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Olmstedian Scajaquada: Man of the Scajaquada Tour

If doing something two years in a row makes it a tradition, then earlier this month I embarked on my traditional spring walk in the Scajaquada corridor. As I wrote last year, there is a brief window after the snow has melted, and the ground has dried enough to walk on, yet the foliage hasn’t popped, that one can get a very good sense of the lay of the land.

On my walk last year, my loop was between Elmwood and Grant and back again, on both sides of the creek. This year, I wanted to see the western end, west of Grant Street, and also the section east of Elmwood. In honor of Justin Timberlake’s “Man of the Woods Tour,” which he brought to Buffalo the same weekend, I decided to call my tour “Man of the Scajaquada.” Because why not.

I started with a Saturday visit to the Albright-Knox. That the gallery has some great exhibitions on display almost goes without saying, but you really do owe it to yourself to see the ones that are currently up. Also, as announced this month, the clock is ticking toward the two-year close for the expansion project.

Two things at the gallery especially struck me as related to the Scajaquada corridor: looking out the doors of the sculpture court to the east staircase and Hoyt Lake and beyond, I could get a sense of the relationship of the gallery, perched at the edge of the Scajaquada Creek valley, to its surrounding landscape. I could see all the way to the monuments in Forest Lawn, which I would see up close later on my tour.

Second was a room of the We the People: New Art from the Collection exhibition with a theme of nature, and mankind’s impact on it. The room is dominated by Anselm Kiefer’s wall-size der Morganthau Plan, one of the most significant works acquired by the gallery this decade, back in the spot where it debuted here a half-decade ago as part of the Kiefer-dominated exhibition Beyond Landscape.

Notably, the gallery’s description of the work, includes this:

The work suggests that land is never just a landscape. It is, rather, a composite of human history—of the aspirations, beliefs, actions, and events that have taken place there. Not simply natural, the landscape is a construction, constantly in flux as history unfolds.

This could be a statement about Buffalo itself, and is a primary reason Kiefer’s work has something very important to say to and about Buffalo – and especially the Scajaquada corridor in which it now resides. With Beyond Landscape, the Albright-Knox didn’t just introduce Buffalo to Kiefer’s work in context, it also attempted to use the work as a starting point for a community discussion about landscape, for example by engaging visitors through a tumblr site. We need to be continuing the discussion of landscape in Buffalo – especially for the Scajaquada corridor. While naturally and appropriately the planning and discussion of the corridor should be Olmstedian, der Morganthau Plan is a reminder that it should also be Kieferian.

On the adjoining wall is a set of large-format photographs of European bridges in extreme settings. One thing they all had in common was a harmony with the nature and culture of their surroundings – a sense of belonging to their site. A sense entirely lacking, by contrast, in the 198, which is where I would be heading next.

West Cheektowaga

Since one of my objects was to see how long a stretch of the south bank of the creek was blocked off from access, I started by looking for the westernmost point in the park where I could access the creek. It turns out I didn’t have to go far. Just across Iroquois Drive from the Albright-Knox is the slender bit of water connecting Hoyt Lake and Mirror Lake. I crouched realllly low to follow it under the 198 and then…the end of the line. Just on the other side of the 198 was the mouth of the bypass conduit that carries the creek, with its upstream sediment and sewage overflow loads, around the park lakes. To my right was the separation wall, s-curving its way across Mirror Lake. It is not designed to walk atop.

To my left, on the downstream side of the outflow, was the “island” just downstream from the conduit that locals have called “Poop Island” or “West Cheektowaga.” It’s been there long to have stuff growing on it, and even show up on satellite photos. Except on Sunday, when I got to where it should be, it appeared the island was gone (see photo below). Could the city have dredged it away in the last year or so? Or could it have been scoured away by the flood event a couple of years ago?

So while the removal of such an “offal” sight is an improvement, it doesn’t change the picture for creekside access: there is none really, without – essentially – walking on the shoulder of the 198. So this was a dead end, which may explain why the site is so forlorn that it appears to be used as an occasional encampment.

Could I find another place to access the creek? I headed west to see.

Burchfield’s Aboretum

My next stop was to see something I’d only learned about last summer, from the exhibition Burchfield’s Arboretum at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, curated by Burchfield archivist Tullis Johnson. The exhibition celebrated Burchfield’s paintings of trees, in conjunction with a new effort to renew an asset I hadn’t known the community even had and perhaps you didn’t either: an arboretum. In 1962, on the grounds of Buffalo State College an arboretum was established, dedicated to Maud Gordon Holmes, founder of the Garden Center Instutute of Buffalo. It began under the leadership of the Burchfield-Penney’s Dr. Edna Lindemann, and Charles Burchfield was present for some of the earliest plantings.

