This time of year, when the snow is gone, and the ground has dried enough to walk on, yet the foliage hasn’t popped, is one of the best times for getting out and getting the lay of the land. If your timing is right to catch Mother Nature just after she steps out of her April showers but before she’s had the chance to don her green, flowered robe, her bareness can be revealing. Contours that are obscured later in the year are easy to follow, locations like creek banks are more visible and approachable, and spatial relationships are easier to ascertain. Some views are only to be had when the trees are leafless.
About this time last year, under these conditions, and with the Scajaquada Expressway debate in mind, I first noticed the “valleyness” of Scajaquada Creek. Iroquois Drive, which runs between the northern edge of Buffalo State campus and the 198, is not what you’d consider a pleasant walk. It’s a service corridor of parking lots, expressway noise, crumbling hardscape, and incomplete sidewalks. Although unpleasant, the walk rewarded me with a simple revelation about Scajaquada Creek: it occupies a valley.
As a person who pays attention to landscape I was surprised to have missed seeing that for so long, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. After all, most of Scajaquada Creek in the city is covered. It first emerges in Forest Lawn Cemetery, a place where most of us with a heartbeat spend little time. In Delaware Park it’s no longer a creek, but a lake. West of that, after a century of fill – much of it thanks to its eponymous expressway – what was once a valley has been reduced, in most places, to a ditch.
Sunday, the weather was favorable for a return visit to further explore the Scajaquada’s “valleyness” between Elmwood and Grant – this time, on both sides of the creek. Also favorable, according to the news in January, was a new climate of cooperation signaled by the Governor’s DOT on planning for the 198 corridor. Nothing like a fresh opportunity to rethink the corridor to provide a fresh impetus to re-reconnoiter the corridor.
So after attending Mass with Father Richard and the good folks of Assumption Church in Black Rock, and chatting with Max Willig, who was picking up his Sunday paper at his architecture studio next to the church, I started my loop. On the north side of the creek I would follow the Jesse Kregal/Scajaquada Pathway.
The North Bank
The foot of Peter Street, behind the church, is an important nexus along the creek corridor and in the neighborhood. It has a wonderful playground, which received an extreme makeover not long ago from the Olmsted Conservancy with Niagara Greenway funding. It is especially handy to children of the massive school at Assumption, that serves much of North Buffalo. Running through the playground is the right of way of an old railroad spur that (as I described here) could provide a recreational link to the Jesse Kregal/Scajaquada Pathway for much of the neighborhood. From the playground, you can see across the creek valley and expressway to Buffalo State College on the other side. Without the foliage, the Richardson towers were visible, beacons to the site of a nearby Olmsted landscape.
Also at the foot of Peter Street, a side trail from the pathway descends to near water level at the finger dam, affectionately known as the “trash rack.” This walkway was created several years ago by the Olmsted Conservancy with Niagara Greenway funding. It provides one of the few places west of Forest Lawn where one can get down close to creek level. That makes it a useful place for envisioning a future for the corridor when the expressway is removed and the creek is either restored to something like its original width or transformed into a richly ecological “fens” landscape.
For one, this spot gives a sense of the multi-level pathways characteristic of Olmsted’s Back Bay Fens landscape. It also gives a near-water sense of the rich, natural character of the riparian edge – at least, if the waterborne detritus were cleaned up. Where the water meets the land is one of the most important ecological zones and productive habitats, perhaps giving us a natural inclination to find it an attractive place to be. Because of the dam, this is also one of the widest sections of the creek remaining, so it gives a sense of how the creek could look if it were released from its drainage-ditch prison.
One of the prime locations where the creek could be thus unfettered and a sense of valley restored is just a little farther east, behind Wegmans. The large expanse of lawn there provides essentially no recreational benefits nor ecological benefits. As I described here, it could be largely replaced by a “Scajaquada Fens” landscape, analogous to Boston’s Back Bay Fens. Such a project would also provide an opportunity to redesign how stormwater from the Wegmans parking lots is handled. The Back Bay Fens, after all, beyond their beauty and recreational value, were designed by Olmsted as essentially a green infrastructure project. Given that stormwater-caused sewage overflows are the primary cause of the creek’s severe water quality problems, state and federal funds intended to help address those issues could help to fund such a remaking of the landscape.
Just beyond this is another location where the Olmsted Conservancy, with Niagara Greenway funds, created a lower-level path several years ago. It has a subtle and elegant design, highlighting a natural “shelf” along the creek. It provides an important sense of depth and terrain in the landscape without dropping all the way to creek level. As at the finger dam, it provides an intriguing glimpse of the potential to use slope and terrain and terraces in a recreated creek valley. Such features, as used by Olmsted in his Back Bay Fens, provide scenic, recreational, and ecological value.
Around a bend in the path, behind McKinley High School, the pre-foliage drab was wiped away in one fell swoop by the colorful mural painted by Augustina Droze – the very mural that brought her to Buffalo. The mural, sponsored by the Olmsted Conservancy, with Niagara Greenway funding, celebrates the life of Frederick Law Olmsted. This is another spot where an extensive lawn area could provide opportunities for creek restoration. Some of the lawn is used as a playing field, an important thing for a school, which should obviously continue.
McKinley High School, with its recognized horticulture program, would be a natural partner in the remaking and stewardship of the creek corridor that runs through its backyard. The area next to its greenhouses, up to Elmwood Avenue, already has some of the characteristics of an arboretum, and that could be expanded on, perhaps across the street near the Buffalo History Museum.
