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A Grand Idea in a Land Like Oz  

Author: Carl Francis Penders

“I felt like I’d stepped back in time a hundred years,” I said recalling my magical feeling, taking my first ever steps on the Chautauqua Institution’s grounds. 

“It has that Oz like quality,” replied Dennis Galucki, a man who gets an idea and then gets it done, as evidenced by his 2005 trip to Portland to ask Richard Moe, then president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “What would it take to bring this conference to Buffalo?”  Moe’s “Give me a good reason” reply caused Galucki then the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier’s director to compile good reasons.

Leading the Charge

“Why wouldn’t we want to have this conference here?” was a question Galucki began asking Buffalo’s preservation community.  A spring 2006 Saturn Club assemblage listened to Chicago Architiecture Foundation President Lynn Osmond, formerly the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s executive director, extol the benefits a National Trust conference would bring.  And later Ms. Osmond would tell me “Dennis was leading the charge.”  Fall 2006 found Galucki and interested parties traveling to Pittsburgh for the National Trust’s annual gathering.  Eventually the charge would lead to a successful 2011 Buffalo conference.

Initial Chautauqua experiences caused Oz like ideas to crystallize in the Galucki mind.  “Imagine Buffalo Niagara in the 21st Century: The Buffalo Chautauqua Idea,” were Special Studies courses he taught at Chautauqua in 2006 and 2007, and his next foray at instilling an ambitious vision.  Intending to spread a little Oz like dust around a Rust Belt town, he worked with the Buffalo & Erie County Central Library.  There he’s made the Imagine  lunchtime lecture series a Tuesday happening.

From Throwback to the Present 

Invoking some Oz like merriment, it was like days of yore eyeing that Buffalo Day at Chautauqua banner, with Galucki drawing on regional nostalgia when neighborhoods and towns would designate their day at Canada’s Crystal Beach Amusement Park.  But more than frolic lay ahead in this seventh year that Chautauqua and co-sponsors The Buffalo News, WNED-TV, and Visit Buffalo Niagara, and Galucki’s C-SAAHN (Center for the Study of Art, Architecture, History & Nature) invited Buffalo area residents to visit the hallowed grounds on the house.

Delighted to spend the day (August 9, 2016) in an idyllic setting, the Rust Belt residents were a small, though passionate minority.  Who had dared venture into a realm where knowledge, education, and a quest for wisdom reign, to hear from wizards working to revive the Rust Belt town. 

“I’ve been exploring this Buffalo Chautauqua idea for ten years,” said orchestrating wizard Galucki.  Energized by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria’s morning lecture on a changing world in a digital age, he maintained America needed Chautauqua in 1874, an assertion President Theodore Roosevelt made in a 1905 Institution address proclaiming “Chautauqua is typically American in that it is typical of America at its best,” as “the president seemed to acknowledge the central place of the Institution in American culture,” wrote Jeffrey Simpson in Chautauqua An American Utopia.

“I’m trying to infuse one city with the culture that is Chautauqua.  I’m from Buffalo … So I picked Buffalo.  And the world needs the Buffalo Chautauqua Idea in the 21st century,” Galucki boldly declared, referencing the Arts, Religion, Recreation, and Education, Chautauqua’s four pillars. 

He addressed Buffalo’s ups and downs.  Acknowledged that virtually the same public relations apparatus that labeled it and similar cities as declining, virtual dead zones, now pronounced it to be rebounding.  He quoted principles from Chautauqua co-founder John Heyl Vincent’s 1886 The Chautauqua Movement.  And asked his audience to imagine Chautauqua’s culture being incorporated into the metropolitan mindset. 

I wondered what had gotten into Galucki.  Speaking mainly without notes he was more focused than I’d observed previously.  You could say he was on fire.  Could actually being at Chautauqua, presenting to a full house in the Smith Library’s Heritage Meeting Room stimulate such intensity?  Call it the Chautauqua effect that so inspired this speaker.  Count me among the many that Chautauqua similarly impacts.  Its culture’s consequence has brought nine U. S. presidents to its grounds. To this day its platforms present prominent speakers.  On its stages perform talented, inspiring artists.

