Much like the way we use Memorial Day to mark the official start of summer, and Greek Fest to mark the official start of Buffalo’s festival season, we use ballot petitioning to mark the official start of political campaign season – also known, for good reason, as Silly Season.
Petitioning began last week – have you been visited yet by anyone sporting a clipboard and a smile? – and recently, within fifty hours of each other, Comptroller Mark Schroeder and Mayor Byron Brown opened mayoral campaign headquarters a mile apart geographically, but miles apart in almost every other way.
Taking them in order, first to open was Schroeder’s headquarters at 311 South Park Avenue in the Old First Ward. One of the first things I noticed when I toured the space was a list of the campaign’s objectives on a whiteboard. It was one objective, actually: “win election.” Schroeder knows that is easier written on a whiteboard than done, especially against an incumbent with enormous advantages in financial and establishment support.
When he spoke to supporters gathered outside he acknowledged exactly that, but also told them why he was confident they could pull off an upset.
Serving as a campaign headquarters is just another interesting chapter in 311 South Park’s long life. This classic Old First Ward corner bar had a succession of operators, with its last, Joseph and Angeline Boulanger, being its best known. Reminiscing at the opening, Peg Overdorf of the Valley Community admitted to having had quite a few beers there, back in the day. She showed us where Boulanger had a cable running from the front of the tavern to the back, where he would slide a monkey on a pulley to entertain his guests. “Let it go, Joe! Let it go!,” they would yell.
In 1994, when Joe was forced to close the business after suffering a stroke, Peg organized a hooley for him. At the time, the Buffalo News’ Olaf Fub Sed,
A TRIBUTE will be paid Saturday night Joe Boulanger, a resident of the Old First Ward who, for nearly 40 years, entertained customers with a ceaseless repertoire of magic tricks, great stories and good jokes in Boulanger’s Tavern at South Park Avenue and Chicago Street.
The big party and fund-raiser will be held from 8 p.m. to midnight in the Old First Ward Center, 62 Republic St. Tickets can be purchased at Pat McGinty’s downtown. Proceeds will go to the center and the Valley Community Association. For more information, call Peggy Overdorf at 823-4707 or Ellen Smith at 856-8613.
Boulanger hails from the neighborhood that gave the city such diverse personages as rock star Rick James and former Mayor James D. Griffin. But he was unusual in that no one ever had a bad word to say about him, according to friends. He suffered a stroke in August and, after seven weeks recuperating in Veterans Hospital, decided reluctantly to close his tavern. Friends say his bar will be missed. . . .
Because the tavern has been closed for years, the building has attracted concern and attention from Old First Ward residents and Buffalo’s preservation community. A few years back it had some attention flowered on it by the Junior League “Future Blooms” initiative. That initiative engaged local artist Vinny Alejandro, more recently known for his mural facing Republic Street in the Ward to create painted panels for the windows of the old Courier-Express warehouse around the corner. The owner of 311 South Park liked his work and invited him to use her building as a brick canvass. The result is evocative of a still-operating eatery/drinkery.
Fortunately, the building doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy. A resident lives upstairs, and work has been done to maintain the building. The tavern remains as it was – one of a number of such time capsules hidden in plain sight in neighborhoods around Buffalo – and could be put back to use.
Mayor Byron Brown’s choice for campaign headquarters couldn’t be more different. Located in the core of Buffalo’s civic and business district, 17 Court Street is perhaps the city’s second-most notable Art Deco building downtown – the first, of course, being the building two blocks away where the Mayor has had his office since January 1, 2006. It is perhaps best known for having once been a headquarters of a very different kind: the offices of the Buffalo Industrial Bank.
The visual elements of the interior are nearly as striking as those of the exterior, which were recently a prominent part The Buffalo News‘ feature on Art Deco architecture. Despite the hundreds of times I’ve walked past 17 Court Street, I’d never been inside, so the headquarters opening was a revelation. But what is perhaps most surprising is that the space had been vacant. The need for a first-floor tenant at 17 Court Street is mentioned on Buffalo Place’s website entry on the building.
A source at Buffalo Place told me that part of the challenge with leasing the space is a lack of visibility and accessibility from street. It seems certain that with all the eyes on this space now, someone – perhaps an office tenant – will recognize what an asset it would be to their business and move in after silly season. If you think you’re that someone, the Buffalo Place link has a contact to get you connected.
The first floor space was formerly occupied by the Peller & Mure store, Peter Cutler, former spokesman for Mayor Brown, told me at the opening. This haberdashery, begun by two former Kleinhans employees, got its start next door at 43 Court (now the Convention Tower) in the late 1940s. Gary the Custom Hatter out Broadway got his start there. After several other locations downtown, in 1997, the store, by then owned by investors, tried to stay afloat by returning to its Court Street roots. It struggled along, the last of the downtown haberdasheries, but even a late switch to business casual and a “Fight for Survival” sale weren’t enough. It closed in 2000, and the space appears to have been unused since then. One clue to that is the mirrors still in the space. Another is the store logo, still on the window.
17 Court Street, completed in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression, along with City Hall and the Central Terminal, arguably represent the height of Art Deco style in Buffalo, and the close of that era. The financial crash meant commercial buildings would no longer be so intricate and extravagant, and soon thereafter the same would be true of civic buildings, as well.
When retired police chief Bob Duffy ran for mayor of Rochester, he opened his campaign headquarters in an empty old industrial building in a largely Hispanic area of the city that had seen better days. He invited youth from an outreach program called Pathways for Peace to decorate the nondescript building with street art. It was no surprise, then, that as mayor he boosted the presence of Hispanics in his administration, and also brought the Pathways for Peace program into City Hall as part of the Bureau of Youth Initiatives.
