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Preservation Ready: Bethlehem Vigil – Overnight!

Last night a group of concerned citizens posted an all-night vigil in front of the historic and neglected Lackawanna Iron and Steel office building on Route Five in the former Steel City.  The building is scheduled to be torn down starting today.  There is no publicized plan for the land after the buildings is removed and placed in a dump.  The building is one of the last vestiges of the massive Bethlehem Steel plant which once covered (created with its own slag) all of Lackawanna’s waterfront.  
This beautiful Beaux Arts building is also one of the last remaining vestiges of the Buffalo region’s once impressive steel making empire.  The City of Lackawanna actually takes its name from the Lackawanna Steel company which moved from Scranton in the Lackawanna Valley of Pensyvania to a section of what was then the rural Buffalo suburb of West Seneca in 1901.  It was once the largest independent Steel company in the US.  It is reported that the plant was the nation’s largest steel mill during WWII employing 20,000 workers. With the removal of this building, an important chapter in WNY history will be removed forever.  The building is inarguably one of the most historic sites in the region.  Based on comments from City of Lackawanna officials in the press, the building has been severely neglected and the city either has not cited it for building code violations, or its enforcement of the building code has been ineffective.  They now claim that demolition is the only solution to a structure described as dangerous. 
Local artist and historian Dana Saylor says of the overnight protest “We want to draw the public’s attention to this site, let everyone know that the building is, overall, stable and not in danger of collapse. We are asking why the owners haven’t been held to account by code enforcement all these years.”  They ask, “Why won’t the mayor [of Lackawanna] answer his phone/return calls?”” She says they started the vigil with over 50 people here and if possible they plan to  stay all night. 
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Of course this post will be met with the same old boring defense of this constant attack on our American heritage.  Yes I know “They should  step up with the money to restore the building.”  Its not the owner’s fault – it is the preservationists’, right?  Yes I know, “These crazy preservationists always show up at the last minute to prevent progress.”  That is progress in the form of vacant lots or more surface parking – they always leave that part out.  I guess these concerned citizens should have given up their jobs to save the thousands of buildings being allowed to rot by poor ownership and negligent government – make a full time unpaid job out of preservation, right?.  Here is one of several ill-informed comments already posted to the Buffalo News story announcing the vigil – “Way to hold up progress. More people who are hurting and not helping the city. Yuck.”  We hear the same dull commentary every time the bulldozers show up to make WNY more and more bland.  I wonder if that commenter has ever taken in a show at Shea’s Theater.  Was he sitting there in disgust thinking about the lack of progress at that site?

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Although the people holding this overnight vigil believe it is important to preserve links to the past, they are not there out of a misplaced nostalgia and they are not interested in creating a museum to Buffalo’s lost glory.  Bethlehem is long gone. It was gone before many of these protesters were even born.  
It makes perfect sense for Lackawanna to save the building that gave the city its existence and its name, but the most important reason to save this building is because unique buildings like these enrich all of our lives.  That is why people are trying to “obstruct” its removal. The craft and beauty of this building combined with its history and its connection to past generations provides this place a unique character that cannot be replicated easily. It is the kind of thing that makes a place worth while and worth caring about.  
Too much of WNY has been turned into a place not worth caring about.  These people are protesting this demolition in what is likely to be a futile effort to save it from the garbage dump.  They see that mistake being made before most and are doing their part to alert people to this mistake.  But, even though this building may ultimately be lost to stupid shortsighted thinking, they will be making progress.  Preservation is slowly becoming front page and TV news in Buffalo.  Go back 10 years and this subject was off the media’s radar. No longer though.
If you missed the vigil it is not too late to get involved.  Head on over to the Lackawanna City Council Meeting – Monday, May 21st at 6:30pm Lackawanna City Hall 714 Ridge Road Lackawanna, New York 14218.  You can also sign a petition calling for a stay of demolition here.
Images were gathered from the Preservation Ready Site’s FaceBook Page

Written by Sarah Maurer

Sarah Maurer

I moved to Buffalo to attend Canisius College in 2007 and began writing for Buffalo Rising as a journalism intern in 2010. Working with Newell and meeting numerous entrepreneurs, activists and everyday folks who were working to make their city better made a huge impact on my decision to stay here. After witnessing all the positive development and grassroots initiatives happening in neighborhoods throughout the city, I was inspired to pursue a term of service in AmeriCorps and a career in Buffalo's non-profit sector. I currently work in the housing department at the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center of WNY and am excited to be a part of their ongoing efforts to revitalize the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood. I also volunteer as the project coordinator for Artfarms Buffalo. I continue to write for Buffalo Rising because I love having the opportunity to stay connected to those working toward positive changes for the Queen City.

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