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The Three Phases of Martin Luther King Park

“If one cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.

As we celebrate the ninety-first birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968),  we look back this time of year to reflect upon the vast legacy that he left behind. His civil rights advocacy culminated in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which by outlawing public discrimination based on race, color, sex, nationality, and religion effectively banned seventy years of legislation inspired by Plessy v. Ferguson.

The federal holiday has been observed every third Monday in January since 1986. Numerous libraries, parks, roads, and schools have been named in his honor.

In Buffalo, the city renamed one of its Olmstedian Parks in his honor in January 1977. Nearly a decade earlier, King paid a visit to the Queen City to address a riot that ravaged the East Side and part of the Lower West Side during early summer of 1967. As chronicled in the book “The Anatomy of a Riot: Buffalo 1967”, it was one of nearly two-hundred riots seen in American cities that year, due to many civic grievances relating to unemployment, housing discrimination, and police relations. Poor enforcement of federal laws intended to supplement the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have manifested as unsolved civic challenges that have resurfaced in our current political climate.

Today, MLK Park is a strong representation of Buffalo’s African American community. But much like any road, home, or building around the city, the park bears many signs of unseen and untold stories. The tree island seen in front of the Science Museum entrance is all that survives of what was once thirty-nine linear acres of Humboldt Parkway that not only linked to Delaware Park, but served as its own major respite. Street signs bordering the park can be traced back to its roots from when Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux first designed the park in 1871.

In fact, Martin Luther King Park has gone through three distinct phases, each of which played critical roles in shaping and adapting to Buffalo’s civic heritage.

Phase 1: The Parade {1871-1896)

The Parade House, 1880’s

The Parade was one of the three parks that would serve as the main anchors for America’s first park system. Each park contained specific themes designed for exploration among city residents.

The fifty-six-acre park served two very important functions: As a complement to Olmsted’s military services from the Civil War, it was a place where visitors could watch military drills in the center of the park, which during the 19th Century was a popular public activity. It also reflected Olmsted’s abolitionist values, using the parks’ serene landscapes and in the Parade’s instance, a regular showcase of civic pride to bring together neighbors of an evolving city whom ascended from different walks of life.

Visitors could also attend the Parade House on the southeastern quadrant of the park, which served gourmet meals and fancy refreshments. The two-story structure gave visitors a broad view of the park, situated on a higher elevation than many of Buffalo’s other parks.

Phase 2: Humboldt Park (1896-1977)

By the 1890’s, public interest in military drills faded. Much of the city’s military activities on the East Side were centralized  at the Masten Street Armory by the early 1900’s. While the park’s military theme became obsolete, it would retain its purpose of congregating what by then had become a major part of  Buffalo’s German American population, as it  prepared to undergo an overhaul to appeal to general tastes of the immediate neighborhood.

All its military features were removed. The Parade House would be replaced by a greenhouse, rose garden, and chalet-styled shelter house. A nearby carriage house that once found on the southeastern edge of the park was also removed. Playgrounds and picnic groves would pepper the park lawns. The new main feature would be a basin pool, the largest of its kind in the nation, serving as a wading pool during the  summer and an ice-skating rink during the winter. A lily pond and fountain were placed further west into the park. A bandstand accommodated growing interests in public music venues.

With more changes to come, including its 1896 name change after the grand boulevard that joined it, Humboldt Park was ready for the 20th Century.

Basin Pool 1900‘s

The park’s transformation would be closely followed by the establishment of Hamlin Park. The neighborhood was previously a horse track racing site owned by developer Cicero Hamlin. Upon Hamlin’s death in 1905, the lot was eventually sold to developer John J. Cook, who redeveloped the 300 acres as a residential neighborhood. As a complement to the elegant homes seen in Parkside, Hamlin Park would also showcase lush architecture of its day: Foursquare, Colonial Revival, Bungalow, and Homestead.

Fillmore Avenue was specifically intended to be a boulevard that would link Humboldt Park to Cazenovia and South Parks.

Additional changes to Humboldt Park accompanied the new neighborhood and an ever-expanding city population. Fillmore Avenue was specifically intended to be a boulevard that would link Humboldt Park to Cazenovia and South Parks. Instead, the road was permitted to pass through the park to join its northern continuation as a full north-south route across the city.

A bath house would front the basin pool by 1926. The Buffalo Science Museum was built at the foot of Humboldt Parkway by 1929, co-founded by Cicero Hamlin’s grandson, Chauncey Hamlin. A cottage garden, built by the backside of the Science Museum, would emerge from the 1949 designs ofJohn E. Brent, Buffalo’s first-known African American architect.

The transformation of Humboldt Park coupled by the birth of the new Hamlin Park neighborhood established one of the most stable and desirable living environments in Buffalo.

Buffalo Science Museum, 1929

Following World War II, the decision was made by New York State, eventually approved by city and county officials to build an expressway that would escort many generational families out to the suburbs. The resulting New York Route 33 Expressway erased among other things, all thirty-nine acres of Humboldt Parkway and several acres of Humboldt Park’s western border on the path from downtown. The noise and air pollution of Route 33’s 55 mph traffic clashes with the serene landscape of the park.

