This installment of “My Favorite Buildings” is not highlighting an individual building but rather a collection of buildings that once created a magnificent built space. The set of buildings I am talking about are the densely sited commercial structures lining Derby Road in Crystal Beach Canada. I spent some vacation time on the Canadian shore this year so as summer unwinds I thought I would do few wistful stories about Buffalo’s wonderful close by vacation coast across the lake and river.
These Derby Road buildings by themselves are unremarkable but at one time they joined together along with people and circumstance to make one of the most remarkable urban spaces anywhere. Now, in a more forlorn and unpeopled state, they are just a shadow of what they were. But you can still see and hear the echoes of summers past bounce from their lonely facades.
Derby is a short very narrow commercial street in the Canadian resort town of Crystal Beach on the lake Erie shore which grew from the north gate of the old long gone amusement park. With the park gone the surrounding cottage community alone could not support the street’s commercial activity leaving mostly aging empty buildings. One building has recently been torn down leaving part of the street wall gap toothed.
Anyone of my generation who grew up with Crystal Beach as an annual summer destination will remember Derby Road in its heyday and then into its declining years. As I noted the street led directly to the park gate at its south end. At one time the park had no entry fee so the street was basically an extension of the park experience with little differentiation between the town and the amusements. The north end of the street ends in the surrounding village of vacation cottages where it intersects a circular road from which other streets radiate. It is wonderfully planned with a relaxed feeling and comfortable beachy scale. Beachy, that is the only way I can think to describe this scene. The street started to decline when the park initiated a gate payment system, effectively cutting the street off form an organic stream of people.
We would always end our visit to Crystal Beach with a stroll down this street to get some french fries with ketchup and vinegar and of course loganberry. If I am not mistaken this delicious drink found pretty much only in the Buffalo area originated in Crystal Beach. I feel sad for the younger folks who do not have access to the place that this street once was. It was so busy with people all relaxed and in their summer beach wear, tanned and burned, and tired in a good way from a day on the rides or at the beach. The venders all had windows opening directly on the sidewalk. People walked in the street since there was so little space. You could hear the park rides in the distance and you smelled that crispy fried food cooking. It was basically an urban summer dream place. The park eventually closed of course, victim to changing tastes and competition. Without the park this magic summer street lost its magic.
Today Derby is almost completely devoid of activity. One very nice looking restaurant occupies a corner at the south end giving me a spark of hope for the future. The surrounding beach community looks to be a combination of seasonal renters and cottage owners mixed with some low-income permanent residents. The quiet and somewhat sad scene of today is a major contrast from its glory days which lasted up through the 1970s when Derby Road was still packed with walk up food stands and souvenir shops. After closing down the park was quickly demolished and dismantled and within a few years a gated residential development took its place. The houses in the development feign new urbanism with weak and superficial imitations of the building forms from places like Sea Side Florida. Unfortunately the development, with its fences, gates and plastic coated houses of monotonous design, misses the new urban mark by a long shot. One of the development’s gates is on the site of the old amusement park gate at Derby Road. But this gate is always closed, always locked, and decorated with a stern no trespassing sign. Ironically the little villages of cottages and commercial buildings outside the gated community does follow many of the concepts of new urbanist design.
I think Derby could be brought back to some semblance of its old self it the right person came along with the right plan. Many people still come to the nearby white sand beach. The Buffalo Yacht Club and Buffalo Canoe Club are also major neighborhood draws. Redevelopment of this area with big money is not so far-fetched either. A condo tower is planned for the beach just a few blocks from Derby and some of the locals along the Lake Erie shore told me that people in Toronto have recently discovered that Lake Erie is not too far away and is a relative vacation bargain. Three scenarios I can see as possibilities: A. Someone redevelops the street with the same scale and beachy charms, B. the street just gradually disappears in that Lackawanna progress sort of way, or C. it gets wiped away and replaced by a strip mall. Let’s hope it is A.
Crystal Beach has a Facebook page if you like keeping up with the nostalgia and contemporary news