In conjunction with last year’s exhibit, the Friends of the Maud Gordon Holmes Arboretum created lovely new guide maps to the arboretum, which you can download and print here and here, then head to campus to stalk your arboreal prey.

One of the prizes of the collection is one of the few American Elms left in the city. It overlooks the Scajaquada and bears silent witness to the expressway’s blighting of the landscape. Yet it also provides a sign of hope, that it will someday see blight return to beauty. Olmsted means, literally, “place of the elm” and this very place represents some of the worst blight and also greatest promise.

Within sight of this tree at Iroquois Drive and – appropriately – Elmwood Avenue, is a view that shows the problem and potential of the 198 perhaps better than any other place between there and Grant Street. Looking west you can see along the full length and curve of the vastly overbuilt highway, the largely hidden creek, and the bridges and ramps that show no more regard for the creek than if it were a drainage ditch to service the road. As if the Highway Borg intoned, “Resistance is futile. You will adapt to service us.”

Yet resistance is not futile, as we learned a year ago January, when the DOT pulled the plug on its widely panned 198 plan. While there is as yet no alternative, this spot is one of the best places to imagine what an alternative could be. Picture the curving river of black and gray hardscape replaced with a landscape of blue and green: plants and creek. It could be something akin to the famous Back Bay Fens landscape in Boston, as I wrote here. In fact, a landscape architect could take a picture like this as a “before” image, transforming it into an “after” image of the kind of landscape we could create there with the expressway gone. Any readers out there have the skills to do that? Or the resources to fund that?

Just west of that point is a full view of the recently rebuilt Elmwood bridge over the Scajaquada Expressway and Creek. It’s a nice project in many ways, but the future of the 198 isn’t about tarting things up but about land use. To date, all of the DOT planning and design work on the 198 has been about tarting up the expressway while keeping it essentially in place. So despite millions spent over a decade and a half, we still don’t have a land use plan for the Scajaquada corridor that would fundamentally inform the future of the expressway and the creek. We need to be about that.

As I continued walking Iroquois Drive, I continued looking for any opportunity to access the creek. But nothing doing: everywhere access was blocked by fences, crumbling concrete walls, and the expressway itself. At one point a chain-link fence holds back a riot of vegetation at the very spot you could imagine a beautiful landscape and access point to a pathway network as in the Back Bay Fens. After all, after the Fens was created, institutions like colleges moved nearby to take advantage of the beautiful environment. Here, we could bring such a landscape to the college. It wouldn’t require the college to shift its location – just its thinking.

Farther along I was struck again by how close the Buffalo State dorms – with hundreds of hungry students – are to the most popular supermarket in the known universe. Yet the few hundred feet separating them might as well be a mile thanks to the expressway. If that barrier were broken, as I wrote here, some of the Wegmans parking lots could be infilled to create a kind of “college town” for Buffalo State that would attract students into Black Rock.

And farther along Assumption Church and school, a central Black Rock institution, is similarly cut off from the campus, despite that the church and college students would mutually benefit from being more connected. Buffalo State does have a Newman Center (Catholic campus ministry) on Elmwood, which is all well and good, but it’s not the same as students having the opportunity to be part of a neighborhood faith community. But it’s hard to be part of a neighborhood or faith community that you’re walled off from. Though paved with good intentions, the 198 is the Road from Hell.

West by Southwest

When I got to Grant Street, I still hadn’t found a way to access the south bank of the creek, so I followed the traces of the old railroad connecting spur west through the college parking lots. The spur once crossed the creek, so perhaps that would take me where I wanted to go. But no: the spur passes through the City of Buffalo’s auto impound compound, where everything is sealed up tight like a drum. There are acres of hardscape and tall chain-link fences and old industrial buildings, collectively barring access to the creek. Even a narrow gap between the auto impound and the trucking company to the south that I thought I might be able to get through had been sealed off with corrugated sheet metal.

On a happier note, I did find that the old joint at the corner of Dart and Letchworth, that has been empty for years, is now open as La Casa De Sabores. People were coming in and out, suggesting they’re doing a good business. I could only imagine what kind of business they’d be doing if the Scajaquada widewaters were restored (as discussed here), as they would be across the street from a popular recreational water body.