So, what messages are Comptroller Schroeder and Mayor Brown sending here in opening their respective headquarters?
Again, taking them in order, Schroeder’s headquarters neatly embodies several themes of his campaign, a principal one being that neighborhoods matter. Mark is building his campaign around standing up for the neighborhoods.
Schroeder grew up in South Buffalo, but has always had an affinity with the Ward and Valley neighborhoods, including pushing for Buffalo River Fest Park around the corner from his headquarters. And they clearly love him back. It wasn’t serendipity that made Schroeder the grand marshal of the Old Neighborhood Parade in the Ward and Valley neighborhoods the week after he announced for mayor.
At his headquarters opening, Schroeder told his gathered supporters that he has seen signs in the Elmwood Village opposing the development there that many feel is overheated. Those residents, he said, are wondering if City Hall is going to stand behind them. If he were elected mayor, he said, residents would never have to wonder if City Hall were on their side. These are issues that are resonating not just in the Elmwood Village, and neighborhoods near the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus, but in the Old First Ward, as well, given its proximity to the reviving waterfront, large development projects, and perhaps even a Bills stadium.
For Schroeder, undoubtedly, choosing his headquarters dovetails with a major campaign theme about neighborhood commercial districts. Once the Ward’s principal commercial street, like commercial districts all around the city South Park was devastated by a combination of suburbanization, urban renewal, and expressway construction. On the campaign trail, Schroeder has noted that, except for a couple like Elmwood and Hertel, most of these districts are still struggling.
Schroeder also likes to portray himself as a fighter – often by raising two clenched fists in speeches – and a straight shooter who, as he has said, won’t sugarcoat anything. And really, what says gritty authenticity and a pugilistic stance more than an Old First Ward bar?
Intriguingly, given the location – across the street from the Commodore Perry projects – and the timing – just a week before Congressman Brian Higgins’ press conference there – could Schroeder’s choice of headquarters suggest that he and his fellow South Buffalo politician are on the same page about how to proceed there? Both men have supported waterfront projects such as Buffalo River Fest Park and Mutual Riverfront Park. Could this week’s announcement by Higgins be a sign that perhaps he and Schroeder have had some conversations about priorities they would like to work on together should Schroeder win this year?
My visit to Mayor Brown’s campaign headquarters opening was the third such I’ve attended since moving to Buffalo in 2009, the year of the Mayor’s first re-election campaign. All of the Mayor’s re-election headquarters have been in large, stylish, well-known, well-loved downtown buildings on Court Street or Niagara Square, the heart of the City of Buffalo’s governmental district. Yet they have also been in vacant or underutilized spaces in their buildings, so primarily they were chosen for their availability and proximity to City Hall, where the Mayor has his day job.
The first was on the Pearl Street side of the Liberty Building. (Interesting aside: just prior to the office opening that year, sidewalk scaffolding appeared around the doorway, as if to protect people from a danger like falling masonry under repair. Yet no repair work seemed to be in evidence. Immediately after the campaign, the scaffolding was removed. When Antoine Thompson rented the same space the following year for his Senate re-election campaign headquarters, the scaffolding similarly re-appeared and disappeared.) In 2013, the Mayor’s re-election headquarters was in the Statler, in a corner space fronting Niagara Square. One of the signs still remains.
Four years ago the message was: progress. This campaign’s message includes progress, but several other themes, as well: growth, opportunity, and people. But especially growth. At the time of the last mayoral campaign, the Buffalo Billion loomed large on the horizon, but was still largely untested. Now, we see the Buffalo Billion at work in projects all over the city, and the biggest of them all, Solar City, preparing to open within months. While this was in the works, the long-awaited Green Code was adopted and went into effect this year. While the question of how much any level of government catalyzed and deserves credit for the waves of reinvestment hitting Buffalo, they have arrived on Mayor Brown’s watch.
And that perhaps explains the largest and boldest sign in the headquarters, proclaiming, “Mayor Brown Stands for Buffalo.” Especially if Brown should serve a fourth term, that statement will become true in the minds of many, because for many, particularly young people, newcomers, and re-pats, Brown will be the only mayor they know who isn’t a childhood memory or historical footnote.
The choices of these spaces and their openings send a message, in no small part incumbency and institutional support. At each of the Mayor’s re-election headquarters, perhaps the most prominent view out the window has been the big, beautiful building (one of the nation’s most beautiful such, according to the Internet) where the Mayor has his day job. That can’t be lost on visitors, volunteers, and those attending the opening.
Choosing a location where Buffalo’s civic and business leaders regularly walk by is no accident, and the number of them that attended the opening sends a message, as well: we’re with the Mayor, and you should be, too. The Buffalo News reported that 400 attended the opening, including local political celebrity, Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul, and Hollywood celebrity William Fichtner who, as an Erie County native, will be returning home to film his directorial debut in Buffalo and Western New York.
(Finally, we just can’t resist pointing out the symbolism of a mayor who has earned a lifetime placement on Buffalo’s Best-Dressed List opening a campaign office in a former haberdashery. This year’s race for mayor may prove to be especially hard fought, but the winner of “best-dressed candidate” will never be in doubt.)
As Mel Brooks once said (playing Louis XVI), “it’s good to be the king.” In any city, it’s good to be the mayor, too. And in any election, with all other factors being equal, it’s good to be the incumbent. As the factors play out for incumbent and challengers, this will be an election to keep an eye on.
Editor’s note: if we receive notice of any other mayoral candidate opening a headquarters, we will endeavor to cover theirs, as well.