Note: This article relates to the WNY Walks! Walking Summit happening this week. Details at the end and here.
If you grew up in Buffalo, chances are good you’ve heard of a place called “The Hooks”, even if you don’t know exactly where it is – because it’s no longer there. The once vibrant, largely Italian-American neighborhood was wiped away by two of the banes of twentieth-century urbanism: Urban “Renewal” and urban expressways. (Note: Urban Planner Angela Keppel has a good overview of The Hooks here.)
Growing up in Rochester, I heard of just such a place, dubbed “Mount Allegro,” even though I didn’t know exactly where it was – because, like The Hooks, it’s no longer there.
In Rochester, Mount Allegro now lives primarily in memory, especially in the novel of that name by Jerre Mangione (uncle of Chuck and Gap) written under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression. Non-fiction disguised as fiction, it ranks among the great stories of the immigrant experience in America.
In Buffalo, The Hooks are fortunate to have a chronicler of their own, equally as eloquent as Mangione – actually, two of them: Joe Giambra and Joe DiLeo. The Joes are co-founders of the Per Niente Club which, contrary to its name (meaning “for nothing” in Italian), is for keeping alive the flame of Buffalo’s old Italian-American community. They do that through regular get-togethers, a quarterly magazine, and archiving accounts of people and places and a life they are unwilling to have forgotten.
It’s striking how The Hooks and Mount Allegro shared such similar fates. Both were bulldozed in a clear-cut for Urban “Renewal” leaving nothing little more than the neighborhood church standing. Even their street grids were wiped away, and without that Cartesian urban framework, became home to a series of redevelopment projects plopped down all akimbo with seemingly no relation to each other and no semblance whatsoever of design coherence.
What did that give us? Discordant, placeless places that simply collect buildings. In Buffalo, we have the surplus NASA moonbase housing WKBW, the BCBS building dropped in from a suburban office park, a grafted-on to the gas works facade, and the Waterfront School, a remnant of a modernist fever-dream for the waterfront.
Nothing epitomizes it all like the Buffalo Grand Hotel, formerly Adam’s Mark, built originally as the Buffalo Hilton. It’s a monster mashup of building fragments sewn together seemingly without any skill. Even more frightening than the building is trying to walk from or to it. For those reasons, Developer Harry Stinson, who is trying to revive the hotel, was a co-sponsor of a planning studio class this spring of students from UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, looking at short-term strategies for making the area better. The other sponsor of the studio was the Wellness Institute, whose mission to promote wellness makes it, by extension, promote walkability and, by extension, walkable urbanism.
A “buffer zone” – then and now
Chronicler of The Hooks Joe Giambra is perhaps best known for his oral history performance, Bread and Onions. In this discussion of his performance, Joe Giambra calls his former neighborhood behind Buffalo City Hall a “buffer zone.” That might make you think of keeping things apart, but he describes it more as a place that brought people together – from The Hooks to the south and the Lower West Side to the north; from the rough-and-tumble waterfront to the west and the more refined central business district to the east.
Although he makes no bones about the extreme poverty there, it was also the kind of vibrant place with a mix of people and uses that Jane Jacobs would extol in her book written, ironically, right around the time the bulldozers began to line up. Shops and restaurants and taverns and schools and churches and parks and sports leagues and scout troops all served to bring people together. Then, quickly, it was all gone.
Why? City leaders considered it a slum and in modernist planning there was one thing to do with slums: “clear” them. “Slum clearance” walks hand-in-hand with Urban “Renewal,” a father and son who are adored and glorified with the super-block, a planning trinity who has spoken through the prophets of mid-century modernism.
None other than the greatest of these prophets, Walter Curt Behrendt, personally painted the red mark on the doorpost this place that caused the Bulldozer of Death to not pass over, but pass through. Once one of Europe’s greatest modernist architects and planners, Behrendt found himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, and spent four years in Buffalo (from 1937 to 1941) serving jointly as a professor of planning at UB and director of the “Planning Research Station” that would advise the city.
This buffer zone, the kind of place we now strive to recreate, was repugnant to Behrendt, offending both his Prussian sense of order and his modernist mindset. Mark Goldman tells the story the best in his book, High Hopes (pp. 282,3):
Behrendt recounted this as part of an extraordinary full-page op-ed in the Buffalo Evening News, titled “Buffalo Fails to Follow its Noble Plan,” that essentially shamed his new home city for allowing such a place to exist. With the outbreak of war months later, Buffalo’s heavy-industry-heavy leadership turned its attention to starting up the “Arsenal of Democracy,” and remaking the city went on the back burner. Behrendt left in 1941. But his stinging rebuke must have continued to be felt, and the buffer zone’s days were numbered.
