Long Story Short: Nightmare on Elmwood, part II

9/17/18



Illustration by JP Thimot

 

Much ado about sitting

You say you want to build a storefront business on one of the most prosperous streets in Buffalo? What if the city sells you the land for a single greenback? What’s the catch, you ask? You have to develop the existing city-owned pocket-park in front of your proposed building and agree to maintain it in perpetuity for the community. Bonus: since the business that will be leasing your new retail space will be a specialty food market, patrons can enjoy meals in the micro-park outside your door! Win/win.

 

That’s the deal developer Greg Koessler​ made in 2002 when he extended his building at 758 Elmwood Avenue into the rear of 762 (near Auburn), the current location of the Globe Market. The entire 762 lot was once a poorly maintained city “tot-lot” park, but Koessler was given a chunk of the land in a deal that would ensure its future upkeep. Koessler was also granted a ten-foot-wide easement for a walkway between 758 and 762 Elmwood Avenue, guaranteeing customers access through the park to what is now Globe Market. This easement also ensured that the city-owned plot could not be sold for development and would remain a park. A 2003 article in the Buffalo News, in which Koessler was interviewed, states, “The tiny park could still be used for small concerts or drum circles.” The “park-like courtyard,” which Koessler calls an “investment in the city” was described as having “benches, trees, and flowers.”

 

When it was completed, Globe Market put tables in the park for public use, including its customers. In a 2012 Buffalo News interview article with then Globe co-owner Lisa Hennig, the park was referred to as “the courtyard in front of her restaurant.” With the subsequent construction of the three-story apartment building to the right of Globe, the park has even more of a courtyard feel, but it continues to be city parkland, and therein lies our story.  

 

The plot thickens

It would appear that Koessler passed on the responsibility for maintaining the park to the Globe owner, now Alice Eoannou, who has added more tables and planters, some of which butt against the tiny children’s play area. Flower planters have also been added to the entranceway, along with a large sandwich board that further encloses the space. The sign includes the words “Welcome to our courtyard.” This is, of course, technically appropriate, if “our” is taken to mean the citizens of Buffalo. But plenty of people say they didn’t take it that way, because the psychological effect of the arrangement sends a message that this is private property, and that seems to be the intent. To complicate matters, some people who were not patronizing the Globe have been told by restaurant employees to leave the park, while others have eaten “outside” food there without a problem.

 

A molehill becomes a mountain

Some people feel the Globe is coopting a neighborhood park for their own use. There was a post on social media to inform readers that the space is open to the public. A few commenters overreacted with calls for a Globe boycott. You know…Buffalo. During the Elmwood Festival of the Arts, a local resident (and frequent Globe patron) entered the half-filled restaurant to inform the owner that there had been complaints that people were being asked to leave the park. It didn’t go well.

 

We know exactly how the conversation between the resident and Eoannou went, because the man openly recorded it. Eoannou stated that she didn’t “need the entire Elmwood Arts Festival coming and sitting at our tables…” Then she threatened to call the police. The resident left, and that might have been the end of it.

 

Buffalo Rising and the cookie girls

Steadfast urban optimist and Buffalo Rising founder, Newell Nussbaumer, attempted to calm the situation with an article on BRO’s website. Instead, the article inflamed passions and inspired a new burst of social media opinionating by relying on third-hand information that was demonstrably false.

 

“The issue continued to escalate,” writes Nussbaumer of the art festival incident, “when a thirteen-year-old girl was asked to pack up her cookie stand at the Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts, because she was accused of selling cookies for Globe.” Again, a brief conversation with the two cookie sellers was recorded, and this didn’t happen. As the cookie girl story traveled around town, fueled by the incendiary Buffalo Rising article, the rumor mill had the man threatening to call the police on the young entrepreneur (also untrue). Comments on the Buffalo Rising page got even nastier, as they are wont to do.  

 

Nussbaumer reports that the Globe owner is responsible for maintaining the park, when it’s really Koessler’s responsibility. If Koessler passed that responsibility on to Eoannou as a term of her lease, that’s between them. Whatever costs she incurs—Eoannou’s husband implausibly claims it’s between “$2500 and $3000 a year plus her labor and employees”—it’s her choice. Buffalo taxpayers paid in advance for park upkeep with prime city property (of course, this being Buffalo, who knows what was recorded on the deed).