An Evolving Vision 

While its founders Lewis Miller and the aforementioned Vincent knew in their era how to bring people together, and direct them to a higher plane, for decades Chautauqua remained a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant enclave.  However in a July 4, 2010 Buffalo News’ story entitled “The Chautauqua Challenge,” Melinda Miller wrote “While the population is skewing younger, a harder change has been diversity of color.” Outgoing President Thomas M. Becker acknowledged as much, saying “Painfully, slowly we are not as monochromatic.” 

Emulating Vincent and Miller I imagined Galucki’s vision is to bring this Chautauqua idea to Buffalo is such fashion that Buffalonians be as dedicated to lifelong learning as he and the room’s occupants appeared.  That citizens would turn away from televisions.  Cease endlessly devouring what the late Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People called mindless sitcoms.  Residents would empty area movie theaters.  Turn their eyes away from screens filled with similar, maddening mindlessness. Be compelled by the Buffalo Chautauqua Idea.  And march, yes march to their libraries and lecture halls.  Instead of surrendering their minds and will to those who know how to direct the masses to their vision of a citizenry enslaved to mediums filled with messages of malaise.  Rather these citizens would dedicate themselves to a passionate, joyful life of learning. 

The Health of a Community

“If someone wants to make a point here,” Becker told Miller in the 2010 piece, “they have to go beyond slogans and really explain what they are talking about.”  Neither Chautauqua nor this Buffalo Day was ever intended to be about bromides or sloganeering.  Instead speakers raising questions, awareness, and offering potential solutions were invited to open minds.

“Is Buffalo a healthy community? asked Phillip L. Haberstro (lead image – right), The Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo’s executive director.  Weighing in too regarding the populace’s health was Larry Brooks, author of Buffalo Niagara: Diagnosis and Prescription for Change.  Both Haberstro and Brooks referred to the University of Wisconsin’s Public Health Institute’s County Health Rankings & Roadmaps.  The Institute rated Niagara and Erie County at 55 and 57 respectively out of 62 New York State counties. 

A community’s health is determined by civic, economic, biological, and environmental factors said Haberstro.  He asked listeners to consider the region’s social capital, a term from Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam which examines the trust people have in one another, and in agencies serving them.  Equally important is reciprocity, a social capital yardstick measuring how well people work together.

In the early 1980’s a Toronto physician named Trevor Hancock initiated the healthy communities movement said Haberstro.  The first International Conference on Health Promotion was held in Ottawa in 1986.  For the moment, the movement appears to have bypassed Buffalo, for the sober reality Haberstro said is that culture trumps strategy, a quote frequently attributed to management expert Peter Drucker, who wrote Innovation and Entrepreneurship.  While no one apparently can definitively pin the phrase to Drucker, several variations have made their way into the reinvention rhetoric, such as culture beats strategy.  However, most appropriately to Western New York, no matter how well intended the region’s revitalizing strategies, particularly concerning health, the local culture eats strategy. 

Considering that very culture’s impact on regional health, Brooks cited Dr. David Kessler,  from the PBS documentary In Defense of Food.  “Take Buffalo Wings.  What are they”? asked Kessler, formerly the Food and Drug Administration’s chief.  “You start with the fatty part of the chicken wing, usually fried at the manufacturing plant first.  That pushes more fat into the chicken wing.  Then fried usually again in the restaurant.  The red sauce on the side.  What is it?  Sugar and salt.  The white creamy sauce.  Fat, sugar, and salt.  What are we eating?  We’re eating fat on fat on fat.  Fat, sugar, and salt.” 

“This is Buffalo culture,” Mr. Brooks said.  “And we’re so proud of this bad contribution to American cuisine that we celebrate it with a festival that features a binge eating contest.  And our culture features food festivals from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  We need to change that culture.  And dial down our love affair with pizza and chicken wings.” 