So I continued southwest, past the trucking companies, and past the Monarch 716 student housing complex. It turned out that I had to go all the way to West Avenue – nearly to the mouth of the creek – before I could access its south bank. Think about that: there is almost no public access to the south bank of Scajaquada Creek downstream from Delaware Park. That means no hiking, no biking, no dog walking, no bird watching, no enjoying nature – and no places to put in a canoe or kayak. The 198 robs all of us of an important scenic, cultural, and recreational asset. Downstream from Delaware Park, North Buffalo is robbed of access to half of its waterfront in the creek corridor.

That ain’t right!

Up Shit’s Creek

When I finally got to the south bank of the creek, I wasn’t exactly welcomed by the surroundings. It’s under the elevated highway, there are no paths, and the surface is a mix of rock, dirt, and guano. Before going far I also came across lots of clothes on the ground, making me wonder if it was due to dumping or if I’d come across the remnants of an encampment. Overall, the place has just the mix of blight and hardscrabble ecology captured by Alberto Rey in his paintings featuring the creek, including a prominent work from a nearby vantage point.

If the elevated section of the 198 were removed and the original Scajaquada widewaters (site of the War of 1812 shipyard that outfitted the ships that won the Battle of Lake Erie) were restored (as discussed here) this would become a treasured recreational & historic landscape instead of a horrorscape.

As I went on, now making my way upstream, the creek bank and the fence along the rear of the trucking company began to converge, and I had to scramble up a high bank onto a goat path twenty feet above the creek. Fortunately, the goats apparently had the weekend off. The stagnant mess below looked more like Scajaquada Soup than Scajaquada Creek.

Up the creek I came across a field of monitoring wells, at least a dozen in all. Not only that, sheet piling had been driven around the perimeter, even down below in the creek bank. Clearly, someone had gone to great lengths to contain and keep an eye on something very bad. But what? I learned later from Dan Telvock (whose reporting spurred a major commitment to improve the water quality of the Scajaquada), that the site has legacy contamination from Iroquois Gas (a former coal gasification plant) and Westwood Pharmaceuticals.

Just past that point, I was able to look back a long way downstream along a curve in the creek. It was a sight few have seen in decades.

Then, I was at the auto impound, housed in and around the former Buffalo Structural Steel plant. In their current state the buildings are a visual blight that nonetheless retain a rugged industrial appeal, with open interior spaces and elaborate roof trusses. As I mentioned in this piece, if the Scajaquada widewaters were restored that would create lots of opportunities for recreational boating, as on Jamaica Pond in Boston’s Emerald Necklace (they’d be on the same scale). A boathouse and indoor recreation facilities could be a good reuse for some of the current auto impound buildings, which are essentially shell structures that would lend themselves to repurposing.

In a way, reusing such large shell buildings on the waterfront for a mix of recreation and other uses would be akin to many similar projects in former large-scale, legacy port terminal buildings carried out on waterfronts around the world. The key here would be restoring the widewaters so that there’s a, y’know, waterfront next to the waterfront buildings.

Upstream from the auto impound there’s a kind of pocket wilderness between the Scajaquada Expressway and Creek. It’s very birdy. It also has a gentle slope down to the creek, allowing me to finally get down by the water’s edge to take some photos. Amazingly, I wouldn’t find another good opportunity to do so.

At that spot, across the creek, I could see some of the old industrial buildings on Tonawanda Street. Have you ever wondered why the backsides of some of those buildings are angled? (Just say yes.) Good, because here’s the answer: they were built to the edge of the original widewaters. Why? The widewaters was connected to the Erie Canal at the mouth of the creek, so industry could ship by water to and from anywhere in the world from their back dock. If the widewaters were restored, they’d be waterfront property – again.

Around the bend, the pocket wilderness petered out as I reached the end of the elevated section of the 198. After that point the expressway is built on a retaining wall above the creek – the end of the line. I would have to turn around and go all the way back to West Avenue.

Back at West Avenue, I crossed the creek to the Jesse Kregal Pathway to head into Black Rock for a slice of ‘za at Joe’s New York Style Pizzeria, an obligatory Black Rock stop for over eleven years (here’s our original review).

On my way, the lack of foliage let me get an upstream glimpse of Assumption Church. Clearly, the huge and beautiful church-and-school complex would be a dominant feature of the landscape of a remade Scajaquada corridor, both east and west of Grant Street. In a restored creek valley, it could even become the only church in Buffalo you could kayak to – and how cool would that be?