 

Psychotic reaction

Nussbaumer’s heart-wrenching story of the put-upon Globe owner and cookie girl brought out the crazy in people. Commentators with user names like TheBannedOne, Captain Picard, and armyof100clowns trolled in. Some blame the Elmwood Village “elites,” who are described as a “cabal of absurd and infantile buttinskies” with “whining little lives.” Others agreed that the courtyard entrance arrangement conveys the erroneous message that the space belongs to the Globe. There are a lot of nasty—and off-topic—comments, then one person nails it: “I can't believe I read this entire post and all the comments. I need to reevaluate my life.”

 

The takeaway:

Small public spaces add to the quality of life in urban settings. They act as meeting places, rest stops, and children play zones. Parents with strollers take breaks there; people sit and watch the city go by. In the Elmwood Village, the only respite options are this tiny park or Bidwell Avenue.

 

The Globe Market is the kind of business we need on Elmwood. Their food is terrific. (I recommend the Cuban Reuben because who doesn’t love a sandwich that rhymes?) They also sell unique gifts. If you aren’t already patronizing the place, please consider doing so. Then sit out at the tables and enjoy lunch. Or sit there anytime you need a break. Bring your own lunch, play chess, read a book, or start a drum circle; it’s a public park. 

 

Delaware District Councilmember Joel Feroleto is working with the Elmwood Village Association to get a city park sign for the entrance. Feroleto would prefer something with a “welcoming” message, but the Parks’ Department favors a standard-issue sign. Maybe at least they’ll give the park a name—Elmwood Village Elites’ Estate? Buttinski Square? Whining Little Lives Playground? In any case, the entrance needs to be less obstructive and more welcoming for people entering “our” park.    

 

 

American tryout

Maybe you heard that the TV show American Idol came to Buffalo for the first time in seventeen seasons to audition prospective contestants. You might have read the feel-good stories of people who tried out. But what was it really like? How did it feel? How were contestants treated?

 

Long Story Short talked to four hopefuls who were there for the auditions. Here’s what we learned.

 

A cold day in hell

Who could have predicted that audition day would fall on an unseasonably cold weekend at the end of an unseasonably warm summer? At Canalside, where the auditions took place, temperatures were in the low fifties, with wind gusts that drove frigid air through summer clothing. “Mom and I were standing outside in this huge line,” says seventeen-year-old singer, Asia Amor Snell, “but we had the benefit of being right in front of Tim Hortons, so we grabbed some warm drinks, so we wouldn’t freeze to death.”

 

One reason for the cold, was that contestants arrived before dawn. Sixteen-year-old Dancer/singer, Cecilia Oquendo, got there at 4 a.m. “The line was very long by the time I got there,” says Oquendo, “At one point it did get crowded and I started bumping into others.” Describing the restless crowd as a line may be too charitable. Multi-instrumentalist and singer, twenty-six-year-old Trever Stribing, calls it an “awkward, unconventional line,” with a strange “lack of guidance” from those in charge. “I waited in line, then was told to cross the street to start a second line on the opposite side of the road,” remembers Stribing, “then an hour later I was told to re-cross the street.” Stribing was also instructed to “yell at anyone who didn’t go to the back of the line.”

 

Twenty-year-old singer/guitar player Elliott Hunt had performed at the Music is Art festival at Buffalo Riverworks with his band Mom Said No the night before, so he got a hotel room downtown and walked over to Canalside at 5:15 a.m. Despite the cold, and wonky line, “Everyone was really nice,” he says. “All the contestants were really polite. They all represented our city of good neighbors well!”

 

How long was the wait?

“When I watched the sun come up,” says Snell, “I knew it was getting closer to the audition.” At about 7:30 a.m. the line began moving. It didn’t move quickly. Snell and Oquendo waited seven hours to audition. Stribing was in line for eight hours. Hunt somehow made it to the finish in only six.

 

The audition

When the time came, contestants were ushered into a tent, where they filled out forms asking for personal details, and offering the opportunity to “tell their story.” Afterward, clusters of hopefuls waited to perform. There was no stage or audience, and no celebrity judges. Cell phones were prohibited, so auditions were not recorded. Performers lined up in groups of four to perform for one of five judges. “Then,” explains Snell, “when asked to sing, you sang!”

 

Thankfully, none of the judges responded with Simon Cowell malevolence. “After the four of us sang the judge told us that it was going to be a no,” recalls Snell, “and to walk away to the right.” But Snell was asked to stay behind, and the judge spoke to her reassuringly: “He talked to me about how my voice was beautiful, and I just have to work on my nervousness,” she remembers. Oquendo also recalls that the judge was kind, telling her she had “an amazing voice for a sixteen-year-old, but I wasn’t what they were looking for; I was too young.”