In two decades, much of this area was bulldozed, the land was divided by an elevated highway, and the working waterfront stopped working. Images from the late 1960s show the shocking transformation: what was once one of Buffalo’s most vibrant places transformed into a sea of surface parking.
Clearly, the students had their work cut out for them. Last month, I sat in on their final review and presentation at the Buffalo Grand Hotel.
Getting to know The Hooks
For the students – mostly not from Buffalo – seeing The Hooks and the buffer zone was as jarring an experience as the one Walter Curt Behrendt had in 1937. Walking west on Church Street, once past the Terrace, the students described their experience as feeling like they were walking out of the city entirely. Aided by the frigid weather of January, they entered a frozen wasteland with no goats and almost no people.
Over the course of the semester, students used site visits, observations, and sketches to aid their analysis. They used Lynch analysis, as described in Kevin Lynch’s indispensable book, Image of the City. Each Lynch analysis was a bit different, but they all had one thing in common: they all identified a “no man’s land” gap left by Urban “Renewal” between the mostly intact urban fabric east of Niagara Square and the Terrace, and the waterfront. Not surprisingly, this was centered around the 190 corridor, and the elevated on and off ramps.
Sadly, this area Joe Giambra called a buffer zone because it was where people and things bumped up against each other is now a buffer zone for the utter absence of anything bumping up against anything else. Especially underneath the 190, it is like a mysterious, no-go zone in a Tsiolkovsky film inhabited by a dark, menacing force. Indeed, as almost every student group noted, the 190 and its access ramps and under roads and linear dirt parking lots and jagged fragments of concrete and chain link and poorly designed, neglected public spaces form a literally dark, menacing, confusing barrier.
What to do? Lynch analysis is descriptive, not prescriptive. Yet the students were charged with a mission to make things better. Any good urbanist would naturally propose the obvious solution: start with getting rid of the elevated expressway.
But that was beyond the scope of work: the students had to propose smaller-scale interventions. Their scope was also temporal: they had to propose solutions that could be implemented in the shorter term.
Like a M.A.S.H. unit, the students’ job was triage: to find ways to stop the bleeding and stabilize the patient for major surgery later.
Much of the “triage analysis” – proposing shorter-term and smaller-scale solutions – dealt with the kind of bread-and-butter planning work the students are likely to encounter in their careers: road diets, placemaking, wayfinding, adding bike lanes and cycle tracks, lighting, and making streetscapes more welcoming. All well and good.
But several ideas emerged that stood out. One group proposed additional green space west of Canalside – essentially, a westward extension of Canalside – that would better connect one of Buffalo’s most important public spaces with the surrounding community. Good thinking.
Especially noteworthy was the proposal to use the linear corridor on and along the Belt Line/Amtrak train tunnel as a kind of greenway and flexible public space. This is especially smart in conjunction with the new intermodal station project slated to be built in the “Crossroads” area, because with all the new projects and attractions opening nearby there needs to be a way for large numbers of visitors to get to and from the station on foot or on bike. Because one end of the rail tunnel is at Erie Street and the station is at the other, a corridor atop the tunnel would link the station to the Shoreline Trail at Erie Street – adding another mode to the intermodal station.
Interestingly, just last month Toronto announced plans for a similar green corridor atop a sunken rail trench/tunnel.
But because the rail tunnel threads its way through the mess of elevated expressways and ramps, that mess has to become a more welcoming place. Under the 190 is an unspeakable mess of dark, unmaintained space where, despite being surfaced in a rich mix of dirt and bird guano, nothing will grow except invasive plants at the margins. It’s unsavory, unfriendly, unsafe, and unhealthy. It sends a terrible message about our city in ways both plain and subtle, serving almost as a throwback to pre-Renaissance Rome when the city’s roads and public spaces were unpaved dirt.
And improving that space was a primary objective of most of the student teams. They solved it a variety of ways, with some essentially throwing up their hands and saying the space under the elevated highways is so horrible there is nothing to be done but put up temporary walls with murals wherever there is a crossing underneath, to screen the mess from public view. Most groups also wanted to improve lighting, which makes a great deal of sense, especially with the advent of low-energy, bright-light LED fixtures.