And speaking of churches, when I got to the former Tee-to-Green property – a favorite place to walk around because of the gently rolling landscape created by the golf course and the lovely meadow habitat created by the golf course’s abandonment – I found steeples visible in all directions. That added a relaxing sense of a small town or country village to the landscape, something not easy to find in a large city.

This is a very special and important spot, one that, I believe, needs to have a primarily recreational future so that everyone can enjoy the setting. Newell has pitched a disc golf concept several years back, and earlier in this series I discussed the potential for recreational use of the site.

It’s also a great place to cap off an active day with a beautiful Buffalo sunset, framed by two church towers.

Keep Out!

Lessons learned from looking at the lay of the land? Overall, I was struck by the fact that there was no sanctioned access whatever to the creek bank from Lincoln Parkway all the way to West Avenue. If you live in North Buffalo, unless you live near the river, Scajaquada Creek (including Hoyt and Mirror Lakes) is your waterfront. The fact that citizens are denied access to nearly half of it is simply absurd and must change. This is much like the situation with much of the Buffalo River and the Outer Harbor just a decade ago.

The inaccessible crescent: keep out! Image credit: Chee-zee Grafix, Inc.

The other thing that is increasingly clear to me is just how much value would be created on the western end of the corridor not just by removing the Scajaquada Expressway but also by restoration of Scajaquada Creek and creation of new landscapes. Removing the expressway and restoring the creek would create an entirely new riparian landscape and recreational access to the south side of the creek that is now inaccessible.

Similarly, restoring the widewaters would create new recreational space all around it like Jamaica Pond in Boston. Between Grant and Elmwood, creek restoration could create a kind of fens landscape to improve water quality and ecology, and provide a new recreational and scenic experience. When that was done by Olmsted as part of his famed Emerald Necklace, the new landscape was so beloved that many Boston institutions relocated nearby.

In the Scajaquada corridor, what value would this provide for our institutions such as the culturals and Buffalo State that would look out on these new landscapes? And what value would it provide to Black Rock for a town/gown “college town” to draw students closer to the neighborhood than ever before? What value for the Amherst Street commercial corridor to be a block from one of the most attractive scenic and recreational landscapes in the region – essentially, a westward extension of Delaware Park

Timber and lake

On Sunday, my tour picked up on the eastern part of the 198. I decided to stick with the theme developed the day before: exploring how the expressway cuts people off from scenic, natural, and recreational resources they might otherwise enjoy. The perfect place to start: a stand of timber by the lake, naturally.

The last couple of seasons the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy has worked to reopen the historic bridle path that overlooks Hoyt Lake. It goes up the hill where it once connected with the carriage drive now occupied by the 198. It’s a good project yet still doesn’t seem to get much use. I mean, who wants to walk near the expressway, right? The expressway has essentially robbed generations of Buffalonians of some of the best views in their flagship park. Like this:

This is the monument to Buffalo’s First parks superintendent, McMillan, erected by his loyal friends after his death. Befitting the practical, no-nonsense Scot, whose life was one of service to his adopted city and her Olmsted parks, the monument was designed to be supremely useful to park visitors, originally providing a welcome drink of water to people, horses, dogs, and even birds.

McMillan fiercely defended the Olmsted parks against encroachment, but sadly wasn’t here to stop this shitshow expressway his monument now looks out on. The expressway doesn’t seem to care much for McMillan’s legacy of park integrity, either. In effect, it hides his monument in plain sight, ostensibly to keep modern Buffalonians from learning of this extraordinarily man and his legacy, which might otherwise inspire them to scale the heights and retake the high ground from the expressway.

Another monument nearby, to the soldiers of the G.A.R. (Union army), is even more arrogantly cordoned off by the 198. You simply cannot get to it without scrambling across expressway on/off ramps – an act which could send you to meet them sooner than anticipated.

Similarly, there’s a whole ‘nother side of the WPA-built bridge over Delaware Ave that you can’t use (or even get to) despite that there are stairs on one end. That makes this view of the S-curves & park from the south side of the bridge essentially off-limits. In land-use terms, the harm of the 198 is far greater than the amount of park land it occupies. It’s capacity to divide and separate seems far greater and more insidious than its capacity to occupy.

The Forest Lawn Dead Zone

Just ahead would be an even larger example of that. Just east of the bridge over Delaware Avenue the 198 and its ramps cordon off an entire section of Delaware Park, with views of some of the best monuments in Forest Lawn.

If you can make it across the 198 ramps without going to your eternal reward, your temporal reward is a stroll through this lovely wooded area between the expressway & Forest Lawn. This is just another something this ill-considered, poorly designed highway cuts us off from.

