Author: Bradley Bethel
The most telling sign of a city in distress is when the consensus is living off of rotten fruit.
Although Buffalonians have acknowledged the many faults and failures that has beset the city, years of broken promises, broken dreams, and broken hearts have frustrated remedies upon remedies for the city’s shattered soul. Such is the ongoing saga of Humboldt Parkway’s removal from the East Side.
This year, the New York State budget has allotted $6 million for the long-awaited Environmental Impact Study to remediate Humboldt Parkway. This comes at a critical time when Buffalo is overcoming decades of irresponsible planning and constant neglect. With Buffalo decades behind the national curve, curious minds are breaking generational amnesia of the city’s illnesses, and growing calls for change will determine the path for Humboldt Parkway’s revival.
Meanwhile, other cities have not only taken courses of action to correct their mistakes, they have long since thrived from their fruits of labor. It took an act of God to bring down the Embarcadero Freeway in 1989, before the city of San Francisco declared it would be too expensive to repair the already unpopular thoroughfare. Having separated residents from the city’s waterfront for a whole generation, the seeds of change would completely improve the character of San Fran’s downtown area. Construction on the Embarcadero Boulevard began in the 1990’s, and would quickly evolve into a multipurpose destination for residents and tourists. It now hosts a wide variety of commercial and public venues, it has re-established San Francisco’s access to its waterfront, and it has become the new focal point for the city’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
In Seattle, a series of citywide freeway revolts during the 1960’s inspired the Forward Thrust initiative. Among the many civic projects it funded was an overhead promenade to cover 5 acres of Washington’s Interstate 5 that ripped through Downtown Seattle. The Jim Ellis Freeway Park, so named after the Seattle attorney that spearheaded Forward Thrust, was completed in 1976. It is adjoined to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.
Buffalo will never be San Francisco. Buffalo will never be Seattle. But the last thing Buffalo will ever be is an island unto itself. Like any city, Buffalo’s own unique identity has always been shaped from the strengths of other cities.
It was the 1858 designs of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for Manhattan’s Central Park, and their 1866 designs for Brooklyn’s Prospect Park that led to their 1868 plans for Delaware Park. Serving as Buffalo’s own “central” park, it would become the focal point for the very first park system in the United States.
Additionally, Olmsted and Vaux drew inspiration from the network of parks and boulevards in Paris, France, centered on the Place Charles de Gaulle. Many of the finer details in our parks, parkways, and circles honored the natural scientists and military heroes that were influential to Olmsted’s own civil service as a landscape architect.
Buffalo’s rich heritage made it the city of innovations: It had already attracted one of the nation’s most successful architects. Frederick Law Olmsted would go on to design park systems for Louisville, Milwaukee, and Boston, having declared Buffalo the “best planned city in the United States”.
Today, a city that was once the subject of wonder, respect, and perhaps envy has become the subject of ire, frustration, and ridicule.
As just one of many examples, the Kensington Expressway has physically and psychologically divided Buffalo residents for a whole generation. It destroyed homes and businesses, and it isolated our neighborhoods at a hefty price that has yet to be paid for. It created more problems than the one it attempted to solve. It was advertised as a sign of “progress”, yet never improved upon what preceded it. The Kensington Expressway is a well-acknowledged failure among dissidents and apologists, a product of sprawl development which today, threatens to dismiss the East Side from Buffalo’s redevelopment narrative.
Recalling our glorious history can easily be misconstrued as nostalgic fever. The fact remains that Buffalo was once able to set the standards for prolific human accomplishments. Today, prolific accomplishments have been manifested elsewhere through the Embarcadero Boulevard in San Francisco, the Jim Ellis Freeway Park in Seattle, as well as the Margaret T. Hance Park in Phoenix and the Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. Even here in New York State, Niagara Falls and Rochester are taking bold action for their respective communities. There is both internal and external evidence that Buffalo can overcome its self-resignation.
A new Humboldt Parkway brings a plethora of benefits to the table. It will begin to re-establish a connection between Delaware and Martin Luther King Parks. It will bring value back to surrounding homes and businesses. It will re-apply Frederick Law Olmsted’s philosophy of bringing people from different walks of life together, which is the key ingredient for any successful city. Ultimately, it will bring Buffalo up to speed with the rest of the nation.
We learn from our history lessons to reject what has failed, and apply what has succeeded to the present day.
While it is a given that each city has its own criteria for bearing new fruit, we can learn some of the “secrets” of San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix, and Dallas to cultivate our own healthier produce. In turn, these same cities have probably looked to our Kensington Expressway as an example of what not to do to their own communities. Evidently, they have already learned to stop pouring salt into the earth.
Buffalo will never be San Francisco. Buffalo will never be Seattle. Buffalo will never be Phoenix, nor will it ever be Dallas.
What Buffalo, NY can aspire to be is a better Buffalo, NY.