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Black Rock: Why Not Make This the Place to Be?

Black Rock is one of Buffalo’s most historic neighborhood names dating back to the city’s very beginnings.  The name comes from an outcropping of black stone that was ironically removed when the Erie Canal was constructed, making its way to Buffalo. Many know Black Rock as Buffalo’s Erie Canal terminus rival and probably have little or no visual image of what the neighborhood looks like, or where it actually is.  It is safe to say that most WNYers think of Black Rock as a sort-of dangerous place that you should not go to and would never want to live in. Of course, perceptions are often false. Black Rock may be Buffalo’s most misunderstood neighborhood.  To me, growing up in the city, Black Rock was a strange place on the other side of the tracks. The only reason I ever went there was to pass through.

The area, as seen outlined on this map, is somewhat isolated from other parts of the city.  It borders the Niagara River on the west and Buffalo State College on the east.  It is crisscrossed by several railroads on raised embankments that tend to create many smaller sub neighborhoods.  The frequent railroad bridges form gateways to these distinct sections of Black Rock.

Black Rock was settled well before the war of 1812 and was incorporated as a village in 1839 making it one of the oldest and most historic sections of the city. The International Railway Bridge in Black Rock dating to the 1870’s is one of the earliest international crossings between the US and Canada. Today it remains in heavy usage as one of our most important international crossings.  The most interesting part of Black Rock is its oldest part, adjacent to Niagara Street. The area at East and Amherst Streets currently holds the highest concentration of pre 1850 houses in WNY. One example is the Steven Howell house – an unusual (for Buffalo) stone Federal Style building dating to 1830.

I took myself on a self-guided Black Rock tour recently and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.  This is a neighborhood with great potential.  Even though it is jammed up against the roaring NYS Thruway, it is a quiet neighborhood with a feeling of calm seclusion.  Its streets bend and twist to fit between various rail lines.  This gives the neighborhood a distinctly Black Rock feel.  The houses are modest and well-kept for the most part.  A few churches dot its streets adding architectural punch to tree-shaded sidewalks.  The biggest church is St. Francis Xavier, which shares its block with a wonderful (though now unused) church school building.   The magnificent Romanesque Revival church building dates to 1913 and is now the home of the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, a space dedicated to preserving Buffalo’s precious and endangered religious architecture and art.  Just down the street is a wonderful corner house, one of the oldest in the city, which recently received a top to bottom restoration.  Its current owner found the building with a city demolition order on it.  He quickly worked to get the order removed and proceded to bring the house back to life.  It now anchors a very beautiful streetscape (see the slide show and look for the greenish Federal Style house). 

Nearby Niagara Street also has some wonderful architectural surprises to offer.  There is a thinned, though still substantial, group of historic commercial buildings along this strip of street that could easily be the core of a great waterfront neighborhood. The cluster of buildings with animated architecture, along with close proximity to the Niagara River and a large marina, make this a place of mega-potential in the city.   

Speaking of the Niagara. Look down the side streets to see the flowing water and Canada beyond. The view is both exhilarating and saddening.  It is here that you realize the huge asset the city has with its proximity to water.  It is also here that you see how destructive the Niagara Thruway is to Buffalo.  

Waterfront neighborhoods in Buffalo such as Black Rock do not feel like waterfront neighborhoods and people don’t perceive them to be such.  This city’s biggest asset and most compelling feature has been stolen from its people for the purpose of speeding people out of town. It is a tragedy that should be corrected.  I am a realist and believe that removal of this barrier is not something that will happen in my lifetime (but then again look at what happened to the Berlin Wall).  Even so, mitigating this tragedy of urban planning should be a priority for Buffalo’s citizens and leaders. Which brings me to my rant.

From my vantage point (not having inside knowledge) the city does not seem to have a plan for digging out of its 60-year slump. Unless, that is, you consider turning itself into a second-rate suburb is a plan.  I say second-rate because the city will never be able to duplicate what people like about suburbs.  

For the last decade or so, the city has focused its substantial (state and federal) funding resources on the demolition of historic buildings, replacing them with scattered site new buildings that for the most part can be (kindly) described as having no architectural merit, and that are usually built extremely cheaply with materials that will not withstand the test of time.  These new-builds are laid out in a low density manner that pays no attention to sustainability either environmentally or economically (for a poor city).

In my opinion this “plan” will be a failure and will not result in a city that can attract and hold talented, inventive people, the kind of people that make cities grow.  Instead of making itself into a watered-down suburb, why not build on unique strengths? When you walk through Black Rock you cannot help but realize that with a minimal but focused investment, this neighborhood could be transformed into one of WNY’s premier residential addresses.  

Here is my plan: Strategically infill vacant blocks with new builds, strategically renovate existing historic structures, narrow Niagara Street (and plant some large trees), create pedestrian friendly underpasses and new overpasses to the waterfront, provide tax incentives to new small business (how about no tax for 5 years), develop and market a plan for new high-density residential and commercial construction along the river, and upgrade the marinas to be destinations.  Black Rock should be thought of as a great waterfront neighborhood, and it could so easily be that if there was a plan to build on Buffalo’s strength.  It’s not about saving everything.  It’s about making use of everything that can’t be found everyplace else.

Buffalo Tours has a Black Rock tour scheduled for next Saturday, September 5th.  There is a second tour also scheduled in October.  Tours start at 10 AM and cost $10.  For more information contact Buffalo Tours.

I thought the Erie Canal music was also appropriate for this historic neighborhood slideshow, since Black Rock has for so long been tied to the canal (which by the way was obliterated by the Thruway).  The music is by Dan Zanes and Friends. 

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