As the dozens gathered on its beloved front lawn applauded, designated developer status for the long-vacant North Park Library was officially conferred Monday upon Buffalo’s Italian-American Cultural Center. In announcing the plans of his organization, which prefers to go by its Italian name (and initials) Centro Culturale Italiano di Buffalo (CCI), to turn the former library into a center dedicated to telling the story of the Italian-American immigrant experience in Buffalo, Dr. Francesco Giacobbe said, “I have wings in my heart and love for all of you and Buffalo.” And staying with that theme, he then gestured to the building’s “V” shape behind him. “This library has wings – to embrace you!” he exclaimed.
And in turn, a succession of speakers Monday embraced the North Park Library right back, calling it the “gateway to Little Italy” and the “jewel of North Buffalo.” Many of them were involved, along with CCI, in weekly meetings with the City of Buffalo about the building over the last year.
Former Mayor Tony Masiello was part of those discussions, and served as a master of ceremonies for Monday’s announcement. He credited the efforts of Dr. Giacobbe and Developer Rocco Termini in particular, saying, “If you want to get something done, get Rocco and Dr. Giacobbe involved.” Mayor Brown characterized the Buffalo pediatrician as “someone who never gives up, never quits.”
This embrace of the North Park Library by those with clout marks a substantial change in fortunes for the beloved building and grounds. Just last year it seemed those with clout were preparing the way for this treasured place to join the long list that Buffalo has lost.
But community voices and preservation action reinforced each other in saying no to that outcome. Jordan Then, who moderated a forum about the future of the property hosted by the North Buffalo Organization in 2016, was very upbeat about Monday’s news. “Reactivating the only original corner of Delaware and Hertel is a long sought victory for the neighborhood. Having [CCI] be a part of it, which represents a large segment of the North Buffalo community, and keeps the building in public use makes the victory even sweeter. It’s a great day for the neighborhood,” he told me.
In his remarks Monday, Mayor Brown said that with the community against demolition of the building, but the landmarking initially voted down, the City “wanted to come up with something the entire community could get behind, and rally behind.” He added, “The turnout today suggests we succeeded.” The Mayor said that the cultural center project was “vetted throughout the community” through a series of meetings. He called the resulting support for the project, “phenomenal” and “off the charts.”
Perhaps no one at the announcement Monday was happier than Buffalo’s preservationists. Paul McDonnell, chair of the preservation board, stood out in the crowd, grinning from ear to ear. He had plenty of reason to be happy with Monday’s news, as not only did the preservation board, under his chairmanship, submit the original application to landmark the library, but he is also president of the organization, the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, that sued the City for denying that and two other landmarkings without sufficient reason.
The result of that lawsuit was a judge’s order to the City to reconsider, and, in a head-spinning turn of events, the second time around Common Council voted – unanimously – to approve the North Park Library landmarking. As far as I know, this marks the first occasion where court action led the City of Buffalo to reverse a landmarking denial. While I’ve heard no one claim that the court ruling is what saved the North Park Library – Councilman Feroleto told the Buffalo News that he backed the landmarking the second time around because of CCI’s interest in the building – it was an important result nonetheless. A number of Buffalo preservationists were present for Monday’s happy announcement.
As Tim Tielman told WBFO’s Mike Desmond Monday,
It’s a gigantic victory for historic preservation in Buffalo, for the citizens of North Buffalo who really fought very hard over a year-and-a-half to overcome the resistance of the administration and the councilman to actually save this building, because there was an RFP that would have resulted in the demolition of this building.
Paul McDonnell said he thinks prospects for the building’s adaptive reuse are excellent, citing the good condition of both the roof and masonry, and a project two decades ago to make the library handicapped accessible. And because both the building and grounds – which were carefully laid out to be an arboretum and community green space – are landmarked, the preservation board can guard against anything that might harm the character of either.
And while CCI is a cultural organization, on Monday the group seemed very happy about their role as de-facto preservationists. Board member Lucia Ederer, Honorary Vice-Consul of Italy, who assists people in the Buffalo-Niagara region with embassy issues, told me that CCI’s effort to establish a cultural center has been going on for a half decade, predating the recent North Park Library crisis. But all the better, she told me, that they can accomplish their goal while also saving a beloved place from the wrecking ball.
An opening door and a closing door
In the same week as the celebration of Buffalo’s Italian-American heritage takes a step forward, is it also taking a step backward?
The Centro Culturale Italiano di Buffalo (CCI) is the culmination of a half-decade of organizing. But the effort to celebrate and share Buffalo’s Italian-American heritage goes back a lifetime. Arguably, it started with the Italian festivals – Mayor Masiello told me that he remembers when they were still celebrated on the Terrace next to St. Anthony of Padua Church, before they moved to Connecticut Street, and then later to Hertel. It continued with efforts of ethnic historians such as Joe Giambra and Joe DiLeo with the play Bread and Onions and their unique – both a publication and a club – Per Niente, and also the museum at St. Anthony’s Church downtown.
It is perhaps a sad irony that in recent years Buffalo’s Italian Festival was celebrated on Hertel Avenue, but on the very week this announcement was made at the intersection that has always been the western gateway to that event, the festival will be opening not there, but on the Outer Harbor. Should that relocation come to be widely seen as a mistake – as many think it is – perhaps the establishment of the cultural center at this location will serve as a beacon to guide the Italian Festival back home from the windswept shores of Lake Erie.
A heavy lift ahead
On Monday Mayor Brown pointed out that, with its ethnic festivals and institutions, embracing culture is a Buffalo characteristic. “In Buffalo we learn about each others’ cultures, we celebrate each others’ cultures, and we support each others’ cultures,” he said.
And this celebration of culture will indeed require a lot of support.
While calling the library “the jewel of North Buffalo,” Dr. Giacobbe acknowledged that the jewel, after being closed nearly a decade, has become a little tarnished. But he said that CCI’s architect, Tommaso Briatico, “is going to polish it inside and out.” Briatico, who has a broad portfolio of work going back to the 1980s, has been involved in a number of historic building rehabs, such as Statler City and Fenton Village (samples here). His office is only a block away, allowing him to closely supervise the project, and he told WBFO that he already has the original building plans provided by the City on his desk.
So perhaps the hardest work is ahead: planning, fundraising, designing, and building. Dr. Giacobbe told those gathered that next steps include finishing a business plan, selecting a name for the center, and securing the funds to get started. “It’s a gigantic project,” he said, “but I’m not frightened.” He told the Buffalo News that he expects the center to cost $1 Million.
Also, because the North Park Library comes with no parking on site, CCI will also have to secure parking nearby. That is something the City was either unwilling or unable to do in its earlier RFP process, which was probably a factor behind receiving only proposals that would have wiped the site clean. CCI is likely to have success making arrangements with property owners across Hertel, especially Holy Spirit Church – a linked parish with St. Margaret’s – where Father Joseph Wolf speaks fluent Italian, as do many of the parishioners.
Mayor Brown said that he would like to return “months from now” for a ribbon cutting at the center. With essentially everything yet to do, cutting the ribbon in a matter of months seems aspirational at best. Dr. Giacobbe himself was more conservative, telling the Buffalo News that he expects the center to open sometime next year. But with the show of resolution made Monday, and the reputations of those involved, anything seems possible.
Seen from above, the North Park Library has the form of a bird poised to take flight. Although it’s been grounded for far too long, it appears this bird is preparing to soar again.
If you want to help make this center everything the community would like it to be, you can be a hero by joining CCI and helping put some wind beneath their wings.