Fort Delano

Walking the wooded strip between the 198 and Forest Lawn eventually brought me to “Fort Delano,” as the parks maintenance facilities are known to Buffalonians whose memories stretch back to the Griffin administration. If that’s not you, this article will explain it.

The park facilities are just across the 198 from the area where poor Maksym Sugorovsky was killed.

Although currently the place is a shambles, if this section of the 198 were sunken like the transverse roads in Central Park with a nice bridge over it (as discussed in this piece), these buildings could provide valued amenities to park users.

Agassiz Circle

Have you ever been in this charming neighborhood, tucked away between Medaille College and Forest Lawn? And cut off from Delaware Park by the 198? It has some of the most picturesque streets & houses in the city. If the 198 were sunken here with some footbridges across (as I discussed in this piece), the Agassiz Circle neighborhood would front on Delaware Park.

East of Agassiz Circle I finally reached Humboldt Parkway, which once connected Delaware Park to Humboldt Park, now Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. The first section of the parkway, in the Parkside Neighborhood, features stately homes, many now owned by Medaille or Canisius Colleges. The 198 is in a trench for much of this stretch, from passing under Main Street, sloping to the surface for the awkward and extremely dangerous at-grade intersection with Parkside Avenue.

Yet the overwhelming feeling here, as on the rest of my tour, was one of separation and disconnectedness. The 198, like the Berlin Wall, has broken the ties between Parkside and the two colleges for decades. People can see each other across the divide, but can’t interact. Like Cold-War Berlin, there are only a couple of dangerous checkpoints through the barrier: crossing the 198 at-grade at Parkside Avenue, or walking all the way to Main/Kensington/198 intersection, which is extraordinarily unfriendly and unforgiving to pedestrians.

If your solution to the 198 problem doesn’t include extending this trench all the way to Parkside Avenue, then decking it over to re-establish the parkway on top (as discussed in this piece) you’re wrong – and if you want to argue the point I’ll take you on one at a time or all in a group.

Hamlin Park and Trinidad Park

The easternmost section of the 198 is like the previous section in reverse. It begins in an underpass under Main Street and Kensington Avenue, is in a trench for a stretch, and slopes to the surface. It runs several blocks as a surface expressway to Oakgrove, where the connecting ramps to the 33 begin.

Here, the 198 separates the Hamlin Park neighborhood from the Trinidad Neighborhood even more thoroughly than it separates the Parkside neighborhood from Medaille and Canisius Colleges. There are no connections across, with several streets severely severed. Seeing it on a map doesn’t prepare you for the sense of disconnectedness you see on the ground. It’s hard to describe the feeling of “so close but yet so far” between these neighborhoods. You’re hit hard by the realization that Humboldt Parkway used to be a common element uniting the residents so beautifully, making all the more brutal the way it tore them asunder. Then you can understand the need to bind up those wounds and imagine the beauty of the moment when the ties of consanguinity are restored.

The separation is perhaps most keenly felt at Oakgrove, where The Golden Cup, one of the city’s great coffee shops in a rare-to-the-neighborhood mixed-use building, is essentially off-limits to its Trinidad neighbors just a few hundred feet away. Likewise, Trinidad Park, at the end of the Trinidad half of Oakgrove, is essentially off-limits to its Hamlin Park neighbors.

Trinidad Park smartly takes advantage of some of the left-over pieces of land near the 33/198 split and along the Belt Line that would otherwise be hard to utilize. There are other left-over pieces of land nearby that could be combined to form an even larger recreational and natural area. Since that would be adjacent to a restored Humboldt Parkway, any corridor plan for the 198 should consider a tie-in.

As on the other side of Main Street, the solution to the 198 problem here would seem to be extending the trench east, perhaps to Oakgrove, then decking it over to re-establish the parkway on top (as discussed in this piece). The eastern end of the 198 serves 70,000 cars per day – the primary access to the 33 for North Buffalo and the Elmwood Village. And that traffic will be there as long as the 33 is. You can’t restore Humboldt Parkway with 70,000 cars per day. So do the math: as with the ROCC project on the 33, the solution is a decked trench with the through traffic underneath and the restored parkway on top. If you want to argue the point I’ll take you on one at a time or all in a group. But remember: math is math.

Remaking the Scajaquada corridor must be about restoring landscapes and water bodies. But it also must be about removing barriers and ending separations. Whether those barriers are between neighborhoods or those separations are between people and their parks or between people and their water.

Mr. Cuomo, tear down this wall!

Written by RaChaCha


RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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