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Eyewitness: Normal Street Burning

Given that I seem to have become the default disaster writer on here (tornadoseiche and fire), when a fire broke out on the next block early the other morning, I heard the keyboard call my name.

When you’re buzzed awake at 3:30AM by a chainsaw that sounds like it’s outside your window, the sleep fog lifts very quickly. Trying to make sense of the situation, the first thing that came to mind was that a crazy neighbor, who is always threatening to cut down trees (he hates sweeping up maple seeds), might finally have snapped.

After hearing that our downstairs tenant had also been jarred awake, I put in a call to 911 about the noise, and got dressed to go out and see for myself what was going on. There was a police officer driving down the street when I went out, so I flagged her down thinking she might be looking for the source of the noise complaint. She pointed across the street, where the dim glow of a fire could be seen on the next block. “Buffalo’s Blaze Busters” were busting an attic blaze by sawing through the roof of the house.

So I called to cancel the noise complaint (“no problem, we figured it was from the fire,” 911 told me), put on some warmer clothes, grabbed the camera, and headed over to see what was going on. Channel 4 was on the scene, as was Nate Benson from Channel 2. The fire, I learned, was under control, and everyone in the house got out with no injuries. I could clearly see the challenges that the Buffalo Fire Department faced: houses very close together, and a narrow street (after heavy snow events, NFTA buses sometimes can’t navigate it) choked with a dozen trucks. Trucks and emergency vehicles that couldn’t fit were parked along Connecticut Street.

House-firesFweThe other thing I noticed was that this fire was only a few houses away from another that had a major fire last year, now boarded up. This block of Normal is part of a kind of transition zone along the Connecticut Street corridor, on the edge of the revitalization wave spreading westward. Closer to Richmond, you find almost entirely intact blocks, that look very nice, and participate in GardenWalk. But closer to Normal you find vacant lots, poorly maintained properties, and more absentee ownership. Normal and Plymouth are still very challenged, with even a vacant house or two, and also impacted by D’Youville College surface parking.

As an urban planner, I continue to be intrigued by what makes one block great, the next good, the next OK, and the next blighted. And how those change over time, and why, and how they affect the people who live there. I also wonder why the investments made over the last decade by D’Youville College, private developers like Karl Frizlen, and house rehabbers (like me) in the Connecticut Street corridor — not to mention the stalward commitment of businesses like Vilardo Printing — haven’t resulted in more progress, more quickly. Adjacent blocks still appear blighted and dilapidated, substandard housing still catches fire and chases families into the street in the middle of one of winter’s coldest nights. It seems like a lot of pieces are still waiting to be put together on Connecticut Street, before a brighter picture emerges.

fafafaffwwqffBut today, I’m just glad that the folks who lived in the house got out safely, and that the BFD was able to contain the fire with dispatch.

Given how the block looked at 4:00AM — trucks, equipment, hoses, water running in streams down both sides of the street, and heaps of foam big enough to appear as snowdrifts — I was shocked when I went back later in the morning to take pictures in the daylight. It was impossible to tell there had been a fire on the block. Or even at the house, except for signs of where the roof was cut open.

By then, the foam snowdrifts had been replaced by real snowdrifts.

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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