Long Story Short: It depends on your perspective
All the news that isn’t
Last Wednesday, local media reported on an FBI raid at Buffalo City Hall offices of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency (BURA), in what appeared to be a public corruption investigation. There were no arrests, and no one seemed to have—or at least they weren’t revealing—any details about the incident. The FBI hauled away boxes of files and other materials.
That’s the whole story. But the Buffalo News and other media outlets managed to squeeze substantially longer accounts out of these basic facts. For instance, Mayer Byron Brown had this to say: "Our understanding is that court authorized activity has taken place at a BURA office. At this time, we have no further information."
Social media reaction
Facebook posts about the incident tend to follow one of two themes. The first is that the whole thing, as reported, is a big nothing. “We have a story with no info but here we are,” says one commenter. “Get back to us when you actually know what's going on,” adds another. One writer sardonically summarizes the posted news article as, “People in a hallway at City Hall.”
The second theme comprises partisan presumptions of fraud, with Mayor Brown and Governor Cuomo most often named as likely culprits. “There’s no way that city hall isn't corrupt...... could this be what brings down the mayor? BTW has anyone seen or heard from him today??????,” goes one exceedingly punctuated message. “Cuomo connection????,” wonders another question mark enthusiast.
In general, absolutely no one seemed to express any doubt that City Hall—and especially BURA—is corrupt. Some commenters amusingly attributed the cause to the Democratic party, as if Republicans locally and nationwide are free of corruption (need we mention Chris Collins again?).
The News followed up the next day with another non-story, an interview with Mayor Brown where he reaffirmed his ignorance. As the chair of the BURA board of directors, he did however talk by phone with director of the Office of Strategic Planning and vice chairman of the Urban Renewal Agency, Brendan R. Mehaffy. Mehaffy had been interviewed in his home by the FBI. So, what did he and the Mayor talk about? Supposedly: "Our conversation was about how I was doing, and how my family was doing," Mehaffy said, according to the report.
No word on his answer.
City Hall: a storied edifice
Last week we reported on an article in Architecture Digest, aimed at “design lovers,” which sings the praises of Buffalo. Following on its heels, comes The 10 most beautiful city halls in the U.S., from the online magazine CURBED, comprising “a vibrant community of people who share a passion for where we live.”
Of course, we wouldn’t mention this unless Buffalo’s City Hall was among the ten. And it’s in good company too, with everything from Philadelphia’s massive French Second Empire granite edifice, to San Jose’s glass-domed Le Corbusier-inspired modern marvel.
And then there’s Buffalo’s City Hall, with a photo so large (when you click on it), you can practically see through the building’s windows. It’s good that this impressive building is getting the recognition it deserves, but most Buffalonians are unaware of the story behind its design (not the one they tell you on the tours). We alluded to this last week when we mentioned other important Buffalo sights design lovers should see. What follows is the rest of the story.
Hugh Ferriss was an architectural delineator, someone who makes perspective drawings for other architects to illustrate what their finished buildings will look like. Over time, he developed a dramatic drawing style in black conte crayon, emphasizing light and shadow. His buildings were often pictured illuminated by spotlights, ominously looming in the night. Though he never designed a noteworthy building of his own, architects lined up to have their designs rendered by him.
The 1916 zoning resolution
In early twentieth-century New York City, architects were designing skyscrapers taller each year. A concern arose that, if left unchecked, this trend would result in tightly packed towering structures that would block light and air from reaching the streets. To prevent this, George McAneny and Edward M. Bassett authored a resolution to curb the massing of buildings. While this didn’t limit height, it necessitated a stepped approach, sometimes called a wedding cake design. In the immediate wake of the 1916 zoning law, no one initially knew exactly how buildings would look in practice under the new guidelines.