But some others proposed something truly remarkable, an idea that has only grown on me since I saw their presentation. An idea from just north of the border.
A Buffalo Bentway?
Urban planning is unusual among professions in that outright theft is not only tolerated, but encouraged. In fact the well-known planning practice of “precedent study” is essentially an organized process of looking for ideas to steal. In carrying out their own precedent study, some of the students discovered that Toronto recently found a solution to a very similar problem, so they stole it – with appropriate credit, of course.
That solution? The Bentway. If you’re not familiar with it, you need to be, because it’s something Buffalo should be taking a serious look at. Buffalo Rising has already posted about it (for example, here and here), but to get The Bentway you still can’t beat this CityLab piece by Chris Bateman. The second paragraph is vital:
Just a few months ago, the Bentway was a construction zone. Two years ago it was still a scrubby patch of land under Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, accessible but never used.
The Bentway is “lighter, quicker, cheaper” instantiated. In Buffalo terms, it could be considered a linear Canalside. In his CityLab piece, Bateman talks about how The Bentway enhances and extends one of Toronto’s most important public spaces and oldest historic sites: Old Fort York, where the city began. A Buffalo Bentway, under the 190, would enhance and extend one of our most important public spaces and oldest historic sites: Canalside and the Commercial Slip, where the Erie Canal began.
Bateman talks more about the concept:
Working with landscape architects Marc Ryan and Adam Nicklin from Public Work, [Designer Ken] Greenberg designed what he describes as a hybrid public space: part multi-use trail, part outdoor performance space, part ice skating rink. The gigantic concrete pylons—bents in engineering terms—divide the space into 55 sections that can be programmed individually or in groups.
“It’s expandable, collapsible, shrinkable,” he said. “It has an enormous ability to absorb different kinds of things.”
But as Bateman relates, people didn’t fully grasp the concept until the debut of the ice skating trail in January, 2018, with thousands showing up for the grand opening in frigid temperatures. Even Toronto Globe Architecture Critic Alex Bozikovic admits it took him some time to catch on, saying, “I had more than a few conversations with friends and neighbours who just didn’t get it.” He began his review of the grand opening, “Who would want to hang out under an expressway?” A lot of people, it turned out:
It was an amazing beginning for a place that is, in many ways, kind of strange: a hybrid of path, recreation area and open-air performance space. Yet according to the Bentway Conservancy, the non-profit that operates the space, roughly 20,000 people came out during the first two days.
There’s a lesson here for Toronto: People are hungry for different kinds of public space, and the best way to respond is to get on with building it, fast.
So far, the Bentway is still “a work in progress,” as the philanthropist Judy Matthews – who, with her husband, Wilmot Matthews, catalyzed the project with a $25-million donation – told media on Friday. Put more frankly, it’s a construction site. A new warming pavilion isn’t quite complete; the landscape is only partially finished; the temporary shipping-crate warming stations were just coming off trucks on Friday afternoon. The design, conceived by landscape architects Public Work and urban designer Ken Greenberg, is nowhere near done. One day, it’ll be a mix of rough and polished design elements; for now, it’s all rough.
And it didn’t matter. The ice rink, surrounded by a scattering of public art and a day full of music and dance on Saturday, was enough. “The learning is people have this powerful desire to be outside,” Julian Sleath, chief executive of the Bentway Conservancy, said on Monday. “And I suppose the appeal is, who’d have thought you could ice skate under the Gardiner expressway?”
As important as The Bentway is to providing flexible public space, is its role in connecting other spaces. As CityLab’s Bateman says, “Down the line, the park will be ideally placed to connect with a number of other outdoor public spaces being planned or built in this part of Toronto.” Bentway designer Ken Greenberg told CityLab, “On 360 degrees all around us are these connecting links. What’s emerging is this whole new web of interconnected public spaces, trails, green spaces in what was a largely inaccessible, unknown, post-industrial, derelict landscape.”
That goes for Buffalo, as well. A Buffalo Bentway under the 190 would provide a bicycle and pedestrian circulation system to connect up our new multi-modal station to places and spaces along our waterfront such as:
- Erie Street
- Marine Drive Apartments
- Erie Basin Marina
- Waterfront Village
- One Seneca Tower
- The leftover space bounded by the circular ramps.