 “As adults we all want to have choices,” said Jerry Spegman, a University of Wisconsin Public Health Institute community coach in reference to the Kessler quote.  “But when we collectively celebrate unhealthy foods as iconic parts of our culture, that is problematic.”  

While the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus burgeons with buildings, ostensibly to care for a population not always aware of its own best interests, Mr. Brooks mused on “A future in which the campus shutters some buildings and lays people off, because the population is so healthy that demand for medical services is reduced to a point where we don’t need them much anymore.  That’s imagining a healthy, wealthy community.” 

Sprawl entered into Brooks’s talk, noting the numerous, often overlapping governments, rather than a regional, consolidated body, hinders progress.  As an example he pointed out that Cheektowaga has four separate school districts, each with its own superintendent, who do not come cheaply, nor do all of the separate, individual fiefdoms, with all their elected officials, department heads, etc., another unfortunate aspect pertaining to a regional culture often resistant to change.

Expanding, Stretching Boundaries

Clotilde Dedecker

Clotilde Dedecker the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo’s President and CEO said the foundation serves 8 Western New York counties, and is committed to expanding and stretching boundaries.  A Cuban native, Dedecker said her family was settled in Buffalo through Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program.

She spoke of a robust arts and cultural community.  She said the foundation’s partnership with Say Yes Buffalo is a developing success story.  That in 3 years the high school graduation rate has risen 12.8%, from 48% to 61%.  She also noted that 82% of persons of color from ages 16 to 24 are either employed or in school. 

The improving numbers are a positive, hopeful sign.  However Ms. Dedecker indicated much expanding and stretching, if not downright boundary tearing down remains.

“Buffalo is the sixth most segregated community in the country,” she said, drawing upon data from an analysis of the 2010 census by the Brookings Institution’s William H. Frey and the University of Michigan’s Social Science Data Analysis Network. 

“Segregation harms the local economy,” Ms. Dedecker continued.  “And we live in a community with an 88% isolation index, meaning that on any given day, there’s an 88% chance that a white person will not have a meaningful interaction with a person of color, despite the browning of America.”  (The isolation index is term originating from a US 2010 Discover America in a New Century study, conducted by the Russell Sage foundation and Brown University.)

In a follow-up interview Ms. Dedecker said the foundation has been working on “Increasing racial and ethnic equity for the last ten years,” but that many “people don’t see this, don’t recognize it as a problem.  The first step to a solution is awareness of the problem.”

Growing a Botanical Image

 “I’m about making positive changes,” announced Sally Jean Cunningham, a frequent Buffalo News contributor who wrote Rodale Press’s Great Garden Companions. “And there’s probably no better way to make positive changes than through gardening and landscaping.  But so many things people do are not contributing to the ecology.  Rather than shoot rabbits, kill coyotes, and spray insects,” Ms. Cunningham asserted that “most insects are good.  And we need to move out of this mindset that has people killing everything that’s crawling.  Biodiversity is the bottom line.”

“This is the American paradigm,” Ms. Cunningham said, showing a picture of “a perfectly respectable home landscape … Clean front lawn, tidy shrubs, neatly mulched.  You’ll see this in Amherst and Orchard Park.  But there’s nothing there for nature.  Nothing for a bird or a butterfly.  And the lawn’s a water guzzler.  We need to teach the landscaping industry to choose flowering plants in front of the house.”

“Earth, 114 million years ago, one morning just after sunrise: The first flower ever to appear on the planet opens up to receive the rays of the sun.  Much later, those delicate and fragile beings we call flowers would come to play an essential part in the evolution of consciousness of another species.  Humans would increasingly be drawn to and fascinated by them.  They provided inspiration to countless artists, poets, and mystics.  Jesus tells us to contemplate the flowers and learn from them how to live,” wrote Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth

“We’re losing our connection to nature,” Ms. Cunningham maintained, referencing Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv.  Though something as simple as … As organic as flowers is providing inspiration, contributing to resuscitating Buffalo’s image.

