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Buffalo’s Maritime Past, Vanished (Part 3 of 3)

Author: Jeff Z. Klein

(A version of this article appeared in the July 9, 2020, edition of Belt magazine, and in the anthology “Best of Belt 2020: Dispatches From the Rust Belt, Vol. III”) | See part I | See Part II 


‘A UNIQUE PLACE, A SIGNIFICANT PLACE’

Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, and a well-connected preservationist, says he is working on a series of proposals to commemorate Buffalo’s 19th-century heritage, all tied to the Erie Canal bicentennial and all to be funded by the state and federal governments. 

“I’m working hard to make sure there’s a plan in place for when the dollars come,” he said. “That’s where we get a monument to this seafaring thing. It’s unfortunate that people don’t know the tragedies, the sacrifices that befell the people trying to start a new life. But we can be on the cusp of rediscovering that.

“You want to go down there,” says Tielman of Buffalo’s old harbor, where East once set sail for West, “and just burst with pride that you’re in a unique place. A significant place.”

The specifics of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo’s vision for a thoroughly repopulated harbor district are now being rolled out. 

It begins with the removal of the downtown side of the Skyway ramps, roadway and a portion of the high bridge (the bridge span and south roadway would stay up as a pedestrian “Cloudwalk”), with vehicle traffic rerouted through Ohio, Chicago and Louisiana streets and Michigan Avenue. 

The removal of the highway supports near Canalside, Tielman says, would open up the now dead land that was once a vibrant port-city neighborhood. 

“Our notion is we can save 80 percent of the Skyway,” Tielman says, referring to a New York State plan to demolish the entire Skyway system and replace it with a new highway that would run behind the Tifft Farms Nature Preserve. 

“But,” he continues, “what we’re really concerned with is re-establishing the canals, the neighborhoods and everything that was taken by the Skyway. That development won’t happen if the Skyway is still there.”

Buffalo’s birthplace, re-established. Joseph Ellicott established the Village of New Amsterdam to take advantage of two geographic features at the eastern end of lake Erie: Buffalo Creek and The Terrace. Removing downtown section of Skyway would open opportunities to reconstruct historic parks, canals, neighborhoods, and redress 60 years of social and environmental injustice. Over 12 acres of land would be freed by Skyway removal alone. An Urban Renewal superblock behind City Hall that has been mostly parking lot since St. Anthony’s Park and the surrounding buildings were destroyed, is envisioned as an “urban hamlet.” Image courtesy Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture

Tielman says he can envision a restored harbor neighborhood, its vanished canal slips and leafy Terrace Park back in place, filled with privately built homes side by side on 25-foot lots. And above it all, people on the Cloudwalk “looking down on the actual neighborhood again. And you can see the lake in the same view. And then you can begin to understand the lake boats come in, they transfer their cargo to the canal, there’s the Old First Ward neighborhood that grew up, here’s the Hooks neighborhood that grew up around it, there are the settlers waiting to sail to the Midwest.”

Erie disaster plaque, Silver Creek (Jeff Z. Klein)

It’s an ambitious plan, but with Congressional passage of a $2 trillion–plus stimulus bill imminent, the money will be there for an impoverished Buffalo to finally spend. So something is definitely going to happen.

But what? There are three options for the old port, all tied to the Skyway: leave the Skyway as is and spend the money elsewhere; adopt the state plan and demolish the entire thing, building a new highway a couple miles away; or do Tielman’s Campaign for Greater Buffalo plan.  

Right now, it seems as if the first two options would continue to leave Buffalo bereft of its maritime heritage. So, too, would the third, if the thousands of immigrants and settlers who passed through the city remain forgotten.

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In the end it may be unanswerable, that question about what it means when a city loses all memory of what it once was — a rollicking port city of terrible shipwrecks and daring rescues and resolute immigrants and swaggering sailors, celebrated in sea chanteys and in the pages of Moby-Dick … all forgotten. 

But we can also dare to dream about what it could mean when, finally, a city remembers.


Lead image: In addition to re-establishing Terrace Park, Campaign for Greater Buffalo proposes that economical housing be built to replace that taken for Skyway and the Waterfront Urban Renewal Area. This view, with stylized railroad crossing arms signifying a former use, to northwest from Erie Street. The roadway is a lane meant for access, not speed, flanked by broad sidewalks, bicycle paths, and a “logistics strip” for deliveries and drop-offs. On the right is a new mixed-use building that recalls St. Stephen’s Hall, where Grover Cleveland was nominated for mayor in 1871. It was demolished during the Depression. Image courtesy Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture

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