Author: William Graebner, with Dianne Bennett
Abandoned. Devastated. Impoverished. Depressed. Wasteland. Dangerous. Black. Invaded. Hopeless.
Having lived in Buffalo for more than 40 years, I’ve heard the city’s East Side described in all those terms. Each of them contains an element of truth, but none of them—and certainly not all of them together—describe the East Side we—my wife, Dianne Bennett and I—saw while walking its streets, virtually every street and alley (no exaggeration), and many several times, while trying to get through, or around, Covid-19.
We walked the once magnificent arterials—Genesee, Sycamore, Broadway, William, Best/Walden, Clinton, South Park–and the substantial north/south thoroughfares—Jefferson, Fillmore, Bailey—where the East Side is most obviously challenged. At one time great commercial sites, these streets have been damaged, even “devastated,” by suburban malls and, more recently, online shopping. As sites for brick-and-mortar businesses, and with some exceptions (a few blocks of Clinton, South Park, Kensington, and Bailey), they’re unlikely to recover.
But in the interstices, there are solid residential neighborhoods and many streets that could be accurately described as charming. Lovejoy is intact and thriving. The Old First Ward continues to be nurtured, protected and valued for its insularity and proximity to the iconic grain elevators. Hamlin Park, despite the destruction of its Humboldt Parkway, remains lovely.
North Division and South Division, and dozens of other streets, have been reconstituted with in-fill housing. Jefferson is gradually being transformed into a residential avenue. Less-known Howard Street, in part industrial, has blocks where you could imagine yourself in Amherst (if that’s your goal). The northerly blocks of Ellicott Street are dotted with statuesque Victorian homes, and we were surprised by the mere existence of Walden Heights, an upscale enclave that backs up on one of the city’s massive railyards. The well-known/notorious Broadway/Fillmore neighborhood—especially the streets directly west of the Central Terminal—features more empty lots than houses and surprisingly little in-fill attention from developers, the city, or Habitat, and because of its history and reputation, it’s often used to represent and define the East Side. But in the heart of that dispiriting emptiness, Peckham Street hosts Common Roots Urban Farm, one of Buffalo’s largest urban farms.
My goal, however, is not to contest every East Side stereotype; rather, I offer a new image—and a new vocabulary—based on observations over some 18 months of pounding the pavement.
Let’s try “resourceful.” Folks on the East Side use stuff that gets thrown out elsewhere. Rubber tires—car tires, huge truck tires—cut and sculpted and painted, are recycled as planters in front of homes and, in batches, along empty corner lots. Wine bottles, planted upside down, become border trim for gardens that can be elaborate and even sumptuous. Leftover asphalt roofing from one home ends up on the roof of another, even if it doesn’t match. And there’s the occasional toilet, now sprouting geraniums (we’re hoping the East Siders will find a use for worn-out televisions).
As the Covid crisis deepened in the spring of 2020, and the city removed all basketball hoops from public parks, East Siders took matters into their own hands, putting up portable basketball stanchions in driveways and on the streets, some resembling the proverbial peach basket. Ball would be played. In the hands of locals, ample supplies of abandoned railroad ties now sometimes function as jungle gyms for energetic teens.
Throughout the East Side, as the spectacular Catholic Churches have fallen into disrepair (only a few re-purposed) and the denominations have divided and splintered, residential and commercial buildings, some of them absurdly tiny and serving just a handful of people, have become intimate places of worship. During the pandemic, many churches used their advertising boards to dispense advice about how to get through Covid-19.
East Siders have been resourceful with their housing, too, adding progressively smaller buildings to an existing home as families grew and needs changed, resulting in the “telescope” houses that characterize Broadway/Fillmore and other neighborhoods today.
In areas where there’s more grass than homes, winding, foot-traffic-generated pathways between houses and through blocks proliferate, providing access to green space as the people of a neighborhood spontaneously reshape their environment in a way that would be impossible in the more dense Delaware District or even, for that matter, on the West Side.
“Picturesque” is a term usually used to describe, say, the Roman Campagna or the covered bridges of New England. But the East Side has its own version of the picturesque, including the occasional, and undeniably picturesque, dilapidated 19th-century barn.
This urban version is be found on the facades of the area’s commercial buildings, notably its ubiquitous neighborhood mini-marts and—a sleeper here—the many small businesses that do automotive repair.
The East Side is the center of Buffalo’s public/private art scene, one that functions independently of the Albright Knox. Unlike the uniform and uninspired 7-Elevens, the city’s vernacular one-of-a-kind corner stores offer deep, vibrant colors, a distinctive, bold lettering style, and a cacophony of signs and motifs that in its way resembles the chaotic spectacle of Las Vegas.
You won’t want to miss the Rick James menu on the side of Smith and Paddy Mini Mart (on Smith Street), the complex iconography of the “Broadway Lucky” mart at Broadway and Smith, the M&N Mini Mart on Bailey, or the chartreuse front of the Cold Spring Market Deli on Jefferson.
There’s an almost-1930s aesthetic to the wall painting at La Tour Auto Parts, Walden at Sweet.
The most elaborate of the city’s commercial murals is probably the around-the-corner beauty that graces the Groove Lounge at Broadway and Lathrop. For sheer fun nothing beats the “Before and After” ladies on Michigan.