“A gardener moved into 16th Street,” Ms. Cunningham said in a follow-up email.  “Started planting out front, then another did the same,” replacing lawns with gardens.  “Someone helped an elderly neighbor with her home.  Soon several homes looked amazing.  People got to know each other, pride crept in, home values increased.  Now the area is a destination for garden tours.  In 2017 Buffalo will host the national Garden Writers Association conference.”

“I worked with a garden writer from London on the recent Garden Walk.  Imagine.  A garden writer from London.  Garden Walk is a big positive, changing Buffalo’s image, similar to the beauty of homes and gardens at Chautauqua.”

Modeling Past Success

Buffalo’s culture change will no doubt require adopting the can do spirit that drove yesteryear’s Buffalonians to prominence.  Among them was architect E. B. Green, possessing “Abilities to get a job done right and in a hurry,” wrote Ed Evans in Hidden Treasure, The Chautauqua Commission of Buffalo’s E. B. Green.

“Green was Chautauqua’s architect from 1905 to 1916,” Evans said while leading a tour to some of Green’s Chautauqua works.  “He and partner Franklyn Kidd designed 21 projects on and adjacent to the grounds,” pointing to the Colonnade administration building before us, and the Smith Library behind us.“Everything had to be done and ready for the season,” Evans pronounced.  So when in October 1908 Chautauqua’s Colonnade administration building, a Bestor Plaza landmark was destroyed in a fire, Chautauqua would witness firsthand the tenacity required to change Buffalo’s culture today.  Evans wrote Green was “personally involved,” seeing to it that the rebuilt Colonnade was ready “for the 1909 summer season.” 

Simultaneously Green and his firm, Green and Wicks, demonstrated persuasion mastery, influencing Chautauqua’s trustees to construct a new post office, also completed in 1909.  In 2000, that 1909 Chautauqua post office won the Smithsonian Institution’s Great American Post Office award. 

Green too designed the 1907 Amphitheater renovation to accommodate the Massey Organ’s installation, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ.  And in a tribute to Chautauqua co-founder Lewis Miller, in 1911 Green and Wicks designed the Institution’s most iconic symbol, the Miller Bell Tower. 

“The whole of life is a school,” wrote John Heyl Vincent in The Chautauqua Movement.  “With educating agencies and influences all the while at work, from the earliest moments to the day of death.” 

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo, the PBS documentary produced by Buffalo’s WNED-TV closed for an overflow Hall of Christ crowd, 2016’s Buffalo Day at Chautauqua.  In the question period afterwards Mary Roberts, the Frank Lloyd Wright Martin House Complex’s executive director was asked about partnering with academic institutions. 

“We do all kinds of things along those lines.  Student tours.  Oh my goodness … I almost hesitate to say this … But nursery tours … We had the Doodle Bugs there this week.”  Ms. Roberts went on to mention tours for elementary, high school, and university students, and work with educational institutions throughout Western York and Southern Ontario.

Fortunately Ms. Roberts overcame her reticence, and proceeded to proclaim that yes, we even do tours for the youngest of minds.  For to reiterate Vincent’s postulation that “educating agencies and influences (are) all the while at work, from the earliest moments,” if this Buffalo Chautauqua Idea is anything at all, it ought be a community wide embracement and celebration of exposure to empowered learning at the earliest of ages, and a fostering of such scholarship till “the day of death.” 

1881 – The Buffalo Day at Chautauqua banner is displayed at the Chautauqua Institution’s Main Gate.

1185 – Philip L. Haberstro, Executive Director of The Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo addresses the Buffalo Day at Chautauqua audience at Chautauqua’s Smith Library.  Larry Brooks, author of Buffalo Niagara: Diagnosis and Prescription for Change looks on.

1887 – Clotilde Dedecker, President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo addresses the Buffalo Day at Chautauqua audience at Chautauqua’s Smith Library.  

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