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A Leap of Art in the 500 Block

I began drafting this article just two doors down from Main Street Studios — set to open this week — while watching live video of TEDxBuffalo at the Main Washington Exchange.  In the presence of creative people, creative ideas, in what is poised to become one of Buffalo’s most creative blocks, in the middle of one of the most creative and vibrant months in Our Fair City’s recent memory.  And, just a few blocks from Occupy Buffalo, where others are calling for a new day, on a smaller, more human scale.  Right here, right now, Buffalo’s future seems full of new promise — and inviting you to take part.

Just a month ago, you read West Coast Perspective’s “What’s Happening” article on the 500 block of Main Street.  The amazing organic development of this cluster of properties is downtown Buffalo’s latest success story — flying under the radar of higher-profile, greater-dollar projects like the Hotels Statler and Lafayette.

And a couple of months ago, sharp-eyed readers would have noticed, in this article a hint about a pending announcement of a creative leap forward for the 500 block, one which will undoubtedly help the block thrive again.

It’s exciting now to be able to relate that filling in that piece of the picture is this week’s opening of Main Street Studios, a project that will transform the way people think about and experience Main Street in downtown Buffalo.  It’s also a great story of how a vacant, downtown commercial building can be brought back to life — with creative people and creative ideas in partnership with a creative developer.  Here’s a look at how it came about, what it is, and what else it could be — and what it says about the “creative class” in Buffalo.

Thumbnail image for MainFromRoof.JPGMain Street from the roof of Main Street Studios, looking south

Art Catalyzing Development

Regular readers of Buffalo Rising, and followers of progressive, creative, initiatives in Buffalo know photographer and Buffalo re-pat Erica Eichelkraut.  Since she returned to Buffalo a few years ago, she has been the energy behind the creation of NOMAD, and WAM — the monthly creative confab of Writers, Artists, and Musicians.  After putting her mark on what Buffalo’s “creative class” reads, and how they connect, taking it to the next level it’s about where they carry out their creative alchemy.  Here’s what The Good Neighborhood had to say about Erica recently.

At some level, Erica’s arc in Buffalo, now including this project, is a reaction against what she found in South Beach — the arts scene for which she made a beeline after getting her degree at RIT, and which a year of experience told her wasn’t for her.  “It was like a closed club,” she told me.  “I didn’t want to take all that time to try to break in.”  And also, everything was “big.”  But when she returned to Buffalo 3 years ago, she was “blown away by the talent, art, and energy she was seeing.  How many people were getting involved with making changes.”  She also found the scale in Buffalo more to her liking, seeing “small, grassroots efforts, small galleries, small studios making big impacts.”  Erica, for one, thinks big about small.  While she told me she loves the big galleries like AK and BPAC, she really “loves to see on the other end of the spectrum people putting their whole soul into making it work.”

And those folks applying “head, heart, and hand” (as Buffalonian Elbert Hubbard phrased it) — what does that do for the city?  “Art is powerful–it demands a response.  Whether you drive to the AK and park, or walk down the street and see a mural or sculpture.”  That’s why she wants the new studios to be ” about art as community experience: painting a mural on the side of the building, having an open gallery, and exhibit openings.  We want to give people a reason to stay an extra hour downtown.”  She wants the studios to be a “hub of creative energy downtown,” and has already been approached about things like runway shows, dance classes, and live music.  “It’s really exciting to be here in this block across from the Hyatt to help show off the level of talent and quality of work that’s here.”

RoofBeam.JPGFrom the roof of Main Street Studios
Quite a vision — how did it all unfold?  Erica was looking for space for her photography studio, when she saw an ad for the Main Washington Exchange.  While that turned out not to be what she was looking for, when she was shown around 515 Main, two buildings down, she fell in love with it — even though “it was trashed — there was water damage, et cetera.”  What she saw was a lot of potential: the first and second floors were largely blank canvases, the third floor, which had been used for storage, retaining a sense of its past elegance.  What were building owner Roger Trettel and Main Washington Exchange’s Mark Schroeder’s plans for it, she wondered?  Nothing solid, some ideas of marketing some of the space to a law firm.  Ugh, Erica thought.  That would make it a largely 9 to 5 building.  But artists, she thought, work at all hours.  Artists would become a presence on the block.  So she pitched the idea of cooperative art studio space — not based solely on what it could do for the block, but also because she saw a demand for it.  Other such spaces in Buffalo have waiting lists for space.  Would these two businessmen be interested?  Would they see the value of having an arts community downtown?

It didn’t take long to get her answer. “The day we decided, Roger had people in the building starting work.  They had walls up in three days.  It was invigorating to find two businessmen so interested.  Mark has ads in Artvoice.  We’ve just had our first appointments for people looking for space.  I’m amazed at the response.”

One of those I came across checking out the space was Pharaoh Paige, a local art and music entrepreneur.


Project Elements

And what will folks find at Main Street Studios?  Not just studio space, Erica told me, but a community.  They can hang out, have coffee, and have full access to the open areas.  Fees will include all utilities, ability to sell their work commission-free on premises, and have a yearly show.  There will also be group shows, the first of which will be going up for the grand opening on October 28.