Closer to Elmwood, the terrain along the pathway gets more interesting. The path splits into two levels: one leading up to Elmwood, and one passing underneath the on/off ramps – again reminiscent of the multi-level, intersecting paths of the Back Bay Fens. The creek also makes a bend there, providing another opportunity for a view along its length.
Across the creek from this spot is a unique “no-man’s-land.” Much of the land directly along the creek north of Buffalo State can’t be accessed without walking on the expressway, so needless to say it doesn’t get a lot of traffic from people. On Sunday, without meaning to, I startled a mother fox and her pup living in that area, even though I was across the creek from them. As they ran off, they yapped at me in irritation, something I usually only get in the comments section on here. I managed to grab a picture of one of them.
At the Elmwood bridge, looking across the creek gives a clear sense of how Buffalo State could be a waterfront campus if the expressway were removed and the creek valley restored.
From the Elmwood bridge, without the foliage it was possible to get a good look at the Reinstein Center on the Buffalo History Museum grounds. With a restored creek valley and a more ecological creek corridor west of Delaware Park, you could imagine this beautiful structure – made of the stone underlying North Buffalo – becoming a nature center or even a boathouse for canoe and kayak exploration of the creek.
The South Bank
Walking Iroquois Drive, with Buffalo State College on one side and the expressway on the other, the visual impact of the creek valley is overwhelming. Also of overwhelming visual impact is the tragic taking of the valley for the expressway, and the stupid, ridiculous redundance of overbuilt transportation hardscape. In most places, the is a sidewalk on the campus side of Iroquois Drive. Then, Iroquois Drive. Then, an apron on the expressway side of Iroquois Drive. Then, in some places, a concrete retaining wall (clearly showing its age). Then, the expressway itself, with wide shoulders and in many places on-ramps and off-ramps. Finally, on the other side of all that redundant hardscape: a narrow, constricted, constrained creek.
The tragic redundancy is never more clear than at midday Sunday, when the light traffic fully reveals the windswept river of asphalt and concrete that shoved aside the creek. Only a few cars went past on Iroquois Drive, and the light traffic on the expressway seemed almost to become lost in the vast wasteland.
This is a visual illustration of what I tried to show last fall in this installment of this Olmstedian Scajaquada series: the entire expressway west of Delaware Park is unnecessary. It could and should be removed, with a restored, scenic creek valley serving as a western extension of the park. Because of what was lost to create this section of the expressway, and because of what we could gain by removing it, and the obscene waste of public expenditure to retain and maintain so much redundant hardscape, removing that section of the expressway goes beyond good policy to almost a moral imperative.
But a practical one, too: one of the things one notices about Buffalo State College is there is hardscape everywhere. In storms, much of the rain that falls on the campus runs off into storm drains, where it either causes sewer overflows or picks up contaminants from the ground (like surface parking lots) and takes them along for the ride. Either is bad news for the creek and the Black Rock Channel into which it empties. Removing the expressway, restoring the creek valley, and creating an ecological landscape there could help manage and filter the campus’ stormwater – providing not just an ecological but an economic service.
When walking both sides of the creek valley between Grant and Elmwood, Buffalo State’s Moore Complex – with its four signature towers – competes with Assumption Church in Black Rock to be the dominant architectural feature. Standing on the creek side of the complex, set on a grassy knoll above both Iroquois Drive and the expressway, two things are immediately apparent. One is how Buffalo State’s principal housing complex would immediately become waterfront housing if the expressway were removed and creek restored, looking out across a beautiful landscape.
Second is how easy it would be to connect all the collegiate eating machines housed therein directly to Wegmans with a graceful pedestrian bridge that could be designed into the restored valleyscape. The combined town-gown purchasing power could fuel creation of a more urban “Wegmans Village” and also boost business in the Black Rock commercial strip along Amherst Street.
Past the Moore Complex is another spot, directly opposite the Grant Street off-ramp, where Black Rock seemed close-but-yet-so-far. With the lack of foliage, Polish Cadets and other buildings at Grant-Amherst seemed just out of reach.
Coming full circle, crossing the Grant Street bridge over the creek provided a magnificent view of the entire Assumption Church complex. But also a sad view of the creek, showing just how the once magnificent water body seen in historic photos, that must have once magnificently reflected the magnificent church in its magnificent waters, is now utterly degraded. As if aware of what it’s become, it slowly slithers past, like the unfortunate narrator of Harlan Ellison’s disturbing I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream.
Sadly, a section of creek beginning at Mirror Lake, with spots of beauty along the way despite a half-century of depredations, is reduced to little more than a drainage ditch by the time it gets to Grant Street. At Elmwood, the on-ramps and off-ramps pass over the creek on bridges. At Grant Street, the creek is funneled under them in what are little more than stormwater culverts. Perhaps fortunately, the concrete balustrades on the Grant Street bridge prevent all but curious pedestrians from seeing the creek’s humiliation.
A fundamental problem with the 198 is that, despite being built through one of the city’s most significant scenic and cultural landscapes, it was planned and designed entirely by engineers, not landscape architects. In thinking about how to fix this, as important as it is for us to take cues from the great landscape architect who designed Delaware Park, and learn from analogous landscapes in cities like Boston, we can’t overlook the need to get out, on foot, along the creek itself. If we’re willing to take the time and pay attention, it has a great deal to teach us.
Scajaquada Creek may no longer be able to speak, but we can still hear what it has to say.
More pictures in the photo gallery below: