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Wrecking Buffalo: Kaisertown Edition

Kaisertown is a sleepy tight-knit part of buffalo tucked down on the far south-east edge of the city.  Its main drag, Clinton Street, is a densely lined strip of two-story buildings on each side, with commercial storefronts pushed up tight to the sidewalk.  Neighborhood commercial streets like this were once ubiquitous in Buffalo.  Most of them have been decimated by demolition and suburban style sprawl development.  Miraculously, the several blocks of Clinton running through Kaisertown have resisted the sprawl / demolition plague for the most part.  Few parking lots mar the street scape.

Intact successful urban commercial streets are like gold to cities.  They often form the core for rejuvenation of older neighborhoods.  People are attracted to neighborhoods with strong walkable commercial streets nearby. Buffalo should be doing everything possible to make Clinton Street in Kaisertown strong and vibrant.

Unfortunately Clinton in Kaisertown is not strong or vibrant.  It is a struggling commercial district in an aging forgotten part of the city. Clinton and Kaisertown have the great urban bones that give this area the potential to be Buffalo’s next great neighborhood success story.  But, without a plan to take advantage of that potential, Kaisertown is doomed to long slow decline at best, or at worst, complete disinvestment like so much of the rest of the East Side.

181 Clinton, one of those original cheek by jowl commercial buildings, was recently torn down.  From what I can tell, it was torn down—just because. More wasted Buffalo potential sent to land fill for no real reason other than demolition was easier to do than making a plan for the street and saving the building. More of Buffalo condemned to long-term mediocrity.

Recent views from Google Street View show a building in decent condition, with early signs of neglect. While everyone is enamored with the shiny new buildings downtown, large parts of Buffalo keep slipping away. The business that occupied this building ceased to exist, probably when”Frank the Barber” Modzelewski died 10 to 15 years ago. The barber chairs and dead window plants remained in the window just as they had been the last day of business.  Likely nothing has been invested in the building since then.  Neighborhood residents report that the building was demolished full of contents—beds, dressers, a piano. This reminder of Buffalo’s past was also a key to its future.  But not now.

Demolitions like this are physical manifestations of decline. The shortsighted—the lazy thinkers, they lean on demolition as the only response to decline.  But demolition just leads to more demolition. This street is still mostly intact.  It still has the kind of critical mass of urbanism that is drawing young educated people back into the cities across America.  But here is Buffalo—still tearing down its golden goose. There is no plan, just demolition. Having no plan eventually equals no people in this part of Buffalo.  Demolition is not progress. Demolition does not reduce crime. Demolition does not stop decline.  Do you want to know what will stop decline?  Investing in Kaisertown’s Clinton Street commercial buildings with a strategic plan to make this a great place to be.

This new empty lot is not going to lead to anything but the next empty lot.

Demolition image courtesy Craig Spangler

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.

View All Articles by David Steele
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