515StudiosLayout.gifAnd that’s just on the first and second floors.  The magic portal to the third floor is a nondescript door set in a plain wall — immediately behind it is a tantalizing glimpse of the building’s original elegance. Plans for the third floor (as well as the second store front) are still under consideration, but there’s no question is would be very special space for the right tenant — one that would appreciate that at one time it may have housed a club (perhaps even a speakeasy- more on that in a future post by Steel).
ThirdFloorStairs.jpg“Hidden” treasure: ornate features from the building’s heyday

Erica would love to eventually see rooftop access or a roof garden.  I can attest that the views from the roof are outstanding, with the banking district around Fountain Plaza just to the north, the tall buildings around Lafayette Square just to the south, and the Hyatt just across the street.

Outside, there are plans for a mural on the side of the building in the gap where the Century City Theater used to be.  It may also be a good site for outdoor film screenings.  Erica also wants to put on events, not just in the studio space, but also on the block.  For example, an artists’ market might supplement the existing farmers’ market.

StudioBeforeAfter.jpgMain Street Studios office, and City Light Photography: before and after

Erica will have wedding clients for her photography business coming to the studio, so changing the perceptions of the block is a big part of the plans.  “As scary as some people say it is on the block,” she told me, “I’ve only had good encounters.  People who are on this block of Main regularly are all very excited.”  These clients, in fact, seem to have reveled in Main Street as a backdrop:


A Creative Community: How One Idea Leads to Another

Earlier, I mentioned Erica’s involvement with WAM and NOMAD.  The idea for WAM was conceived of at the opening of NOMAD, a new literary magazine in Buffalo that came about as a result of a few friends talking.  As WAM co-founder Derek Presti put it in Buffalo Rising two years ago:

“Basically myself, Alex Foot, and Erika Eichelkraut got talking one night at the magazine opening,” says Presti. “It really stemmed from our conversation. We talking with other friends and they too expressed interest, so we saw a market for it.”
Presti and Foot are members in the band Free Henry, a Buffalo based band, and Eichelkraut is in charge of NOMAD. They decided to combine their love of the arts to create an event where other artists are able to express themselves.

515MainBefore.jpg515/517 Main: before (credit: The Good Neighborhood)

The Main Street Studios idea for developing and managing shared artist studio space on a recently marginal block is, I’m sure, the result of Erica’s gaining confidence from these earlier experiences, and also vote of confidence in the future of Buffalo and this block of Main Street.  Our city is being renewed by people making these kinds of decisions — those whom Richard Florida has dubbed “the Creative Class.”  These are the folks who connect the dots, and bring others along with them, as they use one idea, project, or initiative as a springboard into the next.

Yet the Main Street Studios project paradoxically both confirms and refutes Richard Florida’s theory of the Creative Class, which post-9/11 was the urban revitalization flavor-of-the-decade.  Florida, a Buffalo-area native who has been a skeptic of Buffalo’s future prospects, flogged this idea like a guru after his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, city-hopping the nation in tailored suits and collecting five-figure speaking fees.  In a recent about-face, he has dismissed the prospects of some of the same distressed cities that gave their last Kopek to fly him to town and ensconce him in their finest accommodations to receive his wisdom.  But not before his high-hand prompted significant scrutiny, pot shots, and refutation of his ideas from others.

The redevelopment of the 500 block, of which Main Street Studios is an exciting part, is a refutation of Florida’s down view of Buffalo’s prospects which holds that those investing in the city’s future may be just spinning their wheels.  In the midst of a down economy, after doubts were expressed about the feasibility of redeveloping the block, its revival has been based on creative, small-scale, building-by-building projects independent of incentives or even encouragement from establishment entities such as the City of Buffalo and Buffalo Place.

Yet in a broader sense, the story bears out Florida’s central tenet that urban transformation now depends more on attracting and fostering human creativity and energy than traditional “smokestack chasing” economic development efforts.  In his rock-star hop scotching around the country, Florida did us all a service by getting the message in front of civic high rollers that pursuing big-ticket, “silver bullet” projects and big business isn’t the only way to pursue economic development.  Instead, what we need to develop — and attract, nurture, and retain — is our “human capital.”  This is what the Main Street Studios project is about.

It bodes well for the future of Our Fair City that folks like Erica and everyone involved in this project are showing us that Buffalo has the critical mass of creative energy needed to compete in the 21st Century.  The opening of Main Street Studios helps bring the recently derelict 500 block back to life, reconnecting the other sections of Main Street into a more vibrant whole.  It also brings to life a new creative place, connecting people and ideas for a more vibrant city.

Don’t miss getting a first glimpse on Friday!

Main Street Studios:

Modern & affordable open-air artists’ spaces in the heart of downtown Buffalo, surrounded by many newly renovated buildings and in-progress projects, including luxury lofts across the street. Building features high ceilings and tons of natural light, located across from the Hyatt Hotel and steps from Fountain Plaza, Lafayette Square, free Main St train and just blocks from the Theater District, CEPA, Squeaky Wheel, The WNY Book Arts Center and more. Rents start at $275/month and include all utilities, WIFI, access to a 1000 sq foot workspace and lounge, painter’s sink and new gallery space with huge store-front windows in a high traffic area. Annual rent includes solo show in the gallery and several group shows for all artists, with no commission on sales.

Building owner Roger Trettel, Property Manager Mark Schroeder, and Gallery/Artists’ Manager Erica Eichelkraut, have collaborated to turn an empty building into this creative collective, furthering the rebirth of the 500 block of Main Street.

Get connected (and related links):

Main Street Studios contact

Main Street Studios FB

Written by RaChaCha


RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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