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A People’s History of Kensington-Bailey

On the subject of history and the story of place, noted American author, social activist, and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs wrote:

“History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories – triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally – has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.”

The latest chapter for the Kensington-Bailey Historical Committee has been collecting the untold and underreported stories of the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood through oral histories of its residents. Whether through in-person sessions with those still living in the area or phone conversations with those living across the county, these very unique and very personal stories are coming together to help understand the complexity of the Kensington-Bailey Neighborhood, and will ultimately shed more light on how it has evolved–and will continue to evolve–over time.

Ms. Elsie and her husband Jack moved to the Kensington-Bailey Neighborhood 41 years ago because they saw life and vitality along the Bailey Business Corridor. As a result of this, Ms. Elsie decided to start her own business and was determined to run it on Bailey Avenue. Elsie’s Utopia Skin Care and Hair Salon became a staple in the neighborhood and paved the way for her to becoming not just a business owner, but a commercial business owner, an active participant in the Bailey Avenue Business Association, and a known neighborhood voice and advocate for pride and progress in the community. Even after closing up her shop, Ms. Elsie is active in her community by forming a block club for her street, attends community meetings, and brings what she learns back to her immediate community. She is a born leader and it shows through her story.

The Kensington-Bailey Historical Committee is an all-volunteer group of citizens working to uncover, preserve, and share the history of the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood. Through research, photo documentation, an original film, and oral histories, the Historical Committee is writing a new narrative for the neighborhood grounded in people’s love for a place. By sharing every day stories and experiences , the Historical Committee seeks to highlight the diversity and richness of our community through the eyes of its residents.

The Historical Committee’s efforts received a big boost thanks to the support of University District Council Member Rasheed Wyatt as well as the passion and dedication of the Committee’s Chairperson, Doris Corley. In 2018, Ms. Corley was a participant in the University at Buffalo’s Champions for Change Program, and initiative of One Region Forward’s Citizen Planning School. Over the course of a semester, Ms. Corley and the Historical Committee worked closely with student leaders as well as community and faculty mentors to develop an action plan for a promotional video for Kensington-Bailey. The video traces the history and development of the neighborhood and features interviews from former and current residents. The video had its debut at the newly renovated Varsity Theatre on Bailey Avenue and then proceeded to be screened at area churches and schools, reaching a broad audience of residents, students, and business owners.

To continue to support this type of community-based programming, the Historical Committee has embarked on a fundraising and neighborhood identity campaign that embraces the “Kensington-Bailey” name both as a symbol of pride as well as a reaffirmation of the area’s long and storied past.

Working with 26 Shirts, a local apparel company located in Tri-Main, the Historical Committee designed a t-shirt that could be worn by current residents as a point of pride as well as purchased by expats across the country who still remained connected and vested in the future of the neighborhood.

With the fundraising campaign running through June 18th, individuals are encouraged to purchase a t-shirt or hoodie online: https://26shirts.com/collections/buffalo/products/special-edition-ken-bailey

Funds raised through this campaign will help ensure the stories of residents both past and present are preserved for future generations and shared with the community through small-scale streetscape improvement projects along the Bailey and Kensington corridors.

One such project that is already in the works is custom garbage and recycling tote corrals similar to those seen around the city. Emblazoned with the signature “Kensington Bailey” name these custom corrals are being supported through a Buffalo Main Streets Initiative currently being administered by the University District Community Development Association. In a city where neighborhood rebranding can sometimes be associated with the displacement of existing identities, histories, and people, the goal with this campaign is to instill a sense of pride and belonging based in the existing community and the people and places that have made it what it is today.

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Written by Darren Cotton

Darren Cotton

Darren Cotton works as Director of Community Development & Planning at the University District Community Development Association (UDCDA). His work primarily focuses on housing rehabilitation, small business development, and community capacity building in the neighborhood's surrounding the University at Buffalo's South Campus. Prior to this, Darren served as an Associate Planner at the UB Regional Institute working on a regional sustainability initiative, the remediation of industrial brownfields, and an overhaul of Buffalo's zoning code. As a graduate student at UB, Darren founded the University Heights Tool Library in response to his experience renting from an absentee landlord. With a Bachelor's Degree in International Studies and Linguistics and a Master's Degree in Urban Planning all from UB, Darren works to bridge the gap between research, policy, and grassroots activism and is a firm believer that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

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