If the land under the Skyway were included in a Buffalo Bentway, that would link to Erie Street, what remains of the Terrace, Church Street, and the south end of Delaware Avenue, which is part of the Olmsted park and parkway system.
A Buffalo Bentway would also tie into existing and potential trails and greenways with connections throughout the city. To the northwest, it would connect with the Shoreline Trail and Lasalle Park, which in turn is connected to the Olmsted park and parkway system at Porter Avenue. To the southeast, it would connect to the strip of land between the Belt Line (Amtrak) tracks and the 190 that could serve as a greenway to Larkinville and the Old First Ward.
Re-hooking The Hooks
A Buffalo Bentway could be considered a kind of transition strategy: until we’re ready to take down the 190, we can put the space underneath to good use. If and when the 190 comes down, we will always have the corridor on top of the rail tunnel to allow a pathway through the same area. And for The Hooks, creating a Buffalo Beltway under the 190, assuming it’s as popular as Toronto’s has proven to be, would also create demand for redevelopment of the Urban “Renewal” badlands nearby – just as the creation of Canalside has driven demand for redevelopment around it. That redevelopment could eventually create a built-in constituency for removing the 190 altogether. That would make creating a Buffalo Bentway in the shelter of the 190 a subversive act of forcing the highway to nurture the seeds of its own destruction.
In the meantime, it would essentially serve as a linear extension of Canalside, and could even help provide a transition strategy for Canalside: as development comes to Canalside – for example, on the lawn – a Buffalo Bentway could make sure there’s no net loss of public activity space.
Ultimately, redevelopment of The Hooks into a new, vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood may fulfill the promise of over eighty years ago, in providing an impressive urban environment on the back side of City Hall as much as on the front, and assuring that, in the future, no one walking west on Church Street will feel like they are “leaving the city.”
Then, perhaps, Walter Curt Behrendt, along with the ghosts of The Hooks, can rest in peace.
^ St Anthony’s, Buffalo NY, 1940s and 50s, edited by Joe DiLeo from home movies by the Saia family, which is still involved in St. Anthony’s Church
You can see the UB student presentation yourself this week at the WNY Walks Walking Summit. Details here and below:
WNY Walks! Walking Summit
by WellnessStaff | May 13, 2019 | Wellness News
WNY Walks! Summit Presents Dr. Ian Thomas & Amanda O’Rourke
Buffalo, NY: The Wellness Institute’s annual Walkability Summit will take place at the Buffalo Grand Hotel (formerly Adam’s Mark) in Downtown Buffalo Thursday June 13th and Friday the 14th. The two-day Summit will explore the challenges addressing rural, urban, and suburban neighborhoods in Greater Buffalo and to develop action plans to address these challenges. This event offers citizens and stakeholders strategic opportunities for networking and taking action in promoting walking and walkability to improve health. The Institute and its partners are excited to announce that the Walkability Summit will feature keynote speakers Dr. Ian Thomas of America Walks speaking Thursday afternoon, June 13th, and Amanda O’Rourke, CEO of 8-80 Cities and Buffalo’s WINTERMISSION speaking Friday afternoon, June 14th.
Dr. Thomas is the State and Local Program Director with America Walks, where he develops and delivers education programs about the benefits of walkable communities and strategies to create them. For over a decade Dr. Thomas served as the founding Executive Director of the PedNet Coalition of Colombia, Missouri, where he developed one of the largest Walking School Bus programs in the country, advocated for the adoption of the first “complete streets” policy in Missouri, and worked in reducing neighborhood speed limits to promote walkability.
Amanda O’Rourke works with 8-80 Cities, Toronto-based organization that promotes livable cities for all ages through program planning, policy changes, and engaging community members to build environmental, economic, and social capital. O’Rourke is also leading 8-80 Cities’ national WINTERMISSION; Buffalo is one of three cities participating in this initiative, which will include program implementation and the improvement of sidewalk safety and clearance to promote walkability and livability in winter cities.
Phil Haberstro of the Wellness Institute noted “We are thrilled to have Ian and Amanda join us and assist us in creating the WNY Walks! Community Advocacy Group as a major outcome of this Summit.” Haberstro announced that the Advocacy Group will promote walking and walkability in Western New York as a part of the WNY Walks! Initiative.
For information on attending, tabling, sponsoring, or partnering with the Summit and its efforts, contact the Wellness Institute at (716) 851-4052 or BeActive@City-Buffalo.org. See our website for more information: CreatingHealthyCommunities.org.