The Metropolis of Tomorrow
In 1922, Ferriss published an article in The New Architecture, which was reproduced in the New York Times. An image from that article—Evolution of a City Building Under the Zoning Law—became the template for new skyscrapers. Note the similarity to Buffalo’s City Hall. In 1929, Ferriss released his book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow, which showed the world how to conform to New York’s zoning code. It included sixty drawings in his brooding style, and became the template for numerous building designs—Including the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings—as well as an imagined romantic vision of our future. It provided the basis for Batman's Gotham City and, later, the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
City Hall’s architect, John Wade, was an avid fan of Hugh Ferriss, and you can easily see this reflected in its 1931 Art Deco design. In fact, the cover of Ferriss’s book looks a lot like our City Hall being constructed. What Wade added to Ferriss’s vision was a dose of symbolism reflecting Buffalo’s heritage. The columns are meant to evoke bundles of reeds (symbolizing strength in unity) with industrial elements like octagon nuts with raised rivet heads at the base. The zig-zag design of the lintels is said to suggest saw blades. The frieze includes carved figures in a blend of classical and Deco styles, representing Buffalo’s history and future. The inside is also extensively decorated, merging Native American symbols, with classical elements celebrating modern industry. The hexagonal crown of the building is based on a native American headdress. There’s an observation deck about 360 feet up, with a spectacular view of the city.
Wade said the design “expresses primarily the masculinity, power, and purposeful energy of an industrial community.” Uh yeah, this hasn’t gone unnoticed. For ten years in a row, Buffalo’s City Hall was named Phallic Structure of the Year by Architectural Digest.
City of less light
In true Ferriss fashion, City Hall was originally lit from dusk to midnight by 369 powerful flood lights, making it “one of America’s most lighted skyscrapers.” It must have looked like a drawing from Ferriss’s book. It’s still lit today, but much less spectacularly than in the 1930s. Nevertheless, stand at the corner of the old Statler Hilton building some night, and gaze up at the majestic City Hall facade. It still delivers the chills.
Democratic stronghold? Depends how you weigh it
If you had any interest in last Tuesday’s elections, you already know who won where you live. Of course, there were the big races, like Erie County Executive, won by Democrat Mark Poloncarz. But there are many smaller races: town supervisors, mayors, legislators, and so on.
Buffalo itself is a true-blue city, which accounts for the region’s image as a Democratic stronghold. The last Republican president to carry Erie County was Richard Nixon. Buffalo’s immediate surrounding suburbs lean the same way, with the Northtowns growing bluer in recent years. But as you move into the outlying regions, the map turns red. Niagara County was also solidly Democratic in the past, but in the 2016 election, populist Donald Trump swayed white-working class voters to an 18-point Republican advantage. (In Erie County, he also did better than most Republican Presidential candidates.)
There were exactly 100 seats to fill this election cycle in the 44 Erie and 20 Niagara County cities, districts, towns, and villages. A few won’t be officially decided until absentee ballots are fully counted. But, putting aside the political weight of individual seats, which party came out with the most total (likely) victories?
And the winner is…
Republicans took 52 seats, to the Democrats’ 48.
In Erie County, registered Democrats lead Republicans 96,797 to 69,103. In Niagara County, Democrats top Republicans by a single percentage point. But as the election results illustrate, there are many smaller pockets of solid Republican support out there.
Another Falls rescue
The unknown man clung to a log, as powerful rapids carried him closer to the brink. He wore a lifejacket, but as tethered firefighters reached out to him, he fought to evade rescue. There was a gasp from a gaggle of onlookers as the man continued downriver. One thing seemed almost certain; the poor guy was doomed.
Three days after LSS reported on a dramatic Niagara River rescue carried out 101 years ago, another nail-biter effort to save a life made the news. An unnamed man was spotted in the 51-degree Niagara River by Pennsylvania tourist Fred Tramonti last Thursday. His Niagara Falls tour guide alerted authorities, who arrived in minutes.
The New York Power Authority was alerted to lower the river level at their intake. As the man neared the falls, another tethered rescuer, Park Police Major Clyde Doty, managed to grab him. The still unidentified 59-year-old man had been in the water for at least two hours, more than long enough for hypothermia to set in. He couldn’t even respond to questions. He was taken to Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital, and placed in intensive care. At last report, authorities were trying to determine how he came to be in the river.
Putting aside whatever circumstances led to the man’s unfortunate situation, uncertainties abound. Where did the log come from? Was it with him when he entered the water, or was it a stroke of good fortune that it happened to float by at the right moment? Since he was wearing a lifejacket—and clinging to a log—had he accidently fallen from a boat? When he struggled with rescuers, was it because he didn’t want to be saved, or was he delirious?
And the last question: will the media report when these and other questions are answered?
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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