Long Story Short: A tsunami of ice—and news
Photo by Bruce Adams
Some say knock it down
For years, Congressman Brian Higgins has passionately promoted the demolition of Buffalo’s Skyway to regain unfettered access to the waterfront. State Senator Tim Kennedy, who recently became chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee, has joined the tear-it-down chorus, as has Mayor Byron Brown, who calls the structure “scary.”
Planners argue that the limited access elevated highway is not safe by today’s standards and is often closed during high winds and other weather conditions. The Department of Transportation (DOT) rates the Skyway as “fracture critical” and the Federal Highway Administration calls it “functionally obsolete.” With its exit ramps onto confusing one way-streets, it hinders pedestrian access to the Outer Harbor. A 2008 study determined that it would cost $125 million to extend the useful life of the highway, yet the DOT is currently halfway through a $30 million maintenance procedure.
No one saw this coming
Governor Andrew Cuomo held a press conference Thursday at the Millennium Hotel, where he surprised those in attendance by announcing a state-sponsored competition for an alternative to the skyway, with a $100,000 prize for the chosen design. "Let's get the best ideas, let's have a competition, let's give a prize to the winner,” Cuomo said, “Let's come up with a new vision for the Skyway and then we will make it happen."
By which he means, tear it down.
Not everyone is thrilled
County Legislator Lynne Dixon isn’t convinced. The Skyway runs through her district, and she reminds people that the Skyway accommodates 40,000 vehicles on an average day. Travelers to and from the Southtowns generally dread the idea of using stop-and-go city routes.
And there are people who admire the structure, as a fine example of mid-twentieth-century design. “The skyway is the most elegant and graceful structure in the City of Buffalo,” says Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center curator, John Massier, “It lifts us into the ether of our civic environment, providing a perspective that is singular and unique of the landscape, structures, and the lake that surrounds it.” Massier thinks criticism of the Skyway is ill-founded, reflecting “the hesitant or altogether absent affection many in our city have to toward modernist structures.” CEPA Gallery recently sponsored a Skyway Photo Competition Exhibit that celebrated the beauty of what the gallery refers to as an “iconic landmark.” Others have suggested repurposing the structure and using it as a Canalside attraction like the grain elevators, attracting worldwide tourism. Massier thinks we will miss it when it’s gone.
Opened in 1956, the Skyway is a mere one-point-four miles long, but a thrilling 110 feet tall, and it’s actually considered a bridge. It lifts off at the Inner Harbor downtown, sails over the Buffalo River, then lands on Route 5 in the Outer Harbor. Route 5 continues for another two-point-six miles. The Skyway was part of a grand plan for the "rapid transit of automobiles," which would soon be joined by the Kensington and Scajaquada Expressways as conduits to the suburbs, allowing urban workers to escape the city quickly at the end of their workday.
Hats off to the good guys
It turns out that some developers find ways to profitably restore—rather than destroy—historic architecture, while developing undervalued property, instead of invading trendy neighborhoods. This is actual development, rather than exploitation.
Case in point: four companies—Preservation Studios, BuffaLove Development, Urban Vantage, and Common Bond Real Estate—are partnering to convert the 33,000-square-foot former Record Theater at 1786 main Street, across from the Canisius College's Koessler Athletic Center, into a mixed-use facility.
The plan is to purchase the four buildings and complete the entire project by 2020, bringing vibrant new activity to a neglected part of town. The complex would include a small grocery store, a restaurant, and rental housing.
But that’s not all
The developers discovered intact historic architectural features under the yellow aluminum siding that has covered the building for decades. The 1920 structure was originally an automobile showroom, and the hope is to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The developers see this as a transformative project, involving both rehabilitation of the building and enhancement of the streetscape. In describing their plans, they sound downright giddy about the prospect of restoring historical architecture to its former glory, benefiting an underdeveloped community.
Goes to show you what developers can do when they value the city’s heritage.
Ice tsunami goes viral
We’ve experienced some crazy weather this winter, but last week’s violent wind storm resulted in something new to the region. It occurred along the Niagara River in Fort Erie, Ontario, and in the Hoover Road neighborhood in Hamburg. Video of the event went viral on Facebook. Pictures traveled around the world, once again thrusting our region into the national spotlight for extreme winter weather.
They call it an ice tsunami, as massive blocks of frozen lake and river water surged over the shoreline, forming walls as high as thirty feet, spilling at times onto roadways and threatening houses. Authorities called for a voluntary evacuation of the Hoover Beach area last Sunday through Monday, as winds up to seventy-five miles per hour buffeted lake waters.