By this time, Buffalo’s African American population expanded far beyond its original boundaries in the Ellicott District, with many families settling into Hamlin Park, and more families migrating from southern states in search of job opportunities. It was by no coincidence that with the expressway tearing an arbitrary path through historic neighborhoods that the influx of African American neighbors would inherit a product of redlining practices that compromised property values in urban neighborhoods.

Much like the German population that preceded it during the early half of the 20th Century, Humboldt Park would be adopted by Buffalo’s African American population beginning in the latter half of the 20th Century.

Granite Bandstand; built 1898, demolished 1950.

Phase 3: Martin Luther King Park (1977-today)

The park’s 1977 rededication after Martin Luther King corresponded with a community facing exhaustion from hard-fought civil rights battles and dismay from the double threat of suburban sprawl and urban renewal development, but endurance for the future. A few Humboldt Park features, such as the bandstand, fountain, and lily pond had long disappeared from the park due to continuing changes in public interests. Further changes would characterize the neighborhood’s contemporary culture.

The annual Juneteenth Festival, first celebrated in 1976 outgrew its original location on Jefferson Avenue, and would shift to the park by the early 1980’s.

The annual Juneteenth Festival, first celebrated in 1976 outgrew its original location on Jefferson Avenue, and would shift to the park by the early 1980’s. In 1983, a statue of Martin Luther King designed by John Wilson was dedicated near the shelter house. A magnet school named after Dr. Charles Drew opened on the opposite site of the Science Museum facing Herman Street in 1990.

As a symptom of the city’s declining population, the 1990’s saw the abandonment of the basin pool.

It would be followed by a new breadth of investments that would escort the park and the city into the 21st Century.

In 2004, the Olmsted Parks Conservancy began a long-term deal as the primary curators of Buffalo’s Olmsted Parks. During the last half of the 20th Century, all six parks were prone to deterioration and minimal protection under the city’s direct ownership. This new commitment reaffirmed the park system’s 1982 placement into the National Register of Historic Places.

As such, the Conservancy developed long-term plans to not only bring regular maintenance to the parks, boulevards, and roundabouts, but to also upgrade existing facilities and recover long-lost park features.

Restored basin as a reflecting pool, c. 2013

Following a partial 2003 restoration of MLK Park’s basin pool as a splash pad, it was fully refurbished by 2013. Today it serves as a seasonal attraction, a splash pad during the summer, a reflecting pool during spring and autumn, and an ice-skating rink during the winter. The pool signaled a significant boost in new improvements and advocacy that would come during the 201O’s.

As a callback to the former Humboldt Parkway dually serving as a living model for future possibilities, the tree island fronting the Science Museum greeted park visitors participating in the Restore Our Community Coalition’s 2015 March & Rally. The following year, additional trees were planted by volunteers throughout the park, the basketball court located near the magnet school was upgraded, and the bath house began its meticulous restoration to accommodate pool visitors. Annual Christmas tree lightings would be hosted near the shelter house. A little free library placed near the shelter house became one of five placed around the Masten Council District in 2017. A playground near East Parade Avenue was built in a one-day volunteer challenge in 2019.

Coda

The Vaux Barn, 1119 Genesee Street

Today, a newly rejuvenated Martin Luther King Park bears features from all three phases of its 146- year history. The park is still framed by North Parade, East Parade, and West Parade Avenues, along with the southern terminus of Humboldt Parkway. The last surviving physical structure from the Parade era is a small barn house designed by Calvert Vaux, as part of a larger carriage house that once stood on the park’s southeastern edge. It was sold in 1897 and moved to 1119 Genesee Street where to this day, it stands waiting to join the city’s renaissance with a new purpose.

Most of the existing layout and facilities continues the park’s reformation from the Humboldt Park era. Ongoing improvements, and a host of annual events held at the park, ranging from Juneteenth to the Jes Breathe Cancer Awareness Walk symbolize the current Martin Luther King Park era.

To close out this historical revisit, here’s my opinion regarding the MLK Statue:

The MLK Statue, dedicated 1983

The purpose of the sculpture, and more broadly any form of art is to make a statement of the given subject. Sculptor John Wilson himself mentioned how the statue forgoes a literal likeness of Martin Luther King himself in order to emphasize his “larger than life” legacy.

The controversy to get the statue replaced undermines a community recovering from decades of disinvestment. It is self-sabotage that distracts from bigger issues that need to be confronted to give the East Side a solid seat in the Buffalo narrative. We need leadership to champion a Main Street economy to generate small businesses throughout the East Side. We need leadership to control suburban sprawl and support growing efforts to restore Humboldt Parkway. We need leadership to encourage civic participation in block dubs, to encourage voter registration, and to encourage more attendance at town hall meetings.

These are few of many more important items that would generate a more meaningful impact among future generations, thus serving the mission for civil rights and equality that properly honors Martin Luther King’s legacy.

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Lead image: Martin Luther King at Kleinhanns Music Hall, c. November 1967

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.

Visit his website at: http://www.bjbmultimedia.com

View All Articles by Bradley Bethel
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