 

“You're only allowed ninety seconds,” says Stribing. But that can be extended if something catches the judge’s ear. “He let me finish my song, which was weird,” Stribing remembers, “then asked me to play another and he let me finish that song.” Unfortunately, Stribing had stood in line without a break for hours. “I REALLY had to use the restroom,” he recalls. The judge told the singer, "I want to hear another song, but you look like you're going to pee your pants." Stribing was allowed to leave and return and sing once more. "You have the most unique voice I've heard all day,” the judge told him, “I love it, but this is not your kind of competition; you’re a writer. I don’t know what to do with you, sorry." The judge shook the singer’s hand, and Stribing heard a security guard gasp, while someone else uttered “What?”  

 

Hunt was also asked to sing three songs, and he was fortunate to receive what’s known as a “golden ticket,” a yellow piece of paper that means you’re continuing on in the audition process. “The judge gave me some good advice on how to make it better for the next round,” he says. This time the audition was filmed, the singer was interviewed, and a photographer took stills. “We left Canalside around 3 p.m.” he recalls.

 

How did the candidates feel when it was over?

Oquendo took the no vote hard: “I felt very sad. I left the audition crying because I thought to myself that I had worked so hard and waited so long, just to get a “no” when I know I did so good at the audition.” Oquendo saw other “amazing vocalists” denied, “and it really broke my heart,” she says. Snell was more philosophical. “At the end of the day, I went in there to build my confidence,” she says. “I know my worth and I can’t do anything but work harder to reach to a higher standard where I’ll be golden ticket-worthy one day.” Stribing seems almost relieved that he was rejected: “I don’t mind; not a fan of corporate operatives.”

 

Hunt, of course, is delighted. He’ll go on to the next level of competition. “I was unsure at first if I wanted to do it,” he says, “My mom talked me into it, and I am really glad she did. It was a very positive experience and actually a lot of fun!”

 

 

9/11 memories

When I was young, my mother would recall the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor each year on its anniversary. Until eventually she didn’t. Today, I rarely hear anyone outside of the media mention the “date which will live in infamy." It’s in the history books, but the pain has faded with each new generation. Certainly, this will also happen with 9/11—which we memorialized last Tuesday for the seventeenth year—but for now, it’s still too fresh in our collective memory.

 

Chuck Agro was born on Busti Avenue in Buffalo and grew up on the West Side. He’s an accomplished painter, so, like many artists who want to take their careers to the next level, he eventually moved to New York City. That was 1989. He lived within view of the World Trade Center, and he was there on 9/11 when the United States experienced the worst terrorist attack in its history. Last week he shared his remembrances of that day on Facebook. Agro granted Long Story Short permission to reproduce them here.

 

What I’m thinking today, 17 years later

The towers were more than a symbol to me, they were my guideposts for over a decade. If I needed to know which way downtown was, I would look for them.

I worked and played there often.

I celebrated birthdays at Windows on the World and visited to sample 100-year-old ports and smoke cigars while staring out the windows. I managed installations at Cantor Fitzgerald. I lived in the neighborhood. I bought books and records in its plaza.
I laid in bed on stormy nights watching lightning strike its antenna. I made love on a balcony while looking at them. I stood at a collector’s window watching light flash off their binoculars as my paintings were being installed. I kissed my wife in its plaza.

When the second plane hit, it rattled my windows cracking the glass. I was downtown the morning they were hit, pushing through the crowds, looking for friends to be sure they were safe. I was covered in its ashes. Police had us walk across the Manhattan Bridge telling us the towers were unstable and to get far away. I watched them fall from the Brooklyn promenade surrounded by people praying and crying. I watched as the memorials grew. 

I knew people who died that day, and I grieved. I cried for weeks. I felt the way I felt when my mother died, a great sense of loss and sadness. But I knew NYC would rebound. That nothing had been gained that day by those that wished us harm. The terrorists hadn’t won. As the years passed I watched what had once been the bright, cheerful youth from my neighborhood return from duty, shell-shocked, angry, and lost, their bodies, minds, and lives permanently damaged.

If I knew that day that it would lead to an unending, senseless meat-grinding war that would leave a generation of dead, injured, or homeless veterans, and eventually lead to the election of an isolationist, hateful, racist, fear mongering president backed by frightened, angry, hateful people, I would have known I was wrong. The terrorists had indeed won. It just took them fifteen years. There was damage, loss and death that day, but nothing compared to what we’ve done to ourselves since then. I mourn today for the lives and losses of 9/11 but also for what we’ve become since then. 

—Chuck Agro

 

Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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