A rare phenomenon
Ice tsunamis are also known as ice shoves, ice heaves, ivu, or just plain old shoreline ice pileups. The sound they make has been described as similar to the roar of a train, or thunder. They don’t happen often. Why? Because three very specific conditions must be in place for them to occur. First, the ice has to be just right: frozen, but not too solid. Second, you need extremely powerful winds, which cause a water levels to rise, breaking the ice and pushing it toward shore. The final condition needed is a shoreline with a gentle slope that offers little resistance to the incoming ice.
It’s so rare, that longtime local residents cannot recall another such incident occurring in their lifetimes.
Gigi’s and me
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was only vaguely aware of Gigi’s restaurant when it was at its former East Ferry location. Three years ago, I read about the fire that gutted the iconic soul food eatery, threatening to close it forever. It felt like a missed opportunity. After numerous failed attempts at finding a new location, Gigi’s reopened to great fanfare last Monday at the Northland Workforce Training Center at 683 Northland Avenue. I had to see for myself what the fuss was about.
I went Tuesday midafternoon, after the lunchtime rush and well before the dinner crowd.
Or so I thought.
As I entered the sparkling new facility, with its exposed stainless-steel kitchen, gleaming lunch counter, and airy white interior, I began to grasp the significance of this cherished East Side institution. Even during what is normally the dead period for food service, empty seats were at a premium. The kitchen staff was dishing up meals at a frenzied pace; servers dashed from customer to customer. Staff and visitors greeted one another boisterously, in exuberant banter. It was a kind of controlled chaos, but the staff seemed cheerful, if somewhat besieged. Though they must have been exhausted from the relentless pace, it was fatigue tempered by joyous triumph.
The full experience
I snagged the only open counter seat and was immediately greeted by an affable gentleman in a dapper gray suit, who turned out to be incoming Erie County Personnel Commissioner, Timothy Hogues. He was there to help see that everyone was properly attended amidst the pandemonium.
The hostess informed arriving customers that many menu items were sold out, but Tuesday dinner specials were still available. After a somewhat long wait, a young woman next to me noticed I hadn’t been served. “I got you,” she said, as she summoned the waitress like you might hail a cab. She had been going to Gigi’s her whole life, she told me.
I considered the rotisserie chicken, but opted for the pepper steak, with rice and gravy, mac and cheese, string beans, and cornbread. Hogues overheard me say I was looking for classic Gigi’s fare. “You wanted the whole experience,” he said, as he sat a slice of sweet potato pie in front of me on the counter, “That’s the whole experience, right there.” Another confession: this was also a first for me.
A new generation
Numerous individuals and organizations helped bring Gigi’s back. A GoFundMe page was set up, drawing donations, and a number of churches contributed. Bethel Church, for one, raised $17,000 toward the cause. Mayor Brown, the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, and local restaurateurs assisted in the rebirth. Blondine (Gigi) Harvin the restaurant's original owner who ran the restaurant for over five decades, passed away a little more than a month before the new location opened. Her son, Darryl Harvin, assumed the helm.
During a brief lull in the action, Harvin asked if I enjoyed my meal, and I told him honestly that it reminded me of my mother’s cooking, which pleased him. “That’s what I like to hear; people coming in, telling me stories; ‘I knew your mother; she was my friend;’ that means more to me than anything, because it tells me who I am.”
Gigi’s closed Thursday, to allow for the staff to regroup, and plans to reopen soon. I’ll be back when things calm down, anxious to try the smothered pork chops. And the gumbo. And more sweet potato pie.
To kill a theater production
Eleven days. That’s how long it was before the opening performance of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Kavinoky Theater, when executive/artistic director Loraine O'Donnell got the cease and desist email.
It’s complicated, but here are the cliffnotes: O’Donnell and lots of other small theaters across the country acquired the rights to perform Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of Mockingbird from Dramatic Publishing Company (DPC), which has a contract dating back to 1969 with the author Harper Lee. But that contract states that the play can’t be performed within twenty-five miles of a city with a population over 150,000 if a "first-class” version is playing in New York, or on tour.
It turns out big time producer Scott Rudin has a new adaptation on Broadway, and he read the fine print of DPC’s contract. Thus, the threatening email. DPC disagrees with Rudin’s interpretation but won’t cover legal costs if Kavinoky is sued.
So, with eleven days to go, O'Donnell scrapped the play, threw out thousands of dollars of scenery, and got to work on an adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, which they plan to mount by March 15.
Most of the Mockingbird cast signed on for the new play, including six kids, for some role in the new production. It will be interesting to see how the kids will be used in the play.
The legal battle between Rudin and DPC places Kavinoky and many other small theaters in financial jeopardy. Theater goers should flock to 1984 in support.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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