Bailey Avenue extends all the way from the University District to the Buffalo River, where it turns into South Park. That’s a giant stretch of a street that traverses a huge part of the city. Aside from the sizable length of the street, another surprising factor associated with Bailey is the sheer amount of activity that is found throughout.
Last summer I biked the entire stretch of the avenue, from Broadway to the University District. The trek took me past old firehouses and churches, and through residential and industrial blocks. There were some green spaces, and numerous paved lots (including corner lots). I witnessed blight and opportunity, boarded up buildings and new builds. Due to the time of day that I headed out on my excursion, around 4pm, I encountered a ton of automobile traffic, which is something that we rarely face, living in Buffalo. I couldn’t believe the amount of cars that were log-jammed on the street.
Upon winding up at my intended destination, the Varsity Theatre, I shared the highlights and lowlights of my journey with Bailey Avenue businessman Ibrahim Cissé. We discussed the sheer amount of traffic, which Ibrahim felt was actually a golden opportunity, if The City was to invest in Bailey’s infrastructure and traffic calming measures. Bailey has great urban bones… it just needs a bit of a facelift to elevate it from a street that is designed as a thoroughfare into a street that takes into account the community.
This past Friday, Ibrahim Cissé accomplished the first phase of his goal. He held a grand opening for the Varsity Theatre – a grassroots project that he feels will help to draw needed attention to all of Bailey Avenue. The grand opening ceremony drew members of the community, residential block clubs, commercial organizations, Senator Tim Kennedy, Mayor Brown, and even Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul (among others). The recurring message that was broadcast during the celebration was that Buffalo was on the move, not just at the waterfront, and at the Medical Campus, but on the West Side and the East Side.
The rebirth of the Varsity Theatre could act as a major catalyst for all of Bailey to rebound. It’s time that we start to look at the East Side the way we look at the rest of the city. We need to take a page from the book of Ibrahim Cissé and read it aloud for all to hear and appreciate. Here’s a guy who moved to Buffalo from the Ivory Coast of Africa. When he arrived, he began to see that there were nuggets of opportunity, and people who were looking for someone to stake a claim on the East Side. Before long he founded a business organization, which led to creating bonds with people/groups such as Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, University Heights Collaborative, University Heights Tool Library (Darren Cotton and Aaron Krolikowski), University District Community Development Association (Roseann Scibilia), and University at Buffalo. It is these bonds that will ensure that the reopening of the Varsity Theatre is just the beginning of the grassroots effort that drives Bailey forward.
As I mentioned earlier, the sheer magnitude of a street-wide effort to right many of the wrongs that have befallen the street is daunting. But a resurgence has got to start somewhere, and I believe that that “somewhere” is the Varsity Theatre. As Kathy Hochul put it, “Theatres are drivers of change – symbols of glory days of the past.” These are the types of efforts that give communities hope. A theatre is a place that promotes culture, brings the community together under one roof, is a tangible symbol of civic pride, and can be considered a game changer for a street. The rebirth of the Varsity Theatre was made possible thanks to a combination of public and private investments. The future of the Bailey business corridor has suddenly changed, thanks to the drive and the passion of one man, whose tenacity and persistence for this project has brought an entire community together – black, white, East, West – to join hands and to rally behind a theatre that has become a symbol of hope and unity.