a couple times in various places.  I felt like he was focusing his attention on me.  I don’t know if it was the same driver or not, but it sent a chill down my spine when it happened.  Once it happened while I was walking past a new police substation in the old Greyhound terminal on Main Street.  I instantly headed into the police station, to inform them of my problem.  The officer was cool to my complaint and asked in a gruff voice “Whadda-ya want me ta do about it?”  To me the answer to the question was obvious, so I just left without a word and headed home.  On TV the police would have rushed out and snagged the guy but this was the real world, and it was a much more complex place.  So, I learned a little street smarts and began to understand that things are not so simple; not so clear-cut as good and bad.  I continued to explore and perked up my awareness of what was around me.  This awareness is something that has served me well in many situations throughout my life.
Next up  Small Town America?

Written by David Steele

David Steele

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

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