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The Fruit Belt Demonstrates the Importance of Neighborhood Identity

Imagine a time when Lemon, Orange, Peach, and Grape Streets ended at Cherry Street. When Cherry Street itself was a natural part of the neighborhood fabric. When Virginia Street once completed its long journey from Niagara Street to Jefferson Avenue.

Archived photos of the Fruit Belt provide a glimpse at what the neighborhood once was before the Route 33 expressway was built. Having recently conquered a threat on its very identity, the Fruit Belt is reutilizing its grand history to re-establish itself in the 21st Century.

Seeds of Prosperity

The legacy of the Fruit Belt predates that of modern food forests. Established in the 1840’s, the neighborhood was so-named for the fruit trees and fruit shrubs planted by German immigrants who were experienced in agriculture. Like many other neighborhoods, the Fruit Belt established a unique identity that contributed to Buffalo’s rich, cultural heritage during the first half of the 20th Century.

As described vividly by Hamlin Park resident Esterphine Greene, the blossoms from the Fruit Belt trees perfumed the entire neighborhood each and every summer, and residents were treated to a bountiful autumn harvest from apples, grapes, blueberries, etc. produced each year.

These photos illustrate how harmonious Buffalo’s neighborhoods once were. Each and every neighborhood was playing its own song, and in turn, the city of Buffalo was playing a beautiful symphony.

The Disease of Segregation

Following World War II, unbeknownst to Buffalo’s growing African American population expanding through the East Side was a pre-planned virus beneath newly affordable housing prices.

Redlining was born from urban housing practices dating back to the 1930’s. As the name suggests, neighborhoods marked in red, which were predominantly minority neighborhoods, were considered “high risk”, thus denied from housing investments, whereas “low risk” white neighborhoods were marked in green and blue and received the best investments.

This systemic coding was a little-known secret beyond the world of real estate. In exchange for many third and fourth generation white residents moving to the suburbs, redlining would lay the foundation for expressways that would come through urban neighborhoods during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

As a product of an era where Plessy v. Ferguson prevailed, what was touted as “progress” for the growing use of automobiles excluded African American communities. Not only did most African Americans neither own nor could afford an automobile, they were barred from seeking homes beyond “high risk” neighborhoods that they were confined to. Realtors who were assisting outgoing white residents correspondingly withdrew information about the expressways from incoming African American residents. With the Civil Rights movement still years away, African Americans were also denied the political coalescence that could have begun to protect their neighborhoods.

Ironic that a nation having just fought off the threat of Nazi invasions during World War II had yet to challenge the evils stewing within its own borders. Like with many minority neighborhoods across the country, the fate of the Fruit Belt and much of Buffalo’s East Side was already determined.

The fabled orchard of the Fruit Belt would fade into oblivion. Cherry Street would be separated from the rest of the neighborhood. To this day, the Route 33 expressway continues to blaze its blaring cacophony through once peaceful neighborhoods.

The number of homes and city blocks that would vanish from expressway construction, and the number of residents displaced from their original homes, could never be fully compensated by urban renewal programs of the 1960’s, which completely erased a neighborhood next to the Fruit Belt known as Brewers Hill. Preservation standards, which saved Allentown from another expressway planned along the path of Virginia Street, emerged against the damage that had already been done.

The repetition of history reveals how the most dangerous forms of prejudice are hidden behind everyday procedure. Such new laws as the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act treated the main symptoms of redlining practices, but never stopped the virus of segregationist development. “Progress” was used a code term during the Baby Boomer era to leave African American residents holding the bag when Route 33 made its arbitrary path through the city. A contemporary type of “progress” has taken on a silent attempt to rebrand the Fruit Belt in accordance to the growth of the Medical Campus, once again using the city’s African American residents as a bargaining chip.

As stated by Esterphine Greene, “Those who have no seat at the table will find themselves on the menu.”

Perhaps this was the most important lesson that Buffalonians have learned in recent times. In a city desperate for true leadership, the Fruit Belt is a neighborhood that has particularly endured against numerous hardships. A community that experienced the onslaught of Route 33, decades of abandonment and disinvestment, and a threat on its own name brings forth a re-evaluation on how the city defines its rebirth, and who are part of the equation.

The march towards progress does not conspire to leave anyone behind.

Buffalo cannot build a renaissance from the same toxic psychology that led to its downfall.

Bearing New Fruit

Beginning in the 1990’s, numerous community-based actions have stepped up to breathe new life into the long-maligned Fruit Belt. The Fruit Belt Coalition, consisting of many sub-groups in the neighborhood, host monthly block club meetings, as well as neighborhood block parties during the summer, including a Christmas in the City event during the holidays. St. John Baptist Church has taken the lead on housing projects around the neighborhood, more recently signing onto a $500 million redevelopment pledge for the neighborhood.

In 2017, the countrywide Endless Orchard campaign arrived in Buffalo. Volunteers planted new cherry, peach, apple, pear, and plum trees, as well as blueberry bushes around the Fruit Belt neighborhood. As a direct tribute to the neighborhood’s heritage, a new orchard will greet the next generation of Fruit Belt residents.

Locust Street Arts adapted to changes around the neighborhood since its founding in 1959. Its present-day location is in a former convent at 138 Locust Street, which was part of the St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church campus based on Mulberry and Virginia Streets.

The non-profit art institute has won numerous awards for its access and versatility in arts education, and has been praised for the welcoming diversity of its student and staff members. The institute’s commitment to both the community and fine arts became the subject of Harvard University’s “Safe Havens” study in 1993. Nearing its 60th year, Locust Street Arts, remembered by many alumni as Molly-Olga, continues to provide free art classes for children and adults on Saturday afternoons.

In more recent years, city and state government have become more attentive in protecting the well-being of the neighborhood. Residential parking permits have been issued to control “borrowed” parking from Medical Campus employees. A community land trust launched in 2018 to protect property rates for neighborhood residents, as a much-needed challenge against displacement. A Slumlord Bill was signed into state law to reinforce penalties against out-of-town landlords sitting on abandoned properties.

The Fruit Belt has escaped the grisly fate of Brewers Hill. It reaffirmed its identity against circumstances that could have further compromised the neighborhood or eliminated it altogether. Identity establishes ownership: with harsh lessons learned from the past, the reward for community ownership has been citywide rediscovery of the Fruit Belt’s grand heritage.

Written by Bradley Bethel

Bradley Bethel

Bradley J. Bethel Jr. was born and raised in Buffalo, NY. He received his Bachelor’s in Environmental Design from the University at Buffalo, and a Master’s in Visual Communications from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Deeply involved with community development, Bradley has worked in numerous non-profit programs, including Locust Street Arts, Clean Air Coalition, and the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County. He has also provided visual branding for the Restore Our Community Coalition and Preservation Buffalo Niagara. His freelance graphic design services has won awards and accolades for his clients.

Bradley has been writing articles for Buffalo Rising since 2013, using his extensive research on Buffalo’s rich heritage.

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