You won’t find many “Victorian Lady” homes painted in excruciating detail on the East Side, but there’s compensation: plenty of stone foundations in purple, blue, pink, and lurid orange. Among the East Side’s artistic jewels are the Mondrian-like walkway (inset) at the Urban Community Movement Center in Masten Park, and the superbly decorated Cousin Vinny’s Tire Company truck, with its prominent “Black Lives Matter” sign. That’s picturesque, East Side version.
The East Side is a place where things get made. English has no single word to express that concept, yet it’s true, and sometimes takes one by surprise, because it can seem as if the only businesses left are nail parlors. Not so. Smack in the heart of the East Side is the bizarrely-named Farmer Pirates Composting, where they make—well, fertilizer. No less weird is Bison Iron & Step, on Harlem near William, where you can purchase a ready-made set of cement stairs. But the real gem is in the Genesee Street corridor, next door to the now-defunct, well-known Wonder Bread factory, with its endearing sign: WO D R R AD.
It’s Milk-Bone—yes, the dog food maker—still up-and-running and producing those delectable biscuits, right there on the East Side.
For human tastes, the things that get made on the East Side include chicken and burgers, increasingly described by the Muslim word “halal.” That last observation underscores the flourishing, resourceful, get-things-made immigrant communities that have moved into the East Side.
East Siders are extroverts. They invariably greet you with “how y’all doin’”, as if they were just a day removed from New Orleans. In the midst of Covid’s first wave, one man offered us homemade masks, another bottles of water, and Latinos partying on a porch just off Fillmore invited us to share barbecue. Just days ago, several ladies enjoying a stoop on Jefferson called us out to “bust-a-move!” East Siders love their cookers and smokers; one front yard had 3 of the black metal beasts.
Roofers, especially, have an extroverted side; they work in public and are often eager to show off their skills and daring. One day as I began taking pictures of a roofing site on Genesee at East End Ave., a young woman roofer rushed up, wanting her photo taken on the steeply pitched roof. She scampered up the 2-story ladder–and struck a pose. Her name is Queenie.
Even in neighborhoods that have seen better days, folks are not afraid to put themselves out there, to showcase their streets, their homes, and their politics. Extravagant yard and porch decorations are common, often featuring (depending on the neighborhood) white swans, pink flamingos, frogs, fawns, windmills, wishing wells and lighthouses, leprechauns, gnomes and elves, wind chimes and all matter of things twirling in the breeze, Snoopy and, poignantly, military displays.
We learned about flags, which proliferate here, especially Pan African, Erie County, Blue Lives Matter (not so many of these on the East Side), and Puerto Rican ones. A woman in Lovejoy seemed to think it entirely natural to showcase a large poster of Betty White and her TV show, “Golden Girls.”
Holidays are celebrated lavishly. Melvin Place, off Elk Street in “Valley,” easily wins the prize for most inflated Halloween creatures, for which there’s lots of competition.
Last winter, a few homes presented Santa and Mrs. Claus as a black couple, while a white Santa on the roof remains the gold standard. Signs abound: numerous renditions of “Black Lives Matter,” some of them large; “I Can’t Breathe”; and “Skin Color is Not a Crime.”
Also many versions of “Live Life Happy” and, especially, “Welcome to Our Porch” (which made me imagine taking advantage of the offer).
The East Side has one of the highest concentrations of block clubs in the country—to deal with local social concerns, to be sure, and also because the people who live there value solidarity and crave sociability.
More than anything, Buffalo’s East Side harbors a sense of mystery, the sense that there might be something there to uncover, to discover, to poke around in, to experience anew. That’s not what one feels in Kenmore or the Delaware District, or even on most of the city’s West Side—all areas densely populated and fully developed, and which we walked.
The East Side’s physical mystery lies in its history as a railway center, with hundreds of miles of track rambling through the landscape, creating dozens of bridges and dark and intriguing underpasses for cars, trucks, and walkers, while generating elevated, woods-lined pathways—some on abandoned lines, others along active lines, and nearly all rather easily accessible, unprotected by fencing. On the East Side’s southern extension, the Buffalo River provides an additional element of secrecy, intersecting here and there with the rail lines in a maze-like richness. Kaisertown’s charm derives in part from streets that dead end—on the south against the river, on the north against the 190.
With this infrastructure, the old, industrial city becomes a modern playground—for deer, foxes, woodchucks, the occasional mink, and the intrepid human.
The rail lines open up for exploration the vast and monumental outbuildings of the Central Terminal; the grain elevators across the Buffalo River; the Wildroot Building off Bailey Avenue; the made-man railroad “escarpment” that forms the boundary between Lovejoy and Sloan and borders one of Buffalo’s few “lakes,” a funky triangular body of water known for sludge and ducks; and a secluded, side-hill woods, just west of Walden Park and divided north/south by Walden Avenue, a favorite strip for dog walkers and teens with ATVs.
The heart of the East Side has lacked its own water course since the 1920s, when authorities buried the Scajaquada Creek, turning it into a sewer.
Nonetheless, using on-line maps, one can follow the “creek” above ground, as it “flows” underground from Villa Maria College to Forest Lawn Cemetery; the section that crosses the “33” at the pedestrian-only bridge, curving south on the east side, north on the west, is particularly evocative. Just one element of the “mystery” of the East Side. (What makes this and other, similar paths special is that they have yet to be converted into “rails-to-trails,” those 10-foot-wide asphalt strips that are fine for bikers and baby carriages but destroy the sense of finding your own way through the bushes).
That’s the East Side we saw and experienced day after day, month after month, as we walked its streets and alleys, its paths, its underpasses, its rail lines, the creek that was. That’s our East Side.